Waylaid again by those garden catalogs

By JAYSON JACOBY, Baker City Herald January 23, 2009 12:00 am

Along about the middle of December they begin barging in, mocking the snow and upsetting the tranquility of our winter household.

Garden catalogs.

These thin pamphlets, crammed with glossy color photos of plants that are almost obscenely healthy, can distract me for as long as an hour from more worthwhile pursuits, such as napping or watching football.

After even a brief bit of browsing I can become overwhelmed by the compulsion to go dig a hole and plant a hybrid poplar, or perhaps a paper birch. That such a task is impractical — even if I scraped away the snow the frozen ground would be no more receptive to a shovel blade than asphalt — seems not to matter.

The photographs alone, showing trees in full leaf against backdrops of blue sky, affect me much as a balmy afternoon in March does. I can feel the  warmth of sunshine bathing my neck, the soft grit of fecund soil clinging to my fingers.

But the writing is powerful, too, in spite of its flowery tone and over-reliance on adjectives and exclamation points.

My natural skepticism, which is usually quite keen when it comes to detecting, and dismissing, outlandish claims that come by mail, dissolves when I read about the clever tricks the horticulturists have been up to with their gene-splicing and grafting.

I’m entranced by the prospect of buying an elm that will shoot up as high as a basketball hoop in just one year.

I look around the place, barren of leaves and scant on green foliage, and envision the instant forest I can create by dialing a phone number and reading off the numbers on a credit card.

“A quick source of shade, beauty, wind protection — even firewood,” the catalog promises, and I believe it all.

That part of my brain which knows better, which insists that the package that will arrive on my porch will more resemble a car radio antenna than a shade-casting elm, goes dormant.

The nursery sales pitches are even more insidious, though, than what I’ve implied.

Their arrival starts a trend which will continue clear into spring.

By the middle of January I will be plotting all sorts of outdoor projects, most of which exceed my financial means or, more likely, my skills.

Just this week my wife Lisa and I got to talking about building a fire pit in the back yard. This ought to be a simple job, requiring mainly the ability to dig a hole and move some rocks. I can usually handle both, and at no greater cost than a blister and maybe a smashed thumb.

I doubt the pit will get done, though.

For one thing I’m prone to neglecting the outdoor amenities we already have. I’m a lousy weeder, for instance. Last year I squandered several weeks before I got around to buying a bag of mortar mix to shore up the rock wall — the wall I spent most of the previous summer assembling.

We don’t need a fire pit, in any case.

Most nights when we stay outside after dark the air stays warm enough that supplementary heat is unnecessary.

In the end, the garden catalogs’ ability to evoke the pleasant days to come outweighs, at least for me, the frustration they provoke by dint of their showing up in the mailbox a few months before my soil is ready for cultivation, or my skin prepared to venture outside without the protection of fleece and thick wool.

They are, in the exuberant exaggeration of their prose and punctuation, harbingers of spring as reliable as the north wind and the brown patches that broaden as the sedimentary rocks of the Elkhorns shed their snow.

It would, at any rate, require quite a lot more resolve than I possess for me to stave off a summery daydream when I’ve just read about a tree whose branches boast three varieties of apple, or marveled over a picture of strawberries that look as big as baseballs.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.