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Jim Bradshaw: Finding poetry in the prose of seed catalogs

One of the many sayings attributed to teacher and writer William Arthur Ward is, “Faith sees a beautiful blossom in a bulb, a lovely garden in a seed, and a giant oak in an acorn.”
He was known for his short sayings, “modern proverbs” he called them, that often appeared in Reader’s Digest and other publications.
(My favorite Ward quotation is probably, “Every person has the power to make others happy. Some do it simply by entering a room, others by leaving a room.” But that’s not what I intend to talk about.)
His seed quotation encapsulates the entire principle behind the catalogs that are filling our mailboxes now that the months-long Christmas blitz has ended (and, brace yourself, the full onslaught of political promotions has not yet begun).
Flowers are never so beautiful, vegetables never as tempting as they are when we look at the photographs in the catalogs and somehow are made to believe that they will grow to be just as perfect when we plant them in our little plot this spring.
Katharine S. White, the fiction editor for The New Yorker magazine for more than 30 years, wrote an entire book about seed catalogs and how they tease our imaginations.
In "Onward and Upward in the Garden" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979), she tells us, “For gardeners, this is the season of lists and callow hopefulness; hundreds of thousands of bewitched readers are poring over their catalogs, making lists for their seed and plant orders, and dreaming their dreams.”
White contended that “whatever may be said about the seedsmen’s and nurserymen’s methods, their catalog writers are my favorite authors and produce my favorite reading matter.”
It may be telling that this is the opinion of an editor who dealt almost exclusively with fiction, but even writers like me who deal (mostly) in fact have to admire some of the seedsman’s prose.
Poring through the pages of my catalogs, I find promises of flowers that will bloom in “solid masses of scent and color” even in summer’s heat and vegetables that will grow with “vigor and great taste,” all of them easily maintained, practically ripping out weeds by themselves.
I can’t resist the tempting illusion that this will be the year the Gardener of the Month sign takes up permanent residence on my luscious, green, well-kept lawn.
Even the tool catalogs can wax lyric, promising hoes that do “an outstanding job of keeping garden beds weeded and cultivated,” but failing to mention that they are not robots and someone must be on the handle end for all of this to happen; ditto for the remarkable rake that not only gathers leaves, but is perfect for “raking soil or twigs or spreading top dressing.”
Maybe we’ve still got a bit of Christmas magic hanging around so we can more easily believe just about anything.
“Yes,” we say.
“Yes, I need one of those to perfectly maintain the perfect roses that are going to fill my perfect yard with “perfume unlike any other” all the summer long.
It can be argued that the catalog writers rank with the poets in their ability to produce sweet pastoral visions, to inspire our imaginations, to banish lessons learned while on our knees, not in prayer but cursing weeds.
In fact, even weeding will be fun this year with contoured pads that promise “ultimate knee comfort” and that are not only functional but fashionable.
How can we not believe the promise of the catalogs?
Looking through the kitchen window into the worst of winter gloom, we can actually see a perennial bed right out of the magazines, started with easy-to-plant seed tape, bursting into blooms of every color, drawing the eye into the landscape, providing fragrant cut flowers, satisfying the soul of all who know the feel and sweet smell of garden loam.
Yes, garden loam. Not hard-packed dirt.
There is no such thing in the world of catalogs as cloying clay or hard-packed dirt or roots that reach from who knows where into the precise place we want to plant.
There is no August sun. No summer drought. No black spot on the roses nor aphids in the tomato patch.
The seed catalog poets wouldn’t dream of anything like that, or mention it if they did.
A collection of Jim Bradshaw’s columns, "Cajuns and Other Characters," is now available from Pelican Publishing. You can contact him at or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.


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