Sunday, January 07, 2007

New Year's Rituals

What’s blooming outside: Nothing.

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, zonal geranium, Christmas cactus.

What’s green and visible in the area: Snow still covers everything; its weight collapsed the sunflowers and áñil del muerto earlier this week.

Animal sightings: Animals left tracks looking for food. Some bird, probably a quail, landed on the cholla, then walked between the cactus and front garden. Quail later found the sunflowers. Green-bellied birds, much puffed up by the cold, foraged in front and discovered they couldn’t hop onto Mexican hat or black-eyed Susan stalks.

Weather: Moisture condensed into hoar frost early this week, then fog condensed early mornings mid-week. By Friday, warmer temperatures were beginning to melt snow, when it snowed again and temperatures dropped..

Weekly update: The week between Christmas and New Years used to be when seed and nursery catalogs would arrive. I would begin the annual ritual of planning next year’s garden: reading about new plants, making lists, totaling prices and crossing out items to fit a budget. Everything needed to be done by mid-February to receive early ordering discounts.

All has changed in the last twenty years.

There are fewer catalogs. Some companies, like Mileager, changed to internet marketing, and I didn’t have an on-line provider. Some, like White Flower Farm, looked at my scant ordering history (or maybe my zip code), and dropped my name. Others, perhaps like Bluestone, may have noticed I complained about bad plants, and decided I wasn’t a valued customer.

Some companies simply disappeared. A few years ago, the owner of Nor’East retired and sold his business. Abundant Life had a fire, and merged with Territorial. Weiss Brothers returned an order saying it no longer was in the mail order business. The owners of Raintree divorced, and each sent a catalog from a new entity, inviting me to take sides. Others were taken over by the next generation or investors who thought all the oddities their parents sold should be replaced by more commercial products.

Corporate takeovers take their toll, although it’s usually hidden. The first thing that changes is the address. In the 80s, it was to Bloomington, Illinois, and Plantron. More recently, many have changed to the Randolph, Wisconsin address of J. W. Jung. Van Bourgondien and Van Dyck moved to Virginia Beach from Babylon and Bridgewater, New York. Henry Fields abandoned Shenandoah, Iowa for Aurora, Indiana.

Changes in the catalog are more glaring. Offers replace plants. Pictures are cluttered with balloons filled with admen’s catchwords ("Great Color," "Fast Grower," "Must Have.") The traditionally fusty, thick Thomson and Morgan and Wayside Gardens sprouted so many guideposts last year, I set them aside. The pictures were obscured with captions that were so distracting I couldn’t read the text.

I’m not sure there are many catalogs left that serve my original purposes - to provide plants or seeds I can’t find in local stores, and find things grown regionally that might do better in my conditions than the rarified hybrids developed for bedding plant and cut flower growers.

When I first started requesting catalogs in Michigan, I searched for nurseries in the northern midwest, thinking they were growing their own produce. Some were, but even then, most were supplementing their stock with items purchased from foreign suppliers. Already, there were the mere retailers who grew nothing, but packaged European and Japanese seeds in catalogs aimed at niche markets.

The more the seeds derived from the same growers, and the only distinction between catalogs was the wit of the retailer, the more price became the only criteria. Cost became more important when shipping fees increased, first when companies like UPS raised their rates, then when petroleum companies raised theirs. Shipping used to be just a little over our high gross receipts tax, then rose to double it. This year, most of the seed company rates are running about 25% of my orders.

With the transition from production to marketing, the idea of an ordering season disappeared. Seed catalogs arrived earlier and earlier, plant catalogs later and later. Companies no longer needed to know what would sell to determine what to plant; they controlled the market so they could believe what they offered had to sell. Early ordering discounts disappeared, leaving only high volume order ones.

I spent this past New Years Day going through catalogs and looking out at snow that transformed the prairie into a tundra. I was down to four seed catalogs, two geared to commercial growers. One made clear with price increases that my business was more a nuisance than before, but it is still the only company that offers single color packages of annuals like larkspur and bachelor buttons. The other apparently figured the more sales the better. The third was filled primarily with purchased seeds, but its original varieties were still there to be ferreted out. The last, which once sold only its own seeds, started supplementing its choices a few years ago.

As for plants, I don’t think I have any choices left. I’m down to two outlets I trust, and only one has sent a catalog.

I contemplate the new year, and regret the losses of the past. I would like to add some new plants, but there’s no longer a Lambs catalog to study. I would like to buy some older varieties, but there’s no longer a Rocknoll or Mellinger. I would like to continue using Crimson Rambler morning glories and Florence bachelor buttons, but they’ve been dropped by the larger catalogs, and I have to scour the others.

I would like more of nature’s bounty, and business models dictate less is more.

Notes: The history of Ferry-Morse and Burpee are treated in Cameron, the story of a midwestern small town, available at .

Photograph: Snow early morning, 6 January 2007, taken through the porch window. Juniper and bunch grasses, with winterfat in back, sunflowers in front.

No comments: