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In an old French gardening book, the author describes the winter ordering of seeds for the new year's garden: "We wait until the children are in bed. We must choose wisely because if the children were there, and we had to listen to them, they would make us order anything just because of the beauty of the names and pictures in the catalogs!"

Such wisdom in those words reminds us that inside every gardener there is a child thrilled by visions on page or screen to catch our attention during January's long, dark days. Like impulse items at the cash register, we will snatch at bright colors, big glorious photos of perfect vegetables and flowers, knowing each one costs about the price of a bottle of soda.

A packet of vegetable seeds is the greatest value in the 21st century because it can feed a family with fresh, wholesome and often organic produce for a long time. If it's a non-GMO open-pollinated variety or heirloom, that one packet will result in a crop — and free seed each year — for a considerable return on that original $3 investment.

The second greatest freebie is the color seed catalog that arrives by U.S. mail. It's mind-boggling how they can afford such lavish publications and catalogs free for the asking from the website (or just call). Big color seed catalogs give you days and days of shopping by the winter fire as you study each varietal candidate rather than making impulse buys at the garden center.

If you prefer to go paperless, you can do everything online except receive the packets. All companies have active online stores so you can start shopping today with a few simple clicks.

No matter where you buy your seed, the process of deciding what to grow next year is important. It's the only way to find the more unusual versions of familiar supermarket varieties that offer new flavors and opportunities in the kitchen. It's also a great way to explore all the amazing food crops from around the world. After all, why grow varieties made for cold storage or early picking when you can grow the ones that were selected for nothing but great flavor?

The global economy has made more foreign vegetable varieties widely available than ever before. Often they are unique to areas where regional cuisine keeps them in cultivation and nowhere else. For those interested in international tastes, or for immigrants and their descendants who want to grow the plants unique to their homeland dishes, look to heirloom seed catalogs. This is also where the creative griller will find big surprises for summer barbecue.

If you haven't priced sprouted seedling vegetables recently in the garden center, you may be surprised. A six-pack of tomatoes can be expensive, and you have to choose from what's there. So not only will you save money growing from seed, but you tap into this enormous seed supply line that brings the world's best food crops to your door.

Follow the example of experienced gardeners who test a few new vegetable types or varieties each year. This allows them to grow as secondary crops until they're vetted in the kitchen and by the climate for much larger sowings. Consider every year's garden a grand experiment due to this perpetual cycling of new varieties into your crop rotation.

Many heirlooms would vanish completely if not kept in continual cultivation because they don't last long even in seed banks. When you buy and grow them in your garden, you become an active participant in the global effort to preserve them. So start ordering from this master list of heirloom seed houses or log on and let the armchair shopping begin.

Top 10 heirloom vegetable seed catalogs

Order your catalog or go online and start shopping now.

Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Co.:, 1-417-924-8917

High Mowing Organic Seeds:, 1-802-472-6174

Johnny's Selected Seeds:, 1-877-564-6697

Native Seed/SEARCH:, 1-520-622-5561

Nichols Garden Nursery:, 1-800-422-3985

Renee's Garden:, 1-888-880-7228

Seed Savers Exchange:, 1-563-382-5990

Seeds of Change:, 1-888-762-7333

Southern Exposure Seed Exchange:, 1-540-894-9480

Territorial Seed Co.:, 1-800-626-0866

Maureen Gilmer is an author, horticulturist and landscape designer. Learn more at