No excuse is required to explain the obsession with poring over seed and plant catalogues right now. As soon as the winter shoulder passes we gardeners start feeling, if not seeing, the days lengthen. Thoughts race toward spring and these catalogues are a huge help in getting up to speed.

For those fascinated with native plants, there is good news: the brand new Wildflower Farm/Prairie Nursery Catalogue. You get excellent photographs and how-to information on making a prairie meadow, or a butterfly garden and so on. There are also reliable seed mixes for such problems as moist meadows or a choice of plants to break up heavy clay (plants whose roots will work their way down into the clay and eventually improve it). I don?t usually recommend pre-mixed seeds because you never know what you?re getting. These, however, are custom-blended (and well-labelled) to do the job intended. There are also six varieties of asters, four asclepias and silphiums and many more fascinating plants.

  • Wildflower Farm 1-888-476-7303, $3.

There are other excellent native seed catalogues in each province and here are just a few:

  • Alberta Nurseries and Seeds Ltd., 403-224-3544;
  • Cedar Creek Seed Co., North Vancouver, B.C. 604-984-6594;
  • Gardens North, Gower, ON, 613-489-0065;
  • Limestone Creek Restoration Nursery, Campbellville, ON, 905-854-2914;
  • Otter Valley Native Plants and Seeds, Eden, ON, 519-866-5639;
  • Prairie Grown Sees, Cochin, Sask., 306-386-2737;
  • Riding Mountain Wildflowers, Onanole, MB, 204-848-2127;
  • Salt Spring Seeds, Ganges, B. C., 205-537-5269; T & T Seeds, Winnipeg, MB,
  • 204-895-9962; William Dam Seeds, Dundas, ON, 905-628-6641.

Gardenimport, a well-designed, well-written catalogue, always has interesting seeds from Sutton?s in England. You?ll find all the great old-fashioned plants all-too-often ignored in the rush to get the rare and unusual. I wouldn?t be without their superb annual larkspur seeds especially the dwarf rocket mixed. This year I?m going to try a snapdragon I haven?t used before called Antirrhinum ?Lipstick Silver.? And the perennial Delphinium chinense ?Blue Butterfly? which has the richest of all the blue flowers. They are now carrying baby vegetables for those who have at least six hours of sun a day, but have little space to accommodate them. You can try everything from beets to turnips. Among the many plants they carry, there?s Cosmea atrosanguineus or chocolate cosmos which is sensational in a rich burgundy and, indeed, it smells like chocolate.

  • Gardenimport 1-800-339-8314, $5

Thompson & Morgan has one of the widest selection of seeds I?ve seen and there are some truly special things in this year?s catalogue. I mentioned a fantastic, though weird-looking, plant I was given last year called Cerinthe major. T&M have the seeds if you want to try this fleshy plant with blue foliage and sea-green bracts. But take my advice, put it in a container and don?t try and fit it into the border, it?s just too exotic looking. Some of the other choice seeds are Dicentra torulosa, a climbing bleeding heart with yellow blooms which turn into bright red pods. For a sunny spot that needs some bright colour, try Sphaeralcea ?Los Brisas.? It blooms from pink to mauve to scarlet for a summer full of brilliance. Aquelegia fragrans is a highly scented form of columbine which has creamy outer petals. Rudbeckia occidentalis ?Green Wizard? is a Z8 plant but use it as an annual to have a wonderful cut plant with green sepals and a deep brown cone excellent for drying. I?ve always liked Mina lobata, a strange-looking vine and scrambles over almost anything. Now there?s a hybrid called ?Citronella? which has lemon-yellow and white blossoms. This is a rambler which I like growing over an obelisk.

  • Thompson & Morgan Windsor On., 800-274-7333..

Herbs are a growing fascination for many people and most catalogues have a list of herbs you can grow from seed. The ultimo catalogue, however, is Richters Herb catalogue. It is the most complete collection I?ve seen. They also have a very good selection of books on herbs as well.

  • Richters, Goodwood, On., 1-905-640-6677.

Vegetables are becoming a rage with many gardeners because they are not only ornamental but also a reliable source of organically-grown food. These three catalogues have an enormous selection of vegetables from beans to zucchinis:

  • Dominion Seed Co. Georgetown, ON 1-800-784-3037;
  • Stokes Seeds, St. Catherines On. 1-905-688-4300;
  • Vesey?s Seed For Short Seasons, Charlottetown, P. E. I. 1-800-363-7333.

Of course all you seed-starters will be sensible and never over-order, will share seeds with hortbuddies so that you can each take a run at successful germination and all that sort of sensible stuff. Of course. Next time I?ll talk about all the incredible new plants available by catalogue.