Dangerous Seed Catalogs and Little House on the Prairie

All gardeners know how dangerous a beautiful seed catalog is.

My obsession with seeds, vegetables, and plants started at age 12. By then, I had devoured biographies and histories of settlers, pioneers, and backwoodsmen. The reason I loved all these books could be traced back to one source: Little House on the Prairie.

Little House on the Prairie

I was 8 years old when mom bought an exhaustive study guide to the Little House on the Prairie series – a handbook full of field trip ideas, 19th-century recipes, and worksheets. And what has every homeschool family done at least once? Start a small group. Although the other kids moved on, my sister and I wanted to know the continuing adventures of Laura. Mom would sit on the couch and read the books out loud to us sprawled on the floor. My favorite book was Farmer Boy about Laura’s husband, Almanzo, and his early life in upstate New York.

To a boy the same age as Almanzo, Laura’s description of digging potatoes, raising calves, and shearing sheep held me in a trance. Read Chapter 6, “Filling the Ice-House”. Frozen’s opening scene is a pale comparison to Almanzo, French Joe, and Lazy John cutting blocks of ice out of a river. Laura could turn any monotonous farm work into a poetic cadence. And her narratives of farm life began to take hold on my developing young mind:

Swish! swish! swish! went the scythes, while Almanzo and Pierre and Louis followed behind them, spreading out the heavy swathes with pitchforks so that they would dry evenly in the sunshine. The stubble was soft and cool under their bare feet. Birds flew up before the mowers, now and then a rabbit jumped and bounded away. High up in the air the meadowlarks sang. The sun grew hotter. The smell of the hay grew stronger and sweeter.

Dangerous Seed Catalogs

Fast forward to age 12 and I’m sitting in a monthly 4-H meeting. To my happy surprise, I learned there was a contest for spring gardens. I could already envision symmetrical rows of perfectly spaced vegetables.

After coercing my dad, I confiscated 200 square feet of the backyard. But I didn’t want help from anyone, regardless if the help was a person or a tiller. I chose the mattock, an oversized pickaxe, as my weapon of choice – the tool I pictured Pilgrims used for their first planting of corn. The moment I tore into the ground with grandfather’s old mattock will forever be entrenched in my memory. Swinging the mattock like a possessed lumberjack, I blistered and bloodied my hands. But in my mind, I had achieved a level of manhood only available to those who used mattocks with bare hands.

The first garden was an average success, earning me a 2nd place in the contest. But I was proud. To my romantic 12-year-old perspective, I had made contact with some ancient gene deep inside my DNA. Something passed down from my ancestral roots of Appalachian farmers and Irish sheepherders.

My gardening and farming aspirations soon became an obsession. My 200 square foot garden grew into a 2,000 square foot garden, and my mattock gave way to a front-tine tiller. The irony? I never had a green thumb. Plants withered under my care, dying at my touch. But nothing could deter my overzealousness as I pored over endless gardening books.

Seed-Buying Addiction

My exuberance became uncontrollable when I discovered the seed catalog. The slick pages abounded with pictures and folklore of heritage vegetable varieties. There was everything from native pumpkins the Seminole Indians grew in the everglades to purple tomatoes Cherokee Indians cultivated deep in the Smoky Mountains.

I fell into a vicious cycle of buying too many seeds, planting the seeds, watching the plants die, and then turning around to buy more seeds. Because many of the plants I chose never grew well, I was alway searching for the elusive yet perfect variety. Florida’s sandy soil, humid climate, and plentiful bugs are more fitting for an exotic guava or carambola than the mid-Atlantic purple potato or the northeastern miner’s lettuce. Even now in the outdoor refrigerator, there is an embarrassing amount of half-used seed packets revealing the extent of my past addiction.

As I approached the late teens, my gardening zealousness cooled down. But every once in a while, I would get the urge to plant “something” and go into a seed-buying spree.

I still plant the occasional vegetable or herb. But in recent years, my boyish fantasies have moved out and reality has moved in. Sometimes, I’ll look down at the seed catalogs neglected to the corner of my room waiting for me to return. I was thinking last month how I never tried growing corn before and it reminded me of Almanzo. He struggled to plant corn the first time, straggling behind his father and brother Royal.

He did not like that. But he knew he would plant corn as fast as anybody, when his legs were longer.

Now that my legs are longer, maybe I’ll peek in the seed catalog and look for a good corn variety…