I have just come off of seven intense days finishing and proof-reading the 2018 Seed Savers Exchange catalog, which gets mailed to gardeners across the country at the end of next month (to sign up for a copy, visit www.seedsavers.org), and I can’t help but think of an older, less confusing era. There was a time when visions of Christmas (also known by some of us, according to Fox News, as “the holidays,” and why not? It is a holiday, isn’t it?) did not precede Halloween and Thanksgiving, when we could buy bags of trick-or-treat candy and cranberries to go with the turkey without also fretting about what to get our parents this year for the holidays.
All of which led me to ask myself, does our catalog come out too early? It is now the current industry standard to offer up visions of kohlrabi and kale in December, as if the catalog is some sort of vegetarian Advent calendar, but is this really the right moment to dream about sowing seeds? Whether the 25th of the month will involve the coming of baby lettuce or the baby Jesus I do not know. But, really, shouldn’t I be having visions of sugarplums as I trim my Christmas tree, and not of heirloom apples, bare-rooted and ready for planting? I think of my feigned resentment of how fall bulb catalogs now arrive in June, taunting me and distracting me with thoughts about the next spring just when I should be fretting about weeding the newly planted vegetable garden in the current season.
Of course, such distractions (pored over at lunch or in bed after a long day of weeding) also allow me to figure out where I might fit in a few more camassias and daffodils. And, with luck, I might even think to mark these places, so I can actually remember where to plant the bulbs I order come fall. But, as practical as this may seem, I have always thought of gardening as being in the moment, except for that odd time of year when (for those of us in Zone 5) snow blankets the earth and wool blankets cover us in our beds, and we snuggle up with the most recently arrived seed or perennial catalog and muse about what to plant come spring.
Nevertheless, a curious excitement fills me on these cool, late autumn nights as I unseasonably read about our Seed Savers offerings for next spring. I always assumed the reason I pored over catalogs in the dregs of January (or ideally on a flight to somewhere warm and sunny) was so the images could lift me out of the season I was in. However, this past week, as I scrutinized pages of brassicas and cucurbits at three a.m., looking for typos or, worse yet, the wrong botanical nomenclature, until the late dawn light of fall shimmered in the golden maple outside my bedroom window, I was filled with pleasure. I could not help but feel the same excitement I usually feel in January or even on President’s Day weekend, as I plan my garden for the coming year. It is then that I usually dream of drifts of California poppies replacing a drift of snow at my back door, and imagine cabbages (and this year, collards!), with their frilly skirts of ruffled foliage dancing where a few leeks still overwinter, covered in straw to keep the soil from freezing so I can still harvest them.
On these chilly fall evenings, I now imagine pumpkins and winter squash replacing the ones that currently reside there (although it is best to rotate crops from location to location to prevent disease building up in the soil). Next year, new varieties (or, in the case of heirloom varieties, newly available old varieties) will be cheek by jowl with the beloved ‘Rouge Vif d’Emtampes’ and the ‘Fordhook Acorn’ variety of winter squash that I am enjoying so much this season. The latter has delicate cream colored skin that can be eaten along with their silken orange flesh, especially shortly after harvesting, as the skins harden a bit in storage. For this reason, perhaps it really should be called a fall squash, but whatever it is known as, I realize that I need to provide this variety with some more real estate next season as I cannot get enough of them, simply roasted with olive oil or baked and filled with a gingery applesauce.
What I am learning as I work on this copy-editing exercise late at night and at dinners with “the book” next to me, filled with offerings old and new, is that gardeners do not have seasons of desire when we cherish what we don’t have at the moment. We have a long and enduring love for the plants and varieties that we grow. And that enduring love has little to do with whether the ground is covered in snow, or with a scattering of fallen leaves.
A gardener grows through observation, experimentation, and learning from the failures, triumphs, and hard work of oneself and others. In this sense, all gardeners are self-taught, while at the same time intrinsically connected to a tradition and a community that finds satisfaction through working the soil and sharing their experiences with one another. This column explores those relationships and how we learn about the world around us from plants and our fellow gardeners.