At this time of year, gardening moves from the outdoors to the armchair. A most delightful place to dream up gardens full of tree peonies, Chilean blue crocuses, and other choice plants, all of them untouched by pests, disease, frost or drought.
Also a surprisingly laborious place to garden, if you take garden planning seriously. As I have a new orchard and a little 'woodland' to plan this year, my armchair gardening is proving to be quite arduous. It is no good just drooling over picture books, and making a wish list - plants do not appear that way.
It is also not much use popping into the local chain garden centre and hoping to solve the problem that way. Once I have rushed past the shelves of chemicals, trying not to inhale and thinking for the umpteenth time how lovely it would be to find a garden centre that was scented like a real garden and not stinking like a poison factory, what is there to see? Usually there is not a lot of choice when it comes to those special and different trees and shrubs that every gardener who wishes to be thought good should aspire to.
So the first step in tracking down those elusive plants one reads about but seldom sees is to trawl the advertisements in Soil and Health, Growing Today and the NZ Gardener for the nurseries which supply a wider and more interesting selection. Next comes a flurry of addressing envelopes, writing notes, and popping in stamps to pay for catalogues.
After a week or so, the catalogues start to trickle in and once they are all in, it's out with the pencil and the highlighter pens, and on to the slow task of listing and comparing what's for sale. Yellow highlighter for 'must have,' orange for 'maybe next year or the one after,' blue for 'sometime perhaps.' Pencil to note 'Nursery X has this cheaper.' At the end of the exercise I have chosen enough 'must haves' to cover twenty acres, not the two I actually have to plant. Now it is time to start pruning - a job I enjoy doing more on real trees than on the dream ones.
Next comes the really painful part - writing the cheques to go with the orders. But still, think of the joy when the order arrives. This is a happiness that can only be soured by that all-too-often-heard comment from one's nearest and dearest - 'What do you want more plants for? You haven't planted the last lot yet.'
I have just donated ten years worth of plant catalogues, from a variety of nurseries, to the Lincoln University library, where they will be useful sources of information on what was grown when for horticulture and landscape design students in years to come. Now I'm embarking on another decade of collecting catalogues and plants -a great way to practice the green principle of supporting small, local, sustainable businesses.
Perhaps my favourite catalogues are the seed catalogues. Partly it's because the canny side of me likes the possibility of getting dozens of plants for the price of one nursery plant, partly it is the greater range of weird and wonderful plants that are offered this way. I'm afraid I am a sucker for plants with unusual names - especially if they don't cost much. On this basis I could not resist Dracocephelum moldavicum ('the dragon's head from Moldavia'), which turned out to be a very pretty little deep blue annual flower. Pandorea pandorana aka the wongawonga vine (two excellent names for the same plant!) was another must have - and its evergreen leaves and small trumpet- shaped creamy flowers proved to be just the thing for disguising a rather dubious fence. 'Ghislaine de Féligonde' - what a swoony name for a rose. His flowers were a little small and dull, but what the heck. Not every knight is tall and handsome. As for Dolichos lab-lab, the hyacinth bean - this was a new one on the quarantine inspectors at MAF when I asked if it was alright to import it. It is a plant I have seen enthusiastically recommended for sub-tropical permaculture gardens - a pretty and edible climber. It grew in my Diamond Harbour garden - just - but I think it would have been happier with more water and warmth.
Where can you find such treasures? See A Catalogue of (Seed) Catalogues. Meanwhile, plump up the cushions on the armchair, and get ready to garden!