Notes From Madoo: R.H. Shumway, Redux

Pulchritude is one thing, petunias another

   Catalogs suffocate in the post office box and mulch the desk. They are in full spate now like melt in spring thaw, an avalanche without end, roaring like a waterfall, often coming in threes and twos, marked either to “resident” or less vaguely to your neighbor, and write to them as you might to be less generous in the supply, they still relentlessly arrive, the result of having ordered a single package of seeds years ago. Extremely varied in bulk and substance, some are awfully like racing forms, others ripple like broadsheets and some like those listings of tax arrears with consequent auctions at a certain date, in the town of, on the steps of, etc. Some are glossy and ablaze with color, some so riotously that they are offensive to look at with equally inflated promises of bloom and productivity and yield, copy seemingly lifted form adverts of high fashion. Pulchritude is one thing, petunias another, and when I consider a Mercedes-Benz, I am not at all interested in mulch, you are mixing orchids and oranges all over again. Nearly the size of a tabloid, R.H. Shumway’s Illustrated Garden Guide, from Randolph, Wisc., is a most refreshing and welcome arrival. This is the firm’s 143rd year.
    A plant being a plant and a seed a seed, hardy pecan trees are offered on the same page as Canadian-bred hardy roses and three colors of Brandywine tomatoes. Herb seeds are $1.95 each or six or more at $1.75 each, and there are herb plants as well.
    Pages of vegetables advertised simply: “Good vegetables for better health.” Five full pages of beans include runners, yard long, Romano, bush and trellis, limas, purple, green, and yellow podders, black turtle, favas, soys, cannellini, kidney, pinto . . . 325 feet of natural jute at $4.45 on page 15 is a bargain, too. I’m not, however, sure of the meaning of Garden Gourmet Composter on page 19 and a bit dubious of the efficacy of Captain Jack’s Dead Bug Brew, “collected on a Caribbean island from an abandoned rum distillery in 1982.” But, no matter, the steel engravings on the facing page are crisp and incisive and wonderfully drawn.
    After the corns we come to nuts and berries, pawpaws and plums. Mixed in with all of this are native ferns at three for $14.95! And then we come to “Good Field Corn” and pasture grasses and leek plants. Shallots and Ailsa Craig onion plants as well as Vidalias. I just might try sweet potatoes again, Vardaman or Vineless Puerto Rico, plants of which are offered. They have a sampler collection if you are new to its cultivation.
    They are still selling “Grandmother’s Old-Fashioned Flower Garden” and have been since 1938. And Grandmother is still there in the little picture. Look carefully and you will see her. In blue, this time.
    (334 West Stroud Street, Suite 1, Randolph, Wisc. 53956-1274)