There are two things one should never do: go to the supermarket hungry and open a gardening catalogue in the middle of January. Lust overcomes reason. You are likely to end up with food for a banquet and perennials for a baronial estate.
I break this second rule annually and happily. Just about the time when the landscape has been reduced to white, gray and brown, when the thermometer has run out of degrees, the catalogue from the White Flower Farm, duly entitled "The Garden Book," comes through my mail slot.
"The Garden Book" is the "Masterpiece Theater" of flower catalogues. It isn't merely the glossy paper or the lush photographs that tempt me, it is the wonderful, fey, anglophiliac prose of the author, Amos Pettingill.
Flowers are not exactly advertised between these pages. They are, rather, listed, as if the book were The Social Register. A newcomer is welcomed into the chosen White Flower ranks with these words: "After several years of detailed trials, we are tickled to offer two fine Lobelias, both originating with the inexhaustible breeding efforts of Dr. Wray Bowden from Ontario." The first offering of wild petunias is described as part of "a small but distinguished graduating class."
It is hard to do justice to the literary style of Amos Pettingill without noting how gently he chastises those who ignore the Michaelmas Daisy: "We find it strange that American gardeners show so little interest in this lovely flower." He is also, like many gardeners, fond of anthropomorphizing plants. But Pettingill's flowers have "bad manners" or "will sulk if put in dark corners."
Here is horticulture with an emphasis on the culture. It's the sort of careful breeding that has put White Flower Farm at the cutting edge (or the perennial border, if you prefer) of nouvelle horticulture.
In the interest of full floral disclosure, the 200,000 readers of "The Garden Book" must be told that Amos Pettingill is not a real person. It is the nom de plume of the first owners and authors of the White Flower Farm, two writers who emigrated from New York City to Litchfield, Conn., and flower farming.
The current Amos Pettingill is indeed Eliot Wadsworth II -- which is not a nom de plume although it sounds like one -- the man who bought White Flower Farm in 1977. Wadsworth is a Harvard hybrid, an undergraduate English major who went on to business school. He now also publishes Horticulture magazine.
Any disappointment in discovering that Pettingill II is actually Wadsworth II is dispelled by talking with him. Wadsworth speaks the way he writes, with a charming, easy elitism.
Wadsworth, for example, doesn't talk about customers, but about an "audience." His audience is divided int two categories. The first are the "daffodil mixture, paper white Narcissus" sort. The second group are the serious gardeners, "the mainstream of our business." These are people like Wadsworth, who admits in his cheerful, upscale way: "My appetite for new plants is like most people's appetite for macadamia nuts."
This is what is changing before our very own trend-watchers. We used to think of gardeners as dotty Barbara Woodhouse types who spent their lives training roses instead of dogs. Now the same species of people who went to 100 percent natural fabrics and then to fresh pasta and then to renovating houses with quarry tile are turning their tastes inside out. They are not Yuppies (Yuppies live in condominiums and build their muscles pumping iron instead of digging earth), but they are part of the baby-boom gentry generation.
As Wadsworth, a 42-year-old father of three, explains, "I think that one reason that ornamental gardening is expanding is that everybody in America is the same age as I. It's an age at which you stop skydiving and flying to Rio for New Year's Eve. You are in the house you'll be in for much of your life, you have kids and a mortgage and serious work commitment, and gardening around the house is a rewarding pastime."
I never did skydive or fly to Rio on New Year's Eve. But I have been seduced by a Siberian Iris, and happily enlisted by a Rubrum Lily into the growing species of semi-serious gardeners. If the era of gourmet gardening is upon us, so be it. I'll take my lessons from the well-cultivated, florid pen of the delightful Amos Pettingill Wadsworth II.