Notes From the Lawn

Catalog of Dreams

Our resident poet of the orange blossoms discovers the literary charms of gardening catalogs: reading for aesthetic pleasure, also for planning the future.

In 1958, Katharine White published an essay in The New Yorker about gardening catalogs. Among other things, she wrote that she believed the writers of each were as distinctive “as any Faulkner or Hemingway.” In 1959 she reviewed the catalogs again, and now, having warmed to the topic, she confessed, “Reading this literature is unlike any other reading experience. Too much goes on at once. I read for news, for driblets of knowledge, for aesthetic pleasure, and at the same time I am planning the future, and so I read in dream.”

I’ve always been susceptible to the catalog’s allure, but until recently had underestimated the gardening variety. For a few years I was enthralled with the Levenger catalog—page after page of “Tools for Serious Readers”—particularly by a picture of a girl reading that ran in several consecutive issues. I believe the photo accompanied some item that was supposed to hold books open, but my eye was drawn to the window, where out on the street you could see a bit of sky and a tree at the height of autumn. The combination of elements—girl studying, gray fall day, yellow leaves—evoked a strong instinct in me. Not to buy goods from the Levenger catalog, fortunately—I couldn’t have afforded anything then—but to read, write, work harder.

It’s one of the decade’s most forceful novels, and if you leave it open on your nightstand it will draw you a mongoose.I received my first garden catalog in the mail this spring. Having once been responsible for writing a fair amount of book catalog copy, I was impressed with the writers’ art and restraint. Promotional copy in every field has its workhorses, of course. In book publishing: luminous, breathtaking. In gardening: glorious, vibrant, cheerful, it seems. But in the 2007 Burpee I also found poignant and soft, which are nice, I think, when you’re talking about plants.

Intrigued, I picked up another catalog, one I’d been given by a more accomplished gardener, and was drawn into the world of heirloom tulips. For an old tulip called the Purperkroon: “Tulips from the 1700s are exceedingly rare. To last that long, they have to be both wonderful and tough… We like to imagine a crystal vase of them sitting by Beethoven as he wrote one of his dark, somber movements.” Obviously you’d buy it for the name alone, but then you read that copy and who wouldn’t double their order?

For a scarlet beauty called the Prince of Austria: “It’s one of history’s most fragrant tulips (violets? orange blossoms?), and on a sunny day it will draw you across the garden.”

I like that poetic parenthetical, reaching yet failing to define the scent. Would that book publishers’ catalogs were sometimes so honest and vague. For the next wunderkind’s debut: “It’s one of the decade’s most forceful novels (sledge hammer? Norman Mailer?), and if you leave it open on your nightstand it will draw you a mongoose.”

You don’t read these things unless you’ve fallen hard for the mystery of growing a garden. You read for the promises, for the visions they put in your head.Here’s something else the publishing world would do well to borrow from gardening catalogs. On the Burpee website, customers have a chance to review items, just the way they do at most of the online booksellers. But at, every reviewer fills out a little questionnaire of personal information that appears right next to their review. Would you recommend the item: yes or no? What type of garden do you have: small or large, flowers or vegetables? What is your gardening skill? State of residence? Number of years of gardening experience?

When I was ordering supplies to start tomato seeds inside, I ordered a heat mat because I read a review from someone who has an old and drafty house like mine. Thirty-two of 33 people found the review from “Gardening Girl from MS” helpful, so despite her “very skilled” status and “5-10 years of gardening experience,” I followed her lead. But if it doesn’t work out—if I end up salting toasted tomato seeds instead of planting seedlings in the garden—I can cite the fact that she’s skilled and I’m not, that she has twice my years of gardening experience. (And, please. “Gardening Girl”? She’s clearly a southern belle with hired help.) The way I see it, I’m off the hook.

Wouldn’t it be nice if online booksellers had a similar survey? How long have you been reading? How skilled do you think you are? In lieu of what state the reader lives in, I propose: Do you recommend the Harry Potter books to grown-ups? Of course, with gardening there is tangible evidence of your ability. Your plants either live or die. The effect of a literary opinion is more ambiguous, I suppose.

I confess that Katharine White’s literary opinion of gardening catalogs baffled me when I first read it, but now I think she was right. You don’t read these things unless you’ve fallen hard for the mystery of growing a garden. Otherwise you could just buy what you need at your local nursery. You read for the promises, for the visions they put in your head. You won’t just have the Purperkroon, you’ll have the life that goes with it! Speaking of which, the other day I saw that Lands’ End had put several pages of eco-friendly tips at the back of its spring catalog. It’s probably not long before Burpee starts suggesting what we should wear in the garden. What a hybrid world we live in. Of course, Katharine White hated hybrids.


TMN Contributing Writer Jessica Francis Kane’s first novel, The Report (Graywolf Press, 2010) was shortlisted for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize and was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. Her story collection, This Close (Graywolf Press, 2013) was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and the Story Prize and was named a Best Book of the year by NPR. She lives in New York with her husband and their two children. More by Jessica Francis Kane