Fireside Dreams and Heirloom Seed Catalogs

From December to March, there are for many of us three gardens: the garden outdoors, the garden of pots and bowls in the house and the garden of the mind’s eye.                                             

--Katherine S. White

Kitchen Garden woodcut Fortune Aug 1937.jpeg

Deep into the shortest month of the year and I’m still holding in my imagination “China tea, the scent of hyacinths, wood fires and bowls of violets—that is my mental picture of an agreeable February afternoon,” as the marvelous English gardener, interior floral designer and author Constance Spry (1886-1960) summed up the season of cozy contentment that has now commenced.

In the spirit of full disclosure this would be the time to reveal that for several years now, I have only had one garden between January to December—the perennial garden in my mind’s eye, which is so much more satisfying than the other two, for it flourishes without weeding, water, warmth or light, needing only scissors, glue and graph paper to thrive.  Rainy, inclement Sunday nights when the sleet is lashing at the windows while sipping an Irish coffee, is a perfect setting for this reverie: cutting out lush borders, fragrant trellis trimming roses, pink parrot tulips, heavy boughs of while lilac and sweet peas, then arranging them around a scrapbook center fold is sheer delight.  This shall be my cutting garden.  However, is the year we shall have a Kitchen Garden enclosed with a white picket fence?  Why not?  Snip, snip, paste, paste, dream, dream.

The first summer after I moved to California, I did plant an English cottage garden with roses, hollyhocks, larkspur, peonies and delphiniums, much to my disappointment since it was the first summer of the drought and literally everything withered on the vine. So now I enjoy the world of succulents and cactus with primroses in pots.

 But one passionate pursuit which never disappoints is receiving seed catalogs in the post from hither and yon, appearing in all their glory like Regency era heroines, all fresh faced and dewy eyes, pink flushed décolleté trailing tendrils of lace, fulfilling every desire known to womankind, as well as providing a sophisticated sort of gardening trivia usually reserved for Jeopardy tournaments.

Did you know that Chinese cabbage has been a treatment for male baldness for 3,000 years?  Or that Thomas Jefferson cultivated 17 different kinds of lettuce in his garden at Monticello, (but then he had been the first U.S. Ambassador to France).  Can you guess the vegetable that goes by these names:  Black Prince, Crème Brulee and Chocolate Stripes?  Heirloom tomatoes.  I know, I can’t think of tomatoes as fruit either, although botanists tell us if a plant has seeds, she’s a fruit.   But if a tomato wants to be a fruit or a vegetable, she’s all delicious to me, come July afternoons with a salt shaker.  More to the point of this week’s musing, did you know there are over 700 varieties of heirloom tomatoes?  The mind boggles.

If you’ve not yet added seed catalogs to your personal repertoire of winter well-spent moments, to inspire you, may I recommend you begin this contentment triggering indulgence by reading Katharine S. White’s Onward and Upward in the Garden a collection of a dozen gardening essays?  It’s marvelous! Katharine Sergeant Angell White (1892-1977) was an editor at The New Yorker from its heady, early days in 1925 until her retirement in 1958.  She was also an avid gardener.  Her husband, the writer E.B. White of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little fame, recalls in the introduction to his wife’s book published after her death in 1977:

“She simply accepted the act of gardening as the natural thing to be occupied with in one’s spare time, no matter where one was or how deeply involved in other affairs…

“How she loved shopping in catalogues!  Hour after hour she studied, sifted, pondered, rejected, sorted—in the delirium of future blooming and fruiting.  Harris was her dream catalog; it was always within reach (www.harrisseeds.com). No longer able to sit at the desk or at a typewriter, she had abandoned her cozy study at the front of the house and taken up a place at one end of the living room sofa, propped with pillows.  This became the control center of the house.  The sofa served as desk as well as seat and it soon became buried under a mountain of catalogues, books, letters, files, memoranda, Kleenex, ash trays and miscellany.  The extraordinary accumulation, which would have driven me crazy, never seemed to annoy her or slow her up.  I built her a coffee table, to catch the overflow from the sofa.  The table was soon groaning under its own load.  Yet she usually knew where something was, however, deeply it was buried."

Eventually, this insatiable passion for gardening catalogs prompted her to take up writing after decades of editing.  Her first feature was a critical review of seed catalogs and nurserymen which launched her famous gardening series “Onwards and Upward” in 1958.  Her husband explains:  “In addition to surprising thousands of New Yorker readers and dozens of seedsmen, Katharine managed to startle a third party—me—her husband…the thing that started her off was her discovery that the catalogue makers were, in fact, writers…She stumbled on a whole new flock of creative people, handy substitutes for the [John] O’Haras, the [Vladamir] Nabokovs, the [Jean]Staffords of her profession.”

  Author, Katherine White

Author, Katherine White

What I continue to love about Katharine White (there’s a meditation of her in SA June 19th) is that her enthusiasm is catching.  Here is a Swell Dame gardener after my own heart, in a tweed jacket, pearls and Ferragamo shoes. Now add a large straw hat tied with a Schiaparelli scarf and a pair of “Foxgloves” gardening gloves designed like a dress gloves from the 1950s (foxglovesinc.com) and that is my idea of gardening heaven.

 So if you’ve not read Mrs. White gather her book (Amazon, Goodreads) and visit Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (www.rareseeds.com) where you can download their catalog.  You’ll also find out about spring planting festivals and The Heirloom Gardener magazine.  Baker Creek is also responsible for the restoration and preservation of Comstock, Ferre & Company in Westhersfield, Connecticut, which is the oldest continuously operating seed company in New England, selling seeds since 1811.  Another wonderful seed hobby is to collect them when you visit famous historic houses and gardens for tours which will begin again in May and June all over the world. There is always a way for us to begin enjoying once again those things that we love, especially in small ways.

Sometimes in our efforts to protect ourselves from being hurt, we block out entire years trying to isolate the painful memories by casting every memory asunder. I remember what joy and  contentment it gave me to learn about Rare Breeds sheep in England, as well as heirloom vegetables, mystical trees, heritage roses and then when I left England so abruptly, it’s as if a door was slammed shut on the mud room of my heart and imagination forever.

But I’m starting to remember once again, in small melodies of memory, hearing once again a reverie of contentment.  I think a wonderful way to start planting dreams again is with an heirloom kitchen potage on my California patio this summer.  So I think that I’ll send off for Mache Verte a Coeur Plein or Lamb’s Ear lettuce, which makes the most delicious salad. 

Wishing you lovely reveries this week wherever you may find them, dearest Babes—and blessings on our courage.

XO SBB