It's no wonder that gardeners love the first few weeks of the year. That's when seed catalogs start arriving in the curbside mailbox and the email in-box.

What could better lift a gardener's spirits on a cold, rainy winter day than to browse through a seed catalog and look at lush pictures of plump, ripe tomatoes, bright yellow squash or unusual varieties of green beans? But catalogs should come with a warning label: caution, be careful not to over-order. 

Here are 10 tips to help you keep your orders to the actual size of your vegetable or flower beds — not what you imagine them to be — and get the best value from your favorite seed catalogs:

  1. Seed catalogsCheck your old seeds: Before you start going through seed catalogs, check to see if you have any seed packets left over from last year. Many a gardener has ordered a packet of seeds of a favorite variety only to discover a partial packet of the same variety tucked among the gardening tools. Year-old seeds or seeds that have lingered unused for several seasons may still sprout. There's an easy way to find out. Just conduct a germination test. All you have to do is wrap several seeds in a damp piece of wool or a tissue, sprinkle them with water every few days and keep them somewhere warm and dark. Within a week you should be able to see what has sprouted and what has not.
  2. Make a list and check it twice. Take a rainy day and make a list of what you'd like to grow. This is another task you can do before the catalogs begin arriving. Set the list aside for a few days, and then check it again. The pause will give you a chance to add a dose of reality to your order. The gardens of our dreams are never the size of the ones out the front or back door — which is the object of the next point.
  3. Know your garden: Be realistic about the amount of space you have, and don't order more seeds than you'll have room for when the tiny seeds grow into mature plants. Think, too, as you peruse the catalogs about plant spacings and ways to maximize that space. Plan your seed purchases accordingly. Seeds that give you a lot of produce in a small space — leafy greens, root vegetables such as potatoes and vertical vining plants such as tomatoes are all a good value. Crops that require multiple rows for pollination and take up a lot of space, such as corn, give you less reward for your time, efforts and available garden space.
  4. Think about your USDA plant hardiness zone: Before you make final selections and place an order, contact your local county cooperative extension service office. Ask the agent or volunteer whether seed varieties you may not be familiar with but don't want to live without will do well in your area. One thing to pay careful attention to is the number of "days to maturity" included as part of every catalog description. If your growing season has 85 predictable frost-free days, you may grow a beautiful watermelon vine, but you are not likely to harvest a watermelon.
  5. Seeds vs. plants: Seeds are cheaper than live plants, but unless you are buying as a group and sharing seeds, you may be better off buying starter plants in some cases than purchasing seed packets. Consider, for example, how many eggplants you are going to grow. Squash plants get quite large. How many do you have room for? Garden centers, farmers markets, grocery stores and hardware stores have excellent selections of tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, squash and other varieties.
  6. Choose carefully: Select cultivars that have qualities that are important to you, such as plant size, habit, and tolerance of your soil conditions. Seed catalog descriptions can help you make good selections. For example, if certain diseases are a problem in your area, you can look for disease-resistant varieties, like some of the new tomato varieties that are resistant to late blight such as 'Defiant PHR' and 'Jasper'. You might want to give special consideration to All-America Selections because these tend to grow and produce well in a variety of conditions.
  7. Buy with friends: Let’s say you've found four varieties of heirloom tomatoes that you're sure won’t be available in your area as starter plants in the spring, but you just have to have them. There likely will be several dozen seeds per packet. That's 24, maybe 36 tomato plants of just one variety! Unless your backyard truly is the size of the back 40, do you really have room for that many tomato plants? Consider getting together with gardening friends, make your seed selections together and order your seeds as a group. If your garden club isn't already doing this, suggest this strategy to them. Just be careful of peer pressure, and don't go along to get along and order seeds of Brussels Sprouts if you really don’t like these "little cabbages!"
  8. Save your seed catalogs. They provide excellent reference information that never goes out of date. Not only might you find detailed cultural and historical information about different kinds of vegetables, you're also likely to discover tips about how to compost using worms or read about why it's important to use inoculants on legumes.
  9. Use them or lose them. Seed catalogs take time to produce, and the printed ones are expensive to publish and mail. Many growers will stop sending them after just a few years if you don’t develop a consistent ordering history. Catalogs that specialize in plants that grow well in your specific region of the country or offer rare heirloom varieties you are particularly fond of may be ones you want to keep ordering from to make sure they arrive every January
  10. The seeds are here! When your seeds arrive, mark the sowing date on the envelopes, and place them in chronological order. if you ordered live plants or bulbs, such as garlic or shallots, put a note on the packing form that reminds you where in the garden you plan to put them. This will keep you from wandering around in the garden with seed packet or little plant in hand, scratching your head because there is no space left and muttering to yourself, "What was I thinking?"
And here's a bonus tip for new gardeners: There is a huge array of seed companies, large and small, in the United States. Some, especially big companies like Burpee, tend to offer a wide general range of seeds. Other companies are more specialized. For example, Johnny's Selected Seeds in Maine carries many varieties suited to short-season areas; Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds focuses on heirloom and open-pollinated varieties; and High Mowing Organic Seeds carries organically grown seeds exclusively. Some seed companies may focus on seeds of food crops while others might specialize in seeds of flowers or herbs. Some, of course, sell both. The good news is that there are plenty of seed companies for you to choose from no matter what you are most interested in. Web searches are probably the best way to find seed catalogs that appeal to you. Organic Gardening and The Old Farmer's Almanac are two places to start your seed hunting adventure.

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Photo: Kristen Bonardi Rapp/Flickr