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GUEST COLUMN: The siren call of garden catalogues

Published on

Ginny Schleihauf

Garden catalogues sing the song of the sirens. They promise everything our conscious minds say is impossible: plants that are maintenance free, deer and rabbit resistant, drought tolerant, and that flower in sun or shade from May to September.

We know that this can’t be – that no plant can do all these things – but we are led on like the enchanted to break our hopes on the rocks of reality every year. Plants get eaten by critters or develop diseases, they need water and fertilizer, and in spite of our coddling, they sometimes perversely insist on dying. But oh, how easy it is to buy into the ideal world catalogues portray.

I once ordered a rose pictured in a luscious shade of coral pink. The picture in the catalogue more that sold me – it seduced me. I could almost smell the perfume through the glossy page. I began to think that I could no longer have a garden unless this rose was growing in it. I began to think that if I didn’t order it right away…I might not get it. So I did.

The real plant couldn’t begin to compete with the one my imagination had embellished from the photograph. Its flowers sagged and looked like wadded-up tissues. The colour was off, turning into washed-out pink instead of glowing coral. The plant got blackspot, aphids, thrips and mildew. In short, the equivalent of a leper. And then, it flatly refused to grow taller than 12 inches. I tended this stunted collection of sticks all summer; grumbling bitterly and promised myself I would never be taken in again. Naturally I have failed.

Even if I withstand the lure of colour, I often forget that the plants in the catalogue are mature specimens. So when my bareroot plants arrive in the mail looking like a bunch of dehydrated parsley, it’s a huge disappointment. It positively rebuffs my attempts to think of it as alive. And when it revives in the garden, by then I have forgotten its eventual height and spread. As a result, it usually gets tucked in where it will inevitably crowd out its neighbour or die.

The fact that garden catalogues start to arrive in the dead of winter is no accident. In the north, we’re starved for anything lush and green to relieve the gray winter landscape. And when we’re most vulnerable, enter the catalogues with their soft words and sweet pictures.

Do I go each day to the mailbox with trepidation? Do I regard the catalogues with suspicion and mistrust? No way! I skip out to the box and feast my eyes on the newest arrivals. I bring them into the house, I gaze at them longingly, and I pick up my pencil and order more plants I can afford or fit into the garden. I’ll get taken in again because I want it all to be true. And who knows? Maybe this year it will be…

Ginny Schleihauf is chairperson of the Sarnia Gardeners’ Club



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