It's the middle of winter. It's cold. It's dark outside. Then the first garden catalog arrives.

Like a starving man perusing a restaurant menu or a kid thumbing through the Sears Wish Book ahead of Christmas, everything looks so good. Maybe too good.

"The basic thing a customer should do when they get the seed catalogs, or look on the Internet sites, is you relax and enjoy the dream book. It's what's to come," says George Ball, chairman and CEO of Burpee, which is entering its 134th year of catalog sales.

Roger Cook knows that feeling. He's the landscape contractor for PBS' "Ask This Old House" and "This Old House" and owner of K&R Tree and Landscape in Burlington, Mass. He agrees those catalogs are things of beauty, but ...

"The catalogs are like a ray of hope that there is a spring eternal and that things will grow again," he says. "So you start thumbing through them, going, 'I want that, I want that, I want that.' Can you get overwhelmed by them? Very easily."

The seed and gardening catalogs that soon will be weighing down our letter carriers and clogging our inboxes are wonderful, midwinter diversions, albeit diversions that present potential headaches.

Before you place an order for three dozen banana trees, listen to what the experts say. You'll benefit in the long run.

Browse and enjoy

Take the time to peruse. Look at everything. Then go back and start narrowing down what you might want - don't jump at the first radish you see.

Cook says when an item catches his eye, he'll cut it out of the catalog and make a little pile.

"I'll lay them out on the table," he says. "If I find out I have six tomatoes, well, I really don't need six varieties of tomatoes, so 'Big Boy' is out, and I go for the heirlooms. So you follow up and choose which one you want."

Plan ahead

Go beyond the plant descriptions in the catalog. Check the Internet, get a good gardening book (Ball recommends the books of Roger Swain, former host of "The Victory Garden"). Know how much sun your garden gets; two hours a day isn't going to cut it if you want to raise vegetables.

"The little time you spend planning will enable you to avoid hours of heartache later in the season if you make a planning-oriented mistake," Ball says. "It isn't like you can go back and do it over again."

Know your limits

Ball points out that seeds are probably the perfect mail-order item. They're small, easily shipped and cost-effective for the gardener.

"A $3 packet of seeds can give you $300 worth of store-bought merchandise, in terms of like a beefsteak tomato," he says.

As such, they can be too easy to order. (And remember: Tomatoes and many other plants have to be started indoors, so you also have to plan for the time and space these seeds will require.)

"Seeds aren't real expensive, so you buy too many," Cook says. "There should be some social Web site where if I buy a packet of seeds and use only half of them I could trade with you for some other seeds.

"It's way too easy to buy too many, because when you're spending two, three dollars a packet, it doesn't add up that quickly. You buy 20 packets, that's $60, and you figure, 'Well, I can live with that.' Then spring comes and I've got a 6-by-12 garden, and where am I going to put 20 packets of seeds?"

Adds Ball: "When it comes down to the moment of decision, especially for new gardeners, take care and don't over-order. That sounds crazy coming from me. But don't over-order. It'll just disappoint you in your first year. It's like a gym membership. If you kill yourself at the gym that first month, your likelihood of hating the gym is very high."

Don't rush or dawdle

Don't give all your business to the first catalog that pops in. As Cook says, "It's very easy to fall in love with the first girl at the dance."

People in the catalog business know customers are waiting, so there's not a great deal of time between all the arrivals. Usually if you order fairly quickly you'll be fine, and the items won't be sold out.

"The other thing you can do is supplement the catalogs with your local garden centers," Cook says. "They always carry a big, big selection of seed. So if you lost something and didn't get what you wanted, I'd check with the garden center to see if they have what you wanted."

Bring on the madness

For a look at some of the most popular gardening catalogs and links to their Web sites, go to mailordergardening.com. Here are some of the more popular and interesting catalogs out there (many of these cross categories):

•Bulbs: dutchgardens.com

•Perennials: whiteflowerfarm.com

•Exotic plants: tmseeds.com

•Organic vegetables: woodprairie.com

•Roses, fruit trees: starkbros.com

•Heirlooms: underwoodgardens.com