After the shock of Christmas has worn off and all the decorations have been packed carefully into closets until next season, we settle into a generally quiet routine and wait for Winter to melt into Spring. The signal that Spring planting is closer than we think arrives with seed catalogs in our mailbox. We usually have a stack as thick as a phone book by the end of January. These glossy wish books full of endlessly fascinating plant varieties provide hours of entertainment during even the coldest of winter evenings.
My system for browsing seed catalogs is simple: I choose my three favorites, toss the rest, and then sit down with a hot cup of tea and religiously peruse, looking for coveted packets of heirlooms and rarities for the new year’s garden. I dog-ear the magazine pages and make an extensive shopping list of seeds that catch my eye. Before practicality overtakes me, imagination reigns supreme, and I write down absolutely everything the family desires, from fantastical warty pumpkins the size of enormous boulders to dwarf bushes bearing glittering gem colored berries. Growth and food production characteristics of exotic squash, vibrantly hued okra, delicate bee enticing flowers, crisply fragrant cucumbers, and vivacious snappy carrots are researched vigorously by the glow of a warm lamp. Only after my exhaustive list is complete, and Spring is just around the corner, do I edit items that won’t quite fit into our budget or our garden.
In past years I have kept an Excel spreadsheet on my old laptop with all my shopping lists, seed prices from catalog and Internet vendors, price comparisons, and best of all, my garden records. When we lived in South Dakota I had a glorious garden! The soil yielded vegetables willingly at the slightest turn of my spade, and I could spend hours fussing about with my little seedlings, helping them turn up to the sunlight. In South Dakota we produced a bumper crop of carrots, onions, lettuces, spinach, wild kale, beans, cucumbers and others.
Every plant was recorded in my spreadsheet, with seed type, location, date of planting, and success rate noted. I even added notes indicating any unusual circumstances surrounding the success or failure of the seeds. For example, we had a terrible hail storm one year that annihilated the tomatoes, but practically every other seedling managed to dodge the hailstones plummeting to earth like icy buckshot. After this storm, the garden thrived and provided delicious edibles for the remainder of the year. Noting anomalies, weather pattern effects, and strange circumstances in my spreadsheet helped me decide whether or not to continue to attempt to plant certain crops. I eventually gave up on tomatoes after three straight years of various failures, but my husband has picked up the proverbial spade, determined to get the little buggers to grow come hell or high water (which we had in our yard last year)!
The garden in Kansas presented a new challenge. Uncultivated like that of our beautiful Black Hills soil, it is ugly construction zone soil badly in need of care and refinement. However, our first year garden in Kansas was surprisingly successful. We had so much okra that we became tired of gumbo, stir fried okra, curries, and okra pickles, so I let the remaining pods go to seed, hoping the okra would reseed naturally the following year. Torrential rains and a temperamental spring prevented the seeds from taking, and we had no okra. We had similar experiences with other vegetables. Seeds that had sprung so lively from the soil the previous year failed to even germinate. My heirloom lettuces and wild kale, the pride of my garden, washed away when the yard flooded in the torrential rains. The beans were devoured by a mysterious insect, possibly grasshoppers, and Napoleon, my garden toad, could only grimace apologetically at me as if to say “I ate as many as I could!”
The final insult felt like a sharp blow when my husband and I discovered that a varmint had plucked and eaten every last sun ripened grape from the spiraling vine I’d been nurturing and (thought I had been) protecting all summer. As we stared at the last remnants of our efforts I know we were both thinking the same thing: all that work, and for what? But, as I was tearfully mourning the jars of grape jelly we would never taste, my husband just said quietly, “Well, now we know what to look out for next year.” This is the nature of gardening: so many risks, so many contingencies we can’t always plan for, and so many heartbreaks when our hard work goes unrewarded. But every gardener knows that all the hard lessons from the past should not prevent browsing the catalogs, making seed lists, and making plans so to be prepared for the future!