Come late winter, newspaper garden writers routinely deliver a column about plant and seed catalogs. I sympathize. There's not a ton to write about, with the ground half-frozen and the sun still low in the sky, and there are all these colorful catalogs littering the desk. It's tempting to adopt the cheerleading tone— why not get summer started right now by sending away for the new zinnia "Zowie," a gaudy orange creation being promoted by many companies?
Here is some contrary advice for home gardeners:
1. Read the catalog.
2. Mark those plants you believe you cannot live without.
3. Fill out the form.
4. Tear up the form and throw it away.
This, alas, did not originate with me. It was advice I heard in a very entertaining talk by primo garden designer and writer Ken Druse. But direct experience has taught me it is really good advice. First, novelty is not in itself a good thing. Hot new plants, that orange zinnia or the yellow version of the usually purple coneflower, for example, are not proven good performers.
Next, seduced by the glorious pictures of optimally healthy perennials and shrubs, you tend to forget the shape of your own garden. You buy one of this and two of that, in dribs and drabs, reinforcing an already strong tendency in garden enthusiasts to think about pretty colors rather than an integrated design. It's a sort of I've-got-to-have-that-Pucci-print-dress-in-Vogue impulse, except that you're stuck with a living thing you can't hide in a closet.
Buying plants by mail has some serious logistical problems as well. The plants that arrive are usually dismayingly small and often traumatized from their trip. If they arrive on that April weekend you're away, they may die of thirst. It's better to get yourself to a nursery in early spring, look at those annuals or perennials or shrubs in the flesh/in the leaf. Touch them, move the containers around, see how three of them look together and how they combine with other plants. At a reputable nursery, you'll get reliable advice on how the plant will fare in your yard's conditions.
I'd bend the Druse doctrine if there's something rare that you can't get at a nursery (and, certainly, if there's no nursery within driving distance). I've really loved two rare-ish plants I could find only in catalogs. The first is a rose— Rosa chinensis mutabilis ($12.95) at Wayside Gardens—whose lightly fragrant flowers open yellow and, in a corny and winning manner, turn to orange, then pink, then red. This rose tolerates ridiculous heat and horrible humidity. The second is a bulb (thus travel trauma is not a problem), which will grow into one of the cooler things in the plant world. It's colocasia "Black Magic," aka elephant's-ear. Plant it in potting soil or fertile ground, give it partial shade and regular moisture, and you will have gorgeous purple-black leaves 2 feet long by midsummer.
Another catalog category in which you can loosen up on the Druseian restraining order is in buying seeds. A brilliantly evolved organism that can still germinate after 3,000 years in some pharaoh's tomb is not going to be bothered by a ride in a UPS truck. However, remember that it is the rare home windowsill that has adequate light to grow seedlings. Rarer still is the house with grow lights, soil-heating elements, and humidity controls necessary to produce truly healthy little plants ready to take on the challenges of the great world outside.
Your odds are much improved if you order the kinds of seeds that can be sown directly into the ground. Good bets: basil, beans, carrots, peas, salad greens, cosmos, sunflowers, and nasturtiums. Try morning glories if you have plenty of sun. Also consider a gorgeous morning-glory relative—Ipomoea quamoclit—the cypress vine, which has feathery foliage and small red trumpet-shaped flowers.
In her book of essays Onward and Upward in the Garden, New Yorker writer Katharine S. White noted of catalog authors, "they are as individualistic—these editors and writers—as any Faulkner or Hemingway." She wrote that 50 years ago, and it's still true.
There is one big change: Almost every plant catalog has a corresponding Web site; you can do your ordering without ever riffling through the paper version. The substance remains the same, and the range of styles still runs from the wildly and sometimes misleadingly exclamatory to the understated and calmly informative. The ones on the highly exclamatory side tend to be large format, on cheap newsprint, with fuzzy photographs or touching little paintings and an emphasis on making the neighbors green with envy.