Those Blooming Catalogs

THE REAL DIRT

January 24, 1993|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

The first of the 1993 garden catalogs arrived the week before Christmas. It had hundreds of glamorous color pictures of flowers and vegetables. The photos were so festive, I could have used them to decorate the tree.

TTC My question is: How come my plants don't measure up to those shown in the magazines?

I've received hundreds of garden catalogs, and have yet to see one picture of a tomato with sun-scald, a zinnia with mildew, or a cucumber with leaf spot. Nor have I ever seen glossy photos of chrysanthemums crawling with aphids, or eggplants riddled with flea beetles.

Garden pests do not exist in the perfect world of seed catalogs. Admiring the pictures is like watching an animated Disney movie: Not one petal is out of place.

Humorist Henry Beard calls seed catalogs "forms of entertaining fiction published by nurseries, seedsmen and tool manufacturers." Beard, a gardener, should know.

Seasoned gardeners are no more fooled by the photos than by the flowery prose that accompanies them. The rosy vocabulary extols a plant's virtues and downplays its undesirable traits. I've grown flowers whose foliage overran half the garden and strangled other blooms. The catalog described my plants as having "vigorous healthy growth."

Are seed catalogs written by used-car salesmen?

In "The Unofficial Gardener's Handbook," Shelley Goldbloom translates several samples of garden catalog terminology:

* Delicate blooms -- Flowers that die if you so much as look at them.

* Graceful stalks -- Plants that flop over in a wind.

* Likes rich soil -- Normal dirt will kill this plant. Be prepared to become its slave.

Egad, the catalogs are now pouring in. There are six on my desk, four on the coffee table, three in the bathroom, two on the night stand and one in the wood stove. I can't move without bumping into the brochures. This is called the greenhouse effect. It happens every winter in homes across America. Catalogs filled with flowers litter our beds, while visions of sugar corn dance in our heads.

Of course, seedsmen plan it this way. By January, gardeners have forgotten last year's disasters, the wilts and the weeds. The suburban urge to grow something returns. The last thing we want to see are pictures of blemished blossoms and flawed fruit. The seed catalog feeds our habit.

"It's a Playboy for the gardener," says an industry spokesman.

Leafing dreamily through a brochure is one thing; placing an expensive seed order is another. Longtime gardeners shop around, comparing the catalog prices of their favorite plant varieties. Most nursery stock comes from the same large-scale growers anyway.

Weed out the descriptive metaphors and examine the fine print. How disease-resistant are those lovely tomatoes? Are the beet seeds treated with fungicides?

Study each plant's germination rate (it should be 90 percent or more) and its germination time. Finicky seeds that need three weeks or more to sprout will probably disappoint new gardeners.

To avoid wasting seeds, and money, sketch your garden plot before each purchase. You make a list for the supermarket, don't you? Same concept.

Make your first order a small one to test a nursery's merits. Likewise, buy small packets of seed unless you're nuts about something.

Forget about seed tapes and pelleted seed, both expensive alternatives for lazy gardeners. Poor germination of seed tapes leaves huge gaps in the rows. Pelleted seed, which is coated with clay, does not readily admit water.

Order early for best selection and discounts. Try at least one new variety of flower or vegetable each year.

Most important, after ordering seeds, save the catalogs. They often contain more complete planting instructions than the seed packets themselves. And they're always fun to look at.

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