Thursday, December 10, 2009
Gardening, While Warm and Comfortable on the Sofa
Yesterday my favorite catalog arrived, Bluestone Perennials. I hadn't really thought about how significant this book out of Madison, Ohio, was to me and my gardening habit, until I'd begun my research on Old Ladies Who Garden and read Mrs. Katharine S. White's New Yorker essays from the 1950s on gardening catalogs. At the Bluestone book's core, one finds an alphabet book--80 pages from Achillea to Weigela. (Plants with names beginning with X, Y and Z are rare.)
When I first began my gardening education, it was to Bluestone that I turned. I wanted to learn not only the names of plants, both common and Linnean, but also, with so many different varying degrees of shade and sun in my yard, I needed to understand the subtle microclimates that each plant required for optimal growing. Bluestone's easy-to-read, pink highlighted sun-shade icons won my admiration. It was at that juncture that I knew I'd moved beyond a homeowner digging in some impatiens to a gardener. But the real reason, I'm a fan is because I'm cheap. My mother raised me up to appreciate a bargain (price, no matter the quality, mattered) and Bluestone's three-fer deal makes my heart beat a little quicker. I was already familiar with the elite White Flower Farm establishment, hailing from Litchfield, Connecticut, and purveyors of a premier catalog. But there, a single plant cost more than what my friends at Bluestone charged me for three.
So there on their cover was an Astilbe, the peach blossom. I bought two varieties of Astilbes last spring--six plants! (I think I may have a lot more plants in my garden beginning with A because that's where I begin, at the very beginning.) And then I turned the page and realized how intertwined my life was with this Ohio grower. Here was a note from owners Bill and Sarah Boonstra about how daughter Jess had recently graduated from Miami as a graphic designer and how she had moved recently to a job in Cincinnati, but not before doing a redesign on the catalog.
Full stop here. Have you seen the film, Food Inc? About the industrialization of our nation's food supply. How the idyllic family farm has been turned into a vast mud pit with thousands of mud-caked cattle mauling and mewing to get to the trough of corn feed before they are prodded into the slaughterhouse and grinded hooves, excrement and horns into hamburger for the huddled masses who want to pay less than a buck for a McDonald's hamburger and cup of corn-syrupy coke?
Okay, back to garden reverie. Sorry for that horrendous vision. I'm on the sofa in my warm house and I love Jess' new design. I like the way she grouped the pictures at the corners and the occasional silhouetted flower, blown up just a bit larger than the others to give the page a little more vibrancy. But isn't it nice to know that there is a tiny realm in our economy for these gardening enterprises that are still just small, family businesses? This is a fast-fading construct of the American ideal. We admire and wish, if only, we might ourselves retire to something like it. Ironically, it's people like me, bargain hunters, that undo such enterprises, searching always for the best price, we price chasers alone are responsible for the big boxing of our businesses. But the Boonstra's three-fer deals, which now populated my garden to the point where I have little space left to cultivate, date back over many gardening seasons to the time, when their daughter Jess, and my daughter Claire, not much younger, where little girls. And while I still have another little girl (who is almost out the door herself) at home, the Boonstra's are empty nesters they tell me in their note (their son had departed earlier).
The time-honored tradition of catalog makers who write personal notes to their subscribers is one that Mrs. Katharine S. White took note of some 50 years ago. There was one, Will Tillotson, a rose grower and the producer of the catalog, "Roses of Yesterday and Today," out of Watsonville, California. In 1954, Tillotson was on the fence about not only President Eisenhower, but also the rose named for him.
"I will admit the rose is red, fragrant, forty petalled, and is in nationally light supply for 1954. Beyond this I refuse to go." That year, the threat to drop the rose from his book lingered and Katharine White waited until the next year to read the verdict. Indeed it came: "The C. W. [meaning the catalog writer, Will Tillotson] has made up his mind about Pres. Eisenhower, the Rose (and the President of the U.S.)." And the rose Eisenhower was apparently included in the book that year. Two years later, however, the catalog arrived with sad news. It was announced that Tillotson had died and a new owner would take over. Yet Tillotson's last list of roses was honored, and Eisenhower had been dropped from the list, "without comment," noted Mrs. White, rather wryly.
Today, Claire comes home for a month-long visit. She's finished up another quarter at Ohio State. I am hurrying faster and faster at work to finish up my quarter so I can take some time off to be with her and Patsy.
And so I leave you with this fine farewell crafted by another garden catalog writer of days long gone, Mr. Geo. B. Park, of Greenwood Southwood, Carolina. "Floricordially Yours," was his salutation.
I am too, Floricordially Yours, The Putterer