Catalogs jump another season

March 23, 2006|by TIM ROWLAND

They did their best to spoil Christmas, and now they're trying to spoil spring. I am speaking, of course, of the catalog industry.

A catalog used to mean something in America. When I was a kid, Christmas catalogs for the holy trinity of consumerism - Sears, JCPenney and Montgomery "Good, Better, Best" Ward - would show up in mid-November, and they were the official, if unspoken, sanctioning of Christmas consciousness.

We had heard of an exotic retailer named Spiegel, but we were never good enough to make their mailing list, so all I knew of them was what I heard on the game shows (ask someone over 40 to play word association with Spiegel and he will instantly say "Chicago 60609").

A kid who began harping on Christmas wants pre-catalog was toast. But once the catalogs came, it was OK to "start thinking," as our parents put it, about Christmas lists.


Then the specialty catalogs joined the party, including Hickory Farms and that place that sold all the junk for 99 cents, including the comb-like kitchen aid that was supposed to help you slice onions evenly.

Today, Christmas catalogs start coming in August, and by the time December rolls around, you are pre-sickened of the whole holiday. Not that it took all that much to push me over the edge as far as the Yuletide season was concerned.

But spring, being something I care about, is different.

The other main catalog event of the year traditionally came in mid-February with the arrival of the seed catalogs. Burpee, Harris and Stokes issued the official permission to start thinking about spring.

But this year, the first of the plant catalogs arrived in December, before Christmas. This threw the inner clock all off. I started thinking about gardening in January and now, when it's really time to consider turning the soil, I'm already exhausted. I've planted the garden a thousand times in my head. I ordered plants so long ago I can't remember what I'll be getting.

I did get a bit of a boost over the weekend from the Flower and Garden Show at Hagerstown Community College, which is sort of like a science fair for shrubbery and has now become the real local harbinger of the true gardening season.

My allegiances were torn, since the show was held on the first and most exciting weekend of the NCAA basketball tournament. To make matters worse, its held in the HCC gym, and the retracted baskets hung overhead silently mocking me as the games went on without my keen analysis.

So most of the time I was slumped over, head down on the table in front of a pile of books, which I gladly would have sold for $1 for the lot if it meant that I could leave.

But there is always something to attract the attention, and this year it was a group of students from the Smithsburg Environmental Club who were selling a plant fertilizer made up of, as the label delicately puts it, "worm poop."

Along with selling the product, made by a company called Terracycle (, the students were also hoping to spread the word that botanical results can be achieved without the use of chemicals.

The creativity, industry and energy of these students took me back to my own youth, when I would spend my spare time asleep on the couch.

Near as I can determine, the fertilizer is sort of like a compost heap in a bottle. The product is made by feeding food scraps to zillions of worms. The worms do what worms do, which is digest and excrete the scraps into a potent fertilizer, before descending deep into the earth to further their plans for eventual world domination.

David Kurz, president of the club, gave me a bottle which I am hoping will work, because frankly, I do not always have the best results with plants. This possibly because my current strategy for healthy plant growth involves sitting in the shade sipping iced tea and trying to will the plants to grow in my mind.

The catalogs, of course, have beautiful color pictures of lush tomatoes and juicy ripe melons. But this is false advertising. If my experience is a guide, next to the pepper seeds it would be more accurate to show a picture of a bare patch of earth with a spindly, wilted sprout sticking out of the ground.

This year, I'm determined things will be different, and with an army of a million worms at my back, how can I go wrong? Although if I start fertilizing my plants, the next thing you know they're going to want to be watered, too. Work has a way of adding up.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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