If "Johnny's" Has Come, Can Spring Be Far Behind?
Ah, the ides of January!
My garden is at its absolute best at this time of year. And that, my friends, is because the stunted and careworn reality of the thing is tucked safely under a blanket of snow that has attained, after the customary routine of melting and re-freezing, roughly the texture of weapons-grade plutonium. And so I am free to sit at peace gazing happily at the lusty blooms and verdant emerald foliage that exist only in my imagination — and in the tide of garden catalogs that is just cresting about now — without any nagging thought that I might need to go outdoors and, you know, do something.
January is the high season of armchair gardening. And we armchair gardeners are a blessed lot, untroubled by the mud and bugs and floods and slugs that bedevil lesser forms of horticulture (for instance the kind involving dirt). It has also the advantage of being quite affordable, so long as one has taken a few simple precautions: canceling phone and internet service, shredding the credit cards, closing one's bank account, and removing the wheels from one's car — for in Maine we have many unscrupulous vendors willing to purvey seeds and tools and pots and statuary to hapless gardeners right through the depths of winter.
Having done all that, it's probably safe to tear shamelessly through the garden catalogs — or as an old friend likes to say, the flower porn. And so let me offer a few suggestions for anyone tempted to indulge in this harmless and natural activity.
Everything starts with White Flower Farm. I confess to a long-running love/hate relationship with this venerable firm, which was founded in 1950 by a pair of New York writers and plant-lovers, one of whom boasted the distinguished name of Grant. The catalog has always been — and remains today, decades after the founders' passing — a marvel of imagination and inspiration and arch, New Yorker-ish cleverness. The horticultural content is unimpeachable, the offerings are plentiful, and the prices are not quite so outrageous as they used to be. You cannot browse more than a few pages without being titillated by some fresh possibility. Do you really want to go on living without a clump of Astilboides tabularis (which you had never heard of three minutes ago)? Then, moments later, you discover a need not only for the Astilboides (a very cool plant, actually) but also for something called a Cedar Tuteur, an eminently desirable object of no obvious function that will set you back $115. I trust you can sense the danger here.
For the sake of risk-reduction, I strongly suggest that you allow the WFF catalog into your house only in company with a bodyguard of sturdy, serviceable counterweights: reliable but less flashy catalogs that offer well-grown plants at reasonable prices. Here are some personal favorites.
Anyone with a Maine garden (and I include here people technically living elsewhere, since "Maine" in this context is largely a state of mind — see "English garden" by comparison) must have their Johnny's. The hardcore among us will want Fedco as well. These are both noble home-grown enterprises which, to be honest, I more admire than patronize, as they cater to sensible and serious-minded gardeners. If I were brave enough to grow vegetables, Johnny's would be my supplier of choice. Fedco — a cooperative owned partly by consumers and partly by "worker-members" — has always made me feel slightly unworthy, though I note they are one of the few places where you can buy a white oak tree (Quercus alba). This is the grandest of native trees, something you plant for your great-grandchildren to enjoy. In my armchair garden, I see one towering 60 feet over the back deck.
Bluestone is my favorite source of perennials. This used to be the undiscovered treasure of mail-order gardening. I guess they've been discovered because the prices have been edging up. But the selection is larger every year and now includes many offerings to tempt even the connoisseur.
Richter's, an Ontario firm, is far and away the best source of herbs. They sell plants and seeds and even whole nursery trays (120 tiny Provence lavender plants for $65!).
The greatest catalog of all time, anywhere, period, trust me on this, is published semi-annually by Forest Farm. It is as thick as a 19th-century novel, crammed with thousands of offerings, printed on cheap paper, uncluttered by photographs, with terse but accurate descriptions of trees, shrubs, perennials, grasses, bamboo, and God knows what else. This is almost worth fishing the shredded credit card out of the trash for. You can leave the wheels off the car because the place is located in Oregon.
Obviously this is a very small and strictly personal list. But it's a safe place to start on an armchair garden. Beyond this, you're on your own.