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The seed catalogs also are sources of garden wisdom

The ice on a nearby pond is two feet thick right now. But it won't stay that way. The calendar on my office wall assures me spring is exactly seven weeks away -- and with it the flowering crocus and that first sowing of peas here in the Northeast.

Preparing for softer soil and a summer of abundance is already picking up momentum. Books, magazines, and other how-to materials are beginning to show up on garden center and bookstore shelves. Cooperative extension service phones are ringing a little more frequently and plant-society meetings are somewhat better attended as this search for information goes on.

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Indeed, the sources of good gardening advice are many, yet one guide, often overlooked, is the mail-order seed and nursery catalog. For the most part they are free for the asking. A postal card requesting a catalog is usually the only expense involved.

These catalogs do more than parade a tempting array of vegetables before your eyes by way of colored photographs. They also state which varieties are frost-tolerant and which are not, the number of days to maturity for each vegetable, which varieties give a massive harvest all at once and which yield fruit slowly and steadily throughout the season.

Where it is important they will tell you the ideal soil temperature at planting time.And a whole lot more.

As an example, here are some excerpts picked at random from among those catalogs that reached me through the mail this year:

From the Vermont Bean Seed Company (Bomoseen, Vt. 05732):

"Fava bean -- 85 days. Sometimes known as the English broad bean or horse bean. Jack Frost won't bother the Fava cool-weather bean. You can plant a Fava as soon as the soil can be worked. Here in Vermont we use the Fava for an extra-early shelling bean, planting around the end of April and ready for shelling usually around the last week in June or early July . . . . Pods are glossy green and contain 5 to 7 oblong- shaped flat light green beans which are very tasty shell beans. A half pound will plant 15 feet of row."

"Wide Roa Planting. This is the best proven method for growing beans and peas. Simply stake out a wide row, say 18 inches wide by 25 feet long. Take your seed and broadcast them into the well-worked soil. . . . Try to leave 4 inches, if possible, between seeds. Cover with 1 to 2 inches of fine soil. . . . The plants will grow up shading out the weeds and retaining much-needed moisture in the grond. Also you will experience a higher yield. . . ."

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From Park Seed Company (Greenwood, S.C. 29647):

"Beets. Readily grown, beets make one of the most attractive and delicious dishes of all vegetables and contain more iron than most. Sow thinly, as early in spring as soil can be worked, in rows 18 to 24 inches apart. 800 to 1,000 seeds per ounce.1 ounce sows 100 feet."

"Cabbage. Sow indoors 5 to 7 weeks prior to planting. Requires cool soil. Set out plants as soon as soil can be worked, 15 to 18 inches apart in rows 24 to 30 inches apart. For a fall crop set out plants June to August. Ounce equals 8,500 seeds."

Burpee Seed Company (Warminster, Pa. 18991):

"Herbs. If you've been cooking with commercially prepared dried herbs, get ready for the surprising taste difference when you use flavorful fresh herbs cut from your own garden! Sauces, roasts, soups, omelettes, salad dressing, and even budget menus will become more exciting. A small space in a flower border or vegetable garden is all you need. . . ."

"Celery. Celery is delicious raw as a relish or cooked in different ways. Use from the time the plants are half grown until fully mature. Stalks may be blanched to make them more crisp and tender, but many prefer them unblanched. . . . Plants are set in garden after heavy frost is over; sow seeds indoors 10 weeks earlier. . . . Celery needs rich soil and plenty of moisture. . . ."

And so it goes, informative, interesting, even entertaining, comments from start to finish. Many of the mail-order seed houses advertise their catalogs in gardening magazines and in newspapers. You can also get a list of mail-order seed houses by sending a stamped, self-addressed envelope to the National Garden Bureau, PO Box 216, Sycamore, Ill. 60178.

Meanwhile, it is worth noting that a New England seed company has been formed with the small home gardener in mind. The Pinetree Seed Company (PO Box 1399, Portland, Maine 04104) has for the past few years supplied quality seeds in quantities small enough to meet the need of those home gardeners who do not require the number of seeds contained in a standard seed packet. The result: Packets containing fewer seeds are sold at lower prices.

As an example, beets are sold "20 seeds per packet minimum." Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower have 25 seeds to the packet; carrots, 50 seeds , and cucumber 10 seeds.

Prices range from 15 cents to 30 cents a packet.

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