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Get growing!; Starting a vegetable garden can be a challenge, so here's some advice before you plant that first seed

In my classes and at the garden center I meet many kinds of gardeners. Some are sun-wrinkled and wise; some are discouraged and grumbling; some are philosophical and just enjoy the process. And then there are beginners, with high hopes, who are just discovering the miracle of planting and growing anything at all. It's a joy to meet them, and to share their excitement.

Here are some principles and premises for beginners, with a few reminders for us all:

>Vegetables are either cool or warm-season crops: Some vegetables grow well only when the weather is still cool; others require warm soil and nighttime temperatures. You'll save a lot of disappointment if you sort them out early. Seed packets use the words "cool" or "warm."

For instance, now (or sooner) is the time to plant peas, lettuces and spinach. When summer heat comes on, the peas get tough and the greens "bolt" (shoot up fast, taste bitter and produce seed). But vine crops (squash, pumpkins), beans and tomatoes must have warm soil to grow well.

There's nothing wrong with waiting until Memorial Day weekend to plant warm-season crops. Often those turn out better than the plants put into the cold May ground.

>Frost can kill -- but not everything: Regional weather numbers over many decades show that we typically experience frosts in late May or early June (average last frost date about May 21). Cool-season vegetables grow right through it all, but frosts and near-freezing temperatures kill or damage other plants. Basil turns black and dies; tomatoes develop growth defects that show up later. If you have planted them, cover frost-tender plants on the coldest nights with a cloth or bag.

In fall, you can extend the life of your garden for many weeks if you anticipate frosts (even in September) and cover the tender plants.

>Grow from seed or buy plants? I met two new gardeners this week who were looking for seeds to start tomato plants and other vegetables inside -- reminding me of the learning curve. I suggested that tomatoes are very difficult to grow well (starting in April) from seed, unless you have an excellent light setup. Sturdy tomato plants of many varieties are usually available at garden centers and farmers' markets, ready when you and your soil are ready.

Other crops are easy from seed: all the leafy greens, radishes, peas, beans, beets, squash, carrots, cucumbers and pumpkins. Onions are easiest to grow from "sets" (already sprouted), and potatoes are grown from "seed potatoes" (cut pieces with a couple of "eyes" per piece). You can grow broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cabbages (cole crops or brassicas) from seed in spring or fall (cool weather), but they present a few pest and timing challenges so I recommend buying them as small plants. Like tomatoes, the other "nightshade" family members -- eggplants and peppers -- are easier if you buy sturdy plants to put into warm soil outdoors.

>Where to put the garden: This is a frustrating question for some city or village gardeners: Almost all vegetables need a lot of sun. All day sunshine is best, but if your yard has a spot with six to eight hours of direct sunlight you can grow some vegetables. If you have only shade, you can still grow all the salad greens, spinach, kale, beets, rhubarb and some radishes -- even mixed in with your flowers and shrubs -- but most other crops will disappoint. (That's what the farmers' market is for.)

If you have a choice, the other place to put the garden is as close to your house as possible (a kitchen garden). If it's close, you will water and weed better, and you'll have your eye on disease or pest problems so you can thwart them before they wipe out a crop. Make it prettier by mixing in some flowers.

>Time to till: I remember starting my first gardens. We borrowed a tiller and worked the soil until it was fine, added some old manure and planted. What I did not know: Where the soil is mostly clay, tilling destroys soil texture -- the crumbly feeling called "tilth." Garden soil should be in crumbs or lumps, allowing it to retain air and moisture. Over-tilled, powdery soil packs and cakes when it gets watered, so plant roots can barely penetrate.

Instead of pulverizing the soil, use a tiller lightly, to break up the soil surface and expose the weeds seeds and grubs. Turn in some well-aged manure or compost. Don't till at all until the soil has dried out. The best timing is to till or hand-shovel the area a couple of weeks before you plant, and then make one last shallow pass on planting day to kill off the shallow weed seeds.

The best of all possible situations is a raised-bed garden, where you never step on the soil and never till; you just stir the surface and plant, then keep it mulched and weeded every year.

*Soil rules: Before you buy and plant anything, address the soil. If you have heavy (clay) soil or the other extreme (sandy), you need to add compost to improve that texture and stimulate the life in your soil. If you haven't had a garden before, get the soil pH tested, usually through a cooperative extension or Master Gardener clinic. If your soil is too acid (low pH) or too alkaline (high pH), many plants won't grow at all. Soil pH can be corrected over time, and soil texture can be improved by adding compost.

>The lessons continue: So much more to tell you, beginners!

*Weeds will always be with us; it's just part of gardening. You'll want to learn which ones to get after immediately and which can wait.

*Watering correctly is crucial, a task done poorly by many.

*Insects are largely beneficial; don't think you have to kill them all. You will learn to deter, handpick or hose off most true pests, and tolerate others. Pesticides are never the first line of defense and are not necessary in a home garden.

*Often weather makes or breaks the gardening season. Most diseases are weather-related. It's not your fault.

*Nothing is ever perfect; we shouldn't expect the garden to be so.

But those are lessons for other weeks. It's time to start the new garden. Happy growing!


Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.