In between the artichokes and zucchini, a single supplier of seeds may list as many as 400 vegetables. In addition, he is likely to offer 40 or more herbs as well.
Is it any wonder, then, that the home gardener sits poring over the annual seed catalogs now arriving in the mails? Or that he stands bemused before the seed racks springing up in the windows of the local hardware stores and supermarkets, loaded with colorful packets that tempt him to buy more seeds than he has space to plant?
Ultimately, he may choose from 12 to 18 vegetables to raise -- some for planting in early springtime, some for the warmth of summer, and, increasingly, some for cropping in the fall -- even after the first frost or snow.
Most vegetable seeds are bought in picture envelopes bearing their cultivar number and directions for planting, thinning, and transplanting. They plainly show this year's price (likely to be somewhat higher than last year's).
Many seeds now are coated by a fungicide or other growth-protecting chemical.
The newest of all are certain cultivars (lettuces, tomatoes, and so on) that come embedded in water-soluble plastic tapes ready-spaced to make thinning a thing of the past. Such tapes are simply stretched in straight rows, lightly covered with fine soil, and watered with care.
Some of one's happiest times in the kitchen garden are spent watching the seeds sprout. First, you may see cracks in the soil. Then the fat little cotyledons appear. Shortly thereafter the first ''true leaves'' of, say, the bush beans appear. The tiny bright red lances of the beets are harder to discern , but the summer squashes arrive with a visual bang.
In most food gardens today, seeds are planted in rows, not scattered or broadcast, because of their cost.
Now, to get down to the planting. With a pointed stick or trowel -- or just your forefinger -- plow a tiny furrow where you are about to plant. This row, or drill, can be very shallow, especially in warm weather - just deep enough, preferably, to allow the seeds to be covered to about the same thickness of soil as the thickness of the seed itself.
By pressing the soil down upon the seeds with the flat side of a hoe or the sole of your shoe, each seed is put in close contact with the soil. Finally, walk along the row with a watering can and sprinkle it, or else use a fine spray from the garden hose.
You will probably find, as most gardeners do, that once dropped into the little furrow, smaller seeds, such as cabbage or even lettuce, are harder to see against the soil than radishes or peas. Thus, you may feel uncertain where you stopped dribbling your seed and where you should resume.
That's no problem if you always sow with your legs apart along the furrow. Holding some seed in the palm of one hand, and using the thumb and forefinger of the other, drop the seeds sparingly between one foot and the other. Then you step to the right (or left), placing one foot where the opposite one had been.
Again, dribble seed between your feet, repeating the process as you sidestep.
When the time comes to thin a sprouting crop, after it has grown as inch or two you'll be glad you didn't overseed or overlap. In passing, note that the painstaking process of thinning the sprouted seedlings is made far easier if you water the growing plants first.
That way, you won't pull up several plants at a time unless you intend to do so.
Remember, seeded rows don't need immediate fertilizing. Seeds contain their own nutrients, and this is sufficient to start the young plants on their way.
Keeping the seedlings moist is all that is required till after their foliage has progressed to the stage where it can start producing food for the plant by using the sunlight in photosynthesis.
Suppose you have seeds left over from the preceding season. You can, when the next seeding time comes around, make a simple test to find out whether you can use your stored seed. A damp blotter or a few squares of bathroom tissue or folded facial tissue is all the equipment you need.
Carefully count out 10 seeds. Place them spaced apart in the moist ''medium'' and let them stand at room temperature for a few days. Don't let the paper pad dry out. What you are trying to find out is how many of the 10 seeds will sprout , thus showing that they will grow if planted in the soil.
If the count is more than 6 sprouting seeds, it will be worth your while to use the saved seeds to grow a crop.
In general, seeds which have hard, vitreous, shell-like coats (legumes are a good example) may live 10 or 20 years if kept in a closed jar in your refrigerator. Corn and melon seeds, on the other hand, can be expected to survive usefully for three or four years. If you decide to hold over seed in jars, add some silica gel for dessication.
If you have only modest space in which to grow plants, choose the seeds of vegetables which currently cost more in the local markets.
The cantaloupes are then far greater bargains to you. So are strawberries and asparagus from permanent beds, started originally by planting crowns rather than seed. Your own corn especially will beat the local market in price and, more important, in flavor. You simply cannot buy a dozen ears of corn that is as fresh and sweet as your own home-raised corn.
The kernels of commercially grown corn will have inevitably turned to starch before the corn can reach your table. It's still good, but not as good as home-grown corn.
Prices for seed will be up again this year, but the value of flavor and freshness will still give you a premium for all your garden-grown produce.
In some future season, enterprising seedsmen may sell you their seed packets marked according to the number of feet of row they will sow. At that time you will be able to plan your vegetable garden far more precisely than you can today.