One of my favorite jokes starts with a man in Knoxville in January setting the scene: warm quilts, scented candles, a locked door. "And then," he tells his wife, "we can roll around and snuggle up and—read our seed catalogs."
I adore seed-shopping this time of year: catalogs, websites, Mayo's, Lowe's, Home Depot, Knox Feed and Seed, even if they don't have their stuff out yet—just chatting to the workers is enough for me. It is a rare, much-anticipated onslaught of optimism—I marvel at the 120 days leek seeds would take to grow for my younger daughter, and think, "but of course" when I read the clearly spelled out requirement that I'll need to pile soil around their stems in the summer heat to "blanch" them. I spend more time debating purple vs. yellow vs. green vs. pole vs. bush beans than I ever did picking a lipstick shade. I anxiously await the arrival of Burpee's new hybrid in the mail—though I don't really like hybrids, this giant roma tomato pledges 5-inch wide fruits with thin skins and few seeds that won't have to be peeled for canning. Never mind those wan, bent 2-inch seedlings that were the results of last-year's indoor tomato starting obsession.
Ah, the triumph of hope over experience leads me to research obsessively for weeks, breakfast radishes to muskmelons. Which is why I've noticed another group: those online marketing non-GMO, often heirloom, seed parcels for very little cash to "survivalists." Second-guessing the doomsday selections has created a second seed-shopping hobby for me, like the hours I've spent poring over this one: 101 varieties in an airtight #10 can with a 300cc oxygen absorber for about $50.
• The cabbage—two types, 50 seeds each, lovingly photographed inside some tasty eggrolls—I find myself approving. Cabbage soup is a staple in books by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and if anyone knows their surviving inclement weather and bastard enemies, it is the Russians as depicted by Solzhenitsyn.
• Lettuce, three kinds, 1,500 seeds—seriously? I'm going to care about calories when some sort of apocalypse has just spared me? There will be no such thing as decent dressing, assuming I don't get busy with some sort of bee hive between now and zero hour, and perhaps start growing mustard. Plus, I astutely conclude, no one will need lettuce for sandwiches. No way are we gonna be able to grow and mill wheat or even the much-less desirable rye and cinnamon for bread, and you've seen the loaves fly off Kroger shelves with even the hint of snow. Imagine how much tougher it would be to stockpile bread for the type of terror that would inspire me to bring out the mylar-wrapped seeds from my bucket.
• Mustard, 1,000 seeds—wait, maybe I could grow my own mustard. But where am I going to get the vinegar? I don't see any apple seeds in here, nor rice. Bet some people buy this assortment with no concept that they're not going to have any mustard as they know it.
• Squash, three types, 25 seeds each—now we're talking. As we move along after a doomsday happening, finally the neighbors will be seeking my extras, not pretending they can't hear the doorbell when I sashay over with a basket of zuch. But, wait—are there going to be any neighbors, or did this flood or meteorite or whatever do away with them? Or am I holding them at gunpoint to keep them from my stockpile of water and fuel?
• Catnip, 100 seeds, I question. Won't I have enough to cope with without the cats prancing about (and in the case of Darby, puking) under the influence? I do endorse the smattering of culinary herbs in the count, until I realize these seeds are designed for me to be (nearly) all alone in the universe. Even if we get lots of warning, as we did for Y2K and the end of the Mayan calendar, it's going to be tough to convince my loved relatives and friends who play cards and Settlers of Catan to rally round where we can all eat and survive together. If it's just my spouse and myself, are we going to care if we're eating sweet watermelons and dishes flavored with anise and basil, or might it as well be sawdust?
Now not all the seeds are considered "survivalist." But I have just as much trouble considering them "seed banks" as some call them—or fodder for "homesteads," when you consider my proximity to Burger King and cheesy tots, plus Walmart, is about three miles max. One seller pointed out that if you bought her survival seeds, you could plant them over their anticipated storage life of three to 20 years—you'll never need to buy seeds again! I see the advantage of planting them now and in the coming decades. If you waited until after doomsday, how could you ever hold the seller accountable for results? And wouldn't that be a drag, if they wouldn't grow—except, maybe, the catnip?
Still, I can't do it. I can't buy the survival seeds. I just can't rob myself of that outrageous flood of optimism each January—not for all the cabbage soup in the world.