I knew it would happen soon after Christmas.

It always does.

“THE DAY” that folks like me — with green gardeners’ blood flowing through their veins — live for happened this week … seed catalogs started to appear in my mailbox.

Whoohoo!

I can’t help it.

Some people play golf to relax.

I play in the dirt.

I love the feel of the warm spring sun on my back, the sounds of birds singing, a breeze stirring through the trees, and the sweet, earthy smell of freshly tilled soil.

Give me a beautiful spring day in the yard with my tools and plants and I’m happier than a 10-pound tick on a 5-pound dog!

My obsession with seed catalogs and gardening goes way back. When I was a kid, I would cut out seed company ads from Progressive Farmer, Grit and other magazines that were staples in my grandparents’ simple four-room wood-frame home and mail them in asking for their catalogs.

It became a regular end-of-the-year ritual that I still look forward to.

The long, cold, gray days of winter are perfect for thumbing through catalogs and planning my spring and summer yard projects. But deliver me from scrolling through pages of ONLINE catalogs ... there is NOTHING fun or socially redeeming (lol) about “streaming” through page after page of websites looking for certain seeds or plants ... give me the good, old fashioned PRINTED CATALOGS that I can read at my kitchen table over a hot cup of coffee, circle my choices and make notes on.

The fact that plant nurseries and home and garden centers are among my favorite places to visit is genetic, I’m sure. It is bred into my bones and DNA.

My mama loved flowers. My dad raised vegetables. So did both sets of my grandparents and most of my many great-aunts and uncles.

They always had the most beautiful flower gardens, not to mention fruits and veggies enough to provide for several families, and they instilled in me a love for growing things and working with my hands that lives on today.

My great-aunt Rubye — with help from a bean-pole thin rail of a man who was my great-uncle Bennie – had a garden with the largest variety of flowers on the face of the earth, or at least on the Ararat Road. Uncle Bennie spent most of his summers hauling tons of manure and buckets of water to flower beds scattered across their three-acre homestead, and made sure that all was in order. (In his words, if there was a weed in one of those flower beds, it belonged there, you hear?)

My grandmother’s old-fashioned multi-hued petunias and four-o-clocks had the sweetest fragrance. They were annuals but those hardy plants mimicked perennials and came back year afer year without ever having to be replanted.

I still have some of her four-o-clocks growing in my yard and last year when our youngest daughter married and moved into a new home of her own, I gave her some seed from those heirloom plants.

Great-uncle Mason always had an imaculately-manicured yard. Even though he had no formal training and barely an eighth-grade education, he was well-read when it came to horticulture and it was he who taught me the rule about the 20-dollar hole:

“Son, if you buy a five-dollar shrub, dig a 20-dollar hole to put it in,” he would say, meaning that proper soil preparation is crucial to any plant’s survival.

The forte of my granddaddy, “Paw”, was sweet corn and some of the finest, best-tasting home-grown “ter’maters” I ever put in my mouth.

He taught me the fine art of “companion planting”, such as including marigolds and nasturtiums around tomatoes and beans to keep worms and beetles away. A substance produced by the root of the marigold also wards off nematodes and other sub-soil pests looking to feast on the roots of the vegetables, he said.

My other grandfather, Ivie, believed in planting according to the phases, or “signs”, of the moon. For a while, I thought that was just superstitious “old folks” nonsense, but one year in my own garden I decided to put his beliefs to the test by planting several “hills” of squash (with seed from the same scoop from the local Farmer’s Co-op) at different times – based on charts in “The Old Farmer’s Almanac”.

I kept detailed records, writing down in a notebook the dates and times planted, the location of each hill in the row, and the phases of the moon. I wrote down my observations and made photos once a week of the growth cycle, storing those pictures inside the notebook.

I was surprised to see that my granddad’s method actually made a noticeable difference: plants from seed sown during the correct “moon phase” were healthier, stronger, grew more vigosously, and endured the brutally hot south Alabama summers with less “wilt”. They also produced massive quantities of squash, as compared to mediocre, “so-so” results for those planted during the wrong lunar phase. By the way, several plants, sown during the “wrong” phase, actually didn’t live to see the vegetable-production stage, but died a couple of weeks after germination.

Whatever scientific reason there may or may not be for this I can’t say. I just know that it works!

“Paw” also kept pests such as deer, rabbits an racoons, out of his garden by going by local barber or beauty shops a couple of times a year and asking them to sweep up a bag full of hair clippings. Yes, human hair! He would then take those clippings and scatter them around the perimeter of his garden. I promise you, not one marauding critter ever crossed that line! He also said that the hair clippings were great deterrents for snakes, too.

My daddy, T.J., or “Tom Cat” as he was known to friends and kin, didn’t care at all for flowers, but was flat-out obsessed and laser-focused on purple-hull peas.

When he planted peas, he planted PEAS, you hear?

Most people buy enough seed for a few rows. He bought pea seed in 50-pound sacks.

He had a hunting camp on the nearby Tombigbee River and every summer planted peas on land that was farmed hundreds of years earlier by the Choctaw Indians, in whose honor the county was named … enough peas to feed the entire state of Alabama, or so I thought at picking time. (I know the Native Americans were there because one of the highlights of working in that pea patch was discovering arrowheads and spearpoints those early people left behind in their own gardens all those hot summers ago.)

I think about those days a lot, especially while I’m out on my mower or working in the yard, and I miss my folks. I miss them more than I can say, and I wish they were still around for me to ask questions of and learn more from their lifetimes of farming experiences.

Thanks to the time they spent in teaching me how to garden — as long as I have access to a fertile piece of ground, some seed, and a hoe, rake and shovel — my family will never go hungry.

I may not be the best gardener but I am a better person because of what each one, in his or her own way, instilled in me and for that I will always be grateful.

Now ... where’d I put that new seed catalog????