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It's dreaming time for gardeners

Christmas may be children's favorite time of year, but for gardeners the season of dreams comes immediately after the holidays when the seed catalogs begin to arrive.

Seed catalogs have been a direct-mail staple for generations of backyard growers, whose appetite for fresh fruits, vegetables and lively splashes of flowering color are building as winter settles in.

There are the familiar and proven plants and shrubs, along with many promising heirloom, hybridized or exotic plants entering the market.

"Catalogs are dream books," said George Ball, chairman and chief executive officer of W. Atlee Burpee & Co., one of the nation's pioneer seed catalog companies. "People use the catalogs to plan out their gardens. Catalogs sit on bedside tables. They're placed in workrooms and carried around in briefcases. Our catalogs are battered and dog-eared long before the planting season begins."

Planting is the most capital-intensive phase of gardening. It's when most buying decisions are made about fertilizers; pesticides or organic supplies; seeds; plants; shrubs; trees; and gardening accessories, from greenhouses to gloves.

The Mailorder Gardening Association estimates total mail order and Web site sales of more than $3 billion in 2009, said Randy Schultz, a spokesman for the group. "The average household will spend about $125," he said.

Prices next year should rise an average 3 percent to 4 percent, Ball said. He blamed the higher prices on production costs tied to competition for bio-fuel crops, greater demand for food and fodder and fewer acres under cultivation.

"We produce about half our seeds ourselves, but rely on vendors and contractors who breed and produce for us around the world," Ball said.

Despite the troubled world economy, however, suppliers appear optimistic.

"Sales of gardening products tend to be recession-resistant because people spend money planting gardens and sprucing up their yards," Schultz said. "Strong sales for vegetable seeds and plants will continue during 2009."

Many seed catalogs and Web sites report the average order size has grown. Customers who already were vegetable growers are expanding their gardens to increase harvests, Schultz said.

Gardeners will have many appealing new varieties from which to choose once the catalogs land in their mailboxes.

Among the innovative products ready for launch are larger blooming begonias (Park Seed Co.); flavorful micro-green growing kits (Thompson & Morgan Seedsmen); a fragrant dwarf variety of Angel's Trumpet (Brugmansia "Angel's Dream") that blooms all year and makes a great choice for hanging baskets (Logee's Tropical Plants); multi-colored chile peppers suitable for growing in containers (Cross Country Nurseries); the organic "Prairie Blush," a tasty, golden-fleshed potato with outstanding storage qualities (Wood Prairie Farm); and a sweet, personal-sized acorn squash ("Honey Bear" from Johnny's Seeds).

There's a songbird flower seed mix that adds beauty to the yard and value to the landscape. After blooming, the flowers develop plump seed heads that help foraging birds and other critters survive the winter (Botanical Interests Inc.).

And then there's the "Sweet Seedless," a meaty hybrid tomato that Ball calls "by far the most exciting new variety from Burpee in 2009."

"It has an entirely new type of tomato texture — juicy yet firm and full of flavorful flesh — rather than the large seed-related chambers found in normal tomatoes," he said, adding: "No seeds, no bitterness."

Seedlessness has been a goal of plant breeders for centuries, Ball said, but true seedlessness hasn't been possible until recently.

"The seedless trend took off in the 1970s with the first seedless cucumbers, first in Europe and later in the U.S. It was a great development since the fruit possessed additional attributes such as a premium quality taste and texture. They became associated with gourmet use and a high market value," Ball said.

Overall, consumers lately have been demanding the functional and practical, said Maree Gaetani, a spokeswoman for Gardener's Supply Co. in Burlington, Vt. She cites such items as rainwater urns, carts, solar lights, lightweight hoses and composting sets.

"Grow-your-own is also popular," she said. That includes tomato-growing kits, nutrient-rich sprout packages, culinary herbs and even coffee bean plant collections.

"All kit-type things are huge for us," Gaetani said. "That market is made up primarily of new gardeners and a few older gardeners going to smaller homes but who still want to garden."

It's dreaming time for gardeners