IT'S midwinter. Gardeners pore over the newest seed catalogs with visions of next summer's bountiful harvest. They dream of tomatoes as big as cabbages, of roses and raspberries and ruffled petunias. This year some may dream of a "Martha Stewart" garden.
Martha Stewart, the first lady of good taste and entertaining, has inspired thousands with her book "Entertaining," with its attractive table settings and plans for weddings and parties.
Author of nine best-selling cookbooks as well as syndicated columns, star of four videos and speaker at seminars, she now has a new book for the American home, "Martha Stewart's Gardening" (Clarkson Potter, $50).
Stewart's six-acre "place in the country" in Westport, Conn., has for the last 20 years been the center of her gardening.
"Actually, I've been gardening since I was very young," she said in a Monitor interview at Boston's Ritz Carlton. "My father taught me a lot and I've kept on learning on my own, and from experts and friends."
Demystifying gardening as she did entertaining and decorating, Stewart's book quotes from her own journals and gives month-by-month garden advice that will appeal to anyone with a 10-square-foot plot or a 10-acre estate.
"In the '90s, people will be taking more time to make their surroundings attractive and to get closer to family and friends," she predicts. "The home and garden will become more important than ever. Gardening is a family-oriented activity that anyone can do."
Her several lucrative businesses are conducted from her restored 19th-century home, where she works with two gardeners, four office staffers, and help from her family.
"My sister-in-law is office manager and my mother - a retired school teacher - helps with sewing whenever necessary and special projects, such as preserving," she explains.
Martha's sister, Laura, previously in charge of the kitchen, is now pregnant, and the kitchen staff "once important for catering, has not been needed for about four years. It's all very compatible," she says.
Five years in the making, the new gardening book is a large, handsome, colorful volume. It's a serious guide to gardening. Stunning combinations of old English engravings have been combined with superb photographs by Elizabeth Zeschin.
"I suppose I've been influenced by the English school of gardening more than any other; I am constantly amazed at what fine and thoughtful gardeners that small country produced," she said. "It is where I have found much inspiration, as well as more practical things."
An antique brick path leads to the house, work studios, and pool. There's a small smoke house by the herb garden, a vegetable garden, a Belgian fence, and a shade garden near the woods. A different entrance through the stone wall leads to the barn, past the berries on one side, a new orchard on the other side of the drive, and daffodils and other spring bulbs along a six-foot-high stone wall.
But it was not always this way.
From begonias to botrytis blight, Martha Stewart knows the ABCs of planting and has learned much from "doing."
She talks as easily about how to detect whiteflies and beetles, thrips and scale, as she does about the 30 varieties of sweet peas available from the Thompson & Morgan seed company. She is knowledgeable about companion planting and is happy to tell you of the natural predators for garden pests.
"It was a most exciting day that February Sunday 20 years ago when we first saw the old property," she says about the time she, her husband, and 5-year-old daughter, Alexis, decided they had outgrown their place in New York City and craved the country.
"The house was in great disrepair; all the barns and outbuildings were gone," she says. "Once ours, we cleared tangled masses of brambles and staked out the vegetable garden and two large perennial and herb borders.
"After two decades the place has assumed a character all its own," Stewart says. Today she keeps turkeys, guinea fowl, ducks, and geese. Her chickens are very glamorous - Silkies, Cochins, Brahmas.
Araucana hens, a South American breed, lay 275-300 turquoise-shelled eggs each year for her. She even keeps bees.
Despite such barnyard exotica, Martha Stewart's food is, as she describes it, "very simple and down-to-earth, flavored with fresh tastes, using lots of fresh herbs but not in a heavy-handed manner."
Like all dedicated gardeners, Martha Stewart admits to the many things she has learned through mistakes. "Gardening is a humbling experience," she says. "It has taught me patience. Nature, with her own timetables, cannot be rushed."
A 1963 graduate at Barnard College, Stewart has worked as a model, a Wall Street stockbroker, and head of her own million-dollar catering company. After moving to Westport she began the catering business that launched her career as an influential arbiter of taste.
Although discontinued several years ago, her catering business was the basis for her landmark book "Entertaining" (1982), now in it's 24th printing. The book established her unique style of food presentation.
What is the Martha Stewart style? She explains: "It's a mixture of practical philosophy and a sense of the old-fashioned values of a well-ordered house and garden."
Martha Stewart's cooking style utilizes fresh American home-grown foods in her own "country chic" way of putting things together, combining contrasting textures and flavors, mixing savory and sweet, crispy with soft.
IN 1987, the K-mart Corporation hired her as its lifestyle and home-entertaining consultant. Last year a new magazine - Martha Stewart Living - was launched with Time/Warner and she is now a regular contributor on NBC-TV's The Today Show.
Inspiration for new ideas for home and garden come from recent trips to Japan and France, trout fishing in Argentina, shopping in England, and shrimping in Pass Christian, Miss.
After finishing renovations on her East Hampton, N.Y., weekend home (where she will grow roses by the ocean), a Manhattan apartment, and a second Connecticut house, she will be writing "Martha Stewart's New Old House."
Fans point out that it's not just that Stewart has excellent taste, expertise, and endless creativity. She also has staying power and stamina.
"After all," said one fellow food writer with more than a little envy, "how many people can wake up in the morning and go out and plant a rose garden, photograph it at the same time, then write a book about it, and make a lot of money from it?"
Martha Stewart has deftly turned her own lifestyle into a cottage industry, and she's very happy doing it.