While plants can be ordered online, for some gardeners, there's nothing like the ritual of leafing through catalogs.
By MARTY HAIR
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
DETROIT -- Let others spend the icebox months obsessing about the ice and snow. Gardeners are fixated on their own dreamy new models and strategic matchups.
The mail-order -- and Web order -- season blasted off in January. The Mailorder Gardening Association estimates that more than 15 million American households will spend a total of $2.3 billion this year for mail and online plants, bulbs, seeds, tools and garden supplies.
John Clare is already scanning the catalogs.
"When it's cold out and snow's on the ground, it's great to get these," says the Oak Park, Mich., business analyst.
He plans to buy seeds of unusual and heirloom tomatoes to start under lights in his basement. Clare also grows peppers, eggplant, cabbage, broccoli, annual flowering plants and some perennials. In April, he moves his seedlings to a portable, heated 8-by-8 foot greenhouse until they can be planted outdoors.
Many seedlings go into the garden at his church which donated more than 1,000 pounds of produce last summer to the Plant a Row for the Hungry project.
Ideas for projects
Clare says catalogs give him good ideas for new projects, like the container garden he wants to expand along his driveway this year. But what he really looks forward to is quality weekend time leafing through the catalogs.
"It's one of the most relaxing times of the year, looking through the catalogs," Clare says.
Dorothy Kotz, a retired bookkeeper and office manager, orders seeds for annual flowers like snapdragons, which she sows directly in the garden when the soil warms in spring, and is checking catalog descriptions of perennials.
"This year, I'm going to look for lavender. I want it for my border," said Kotz, who lives in Grosse Pointe, Mich.
Once a gardener gets on several magazine or catalog mailing lists, more catalogs start piling up. By the end of January, "I have catalogs coming out of my ears," Kotz says, laughing.
Some gardeners turn to catalogs to push the plant zone envelope, searching out marginally hardy plants that might not be available locally because they'd be dicey to grow in these parts.
Plants in most catalogs and garden centers carry a hardiness rating based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture hardiness zone map (www.usna.usda.gov/Hardzone/ushzmap.html), which slices the country according to average minimum winter temperatures.
"I like trying different things that are a little more unique," says Randall Odom, senior vice president for food donor procurement for Forgotten Harvest in Southfield, Mich. "It adds a little more variety."
Not always like a picture
For his acre-and-a-half lot, Odom hired a landscape architect to draw up a master plan. Odom is installing it piece by piece. He likes to shop by mail, fully aware that a plant that looks luscious in a slick catalog photo could turn out to be a dog in his garden.
"These beautiful catalogs come and everything they show is always at its most commercially attractive stage," Odom says. It may not say that the plant won't "get leaves in this part of the country until July." He supplements the catalogs with reference books and checks out marginally hardy plants with his friend, landscape designer Scott Pittman of Garden Central in Berkley, Mich.
Pittman say he often gets questions from customers about mail-order plants that don't thrive.
"A lot of people ask if they did something wrong," Pittman says. In fact, the plant may be hardy but "was shipped so young that it is not able to acclimate and survive the transplant."
He recommends asking about the plant's age and when it will be delivered. Arrival should be based on local weather and soil conditions, not the spring calendar of the nursery in the Carolinas or Oregon.
Some catalog-gazers never place an order.
Good catalogs impart information about plants, garden design, plant combinations and even provide recipes. Most are free or cost only a few dollars, and many can be accessed through the Internet.
A cherished tradition
But looking at them on the Web loses some of the catalog experience, a cherished ritual for gardeners in winter.
"Especially on dark cloudy days, those catalogs help us realize that spring will come," says Patty Morse, who teaches at Detroit County Day School. A gardener for 32 years, she was a casual catalog user until 17 years ago.
At that time, while Morse was being treated for breast cancer, her brother and his wife gave her a White Flower Farm catalog and a $50 gift certificate.
"It was the most wonderful gift, as I was going through treatments, dreaming and thinking of what I would do," she says. She ended up ordering lilies and spring bulbs that still bloom.
These days, she mainly orders perennials and particularly appreciates how catalogs demonstrate the use of color.
"It gives me inspiration for my own garden," she says.
And what will she order this year? That deliberation, so common to gardeners in January, is one of the most delicious dilemmas of their year.
"I'm still looking. I haven't made up my mind yet," Morse says.