THE ground may still be covered with snow in some areas of the United States, but gardeners who have been studying the seed catalogs since Christmas are anxious to begin planting.
"Slow-germinating seeds can be started indoors now, but the frost-free date for my planting zone is April 15, so I won't start tomatoes and peppers and basil until April 1," says Jack Delmond, award-winning gardener in Boston's Fenway Victory Gardens.
Mr. Delmond has already started daylily and iris seeds and also the unusual Italian vegetable cardoon.
"In the spring I'll get some potted seedlings - a six-pack of different varieties of vegetables or flowers, depending on what looks like good quality in the garden centers."
Delmond's system is ideal. Although most gardeners are itching to start, it's best to remember how easy it is to stop by the local garden center and pick up pre-potted seedlings of tomatoes and herbs.
Better still, make a check of seed companies that sell healthy plants through the mail, delivered to your doorstep at the proper time for planting in your area.
"Don't start your indoor seeds too early," cautions Roger B. Swain, Science Editor of Horticulture Magazine and host of PBS's The Victory Garden show. "This is one of the most frequent mistakes made when starting seeds inside," Mr. Swain says.
To determine the correct date for planting, check with a local garden center or agricultural county agent on the first frost-free date expected in your area. Then plant tomato seeds eight weeks back from this date, squash and cucumbers four weeks back, basil four to six weeks back.
"If you start them too early for your region you'll get long, leggy, weak plants," Swain says. "Germinating is just getting the plant out of the ground. Once germinated, they then need a cool, bright atmosphere."
"Celery, dandelions, garden cress, lettuce, mustard, and witloof chicory, all need light to sprout," he says. "Most seeds, however, will germinate in the dark providing they are kept moist. Remember that seedlings in small pots won't last even a weekend without watering."
As for transferring seedlings outdoors, it's disastrous to move them suddenly. All indoor seedlings must be gradually acclimated to life outdoors, a process called "hardening off," Swain explains. The small plants need to adjust to the colder temperatures and also to the brighter light.
Plan to start hardening off your seedlings (by exposing them to the outdoors for increasingly longer increments of time each day) at least two weeks before you intend to plant them, Swain advises.
Although selling seeds is the business of W. Atlee Burpee Co., the well-known seed company reports substantial increases in selling via mail order plants already started in pots.
Lee Strassburger, who has been with Burpee's for 15 years, says sales of ready-to-plant vegetables and flowers have increased 15 to 20 percent. This year, the company offers bedding plants delivered to the door at the proper planting time for any zone in the United States. Plants are shipped so they arrive at the end of the week, ready for weekend planting, a big help to busy gardeners.
"All of our bedding-plant customers buy seeds as well," Mr. Strassburger says. But buying plants already started is the big trend. Everybody's busy, and it saves time."
Today's gardeners are also interested in new varieties. One of the new seed-company owners, Renee Shepherd of Shepherd's Garden Seeds, specializes in European vegetables in particular. She also offers recipes in the company's catalog.
Wendy Krupnick, a seed-variety trials coordinator at Shepherd's (based in California), says they work closely with specific European, Asian, and American seed houses in choosing only those varieties that are disease-resistant, easy to grow, and have a fine flavor and texture.
"We look for the best fresh-eating qualities and find many of our best seeds from European growers who are smaller and closer to their customers and who place value on freshly prepared cuisine," Ms. Krupnick says, explaining: "Like our green-shouldered tomatoes: Many are of French origin and have the `green gene,' [which makes them stay green longer.]"
"Dona and Carmello are good French tomatoes and Enchantment is a brand-new tomato, which is egg-shaped like the Roma but is firm and juicy and good for thick sauces as well as perfect slices," Krupnick says.
Others new this year: a Salsa collection including recipes as well as seeds for Poblano, Habanero, and Jalapeno chilies; Dona tomatoes; Slo-Bolt cilantro; and tomatillos.
Shepherd's answers many problems gardeners have with certain varieties like the cilantro or coriander (Coriandrum sativum) that is slow to bolt (turn to seed), and the Dukat dill that was bred in Finland with blue-green thick feathery leaves that hold at the leaf stage.
"Of course, we're also proud of our lettuces and greens like Japanese mizuna, mache, arugula, and radicchio, slender French beans, and Italian Chioggia striped beets," Krupnick continues.
"An heirloom Italian rustic plant, Lacinato kale, is unique in color, is two feet tall, and so primeval-looking we nicknamed it `dinosaur kale.'"
"A new Japanese green with white blossoms called Gailon is a very delicate broccoli that will look absolutely beautiful in your garden," Krupnick says."
Looking beautiful in the garden is important in today's small vegetable plots.
The expert on this subject is Rosalind Creasy, who has written extensively on "edible landscaping."
In her book "Cooking From the Garden" (Sierra Club Books, 1988), Ms. Creasy gives both recipes and full planting instructions for such gardens as a baked-bean garden, rainbow garden, spa garden, gourmet herb, edible flower and salad garden, and Cajun garden. She also tells how to plant native American gardens, as well as Italian, French, German, Mexican, and Oriental gardens with a long chapter on each.
Georgeanne Brennan's idea of the best way to have really fresh food is based on the French "potager," taken from the word for soup, which is similiar to the American "kitchen garden."
"A kitchen garden's purpose is to supply the kitchen, on a daily basis, with as much year-round produce as possible," says Ms. Brennan, author of "Potager: Fresh Garden Cooking in the French Style" (Chronicle Books, 1992, $29.95, $18.95 soft cover). "Although Americans grow food in the garden in summer and store it up for the winter, by freezing and other methods, many other countries keep the garden going into the cold weather.
"In Russia, recently, I saw many gardens growing the cold-hardy vegetables in winter, heaped with straw and perhaps other mulches. We could grow foods in cold areas of the United States, too.... Kale and cabbages grow in very cold weather as well as Brussels sprouts, parsnips, carrots and more. There are vast areas for Americans to explore even for a small 10-by-12-foot plot," says Brennan.
"A kitchen garden gives more than just fresh foods. You have a built-in variation to cooking," Brennan continues.
"Without even having to think about it, you'll learn what it is to cook things as they grow and change in their own lifecycles, from early spring to late fall into winter.
"You learn the differences in ripeness almost without thinking of it."