Watch For Signs Of Catalog Fever

Scenario No. 1: The seed packets didn't seem like much in January -- just 15 thin envelopes that could be stuffed into an empty coffee can with room to spare. But by late March, seedlings are everywhere: Under the fluorescent lights in the basement, on the windowsills and on top of the refrigerator. They're leggy and getting leggier, and it will be two months before you can plant.

Scenario No. 2: It's a beautiful Friday in early May. Forecasters say it may hit the mid-70s over a clear and sunny weekend, a perfect opportunity for a trip to Litchfield in the convertible for a little antiquing. As you're leaving for work, the UPS truck drives up and drops off three packages. Inside are 10 bareroot perennials, 20 iris rhizomes for a new border you haven't even dug yet. The weekend plans just changed -- get the heating pad.

These sorts of problems are caused by catalog psychosis, a condition that afflicts gardeners who can't resist ordering from gardening catalogs. It typically begins in early January, when the garden catalogs begin arriving in mailboxes hawking sexy new perennials, antique apples, flowering shrubs and hundreds of other horticultural temptations.

The condition progresses slowly -- a few seeds from Burpee, a tree from Wayside, a couple of peonies from White Flower Farm. But each new catalog offers new enticements -- pretty little onion plants, an interesting new Viburnum, and lilies, lots of lilies.

Full-blown symptoms, which appear in spring, include aching back, calloused knees, sunburn, blisters and an overpowering sense of helplessness and despair.

Fortunately, the condition can be easily avoided.

First, have a plan. If you've been diligent enough to keep a garden journal, consult it now. See what gaps you've noticed in the border, or what did well for you last season. Write a quick list of which plants you'd like to add and -- most important -- where they might be planted. Review the list, and make sure the plants you want are suited to the soil and light conditions of your garden.

Second, be realistic. Analyze how large the new arrivals will eventually grow. Think about how much time it will take to plant what you've ordered and whether it's likely that all your orders will arrive at once. Most nurseries ship plants so they'll arrive at your doorstep at the proper time for planting. So even if you make separate orders in January, February and March, it's highly likely all the orders will arrive at your house within a few days of each other.

Be wary of seeds. They start off compact but soon transform into big flats of eager seedlings that can outgrow the sources of light you have available and take up huge chunks of time in watering and care.

Don't start too early -- annuals and vegetables, in particular, can grow fast. If they get too big before it's warm enough to plant, the seedlings can get weak and leggy, which retards their progress once they're planted. Be sure to check the germination requirements as you're ordering. You may not be ready for certain fussy needs.

Don't fall in love with exotic plants unless you know their demands, are prepared to coddle them and can afford the price. Ask yourself, ``How disappointed would I be if this plant died?'' Do you really want to pay $75 for that hot new hosta or daylily when a $12 variety would be almost as nice?

Most of all, be selective and ruthless. Starting with small orders, try to identify a few companies that offer what you want and provide good service. Stick with those that deliver the best results.

If you're inexperienced, consult catalogs that offer glossy color photographs and detailed cultural information. These plants will probably be a little more expensive -- that's the price you pay for ``free'' information. If you know what you want, look for smaller operations with thinner catalogs offering only text descriptions of the plants. Chances are their prices will be lower. Watch out for prices that are too low -- while these low-priced plants often work out fine, they take longer to establish and require closer care. A reputable catalog will state how large or old the plants are that they ship.

Most of all, resist the urge to leaf through every single catalog -- you'll always find something to lust after. Resist the impulse to buy a little of this and a little of that. Great flower gardens stick to a few carefully chosen, complementary plants.

Don't resist the idea of disposing of the catalogs you don't need. Put them in the recycling bin. Your checkbook will thank you later.