Now that we’ve stowed the Christmas decorations for another year, I find what color I can these days in the seed catalogs, where the pages are bright enough to lift any spirit at the bottom of January, when the lawn is brown, the wind sharp, the garden a tangle of leavings from last year’s ambitions.
I have before me the latest catalog from Burpee, which puts a giant tomato on its cover every winter, the botanical equivalent of the supermodel who pants longingly from the front of each year’s Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.
This year’s hot tomato, as Burpee tells it, is Madame Marmande, “a culinary star in France, where a favorite picnic feast is a scooped-out fruit brimming with a mild cheese.”
The Marmande looks about as big as Jupiter, a fixed point in the horticultural heavens guiding the hopeful toward spring.
Hope is what the seed catalogs sell each winter, and to read them is to wallow for a while in the kind of vaguely romantic prose that can sometimes sound like a perfume commercial. The names of the fruits, vegetables and ornamentals seem to borrow from modernist poetry, hinting at a meaning just beyond reach. There’s a cantaloupe called Collective Farm Woman “with a flavor residing in the delectable peach-pineapple continuum.” You can also plant a Scarlet Nantes carrot, a Tiger Hybrid collard, a Gatsby Moon hydrangea. I don’t know who writes the copy for the seed catalogs, but I envision a long bank of desks populated by young English majors — aspiring scholars of fiction and verse, saddled with college debt, now toiling away at odes to the Café au Lait Dahlia, the Empress Wu Hosta, the Blue Lake Bush Bean, or a petunia called, irresistibly, Black Cat.
I look up from my seed catalogs these winter afternoons and see a yard much duller than the ones I find in mail-order advertising.
The cypress we bought at a farmer’s market two Christmases ago didn’t survive a summer dry spell. It still stands at attention, brown and brittle, held up only by habit. We’ll have to dig it out, and maybe use the hole to hold the satsuma tree, still in its pot, that we should have planted months ago.
There are herbs to plant, too — small pots of lavender and tarragon, sage, cilantro and curry that I gave my wife for Christmas, tucked under the tree within folds of green and red tissue, along with a few ornamental peppers for yuletide color.
The peppers dislike frost, so we’ll wait until Spring arrives in earnest to put them in the ground.
In the meantime, the yard lies beneath a blanket of sycamore leaves, and they rustle on windy days, as if the sleeping lawn is shifting its bedclothes.
Everything will be awake soon. In the meantime, I look out the window and daydream of tomatoes not yet planted, seasons still to come.
Danny Heitman is on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.