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Mary Rea | Gardening catalogs are sprouting

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Each year about this time an avalanche of gardening catalogs cascades into my mailbox. I avidly pour through them, folding back page corners and circling items to order. In Mazama, where the temperature can stay below freezing for weeks on end, seed catalogs are a promise of good things to come.

The annual ritual of dreaming over colorful gardening catalogs has gone on for over 150 years. B.K. Bliss of Springfield, Mass., is often credited with having printed the first seed catalog with illustration in 1853. W. Atlee Burpee published his initial catalog in 1876 and by 1915 was mailing over a million copies a year to America’s gardeners.

It comes as no surprise that January is National Mail Order Gardening Month. An estimated 24 million American households spent over $3 billion on orders from garden catalogs last year. I know I’ve done my part to add to that statistic.

I’m a sucker for the catalogs’ gorgeous photographs and enticing descriptions, especially in the dark of winter. The flowers are so lovely I want every one of them. The vegetables look so appetizing I order double what I need and can take care of. Every spring when planting is completed I have quantities of unopened packets, which join dozens of other seed packets in a box in the basement.

Each year I swear I won’t order any new seeds till I use up the ones I have. But come another gray winter day and another new catalog, garden fever strikes again.

I’ve made my share of purchasing mistakes. Whatever made me think I could grow peanuts in the Methow? There was also the time I fell for the “gopher-proof” tulip bulb promotion. Not only did the varmints eat all my expensive bulbs, they destroyed the lawn too. Most catalogs have abundant information on how to grow a successful garden. None of that advice helped the summer I tried sweet potatoes and okra. I guess when they said “hardy,” they didn’t mean Mazama hardy.

But after seeing the cover photo on the new Burpee catalog I’m seriously considering that super giant tomato they claim is the world’s largest. It is described as loaded with true heirloom tomato flavor and head-spinning fragrance.

Who can resist? Especially in the dead of winter.

I desire everything in every catalog: the novelty vegetables, the exotic easy-to-grow orchids, the peach trees laden with juicy fruit. It is spring and summer I want. And for a few minutes the garden catalogs make it seem so near.

Mary Rea of Mazama is the author of the novel “Ladies Night Out.” Her blog, which follows where her mind wanders, is at She can be reached at

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