Trying to choose seeds and bulbs from a gardening catalog is an exercise in restraint. Catalog pages are filled with vibrant colors bursting from morning glories and the unique shapes of dahlia tubers, achimenes and cyclamen. Like a child, visions of rolling beds of impatiens and climbing trellises of English roses dance in your head.
But don't get too carried away with the yard candy.
Throughout the year, gardeners are made dizzy with hundreds of new plant varieties offered by seed, bulb and plant companies.
Can you believe everything you read in a seed catalog? No.
Selecting seeds, bulbs and plants from catalogs takes a bit of buyer's savvy and basic gardening knowledge. Throw in some cash, and you can have some fun.
But take your time.
Seed catalogs do not take the place of the local garden shop. But seed catalogs often offer a wider variety, hybridized versions of classic plants, and the luxury of shopping 24 hours a day year-round.
Fall is the time to order seeds for spring planting. And late winter or early spring is the time to choose the latest summer or early fall blooming flowers and plants.
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of catalogs from which to order. Ask friends, family or gardeners for their favorites.
"I don't use a catalog that does not use the scientific names," said Barb Bates, horticulture agent for the El Paso County office of the Colorado State University Extension Service. "That's just my rule of thumb. I want to know the variety, and without the scientific name, you don't know."
Master gardener Donna Dailey takes a different tactic.
"I just look at the pictures," she said. "The catalogs will give me ideas. And a catalog will show me varieties I may not be able to find locally."
But Bates and Dailey agree that catalog shopping also takes planning.
Which catalog is chosen will depend on taste, experience with the company and supply.
Yet no matter what or when you order, if you buy the wrong seeds to plant in the wrong area for the wrong climate, the results will be, well, wrong.
"I would say start with a good reference book," Bates said. "If you see something you like, but you don't know much about it, going to the reference book will answer some questions. If nothing else, take your seed catalogs with you to the public library."
Bates and Dailey agree that good seed catalogs will provide such basic information as climate, planting location and variety.
But regardless if a catalog has such information, you will need to know the following to make your selections:
Unless you have a temperature-controlled greenhouse, the climate zone where you live is important to know because every plant has a climate range in which it thrives.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture produces a plant-hardiness zone map dividing North America into 11 zones based on average annual low temperatures. Baltimore is in Zone 7.
The time it takes for seeds to germinate is important. For example, the erigeron, a large, daisylike flower, needs 50 days -- or nearly two months -- for germination.
Most garden-catalog companies will ship seeds, bulbs and plants as close to planting time as possible. Check with the customer-service department before ordering.
Plants should be placed in the ground as soon as possible. Seeds and bulbs can wait a bit longer if properly stored. For example, bulbs may be kept in the refrigerator crisper for several weeks. Seeds may be kept in a cool, dry spot for a year or more, depending on the variety.
Planning a garden to look a certain way by fall means knowing when certain plants and flowers bloom. This also helps when planting a variety of plants or flowers in one area. Planting all early spring bloomers leaves no color for the rest of the year.
The class of a plant, seed or bulb relates to when it grows.
Annuals grow, bloom and seed in one season. They also may be described as either warm season -- grown best in warm weather -- and cold season -- grown best in cool weather.
Perennials, on the other hand, live and bloom for more than one season.
Biennials usually are planted in summer or fall, bloom the following spring, then die.
Class descriptions also include half-hardy, plants that need heavy mulch or a protected location where winters are cold. Hardy plants need little protection, even in the north.
Seeds vs. plants
* Cheaper per plant
* Store better
* Longer shelf life
* More varieties
* More risk
* More work over longer period
* Give a finished product sooner
* What you see is what you get
* Very low risk
* Require less attention in getting established
* You can buy the exact number of plants you need
A sampling of seed catalogs
* Breck's. Flower bulbs from Holland; free catalog. U.S. Reservation Center, 6523 N. Galena Road, Peoria, Ill. 61632; 800-722-9069; www.brecks.com/
* The Cook's Garden. Salad greens, heirloom and Italian vegetables, herbs, cut flowers, annual vines; free catalog. P.O. Box 535, Londonderry, Vt. 05148; 800-457-9703; st6.yahoo.com/ cooksgarden/
* Jackson & Perkins. Roses, perennials, gifts; free catalog. P.O. Box 1028, Medford, Ore. 97501; 800-292-4769; www.jacksonandperkins. com/
* Johnny's Selected Seeds. Vegetables, flowers, herbs; free catalog. Box 2580, Foss Hill Road, Albion, Mass. 04910-9731; 207-437-4301; www. johnnyseeds.com/
* Park Seed. Vegetable and flower seed, plants, bulbs; free catalog. 1 Parkton Ave., Greenwood, S.C. 29647; 800-845-3369; www.parkseed.com/
* Seeds of Change. Organic seeds, plants and vegetables. Seeds of Change, P.O. Box 15700, Santa Fe, N.M. 87506; 888-762-7333; st4.yahoo.net/seedsofchange/
* Spring Hill Nurseries. Plants, flowers, bulbs; free catalog. Spring Hill Customer Service Center, P.O. Box 1757, Peoria, Ill. 61656; 800-582-8527; www.springhillnursery.com/
* Tomato Growers Supply. Tomato and pepper seeds, supplies; free catalog; P.O. Box 2237, Fort Myers, Fla. 33902; 941-768-1119; www. tomatogrowers.com/
* W. Atlee Burpee & Co. Vegetable and flower seed and some plants; free catalog. 300 Park Ave., Warminster, Pa. 18974; 800-888-1447; www.burpee.com/
* Wayside Gardens. Plants, roses, flowers and bulbs; free catalog. 1 Garden Lane, Hodges, S.C. 29695; 800-845-1124; www. waysidegardens.com/
* Mailorder Gardening Association. Provides list of garden catalogs and consumer tips. Send $2 check or money order for the booklet "Garden Catalog Guide" to P.O. Box 2129, Columbia, Md. 21045; 410-730-9713; www.mailordergardening.com/