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Magnificent Obsession

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This time of year I look forward to the quality time I can spend with the new seed catalogs that seem to arrive at my door nearly every day. The monotony of long winter days is broken by the anticipation created by these delightful little books. The beguiling descriptions of gourmet vegetables and fanciful flowers -- I must remind myself they are penned by clever salespeople — and the endless exotic varieties of distinctive plants for the garden are mesmerizing.

Attempting to choose — or should I say limiting — my purchases is an exercise in restraint. I have a serious seed problem, of which only a select few know the true extent. My hall coat closet holds seeds, not coats. Neat boxes crammed full of seed packets are piled high, each labeled with its contents. There are boxes of seeds for piquant greens, summer annual flowers and hardy winter annual flowers. The lettuce seed box holds 28 varieties.

The most damning evidence of my serious problem is the Italian Genovese basil seed. For some reason, back in 1998 I believed I needed a pound of this variety (which works out to about a quarter of a million seeds). But the seeds that are left are viable to this day, a testament to their tenacity. Ha! I say to my husband when the basil seed germinates at 100 percent each spring. See? Still good!

The great thing about seeds is that they're such a bargain. A pack of them can routinely be had for the price of one lone plant. Plus, the selection of varieties is far superior when you grow from seed rather than limit yourself to what plants are offered at your local plant shop.

With all the encouragement to buy local and support local growers we (thankfully) hear now, why not take it a step further and try a few seeds in your own backyard?

There are thousands of seed catalogs out there. In my struggle to lessen my seed hoarding problem, I have narrowed my resources to a few tried and true choices. Johnny's Selected Seeds out of Winslow, Maine (www.johnnyseeds.com), is far and away my favorite. Johnny's offers great varieties of vegetable and flower seeds with comprehensive cultural information (a fancy term for growing information), not to mention the beautiful color photos to get you all excited. Try the specialty Japanese turnip variety Hakurei — you'll never think of turnips the same.

Some catalogs feature only heirloom varieties of vegetables and flowers, older varieties known for their taste and appearance. Seed Savers Exchange (www.seedsavers.org) offers seeds of plants with true "roots"; their varieties all have a history and a story. One of my favorite beans is Dragon's Tongue, a yellow-and-purple-streaked bush bean — delicious and so much more exciting than the run-of-the-mill green bean. Another great catalog for heirloom varieties is Baker Creek, www.rareseeds.com, offering heirloom varieties from all over the world. A Virginia company that works to preserve heirlooms is Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, www.southernexposure.com. Southern Exposure offers heirloom varieties from our region along with detailed planting guides for our growing area.

So try a few seeds this spring. A sprinkling of arugula seeds can jazz up your salad. Beautiful, long red and white French breakfast radishes are ready in 21 days from seed sowing and take up hardly any space. And for the kids, there's always the heirloom Tuscan kale Nero di Toscana. If you tell them its more common name — dinosaur kale — they might be willing to try growing and even tasting the dark-green pebbled leaves. Who knows — it could be the start of a serious seed fixation.

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