Seed Catalogs

Burpee seed catalog

a season of catalogs

Joanna here, being topical.

My seed catalogs have arrived. This is the first sign of spring for me — not a sighting of the first robin — the sighting of the first seed catalogs. Now the truth of the matter is I don’t so much buy seeds and plant them. I live on stony, steep ground here and grow my plants in a few miserable little pots. But I dream with these catalogs. I meditate upon all the wondrous flowers and vegetables I’m growing in my mind rather than in reality.

Anyhow, this got me thinking about woman gardeners in 1800 or so. The eons’ old association of women and healing

Wenches ‘Catastrophe in the Conservatory’ by Thomas Rowlandson, c. 1816

our lady gardener is ANGRY

plants, edible garden herbs, and flowery borders made them natural gardeners. About at this time botany got an intellectual boots with the Linnaean system of plant classification. Thank heavens this was one ‘science’ considered suitable for genteel women. They began collecting plants and writing about them. We have pictures of these women carrying their watering cans — dressed in a way we’d consider problematic for gardening work — headed out to botanize.

I delight to imagine the glasshouses filled with interesting specimens and women tending and caring for them. Studying them. Learning how to grow the most troublesome of their charges. Describing the exotics. Writing, y’know, monographs and papers.

Not that it was easy for them to be taken seriously. I’m just going to mention here that the British Zoological Society and the British Entomological Society (—bugs, yipee —) admitted women in 1829 and 1833, respectively, the Linnaean Society didn't until 1904, which seems rather latish, doesn’t it?

The actual tilling of soil and sowing of seed, digging holes for the odd tree or bush, and pruning of ornamental shrubbery on an estate would fall to a band of hearty young men. The lady of the house would be in the enviable position of strolling through the aspen-studded woodland, past the ha-ha, and along the herbaceous border pointing out to Old Mr. Wenches fair florest Grim the Head Gardener where to put 250 yellow tulips. She wouldn’t so much do the work herself. It would be three or four generations past 1800 before kneeling down and weeding the bed of mangelwurzels would be considered a proper hobby for the well-to-do.

(Mangelwurzel, from German mangel ‘beet’ and wurzel ‘root’, moves into English along with the beets in about 1770. Now you know.) 

Now me, I like to get my hands in the soil and somewhat pity those distant forebearers who never had this pleasure. It's part of what I anticipate in the early days of spring. Like today.

What are you looking forward to with your plants this spring? Anything new and fun?

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