SINCE SOMETIME IN MID-JANUARY — long before the first spring bulbs began poking up through the soil -- gardening catalogs have been providing Maryland residents with tempting visions of warmer months ahead.
Whether you purchase seeds and plants from these catalogs or simply use them as a source of inspiration is a personal decision.
"Most mail-order plant companies make a sincere effort to provideyou with plants that look like those in their catalogs," says Raymond Bosmans, a horticulture specialist with the Home and Garden Information Center of the Cooperative Extension Service, Maryland Institute for Agriculture and National Resources. "Many of these companies havebeen around awhile and have a reputation to uphold."
Still, it doesn't hurt to follow a few precautions to ensure your chances of a satisfactory transaction:
* Read catalog plant descriptions carefully so you know what to expect in terms of size, color, packaging, etc.
* Look for a botanical name. "Mystery" plants are usually a bad idea.
* Evaluate the price. Check with gardening friends, other catalogs and local suppliers.
It may be that you can get the plants you want from the garden center across town for a comparable price.
* Be realistic about what -- and how much -- you buy. Don't buy roses if you have a shady yard, for example. And don't order more plants than you can get in the ground in a timely fashion or care for properly. Also, make sure that plants you order are suitable for the hardiness zone in which you live. Most catalogs include a plant hardiness map and indicate hardiness zones with each plant description.
* Order early to make sure you get what you want. Information: 1-800-342-2507.
GOOD VEGETABLE GARDENS
The days are getting longer, temperatures are rising and the yearly ritual of preparing the family garden is upon us again. But before you put your hands in the soil, plan ahead to make your gardening venture a success.
Making a diagram to specify land use and plant placement is a great way to get started, according to Denise Sharp, a horticulture specialist at the Home and Garden Information Center of the Cooperative Extension Service, MarylandInstitute for Agriculture and Natural Resources.
"By forcing you to organize your thoughts, a diagram can help you avoid some common pitfalls later," she explains.
Sharp recommends locating the gardenwhere it will receive full sunlight throughout the day. If this is not possible, pick a spot that gets a minimum of six hours of sun daily.
Because water is essential, she advises locating your vegetablegarden where running water is readily available.
But be sure the plot is far enough away from competing plants.
"Trees and shrubs can be a problem when located near a garden," Sharp notes, "because their roots absorb moisture and nutrients from the garden while their branches add unwanted shade."
Also, certain trees or shrubs, most notably walnut, exude substances from their roots that are toxic to tomatoes and other vegetables.
Once you've decided on the optimum location for a vegetable garden, you're ready to begin the physical preparations.
If you haven't tested your soil, Sharp recommends doingso right away. The test will show whether your garden needs lime andfertilizer, which provide plants with proper nutrition.
Maryland residents can get a soil test kit from their local extension office and have their garden soil tested for $5. Analysis of soil samples usually takes a week or two.
Cool-season plants -- those that can withstand frost -- may be planted from mid-March to early April, says Sharp. Examples include cabbage, radishes, spinach, lettuce, onions andpotatoes. Hold off on planting frost-sensitive plants like tomatoes,beans, corn, peppers, cucumbers and squash until May.
Almost all traditional crops do well in Maryland's temperate climate, says Sharp. Among the "new" plants available to home vegetable gardeners are crossbed squash varieties, supersweet corns, seedless watermelons, edible podded peas and potatoes with unusual skin or flesh colors.
When sowing seeds and placing your plants, try to avoid some common mistakes made by many recreational gardeners. Don't plant individual seeds or plants too close together. As they grow, thin the plants to reduce competition and encourage optimum growth. Don't forget to tend your garden regularly, and don't plant more than you can handle.
The Cooperative Extension Service offices offer several publications thatcan help you in your gardening endeavors.
* L15: 1992-1993 Vegetable Cultivars for Maryland Home Gardens.
* EB 220: Vegetable Gardening in Maryland -- $1.
* EB 252: Control of Insects and Diseases in Home Vegetable Gardens -- $2.
* FS 555: Controlling Weeds in Home Vegetable Gardens.
* FS 550: Container Vegetable Gardening.
* FS 551: Growing Vegetable Transplants.
* FS 552: Hardening Vegetable Transplants.
PREPARE FOR GYPSY MOTHS