CHARLIE MITCHELL: Among inspirational books, seed catalogs may be tops



Forty years ago, a big old room at the big old Extension Service Building at Mississippi State University took on a mustier-than-usual smell about this time every year.

That’s because the pace of properly dried soil samples arriving from all over the state picked up. If memory serves, most arrived in those pint-sized paper containers with little wire handles, just like those used by Chinese take-out eateries.

It was soil-testing time.

Not for farmers, who mostly sent samples from their fields five or six months before their next planting dates.

What triggered the deluge was the mail-order seed catalogs that started showing up in the mailboxes of hobby gardeners just after Christmas and into early January.

The hobby gardeners planned to be planting before Good Friday, some years well before. They wanted some guidance.

After closing the catalog and resolving it was going to be the best year ever, it was time to put on a coat and boots, pick up a shovel and trek outdoors with a pail. At planned planting sites, soil would be turned in several locations, a few tablespoons of dirt from each site would be added to the pail and the accumulation would be poured onto a board in a shed, stirred and left to dry a couple of days before being put in the paper container, sealed and shipped to Starkville.

Once the postman delivered the samples to the Extension Service, college students would log them in and conduct tests. With reference to what the sender said he or she planned to grow, a form would be completed and mailed back, instructing the gardener how much lime, how much this, how much that should be tilled in before planting.

There’s a still a big old Extension Service Building – the Bost Building – at Mississippi State, but it’s a lot newer than the old Extension Service Building. And hobby gardeners still know that if they get their soil right, the rest is pretty easy. Similarly, if the soil is wrong, time and effort will have been wasted.

Those tests were important. Still are.

The process still works pretty much the same way. Customers may be invited to place orders through the Internet, seed-sellers still understand the power of print, the importance of delivering pictures on pages that can be turned as opposed to clicked.

The big sellers may be doing even more business these days because in the past a Mississippi gardener might use the catalog for reference, but buy from a nearby seed and feed. There aren’t as many of those stores as there were, but, quite naturally, the best ones were owned and staffed by people who knew the local dirt (not the gossip, the real local dirt).

Of course, given that there’s no handy way to email, text or fax soil to the Extension Service, samples still are gathered, delivered and logged in for testing as they have been for at least 100 years.

A major difference, though is that instead of a crumpled instruction sheet that had to be picked up from the county agent’s office (often in the basement of the county courthouse), there’s a website explaining what to do and what not to do in gathering soil samples to be tested. The Extension Service, for a fee, also will help diagnose any plant diseases and detect those tiny, dastardly and destructive demons known as nematodes. And results can be reported by fax or email, too.

So much in life changes fast. Spring, for instance, will be here before we expect it.

For now, though, we have only dreary Mississippi landscapes with the occasional fields of cattle munching from the downwind side of giant, round bales of hay.

During the history of the written word, many inspirational letters, books, poems and messages of all forms have been circulated.

Few fire energies and imaginations, however, quite as well as a seed catalog pulled from the mailbox on a cold winter’s day.

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or email He is assistant dean and assistant professor in the Meek School of Journalism and New Media at the University of Mississippi. His opinions are his own unless otherwise noted.

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