It was the first day where the temperature hadn’t risen above freezing, and I was seriously feeling January. Until I picked up my mail…and found a Johnny’s seed catalog. Pages and pages of beautiful vegetables leapt out at me, warming my heart if not my blistered hands.
The night before, I had volunteered at my CSA Winter share pick up. My job was to weigh out the carrots for everyone, ten pounds per share. That’s a nearly-full grocery bag of carrots. Our farmer had delivered 12 crates of purple, orange and yellow carrots that had been harvested sometime this fall, and held in storage for the winter. Without the steady mist of a supermarket delivery shelf, the carrots looked a little pallid (kind of like we all do in winter). They are nevertheless sweet and delicious, but a stark contrast to the vivid hues of the seed catalog, and the real live fresh-harvested crops they represent. In winter, when the pale browns and beige of sweet potatoes, turnips, potatoes and carrots fill the store room, we start dreaming of summer harvest…and planning for it.
Enter the catalog. Full of the promise of abundance, and freed from the messy realities of actual growing vegetables: no dirt, no rainy days, no crop failures — all the potential for perfect vegetables laid out in full color. The offerings are organized alphabetically too, not by season, so that the pages start to feel like an American supermarket: peas next to parsnips (even though peas ripen early in the summer, and parsnips take the full growing season); in perusing the pages I can have it all, right now!
When navigating a seed catalog, it’s easy for your eyes to get bigger than your garden. Ooh, let’s try these purple beans! Or what about these long Asian ones, it says they are sweet and tender! But restraint is in order, and it helps to keep in mind the rhythm of the year: what karpas shall we grow for Passover? Will we make pickles again this year? How many jars of tomato sauce do I really need? And how big will that butternut squash plant really grow (Answer: more than 10 feet of curling vines.)
If you’re in the Northeast, you have a little bit of time before you need to actually start your seeds in a greenhouse or sunny window — but now is a good time to thumb through those catalogs and start dreaming.
And a wintry bonus: try organizing a seed swap for Tu B’Shvat! Have friends and neighbors bring seeds they’ve saved from previous years. When you’re celebrating the new year of the trees, tell stories about last year’s harvest and what secrets lie locked up in this year’s seeds.