At retailers, the arrival of seeds in early winter offers both pitfalls and advantages. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

As I recall, there used to be a decent interval between the new year and the time when the seed racks started to appear in hardware stores. If you wanted to get a jump on the season, or merely to dream of the summer ahead, you curled up with that quaint paper collation known as a seed catalogue and circled the varieties that took your fancy.

At a gentle pace, as you noticed the gray days outside growing longer, you would whittle down your selections and fill in the mail-order form, knowing you had a month or so before you needed the seeds in hand. Or you’d amble in your own good time to the retailer racks.

Today, as soon as the poinsettias are shown the door, the seed stands go up, bright and replete and full of the promise of spring.

This is vexing on one level because to the casual consumer, the displays seem to be suggesting that this is the time to start seeds. The central period for starting seeds is from early March to mid-April, but the business of germination is much more complicated than that. You might start broccoli seedlings indoors in about two weeks, but you wouldn’t sow a butternut squash seed or a lima bean until late May, directly into the garden and when the soil has warmed up. Perhaps folks know this, perhaps they don’t.

January is a good time to shop for seeds, but not the best for most seed starting. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

If you start even cool-season varieties now — in a greenhouse or, more likely for most of us, under lights indoors — the seedlings will be too elongated, rootbound and generally stressed before it is safe to plant them out in the garden. The last frost around these parts can occur in early to mid-April.

There is much to be said for seed starting, not just in saving money and broadening varietal choice, but in getting to the whole essence of gardening, which is about the process of nurturing beauty. But it takes knowledge beyond the seed packet descriptions, and particularly it requires a sense of timing best taught by experience and observing other gardeners, and not when the mass merchandiser decides you should consider purchasing seeds.

That said, there are real advantages to sniffing around the seed racks now, even if you end up with a few impulse buys. Keep your packets of living germ in the fridge until you’re ready to use them.

Some seeds need attention soon. If the ground isn’t frozen, late January presents an opportunity to sow both sweet peas and garden peas directly into raised garden beds or freeze-proof containers. If the peas haven’t shown any stirring after a month, you can sow again. I sow Shirley poppy seeds in the fall but like to scatter fresh seed too at this time to hedge my bets. If they germinate, they’ll bloom in May.

The end of the month is the time too to start (indoors, under lights) leeks, cabbages, broccoli and cauliflower, so that you have some stout transplants to install in the garden in April, before things turn warm. I recently picked up some seed of cauliflower as well as regular and sprouting broccoli.

Copenhagen Market is a standard, smooth green cabbage, not as photogenic as some of the red ones, but it performs solidly. I had to get my hands on a packet or two, which leads into another point: choice.

Another reason to peruse the racks in January is to find varieties that you like but fear may be sold out if you wait until a more logical moment to get them. This always seems to be the case when I’m looking around in May for some good garden variety of sunflower to sow — not the single-headed giants but more delicate branched types that may be small for a sunflower but make for a large and handsome border plant.

Buttercream, a soft yellow, is one such variety worth seeking. Another is Moulin Rouge, which is a deep burgundy red, with broad overlapping petals. A third, Italian White, is a little lighter than Buttercream, with a smaller central disc and showier petals. I pounced on a packet of that.

The other aspect of visiting these big-box racks is that the seeds seem awfully cheap to someone who routinely buys too many seed packs during the course of the year. I’m accustomed to paying $4 apiece or more from mail-order houses but found the ones in the mass merchandisers to be $1.35 for a packet of beet seed and no more than $1.99 for a variety of cauliflower. This is all about the big-box model of low price points, I suspect.

Retailing is a dark art, and I thought that the reason the rack prices were so low is that you got far fewer seeds than the ones sent directly from the seed merchant. Not necessarily so, it seems. I opened the $1.59 version of the sunflower packet to find 64 seeds. By mail (or Web) order, the price was $4.95 for 50 seeds. I did the same comparison with packets of parsnips and broccoli, and again buying directly from the seed merchant would cost you: The prices were $3.95 online vs. $1.37 and $1.49 from the mass merchandiser. The cheaper versions also had more seeds, considerably more.

A voice in my right ear told me that I shouldn’t buy these seeds at such discounted prices because they were hurting the profitability and perhaps the viability of the seed companies. A voice in my left ear reminded me that I had spent a small fortune on seeds over the years, buying directly from the mail-order catalogues.

So I entered the store with disdain for these precocious seed racks and left with 16 seed packets. The lady at the checkout asked me whether I had a big garden. I suddenly felt like a horticultural glutton, especially because this was just an aperitif for the party ahead. “I’ll give some of them away,” I said, and maybe I will.