Gentlemen: Start your vegetables! That shameless theft of auto racing jargon may indeed be trite, but when it comes to gardening, timing is the key. This is the perfect time to start vegetables, as well as annual and perennial ornamental seeds.

And there’s still time to order seeds for your best garden ever. In particular there are hints of possible shortages in cucumber, carrot and onion seeds due to unfavorable growing conditions last summer in both California and Europe where a lot of our seeds are produced. And the demand for vegetable seeds has been way up in recent years.

“It was unlike anything I’ve seen in the past 30 years,” George Ball, chief executive officer of W. Atlee Burpee, told the Associated Press. He added that Burpee has huge reserves. However, he did admit that demand has been extra strong the past two years. But even if you blink or hesitate to buy seeds now, many seedling plants can be purchased locally or ordered later on in time to plant when your garden’s ready.

“It’s smart to plan your edibles now,” said Barb Pierson, nursery manager for the mail order gardening firm White Flower Farm. “The growing season can be short. Go through catalogs and Web sites now when you have the time. Choose interesting varieties — not the ho-hum kind that you’ll also be stuck with if you wait until the last second. Be prepared to start planting as soon as the warm weather arrives.”

No one can argue that freshly picked, sun-ripened vegetables and herbs have the best flavor. White Flower Farm said other top reasons for growing your own include convenience, saving money and enjoying varieties that aren’t readily available locally. Each year, White Flower Farm trials plants at its nursery and offers a wide selection of delicious veggies and herbs for home gardeners (more than 130 tomatoes and 40 peppers for 2010). See below for this year’s top 10 picks.

Some tips for beginning vegetable gardeners:

• Be sure to choose a location in full sun.
• For your first time out, start small. Gain experience and then expand.
• Try a few plants in containers on your deck to make harvesting and caring for your plants convenient.
• Grow the types of veggies and herbs that you use in favorite recipes.
• Order seeds and plants early for the best selection and to ensure they arrive at the right time for planting. Avoid lost time or disappointments come spring!

White Flower Farm’s top picks that you won’t find in the grocery store:

• “Mortgage Lifter” tomato — An heirloom, large pink tomato with a classic rich beefsteak flavor. Fruits weigh 1 to 2 pounds. Cross-bred during the Great Depression by a radiator repairman; sales earned him enough profits to pay down his mortgage.
• “Cherokee Purple” tomato — Another heirloom beefsteak, this one with rosy purple fruits. Once grown by the Cherokee tribe, it’s great for slicing and gives a sweet, rich taste to burgers.
• “Sungold” tomato — Everyone’s favorite tangerine-orange cherry, “Sungold” is as beautiful as it is sweet. Prolific and mouth watering, and perfect for salads if the fruits make it into the house.
• “Ancho 101” pepper — A mildly pungent chile, considered an essential Mexican culinary pepper and used in making mole sauce. The 4- to 6-inch, tapered fruits ripen from green to red.
• “Cubanelle” pepper — This thin-walled, yellow-green frying pepper has a mildly sweet flavor and is a favorite in Mediterranean dishes.
• “German Butterball” potato — With flaky, buttery yellow flesh ideal for roasting, frying, baking and mashing, this variety is an all-purpose potato. It matures late in the season and is an excellent keeper.
• “Holland Red” shallots — Shallots are smoother and sweeter tasting than onions or garlic. “Holland Red” delivers the mellow, quintessential flavor of shallots in a fat, round bulb.
• Zucchini “Bush Baby” — A true baby zucchini, these adorable little fruits are dark green with gray-green stripes. Use sautéed or grilled with onions.
• Summer squash “Magda” — This Lebanese-style summer squash has short, plump, light green fruits with white flesh. Nutty, sweet flavor.
• Basil “Spicy Globe” — Small, yet aromatic leaves with a pungent bite. Plants stay compact, 6 to 12 inches tall, and are as ornamental as they are flavorful.

Visit the White Flower Farm’s Web site at whiteflowerfarm.com.

And here’s one more I’ll throw in for good measure: “Green Fortune”  baby pok choy, crispy and sweet little 6- to 8 -inch heads of lime-green and crunchy stalks with dark green leaves. Delicious when halved, braised in a little toasted sesame oil until tender and lightly browned on the edges. Drizzle with some balsamic vinegar and enjoy! This selection is from Renee’s Garden Seeds (reneesgarden.com).

Next time we’ll look at some of the new ornamentals for this summer’s gardens.

A bit of the season

With March 17 just around the corner, this is the perfect time to mention the St. Paddy’s Day plant collection from Proven Winners. Lucky clover selections are just the thing to help celebrate the season.

In the Charmed Oxalis series, there are three varieties: Charmed Jade, Charmed Velvet and Charmed  Wine. The shamrock-shaped leaves and petite, blushed white flowers thrive best in partial to full shade outdoor locations. Each variety has its own unique characteristics such as the bright, velvety wine color of Charmed Wine’s leaves and the iridescent silver sheen on Charmed Jade’s striking green leaves.

Here are some great ideas for using the Charmed series:

• An ideal short-term houseplant for colder climates because it adapts well to low light needs and a steady watering schedule.
• To grow indoors, make sure to keep it in a sunny window and then gradually transition to the outdoors. Plants grown indoors may stretch, if this happens you can cut them back and new, compact growth will emerge from the roots.

Lynette L. Walther is the recipient of the National Garden Bureau’s Exemplary Journalism Award and the Florida Magazine Association’s Silver Award of Writing Excellence. She is a member of the Garden Writers Association. She gardens in Camden.