February 12, 2013

Points East: The best gardens are planted in the mind

LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. — At this writing, it is just past 4 p.m. on Groundhog Day 2013, and already nearly it’s dark.   Unless he was sitting under the booger light at the end of my driveway, the celebrated whistle pig will not see his shadow in central Kentucky today.  

The sky, in fact, became so overcast and filled with restless, wandering snow that our security light came on for nearly an hour in the early afternoon.   I’m told that weather conditions were about the same in Punxsutawney and that Phil had declared his shadow a no-show and retreated to his hole sometime around mid-morning.  

So, if the lore holds true, winter should be all but over for those of us residing east of “The Muddy Mississip.”  We should commence sharpening up our gardening tools while global warming paranoia gets set to have a field day.   Since 1887, it says, Punxsutawney Phil has only failed to see his shadow 16 times, including 2013.  He’s seen it 101 times and during that time, 9 years of Philocrastination are un- recorded.

I’m reading this straight off the Internet so you know it has to be true!  And the math does seem to work.   

In the meantime, I’m sitting here remembering the snowy February Saturdays of my youth when I turned such days into profitable enterprise by selling garden seeds door to door along Highway 7 and the L&N railroad that runs between the Jeremiah and Isom, Ky., post offices.

Over the course of some dozen years, from the springs of 1956 through 1967, individually or working together, my three younger brothers and I were the garden seed barons of that five mile section of Letcher County’s Rock House Creek.  We also served the gardeners of its tributaries, including Spring Branch, Doty Creek, Adams Branch and Stamper’s Branch along the way.  

American Seed Company (ASC) in Lancaster, Penn., was our wholesaler.  We placed our orders by mail early in January.  In 1956, the year, with Mom’s help and counsel, that I started the business, ASC would front its sales crew 60 packets of seed, risk free.  If you sold all those and paid for them, they’d front you another 120.  Promptly pay for those and the company would front you whatever you thought you could sell and even let you send back what you were unable to sell.

Just one year after starting up, I could have ordered 2,000 packets and ASC would have shipped them out, no questions asked.

 Retail price was 15 cents a packet. We salespeople could take a nickel per pack cash profit or a merchandise prize.  And believe it or not, we were usually way better off taking merchandise if they had something we really needed or wanted.  I once took a Schwinn English Racing Bicycle that retailed for more than $100 instead of the $30 cash money I could have pocketed. The bike had almost no utility on unpaved and coal truck-rutted Blair Branch, but it sure was a pretty thing to look at.  

But I’m off the point here because the point is that I could sell twice or three times as many seeds to snowed-in customers as I could have if the weather had been fine and the soil dry enough to till.  

Brother Keeter and I discovered early on that folks were far more inclined to purchase seed when all they had to do was sit around the stove and dream of gardening than they were when the process involved hard labor.

In other words, that daydream of having neat plant beds containing four different varieties and colors of lettuce, along with an equal number and variety of radishes, required the purchase of eight seed packets while a customer was kicked back in front of the fire.   But when it came time to put rake and hoe to good use, that same customer would decide that a pack each of black-seeded Simpson lettuce and scarlet globe radishes were all they really needed and had time to fool with.

And so we bided our time, did we enterprising Adams Brothers.  Our seeds might arrive from Quaker Land, ready for market, on a sunny day in late January but we knew that the very best of gardens are planted only in the mind.  

And the very best of those take shape when little boys, dressed in heavy overcoats and winter caps with the earflaps down, come stomping snow off their boots on your front porch and knocking at your door in the middle of a wintry February storm to see if you’d like to buy some seed.             

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Now that school is out, what are your family’s summer vacation plans?

A. No major plans. We will probably hang out around Laurel County.
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