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Paging through paradise


Each spring, seed catalogs seduce us with visions of Eden. It's not just the gorgeous pictures of flowers. It's also the smorgasbord of plant varieties -- a cold-tolerant tomato, an early snap-bean.

But as the garden catalog business grows, it's easy to be overwhelmed by all that arrives in the mail. To help fantasies of a lush paradise become a reality, it's necessary to be a smart consumer -- as well as a skilled gardener -- when researching and placing your order.

These days, there are hundreds of seed and plant catalogs to choose from. Some specialize in heirlooms, bulbs or plants; others sell everything but the kitchen sink. A little research will narrow the field.

Start by reading the catalog's introduction. Does it name the proprietor? Usually, a small seed house means personal knowledge of the merchandise. "Ask questions," suggests Chestertown gardener Pam Deringer, who has been ordering from catalogs for 15 years. "The people answering the phones know their products."

Usually, but not always. The Cook's Garden, a seed company in Vermont, recently switched to an answering service in South Carolina whose operator couldn't even pronounce variety names, let alone offer information. (For gardening questions, the company suggests asking for one of the horticulturists at the service.)

Study the plant and seed descriptions. Some catalogs merely list offerings, others give details. Learning a few terms helps.

* "Indeterminate" means that the plant will be vining; "determinate" indicates a more contained, bushlike growth habit.

* A "vigorous" plant will grow wonderfully given the prescribed amounts of fertilizer and water, and even tolerate some neglect.

* "Hardiness" is a plant's ability to withstand cold.

Most catalogs have hardiness zone maps, which show climate in each area or zone of the United States. Zone 7 runs from Baltimore south and east, while cooler Western Maryland is in Zone 6. Catalogs with a hardiness zone map specify zone limitations for more tender plants.

Check the guarantee. Does the company stand behind its merchandise? If so, on what terms? Refund? Replacement or credit voucher? Is there a time limit for lodging a complaint?

But customers must also do their part. One White Flower Farm customer left his tulip bulbs, which arrived in fall with instructions to plant immediately, to dry out in the bag all winter, then demanded a replacement. The problem was a failure not of the bulbs, but of the customer to follow directions. (He didn't get the replacement.)

Seeds must be stored in a cool, dry place until planted. Bulbs should be kept cool and dry and planted within a week or two of delivery. Potted plants may wait a few days before planting, but bare root stock, with no soil at all, won't wait.

Do they specify delivery times? Seeds usually arrive within two weeks when ordered in January through March but take longer during the April-May rush. Gurney's Seed and Nursery in South Dakota took my order online on Jan. 16, but it didn't arrive until Feb. 2, a week after the Pinetree order, which I had dropped in the mailbox the same day.

Are shipping costs reasonable? Average shipping for seed orders is $3.00. Other supplies are extra.

Can you choose arrival dates? Catalogs calculate plant shipping dates by the last predicted frost date in your area. But Select Seeds let me delay shipment until my plot will be safe from frost.

Does it specialize? Pinetree, for example, sells smaller packets for the home gardener who doesn't want 300 feet worth of beet seed.

Depending on the catalog, you can order by mail, phone, fax or online. For phone orders, fill out the order sheet before you call. It's not only considerate, but becomes your record of the order.

Pub Date: 02/22/99

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