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The seed catalog -- harbinger of the opulence of spring and summer

The timing is perfect. The folks at Burpee Seeds of Warminster, Pa., know when to send out their catalogs, and so do all the other seed companies from coast to coast. Christmas clutter still fills the house. The outdoors seems remote and forbidding. The realy cold and dismal part of winter still lies ahead.

the garden -- I can see it from the kitchen window -- is ragged with last fall's debris, its ground locked in ice.

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And then, a slushy trip to the mailbox -- and there it is. A catalog, bursting out all over with color, its bright red Supersteak tomato on the cover a promise of opulence within, arrives with the postman and the morning suddenly seems a whole lot brighter.

What better reading on a long winter's night, with the wind scratching at the plastic-covered windows?

Then there are the garden aids, a Tomato Tower, a Weed- o-Matic. What's this? A Birds-Away Snak. "An impressive 8-foot-long inflatable reptile, he loves to hang around fruit- bearing plants and trees and scare off hungry birds. Weatherproof vinyl." (I remember when a friend and I came across realm one curled up in the asparagus bed.)

There are more pages of gardening gear, watering aids, harvesting aids. Why need gardening ever be hard work? I wonder.

But it is in the vegetables pictured that inspiration reaches its zenith. Led by the piping of such sweet corn (Golden Beauty), leaf lettuce (Green Ice), and onions (Sweet Spanish), who would not dream? Forgotten are the gardens of other years when cantaloupes were warty failures, broccoli more stem than bud, where green beans were freckled with rust, and beetles finally won the cucumber war.

Also forgotten are the gardens that were too dry one year, too wet the next.

this midwinter night, however, hope stirs once more. I study the pages of the catalog, debating the merits of this over that, and soon begin a list: I packet -- no, make that 2 packets -- of Snowbird peas, Early Golden Summer Crookneck, of carrots, Short 'n' Sweet, of Sugar Baby Water- melon, and all the rest.

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A brand-new gardening season is almo st at hand!

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