"If you would be happy for a week take a wife; if you would be happy for a month kill a pig; but if you would be happy all your life, plant a garden." Chinese proverb

By the end of February, cuddling in front of the fire has lost its charm; the mind slips from the frosts of winter to settle on gardens that were, and gardens that will be, and to remember with longing the symmery pleasure of the garden party.

Right now, when we need it most, there is one garden in Washington where sweet-scented orchids bloom and the ear is surprised by the splash of fountains. The U.S. Botanical Gardens -- the vaguely Victorian greenhouses set down at the foot of the Capitol on Canal and First Streets -- are open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Cast your mind about: Who among your friends would grace a winter garden party? Ask them to join you at your house, bringing any garden catalogues they've received in the mail, and take them down to the gardens.

Together you can follow the path of herringboned brick through a room of ferns, linger at the flowering of hibiscus and begonia, pass under palms and the downy red blooms of the powder puff tree, until you reach the tropical room with its narrow center pools. There you can breathe in the deep fragrance of the orchids and recapture -- out of season -- all of a gardener's joys.

There is another quotation to remember: It is from Kipling, and it says, "Such gardens are not made by singing: 'Oh, how beautiful!' and sitting in the shade."

Indeed they are not, and so, when your group has looked its fill and breathed deeply enough to last till April, take everyone home for a gardener's exchange.

To a gardener, there is no such thing as "a" garden catalogue. The more the merrier, and if they all offer peas or sweetpeas, it is in catalogues like Johnny's Selected Seeds in Maine, or Vesey's in Nova Scotia, that you will find seeds specially chosen for short, cold seasons. Or in Unwin's, an English firm with American distribution, where they list three pages of sweet peas.

Discovering a new catalogue is as much fun as discovering a new plant, like Wayside Garden's offer this year of the gas plant, an old-fashioned perennial which gives off a substance that can be lit, flaring up without damage to the plant.

If each guest contributes a new catalogue, or a new plant (or only the secret of why their corn grows so tall and the kernels so plump), your party will be a success.

As to food, whatever you serve will taste good to people staring at photographs of ripe red tomatoes, or reading catalogue descriptions promising an eggplant that is "tender and tasty at all stages of growth," or peas that are "incredibly sweet and delicious when eaten raw."