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Now is a great time to plan your garden

January 08, 1998

Most people I know hate January, but it's one of my favorite times of the year. The bustle of the holiday season is over, so I can slow down, read the new spring seed catalogs and plan my garden.

The seed people must be on to me, for my mailbox is filled with those catalogs now. They're about the only catalogs I don't automatically throw away.

Since I fancy myself a good environmentalist, you'd think it would be easy for me to order anything I want. After all, what could be more ecologically correct than planting things that grow? But like everything else, it's not that simple.

First of all, I want to order everything right away. It's months yet until I actually can get out and thrust my fingers in the soil. Ordering seeds seems as if I'm doing something.

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But the environmentalist in me says, "Wait! Don't order by mail. Trucks will have to burn fuel and pollute the air to bring those seeds to you. Buy them in Hagerstown. Patronize local businesses. Better yet, wait until spring and buy seedlings. That's less work, too."

But I don't want to wait. Local nurseries don't have all those seeds in stock yet, certainly not in all those varieties. And if I want to start the seeds indoors, I'll need them soon.

I usually end up compromising, ordering some exotic seeds by mail and waiting for spring to buy different seedlings in this area. I also buy most of my landscaping plants locally, like shrubs and trees and perennial flowers. And I shop locally for garden extras like trowels and gloves and rabbit repellents.

My next consideration is that I want to order the new and exciting hybrids that seed catalogs rave about. For example, a new zucchini that's supposed to taste better, resist drought and repel insects. I have tried some of those, and they've been great.

But the environmentalist whispers in my ear, "No! Buy 'heirloom seeds,' the kind your grandparents planted. They may not look as good, but they're mostly ignored by the big seed companies, and it's important to encourage diversity by keeping the old varieties alive."

Again I compromise, and buy some of each. It got easier when I found a seed company that specializes in heirloom and organic seeds but also introduces new ones every year (Seeds of Change, 1-888-762-7333).

The organic angle makes me feel better, too. I used to think of "organic" only as something to consider when shopping for food, but seeds also can be grown organically, avoiding chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Seeds of Change also sells cover crops, like the buckwheat I grew last year and then turned into my soil to provide a natural fertilizer. Other catalogs sell these, too, but I've had no luck finding them in local nurseries.

My last dilemma is the easiest to solve. That's when I shop for landscaping plants, and I try hard to make sure they're "native."

I used to look for exotic trees and shrubs and perennial flowers. For example, I'd seen a lovely tree called a European mountain ash, and several years ago I planted two of them near my house. They're doing fine, and I expect they'll bloom this year and be lovely.

But then I heard about American mountain ash. That was a new one on me. I read about it in a wonderful book called "Landscaping With Native Trees" by Guy Sternberg and Jim Wilson (Chapters Publishing Ltd.). So I've planted several of those around my property. Will they be as lovely as their better-known European counterparts? I don't know, but I'm willing to take the chance. Not only do native plants grow better in their own area, but they provide habitat for local animal species.

I've found that a lot of them are available only through catalogs, so I can feel good about getting them by mail order, anyway. But local nurseries are carrying more of them, or usually are happy to special order them.

So in spite of my dilemmas, I'm spending this month happily reading my garden catalogs and salivating. And if that's not enough to keep me busy, I noticed that one of them (Pinetree Garden Seeds; 1-207-926-3400) also sells lots of books. Some of the books sound interesting, telling you how to build birdhouses, sundials or greenhouses. But they also sound like work, and I'd rather just sit and read. And if I want something lighter to read, that catalog includes "garden-related murder mysteries," like one titled "Thyme of Death."

That should keep me busy until spring ... which actually is not that far away.

Dennis Shaw is a former Herald-Mail editor. Write him at P.O. Box 276, Clear Spring, Md. 21722, or call 301-842-3863.

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