The catalogs start to sprout in our mailbox in late December, then gain some solid growth in January. Their glossy covers boast luscious gardens, beautiful flowers or quaint hand-painted garden scenes. Some we’ve asked for, others find us like stray dogs looking for a friendly handout. Some I’ve never heard of, certainly have never ordered from, while others I anticipate like the first seedlings of spring.

According to my calendar, winter is but a few weeks old. And here in Central Oregon, winter is just getting underway. Real winter doesn’t melt away until May and those warm spring days are just a sucker punch to thinking that tomatoes could go outside. A hard summer freeze is about as reliable as taxes –something you hope never shows up, but better plan for. It has snowed on the Fourth of July.

But gardeners are eternal optimists. “My garden is my most beautiful masterpiece,” wrote Claude Monet. As I pour through these mail order catalogs, I too, believe my garden will resemble these spectacular blooms and gorgeous vegetables. My optimism rises as the catalogs show up and I start to plot and plan for the coming gardening season.

I am not alone in these pursuits. According to the National Gardening Association, in 2013 over 42 million U.S. households in America grew vegetables at home or in community gardens. Millions more improved their lawns or landscaping or garden art for the sake of beauty. We bought bulbs, seeds, soils, fertilizer, hoses, drip irrigation, mulch, yard art and fencing material. We spent a lot of collective cash in these pursuits, billions of dollars according to market research just to jam our green thumbs into fresh dirt.

It takes barely a thought before considering the ‘why’ of these winter catalogs. With warehouses stacked with seeds, companies are ready to ship them before the ground thaws. Gardeners, with either concentrated planning or wild abandon, send their orders in via the Internet or US Postal Service. Fear of items on back order is almost worst than a plague of locust. Gardening season waits for no one, so those orders go in.

Thanks to this annual addiction, January has become designated as National Mail Order Gardening Month by the Direct Gardening Association (DGA). Initially sponsored by the Mail Order Gardening Association, this member organization of gardening and garden magazine companies has blossomed into the DGA. In 2009 an estimated 24 million American households spent over $3 billion online or from garden catalogs; an estimated 33% of the annual garden industry revenue.

This rite of spring is nothing new; in fact, receiving gardening catalogs has gone on in the United States for over 150 years. Mr. B.K. Bliss and Sons of Springfield, MA are often cited as having the first printed seed catalog in 1853. Including illustrations, their spring catalog B.K. Bliss and Son’s illustrated spring catalogue and amateurs guide to flower and kitchen garden was a way to reach gardeners far and wide.

In 1876, W. Atlec Burpee, a Philadelphian from French Canadian Huguenots, had been successfully breeding swine, dogs and other animals, before becoming a farmer. His interest in seeds and plants stemmed from this animal breeding and from providing better quality and higher germination rates for feed stock. Over 10 years later, Burpee was experimenting with growing and cross-breeding some of the best European vegetables and flowers to grow in American conditions. By 1915, the Burpee Seed Company sent over 1 million catalogs out to American gardeners. You can imagine the vast number sent out today.

It is easy to understand the value of these catalogs. It is too early for greenhouses and nursery to carry much stock, let alone be able to plant outside. Catalogs can contain a vast diversity of seeds, far greater than some racks can contain in a store. One catalog I looked through offered 15 varieties of kale; the luxury of one page versus several shelf spaces.

With the advent of the Internet, the catalog market is changing. Many seed companies have their catalogs online, a savings of paper and mailing expense. Gardeners can peruse the catalog on their devices, saving choices into their shopping carts before ordering. Some sites offer planting guides to help determine spacing and species. Of course, if you want a print copy, the seed companies will send one out.

Mary Cantwell, an American-born journalist and novelist wrote, “Gardeners, I think, dream bigger than emperors.” The middle of winter, with little else happening on the gardening front, is a great time to plan out the next year’s plot, flip through that stack of catalogs and see what’s new for the upcoming season. Participation in National Mail Order Gardening Month is easy and only costs time and money that you’d put into your garden later in the season.