Horticultural Catalogues

I spend a fortune when the catalogue from Burncoose Nursery arrives. An hour passes as I’m lost in the bewitching pages of growing requirements, different varieties and photographs of hundreds of plants, shrubs and trees. Then reality breaks in. For I don’t have the funds or the space for such luxurious choices in my small Oxford garden. So I settle for a couple of Japanese azaleas and a magnolia tree destined for my son’s larger garden in Edinburgh.

It’s much the same story when the Chiltern Seed catalogue drops through the letter-box. Sharpie pen at the ready, I mark all the herb seeds I need this year, these will be sown in Saint Montan in pots and tubs where it’s easier to water and care for the plants.

Then ​Grow Something New​ catches my eye at the top of the fat list of other garden plants. Perhaps just a few packets of flower seeds that I’ve always loved? After all, seed packets can surely be squeezed into my already bulging suitcase? So I choose a dozen of the most appealing herbs such as every variety of basil and some edible flowers like marigold and cosmos that are already marked with stars from my pen. Next year, I tell myself, I’ll indulge myself properly with far more of these garden delights.

My horticultural catalogue malady is not new and several of my gardening friends are fellow sufferers. In 1898, Elizabeth Von Arnim described the lure of garden catalogues in her best-selling autobiographical novel, ​Elizabeth and her German Garden:

“I am very busy preparing for Christmas,” ​she writes​,“but have often locked myself up in a room alone, shutting out my unfinished duties, to study the flower catalogues and make my lists of seeds and shrubs and trees for the spring. It is a fascinating occupation, and acquires an additional charm when you know you ought to be doing something else ​…”

Many gardeners must be familiar with this particular pleasure. Time whizzes past, the imagination races, picturing the plants in full glory, healthy and pest-free. Studying each plant, described in irrestible prose, is an innocent form of day-dreaming. How many of us buy packets of seeds, gaze at the seductive photographs and then never sow the tiny specks of hope. I can’t be the only person with lots of ageing, unsown seeds?

Even non-gardeners can fall prey to the enchanting dream of bringing plants to life. In 1989 the much-loved food writer, Jane Grigson, wrote a column in the Observer newspaper listing the seeds she would like to sow in the spring, with comforting thoughts of the pleasure to come as they flower in the months ahead. Sadly Jane died in the following March and did not live long enough to realise her dream.

But, to my mind, this talent for looking forward is the golden key to happy and contented gardening, it encourages us to imagine the future, to picture what could be, it flourishes on anticipation – in stark contrast to looking back with regret – and thereby fills our hearts with hope.