The D. Landreth Seed Company catalog

The D. Landreth Seed Company catalog (Handout, McClatchy-Tribune / January 18, 2008)

The colors of the garden catalogs that billow through the mail slot in January can warm the bones and lift the soul. For more experienced gardeners, it doesn't even take pictures: adjectives are enough. New! Double! Disease-resistant! Heirloom! Chartreuse!

It can easily heat us up to a kind of delirium, in which we order 25 times as many varieties as we have space for. Or they all will need harvesting the week we're going on summer vacation. Or we didn't realize we had to start the seeds indoors before transplanting them outside. Or they are plants that are fabulously photogenic but have little chance of setting much fruit or flowers in the little sun we have.So pause before you order. Step out back for a breath of bracing fresh air. Take a look at where you'll be doing the actual growing, bare though it may now be. Apply a little methodical thought to the situation and you can bring that catalog fever down.

But don't be immune. There are many good reasons to garden by mail-order. Starting plants from seeds is less expensive than buying them in nurseries or even home-improvement stores, and the selection is far wider. The only way to get many varieties of seeds, as well as of plants such roses, lilies, herbs, spring bulbs and perennials, is by catalog. Getting on a few mailing lists or building up a favorites file of Web sites expands your gardening world immeasurably.

Nurturing food or flowers from seed is uniquely satisfying. "There's no other flavor like a home garden vegetable," says George Ball, president of W. Atlee Burpee & Co. in Warminster, Pa., one of the nation's oldest and largest catalog companies. And even a novice can do it -- with the right plants. You can afford to experiment with new or borderline plants you'd hesitate to pay $10 for. "Seeds are cheap, so go ahead and try it," says Karen Park Jennings, president of Park Seed Co. and Wayside Gardens in Greenwood, S.C., two other big catalogs. "You aren't losing much if it doesn't work."

Here are three good questions to ask yourself before you put pen to order form or start dialing that toll-free number:

Question No. 1:

What kind of gardener are you?

'Gardening Newbie':

1. Start with a good general garden book or an authoritative Web site to get background on plants you think you'd like to grow. You can't count on the catalogs to define essential terms or explain gardening basics. For example, a catalog may assume you know that peas are normally sown right in the ground, but tomatoes have to be started inside as much as two months ahead of time and transplanted outdoors in late May or June.

2. What you need to know about a plant before you order:

Sun requirements

Soil requirements

Height at maturity

Width at maturity

If seed, direct-sown or started indoors

Planted when

If plant, bare-root or potted

If perennial, does seed need a cold period called stratification before planting

3. Figure out a catalog's system of symbols. The icons are trying to tell you the plant's needs. But they aren't standard, so find and understand the legend before you buy.