Nothing crisps the heart of a gardener with greater fury than a low shadowed, endless winter afternoon, windless, throbbingly cold and soundless, lonelier than the end of love. Hopeless endless, but then he opens the pages of a precocious seed catalog, and then the timeless dream forms again and he is turning the earth, inhaling its unlocking odors as if a book of secrets, hoeing, pushing, copping, making a fine, pouring, friable tilt. One is straight out of an old woodcut, better shoes, perhaps, but equally mired, the tool much the same, the back similarly bent. There is March and a little April in the picture, as yet no clouds, for those will come later about when green begins to show in the furrows and whoever is carving the next woodblock must put in a bird.
Catalogs have been coming for over a month and a half and already bewilder. What to chose among all of those tomatoes, lettuces, pumpkins? One marvels at the little essays that describe their individual characters. Of lettuces, this one is guaranteed not to bolt, which is pure fiction. If it didn’t bolt, it wouldn’t seed and we wouldn’t have the lettuce in question. And kindly do not extol its sweetness and general disposition during the torrid months of summer. Lettuce must be grown fast in months that are cool. Spring and autumn are the prime times for a fine, sweet, and crunchy salad. August is why we have chard. July why we have mesclun. Fresh sprouts of just about anything make a fine summer bowl. There is a season for everything, isn’t there? And one anticipates it and has pleasure from it. Asparagus in August doesn’t wash and certainly not the blanched ones in cans, which are all too remindful of seaside hotels far, far from good weather. The England of it all.
And then there are 6,382 indispensable tomatoes, white to brown-purple-black, bush to vine, mammoth to dwarf, egg to pumpkin, paste to salad to pickling to relish to slicing to canning and I wait for one to do windows. There are ketchup and jam tomatoes and greens for frying and, of course, juice tomatoes, and what are we to do with them all? I have given up growing them. They are as delicate and prone to sniffles as the delphinium I gave up years ago. Madoo, remember, is entirely organic, which means that one often is without patience for plucking foliage clean of unwanted pests.
Addenda to this the relatively new horticultural sport of grafting several tomatoes for usurious fees, rather a charming Victorian revival, like getting a dwarf apple with five different varieties on it or a rose that is Joseph’s coat and equally flimsy.
Winter afternoons can be grim and, perhaps, there are perfectly fine reasons for them. Only a gardening fool forgets injunctions and warnings, no matter the weather, month, or hour of the afternoon.