Even though the first garden catalogs started arriving in early December, garden catalog season’s true beginning is now — that is, on or after twelfth night, the fifth of January. How do I know this? Well, I just made it up, of course. But doesn’t it make sense to you? Around the time you put away the holiday stuff and haul the tree out to the backyard to drop its needles into the compost bin, a gardener’s thoughts naturally turn to garden planning. Ergo: catalog season.
Years ago, after reading Katharine White’s famous essay “Onward and Upward in the Garden,” in which she reviewed various garden catalogs with the same attention she would give to fine literature, I made a point of requesting all the catalogs she endorsed in the essay. But her favorites came from East Coast and Southern nurseries, and I found myself frequently discouraged by the number of attractive perennials they offered that weren’t hardy in Minnesota’s climate — including some that are grown here, but either the catalog compilers in more temperate climes didn’t realize it, or the specific lines they offered had not proved their mettle by enduring what we would call true winter.
I also found myself increasingly turned off by White Flower Farm’s pretentious Amos Pettingill (although the story behind this pen name is interesting enough), as well as its decidedly anti-urban bias, with its insistence that full sun could only mean sunshine literally all day, from morning to dusk, with no acknowledgment that plants requiring full sun were thriving in city gardens everywhere with as little as six hours of sunlight daily.
I have since dropped all those catalogs, as well as the ones I used to get because they were Dad’s favorites (he loved Burpee’s tomatoes most of all) but which began to not suit me so much, and have gradually replaced them with catalogs that are more fitted to our character-building climate as well as my Midwestern rustic-urban (is that an oxymoron?) sensibilities, and my peculiarities of taste. Some of these I found through their ads in the Minnesota State Horticultural Society’s magazine, now called Northern Gardener, and some I discovered at a winter gathering of gardeners in which participants brought their favorite catalogs for a kind of show-and-tell (along with coffee and treats, as I recall).
I expect more catalogs to come trickling in over the next few weeks, and in the meantime I’ll get started on perusing the ones I’ve received so far, flagging pages with sticky notes, making lists and sketches, and then winnowing it all down to something approaching a realistic ambition for my not-so-big and just-sunny-enough city plot this summer. I’ll even review a few of them on this blog in the coming weeks, even though reviewing garden catalogs has become something of a cliche since Katharine White started it all some 60 years ago. So I’ll make no pretense of originality, but admit that reading garden catalogs is a cozy winter pastime enjoyed by gardeners everywhere.