Weeding Out The Fantasy

THE REAL DIRT

January 30, 1994|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

The garden catalogs keep coming, each one more handsome than the last. Come January, the catalogs begin arriving at the speed of ripening zucchinis, burying gardeners under a mountain of mail designed to pique our interest in spring.

These brochures are filled with mesmerizing stuff: eye-popping photographs of gorgeous flowers and luscious vegetables that promise to beautify the yard and liven the palate.

That's fine, as long as the photos reflect reality. However, many garden catalogs have all the authenticity of an Oliver Stone movie. They conjure up a make-believe world free of bugs and plant disease. Try finding a beetle in a Burpee catalog.

There is nary a leaf out of place in these brochures. Every petunia is picture-perfect; every tomato is blue-ribbon fare; and every lawn resembles a putting green.

Try to match that success in a home garden. I've given up. Foyears I leafed through catalogs, hypnotized by the parade of flawless fruit and flowers. So I bought and planted the seed, and awaited the consummate garden.

Alas, the results were discouraging. Many of my homely plants ran far behind their cover-girl counterparts, if they germinated at all. When I planted wildflowers, I got wallflowers instead.

I used to feel guilty about this. Why didn't my plants reflect those pictured in the magazines? What went wrong? In my yard, the cucumbers were scabby, the zinnias had mildew, and the tomatoes were splattered with bird poop.

I studied the catalog photos, my plants, and the photos againThen I cried.

Once, in frustration, I cut out those pictures and showed them to my plants. "This is what you're supposed to look like," I said, waggling the photos before them.

No response. My attempts to create photosynthesis failed. By summer, my garden didn't look like the Elysian fields, as suggested in the catalogs. In fact, it looked a mess.

Depressed, I was preparing to blacktop the garden when thought: Why throw in the trowel because of some dumb pictures? Gardeners shouldn't gauge their success by making such comparisons.

The fact is, garden catalogs paint fanciful portraits of nature. They would have you think weeds are extinct, mud has been outlawed and rocks don't exist. That stuff is banned from brochures, along with dogs, cats and baseballs, all frequent fliers in my flower beds.

Check out the people who pose on those pages. No one ever perspires in a garden photograph, and they're always smiling. How natural is that? After 10 minutes of yard work, there are buckets of sweat dripping down my furrowed brow.

The cover of the current catalog by Park Seed, one of the country's largest garden mail-order companies, shows a young man pushing a wheelbarrow filled with produce from the garden. The man's hair is neatly combed, his shirt is tucked in and he's wearing clean white gloves. There is nary a speck of dirt on this fellow, who looks as cool as the cucumbers he's toting.

I suppose it's possible to emerge from a garden in such a tidy manner, but the truth is, most of us exit under less orderly conditions. My daughter says I crawl out of there looking like "a mud slug."

The cover of the latest Burpee seed catalog features three ears of corn with plump kernels in rows so straight they would do an orthodontist proud. My corn never looks like that. The gaps between kernels resemble the toothy grin of an ice hockey player struck by a puck. But so what? It's the taste that counts.

Beauty is only skin-deep when it comes to home-grown veggies.

Maybe it's time for a new kind of seed catalog, an honest one that appeals to the average gardener. A catalog in which tomatoes have noses, carrots have two legs and human "models" are bathed in sweat and grime. A catalog with pictures of real plants under siege by varmints: peonies swarming with ants, chrysanthemums covered with aphids and eggplants riddled by leaf miners.

Ecch. Do you think such a catalog would sell?

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