Air Brushed Plants

Of seed catalogs it could be said: “Can’t live with them, can’t live without them.”
The intolerable aspect of seed catalogs is their pretense to perfection. You are shown pictures of gigantic, deep-red, unblemished beef-steak tomatoes, football-size eggplants and faultless green peppers. Despite your most painstaking efforts, you have never grown vegetables that looked half as good as these. The sight of the catalog vegetables makes you wonder if your garden soil is fatally flawed or if, perhaps, you were simply not born to be a gardener.
The most dangerous piece of mail a novice gardener can receive is a seed catalog. Seed packets are duly ordered by the ambitious beginner and sowing, watering and fertilization are carried out in close consultation with a guidebook to good horticulture. Later, though, if the harvested results do not match the expectations created by the catalog, the impressionable novice gardener may become discouraged. Hoe and trowel may be deposited in the back of the garage, where they will collect dust for years to come.
There are several reasons why your homegrown vegetables may not look as good as those pictured in seed catalogs. A suburban back yard is not the ideal place to grow vegetables. Unless you have a very large yard, you will not be able to provide your vegetables with the all-day sun that, ideally, they should receive. It could take years to build the kind of soil you will need to grow vegetables properly.
Surrounding houses and trees may also keep out breezes that would otherwise blow through your vegetable plot and provide beneficial air circulation around and through your plants. Water should be applied according to the specific needs of the crop: Lettuces will need many frequent shallow irrigations, while tomatoes will benefit from occasional deep soakings. Finally, even if you do everything right, your vegetables may still not be as big and beautiful as those in the catalogs; it takes years of trial and error, together with careful record keeping, to perfect the art of growing vegetables or, for that matter, anything else.
Although you may experience feelings of inferiority when looking through seed and plant catalogs, there is much you can learn from them, especially if you are intrigued by unfamiliar plants or new varieties of familiar ones. For example, I have a catalog in front of me that is meant specifically for gardeners in Western states. I am attracted to a plant I have never heard of – it is called purple prairie clover (Petalostemon purpurea) and has a fan-shaped habit of growth, much like a peacock’s feathers or Queen Elizabeth’s crown, each stem terminating in a long purple inflorescence. “Being a deep-rooted legume,” the catalog reads, “purple prairie clover adds valuable nitrogen to the soil and helps keep the soil fertile for neighboring plants.” Now it may be difficult for me to resist buying this plant, but even if I do not buy it I have learned that planting legume – from Spanish broom to sweet peas – is a way of increasing garden fertility without fertilizer. Studying the detailed planting guide presented in the catalog, I also learn that purple prairie clover, unlike most dry-climate plants, can grow in clay soil.
This same catalog lists 17 varieties of penstemon, many of which are native to California, as well as a yellow variety – Penstemon pinifolius “Mersae Yellow” – that was discovered growing in England. A newly introduced ornamental grass called pink crystals (Rhynchelytrum neviglume), which blooms simultaneously in red, pink and white, is also available. Bear in mind that catalog pictures of flowering plants are taken during peak bloom time, which can be quite brief. This Western states plant catalog can be ordered by calling (800) 925-9387 or, if you have access to the Internet, you can find the entire catalog online at www.highcountrygardens.com.
Speaking of the Internet, a wonderful sight for learning about popular rose varieties is www.starroses.com.

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