At Home with Jeff: Garden of glory

Now is the time of the year when seed catalogs start arriving and my thoughts turn to summer and fabulous gardens. Burpee catalogs are as predictable as cherry blossoms and taxes.  The new catalog that arrived today proclaims, “What is New for 2020!” Reading through the pages I know that my garden is going to be bigger and better than ever this year. One whole page touts a futuristic variety of summer squash called “Lemon Drop.”  It is described as “A gorgeous lemon lookalike, that brings exceptional flavor and beauty to the summer table. Makes for scrumptious fresh eating and downright sublime when sautéed, baked or grilled.” How could I resist? There are also new varieties of zinnia, tomato, and turnip for this year. Sometimes I order seeds through the mail but mostly I just drool on the catalog and make dog ears on every page that catches my eye.  

Another catalog I enjoy perusing is from Jackson & Perkins and highlights roses.  Ten years ago, I bought six bare-root rose plants from Jackson & Perkins by mail order.  Now I receive a never ending stream of their beautiful catalogs. Did you know there are over 150 varieties of roses, as well as thousands of hybrids? And new hybrids are added each year.

In 2018, Vivian and I visited the International Rose Test Garden in Portland, Oregon where they are testing more than 650 new varieties.  Every January, judges select a handful of the best varieties for commercial sale. One new hybrid selected for 2020 is named “Emily Brontë.”  As the catalog describes, “It is an exceptionally beautiful rose that is soft pink with apricot-colored central petals. The blooms have a strong tea and old rose fragrance with hints of citrus.” Sounds good enough to eat.

Last fall, I ordered loofah seeds from an online catalog for my mother who lives in Oregon.  She had lamented in a telephone call the dearth of good loofah sponges. I don’t know how hard it is to grow loofah in Oregon but, if anyone can do it, that would be my mother. She once grew an avocado tree from seed and a pineapple bush from the top of a fruit.    

Breck’s is a catalog that sells flower bulbs with the slogan, “Direct to you from Holland since 1818.”  Holland has always been at the center of a world-wide flower bulb market, sometimes to their detriment. In 1634, all of Europe was mad for Dutch bulbs.  Speculators bid up the prices until some single tulip bulbs sold for more than 10 times the annual income of a skilled craftsman. In February 1637 the bulb market suddenly crashed, bankrupting collectors and traders alike. This graphically illustrates a basic rule of investing.  One should always diversify their garden and their investments.

Catalogs are not my only source of gardening dreams.  Vivian and I subscribe to several magazines including Good Housekeeping, Sunset, Martha Stuart, HGTV, Better Homes & Gardens, and House Beautiful. This time of year, they depict the most tantalizing views of gardens, innovative landscape designs, and unusual vegetation. 

A few years ago, Vivian and I built terraces in our backyard.  We planted all sorts of things inspired by the magazines. It became our Darwinian garden.  Some things lived and some things died as befits natural selection. Four trees survived: lemon, mandrin, apricot, and lime.  The apple and plum trees died. The jury is still out on the orange tree. It is hard to tell ahead of time what will thrive and what won’t. Gardens are like that.

My brother Lewis once grew a tomato plant in a sheltered spot next to the chimney at our childhood home in Santa Cruz. With the protected location and my brother’s TLC, the vine grew tall enough to spread out onto the roof.  He became a local celebrity. The neighbors all came to marvel at Lewis’s red tomatoes and green thumb.  

That tomato plant even made it into the local newspapers.  The September 17, 1971 issue of the Santa Cruz Sentinel, page 4, reported in part “Fourteen-year-old Lewis Roubal likes gardening and this year he has achieved unusual success with a cherry tomato plant. The plant is more than twenty feet tall.”

Lewis tried every year after that without success  to replicate his gargantuan success. He even tried planting dried seeds from the miracle vine itself.  All of the bushes after that were perfectly normal. Gardens are like that.

Vivian and I also grew tomatoes for several years.  When living in Hayward, there was a four-foot tall, twenty-foot long chain link fence between our backyard and the neighbor’s.  At the west side of the yard, it received perfect sun for growing tomatoes. Our children were 1, 2, and 3 years old at the time. We taught them the difference between red and green by pointing out the difference between ripe, red cherry tomatoes (delicious) and green cherry tomatoes (nasty).  We encouraged them to pick and eat every red one they could find. When let out to play each morning, they would make a beeline to hunt for ripe tomatoes along the fence. It was a glorious summer.

The next year we came up with a fun project.  The three kids and I walked .8 miles to the local Albertsons grocery store one sunny Saturday morning in March.  We compared every single tomato in the produce section to find the most perfect one. Back home, we cut it open, scooped out the seeds then shared the flesh. Everyone agreed it was the most luscious tomato ever.

I planted the seeds on cookie sheets filled with starting medium (Vivian is still annoyed that I rusted three of her favorite baking sheets beyond salvage). The cookie sheets sat in our living room in front of a warm window and were closely monitored and watered daily.  When the starters sprouted, we ended up with more than a hundred 6” plants! I gave tomato plants to the relatives, neighbors, and random people walking by on the street. I planted the twenty biggest starters in our yard so we had tomatoes coming out the wazoo that year.  It was great. I have tried to replicate that project, so far without success. Gardens are like that.

Now that gardening glories from past years are fresh in my head, it is time to scour the catalogs again for something that will make this summer truly memorable. After that, I will order seeds, survey the planting beds, make drawings, gather materials, and make lists.  I love gardening, especially the part that happens before you put a spade in the soil. Maybe this will be the year of the giant rutabaga! Or maybe not. Gardens are like that.

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