- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 25, 2006

Hear that? There it goes again — that muttering, rattling, sighing. Some snorting is involved and possibly some snoring, too. It is the sound of the entire nation mulling over garden catalogs, yielding to the siren call of seeds and vowing that, yes, this is the year to plant cardoons.

Of course, cardoons. Uh-huh. Why, they look so swell in the picture, so lush. But wait. What about those jicamas, the bog wort and that purple thing that’s supposed to grow as big as a Volkswagen?

This is where all the muttering and rattling and sighing come in. Much of America is shut inside now, thumbing through page after page of verdant possibilities. It is a hootchy-cootchy sideshow presented by the likes of Burpee and Jackson & Perkins, and every den has a ringside seat:

Step right up, folks — come on in. Rakes welcome. Muttering ignored, rattling of catalog pages politely overlooked.

Well, hallelujah.

Should we want to buy a black bat plant or a baobab tree that “can live for thousands of years,” we need only contact Oregon-based Seed Rack. Do we crave something weird and wonderful? Scotland’s Weird, Wonderful Plant Co. offers Victorian and gothic plants in petticoat pink and midnight black, plus a snappy personality quiz for gardeners wrestling with their floral id.

We better get cracking. Spring is only 22 days away, and we’ll barely have time to get the black bat plant in the ground so that it can, uh, do whatever black bat plants do.

This is serious business, though. This year, Americans will spend $3.1 billion on mail-order plants and seeds, according to the Mailorder Gardening Association, which tracks such things. It also advises that 24 million of us order our garden goodies via catalogs, spending $128 per household.

Catalogs, says spokeswoman Camille Cimino, can counter winter doldrums.

But beware. The stern master gardeners over at the University of California Extension Service growl, “A word of caution: Don’t forget that winter daydreaming can result in a summertime burden.”

Yes, well. Creatures like squirrels and cutworms and Doberman pinschers on a rampage certainly can pare down that summertime burden.

“I wanted sunflowers and giant pumpkins last year,” one Virginia law enforcement officer said recently with a sigh.

“I bought the seeds. I dug up the soil. I planted the seeds. Then I built the most incredible mesh-and-wire jail around the plot to foil birds and squirrels and rabbits. When the seedlings came up, something ate them anyway. Sheared ‘em right off at the bottom. A crime scene. So I kept the mesh jail up as a memorial.”

Hope springs eternal, though. This year, the officer will try growing edamame — soybeans.

Which is more or less in cardoons territory. For the uninitiated, the cardoon is a pale vegetable related to the artichoke and popular in Mediterranean cuisine. Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds — which offers a nifty compendium of unusual growables — offers the Gobbo Di Nizzia variety.

That’s only the beginning. The Missouri-based company also sells Thai red-seeded long beans, chocolate cherry popcorn, Ozark Razorback cowpeas, African horned cucumber, Hoodoo muskmelon, red Faro quinoa and Pink Accordion tomatoes, among other things.

That leads us down the garden path to that circuitous trail through the undergrowth clearly marked with a sign reading “Not Your Typical Garden Variety.”

Indeed, there is very little that one can’t buy for a song — and grow in the lower 40, or a reasonable facsimile thereof. Why, even Burpee is offering the Carrot Kaleidoscope this year — “our exclusive blend of wild colors,” the company explains. The carrots are red, purple, yellow and brilliant orange — 1,000 seeds for $4.50.

Carnivorous plants can be had at Black Jungle, which specializes in Venus flytraps, tropical pitcher plants, sundews and other green things that like to eat meat — well, fly meat, anyway. It also sells poison dart frogs, should the need arise.

Yet the Massachusetts grower is very tender toward its Venus flytraps, offering considerable insight into trap culture and noting that “the trap appears to somehow know when something is within its reach” and advising that one should “never feed it such things as hamburger.”

At the other end of the spectrum, perhaps, the aforementioned Jackson & Perkins features an uplifting little something for these times. Heroes in the Garden is a $45 set of five hybrid tea roses the grower says is meant for a new-style victory garden, dedicated to American heroes.

The rose quintet includes brilliant red Veteran’s Honor; fragrant, cream-colored Sweet Freedom; gold-and-pink Peace; porcelain pink and aromatic Memorial Day; and the traditional red Mister Lincoln. A portion of the sales are donated to a veterans health care charity.

Now, that makes for some very decent plant dreaming.

Jennifer Harper covers media, politics and bog worts for The Washington Times’ national desk. Contact her at 202/636-3085 or [email protected] washingtontimes.com.

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