Veteran gardeners know the drill. The catalogs begin arriving before Christmas, and get a thorough going-over after the holidays.
The orders are mailed or phoned in and, in a blink, packages arrive and gardening from scratch can begin.
If you're a beginner, you can order catalogs or visit home centers, garden stores and supermarkets and check out the seeds in stock.
January may seem early to ponder the contents of next summer's garden, but early crops often head outside right around mid-March. So seeds sown now will likely meet the deadline.
Besides the psychological advantage, what's the advantage of sowing your own seeds instead of buying plants at the garden center in the spring?
First, there's the challenge and satisfaction of successful seed-starting. But, more important, seeds are much more economical, especially if you need lots of plants. For instance, a packet of broccoli seeds will yield about 125 plants for as little as $1. By comparison, a half-dozen transplants will cost a dollar or two.
The best reason for starting your own seeds is that you get a larger choice of varieties. Many nurseries and gardening centers offer limited selections.
Seed companies introduce varieties annually. W. Atlee Burpee Co., in Warminster, now in its 120th year, has introduced dozens for 1996. For example, the new Little Caesar romaine lettuce is designed for small gardens. One head produces enough for a two-person salad.
Park Seed Co., in Greenwood, S.C., has produced a new variety of cucumber for 1996 that can be harvested in 50 days from sowing, 10 days earlier than other varieties.
Some things don't come as seeds. Potatoes are grown from eyes. Walnuts grow on trees. Asparagus roots are planted directly in the soil in the spring and aren't harvested till the roots are three years old. Onions come in sets and strawberries as plants.
The catalog from Miller Nurseries in Canandaigua, N.Y., touts kiwi, which bears fruit in five to seven years; no-bog North American cranberries; and the All-American papaw tree, with fruit tasting like banana custard.
Wayside Gardens, in Hodges, S.C.; White Flower Farm, in Litchfield, Conn.; and Spring Hill Nurseries in Tipp City, Ohio, sell flowers, trees, shrubs and herbs. Jackson & Perkins in Medford, Ore., specializes in roses.
It's enough to make your head spin. If you are a neophyte, make it simple and learn as you go along.
Before you even can order, you need a plan. There are millions of pounds of gardening books and magazines to which you can turn for ideas.
A simple sketch will suffice. Design your garden to fit the available space. Don't overplant. There is a tendency, especially among enthusiastic newcomers, to sow more than they have room for. They end up with hundreds of seedlings and only room for 25.
When you design your garden, determine how much space each vegetable will need, and put the tallest varieties on the north side of the garden so they won't shade other plants. Almost every catalog comes with a chart spelling out the spacing needed between plants to help them grow.
For example, carrots. These go directly into the ground outside as soon as soil can be worked. There are about 1,500 seeds in an 1/8-ounce packet, and they'll sow a row 40 feet long. A month after they are sown, carrots need to be thinned to three-inch intervals.
A decade or so ago, Mel Bartholomew, a retired engineer on Long Island, achieved fame by developing the Square Foot Gardening method. Using his gardening and engineering experience, he developed a system in which he determined the square-footage necessary to grow a variety of vegetables with a minimum of work.
He figured that the average person could easily grow produce in a garden with plots that were 4 feet by 4 feet, divided into 16 one-foot squares. One of the one-foot squares could easily accommodate 16 carrots, or four lettuce plants or one pepper. With the aid of a trellis system, using twine attached to a frame made of three pieces of metal pipe, he was able to grow tomatoes and beans vertically in the one-foot squares.
Bartholomew believed that his system minimized seed waste. For their part, seed companies have developed seed tapes that accomplish the same thing. Seeds are properly spaced on paper strips to minimize thinning. The paper dissolves after planting.
Consider the amount of work you'll need to put into your garden. It's cold now, but weeding and watering can be murder in hot, humid July. Think small at first. Then, if you want to increase cultivation as the year progresses, you can. There are certain cold-weather vegetables - spinach, lettuce, radishes, cabbage, broccoli, snow peas - that have a shorter growing season and can be planted on a staggered schedule for repeat harvesting.
Success in indoor seed-starting is achieved by maintaining control of moisture, temperature and light. You also need containers, a planting medium, milled sphagnum moss and labels.
Plants will grow in almost any kind of container. Most seed companies also sell plastic pots, trays, flats and small containers made of compressed peat moss that can be planted directly into the ground in the spring. In fact, if you sow seeds in individual peat pots, and then plant the pot in the ground, you can minimize transplant shock.
The planting medium is a soilless mix usually consisting of peat moss and vermiculite, ground limestone and nutrients. A commercially produced medium, available from seed companies or in supermarkets and home and garden centers, is pasteurized to kill insects, diseases and weed seeds.
Milled sphagnum moss aerates the soil and keeps it sterile, which prevents something called damping-off disease, a fungus that makes the seedlings wilt or rot. The moss is spread on top of the planting medium. The seeds are sown on top of the moss but not covered.
The container is placed in a pan of warm water that is absorbed quickly by the soil in the pot. A piece of plastic wrap or a plastic bag is placed over the container to ensure that the soil remains moist and warm.
Seeds will germinate fairly quickly if a constant temperature of 65 to 70 degrees is maintained, using a heating cable or heating tray. Before they germinate, seeds must be kept out of direct sunlight. The surface of the container must be kept moist by continued bottom-watering.
Once seeds become seedlings, they can be kept in a sunny, south-facing window free of drafts, or under a fluorescent grow-lamp or in portable greenhouses or cold frames. Proper light prevents the seedlings from becoming too tall, weak and spindly. Seedlings require less moisture than the germinating seeds, but don't let them dry out.
Once the seedlings get four true leaves (the first leaves - a matching pair - are ``seed leaves'' or cotyledons), it's time to transplant them from the growing trays to individual pots. Water the medium in the tray, then separate the seedlings with a spoon. Try not to damage the roots. A small ball of medium should cling to them.
Poke a hole in the middle of the pot into which the seedling is to be transplanted. The hole has to be big enough to accommodate the root system. Firm the medium around the seedling. Bottom-water the trays that hold the pots and place them in a well-lighted area until it's time to move them to the garden.
The seedlings normally droop after transplanting because of the shock of losing some of their roots. It will help to keep them out of direct sunlight for a couple of days and gradually increase the amount of sunlight for the next two days.
If this seems like a lot of work, but you'd still like to try your hand at horticulture, consider fungus. It probably already grows in your basement, but this is the edible kind, as in mushrooms. Some seed companies sell boxed mushroom farms that contain fermented and pasteurized soil; mycelium, which is derived from mushroom spores; and peat moss.
All you need is to make sure the basement temperature range is between 55 and 75 degrees, that the soil is kept moist and that the growing environment is dark.
And think how impressed your dinner guests will be when you reveal the origin of the mushrooms on their filet mignon.
WHERE TO GET SEEDS Here are some addresses and phone numbers for acquiring seeds:
* W. Atlee Burpee Seed Co., 300 Park Ave., Warminster, Pa. 18974.
* W. Atlee Burpee Seed Co., 300 Park Ave., Warminster, Pa. 18974. 215-674-4900.
* William Dam Seeds, Box 8400, Dundas, Ontario, Canada L9H 6M1. 905-628-6641.
* DeGiorgi Seed Co., 6011 N St., Omaha, Neb. 68117-1634.
* Dutch Gardens, Box 200, Adelphia, N.J. 07710-0200.
* Edible Landscaping, Box 77, Aston, Va. 22920. 804-361-9134.
* Germania Seed Co., 5952 N. Milwaukee St., Chicago, Ill. 60646; 312-631-6631.
* Gurney's Seed & Nursery Co., 110 Capital St., Yankton, S.D. 57079.
* Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants, Box 316, Charlottesville, Va. 22902.
* Jackson & Perkins, Box 1028, Medford, Ore. 97501.
* Jersey Asparagus Farms, 105 Porchtown Rd., Pittsgrove, N.J. 08318. 609-358-2548.
* Johnny's Selective Seeds, Foss Hill Road, Albion, Maine 04910-9731. 207-437-4301.
* Miller Nurseries, 5060 W. Lake Rd., Canandaigua, N.Y. 14424.
* Park Seed, Cokesbury Road, Greenwood, S.C. 29647-0001.
* Ronniger's Seed Potatoes, Star Route Road 73, Moyie Springs, Idaho 83845; 208-267-7938.
* Shepherd's Garden Seeds, 30 Irene St., Torrington, Conn. 06790.
* Spring Hill Nurseries, 110 W. Elm St., Tipp City, Ohio 45371.
* Southern Seeds, Box 2091, Melbourne, Fla. 32902; 407-727-3662.
* Tomato Growers Supply Co., Box 2237, Fort Myers, Fla. 33902.
* Thompson & Morgan Inc., Box 1308, Jackson, N.J. 08527-0308.
* Wayside Gardens, 1 Garden Lane, Hodges, S.C. 29695-0001.
* White Flower Farm, Box 50, Litchfield, Conn. 06759-0050.