Blood, Phlegm & Bile:
Parenting with Humor

Garden Porn:  Seed catalogs should come in plain brown wrappers.

Many people who want fresh, affordable food and who believe local eating is better for themselves and the planet are making the highly rational decision to plant gardens this spring.

On the conscious level, gardening does make perfect sense. But the garden is not just about what’s happening above ground. Just as much is going on below, in the mysterious world of the subsurface and the subconscious. The garden is a scientific place of soil chemistry and botany. But it’s also a very sensual place. Flowers are opening voluptuously, luring pollinators and us with their erotic pistils and stamens (see O’Keeffe, Georgia). Pollen is wafting around on the breeze. Love is literally in the air.

Along with the logical reasons for gardening, the reemergence of all that life outside stirs deep emotions in us too. This time of year makes us think not only of rebirth, but also what comes before and leads to it: sex.

For a human entering this world, the first step is often perusing garden catalogs.We may think we’re dispassionately analyzing climate zones and days to maturity and making rational purchases. But the decisions we make are based at least as much on raw emotion. To put it in terms of Freudian psychology, which I have studied over the course of many seconds onWikipedia, there’s more id than ego in the garden. “The ego represents ... reason and common sense,” Freud wrote in The Ego and the Id, while the id is “responsible for our basic drives such as food, water and sex,” which is actually a pretty good keyword description of a garden.

The seed companies understand that sex sells. This is fine, but there’s a word for looking at pictures of unattainably attractive things and fantasizing about having them. So to control our expectations and our spending, we should acknowledge what seed catalogs really are: garden porn.

Come on, admit it. You feel a confusing mix of excitement and shame as you furtively page through the catalogs, imagining yourself in the garden with those fruits and vegetables.

The photographs present idealized versions of vegetables, like impossibly red, perfectly shaped tomatoes that surely must be airbrushed. And the suggestive varieties and descriptions—the Honey Girls and the Cherry Belles with their “rosy smooth skin”—are about as subtle as craigslist classifieds. As Michael Pollan taught us in The Botany of Desire, many plants have co-evolved with us and reproduce by appealing to us so we’ll plant them. Well, the seed catalog is where the plants place their personal ads.

Since it seeks to arouse our primal urges, a seed catalog should be read with the same caveat emptor skepticism we’d bring to a TV infomercial for an exercise gadget—the Abdominatrix or whatever. We know it’s not going to work, but because we’re acting on gut feelings, millions of us order them anyway. I did, and the closest I’ve ever gotten to six-pack abs is a bit of a beer belly.

Likewise, we suspect the vegetables we grow will not look like the pampered super-plants in the photos. It’s not that the infomercials and garden catalogs are being deceptive. They’re just showing what happens under ideal conditions: a supermodel who works out five hours a day and eats rice cakes and celery, or seeds growing in perfect soil and monitored ‘round the clock by a team of professional horticulturalists.

With these images playing to our emotions, catalog ordering can easily get out of hand. But we can embrace our gardening passions without going crazy with the credit card. The best way to limit spending is to focus on the plants that really turn you on. All the pictures and descriptions are so attractive that you’re tempted to order one of everything. But if you buy seeds for plants like corn and zucchini that are cheap and ubiquitous at the store, you don’t get as much satisfaction when the harvest comes. So if you have limited budget and space, go exotic and grow crops they don’t sell at the supermarket. No, not Cannabis sativa. I’m talking about unusual vegetables that are popular in other cultures but less common here.

For example, I really have a thing for Asian greens like komatsuna and tatsoi. They’re healthy and delicious. They look great in the garden. And you can’t buy a big pre-washed box of them at the grocery for $4.95. Ultimately, the only way to escape the siren temptations of the garden catalog is to forgo seeds entirely.

You need seeds, of course, but with my foolproof system, you won’t have to buy any this season. First, I go out to the garage and find the old shoebox into which I’ve tossed all the mostly full seed packets I’ve bought over the years. Gardeners almost never use the whole packet of seeds—sure, I wish I had room for 200 broccoli plants, but I don’t—so we all have our own personal seed repositories.

Most of these seeds will still sprout, even if they’re several years old. Recently, scientists in Israel successfully germinated a 2,000-yearold date palm seed. I’ll feel so inadequate if I can’t get my “packed for 2006” turnip seeds to grow.

Here’s a fun idea for all the seeds that have fallen out of their packets into a big pile at the bottom of the box. Plant them randomly and enjoy the surprise when you see what grows. Think how fun it will be when a tomato plant springs up next to a cucumber vine, which snakes along amongst the chard, which is shaded by the Cannabis sativa … hey, how did those seeds get in there?

With this more realistic approach to gardening, your vegetables may not look as perfect as the ones you drooled over in the catalog. But for all their blemishes, they’re better because they’re real.When you spend a whole season with them, you build a personal, intimate relationship with the food you grow yourself. And that’s a deeply fulfilling experience that you can’t get from empty fantasies about pictures in seed catalogs or any other type of porn. From what I’ve heard.

© 2011 John Hershey

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Parents are the bones on which children sharpen their teeth. - Peter Ustinov

John Hershey is a dad, a writer, and a lawyer (in that order). He writes a syndicated biweekly humor column about parenting and family life.. His columns have been published or accepted for publication on websites and in magazines around the world, from Maine to Oregon, Colorado down to Texas, and down under in Australia.

Blood, Phlegm & Bile: Parenting with Humor appears monthly on But, why the gross title? Well, for one thing these are three substances with which every parent becomes quite familiar. They were also called the "humors" by medieval scientists who believed that the proportion of these bodily fluids determined a person's health and temperament. So it's a pun! A pun requiring a lengthy explanation, but a pun nonetheless. E-Mail

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