Pick up a Hoe and Give Gardening a Go!
By Leah Lancione

     If you’ve ever entertained the idea of growing your own food, this is the time of year to act on that impulse. Although seasoned gardeners have probably already spent weeks planning which fruits, vegetables or herbs they will grow, and no doubt have started seedlings indoors, it’s not too late to join in this spring rite.

     Even if you start out modestly, planning is required. Before visiting the garden store, research which crops grow well in Maryland, what type of soil is in your backyard or planter, what kind of seeds or seedlings to buy and where and what supplies are necessary to create your garden space. The University of Maryland Cooperative Extension is a valuable resource (http://extension.umd.edu) of gardening information for neophytes, as well as for tips on producing a successful harvest. The extension’s “Grow It, Eat It” campaign is Maryland’s Food Gardening Network that promotes the idea that people of all ages and backgrounds can grow nutritious crops almost year-round while saving money. The network also connects with gardeners through an online map — you simply enter your zip code into a field — and you’ll be united with millions of people with the same quest for growing healthy food for their families.
     The extension’s Home and Garden Information Center (800 342-2507) offers folks the opportunity to speak to experts who can answer any questions related to gardening— from soil and plants to pests and fertilizer. The center accepts calls Monday through Friday 8 a.m. through 1 p.m.
Other online resources also offer useful pointers for novice gardeners. For instance, www.gardenguides.com says beginners should start out with a small plot to avoid being overwhelmed. The site recommends starting off with a garden that is no bigger than 8 feet by 10 feet that receives adequate sunshine throughout most of the day. The UMD Cooperative Extension also instructs gardeners to choose an area that’s not too shaded by trees or shrubs, is close to a source of water and is easily accessible. The site also recommends being aware of what type of rodents or other vermin that are apt to visit your garden so you’re adequately prepared.
     Once you’ve decided where your garden will be—whether in a raised bed or in the ground, it’s time to purchase the essential tools to make the garden patch a reality. The website www.gardeningoncloud9.com offers a list of basic gardening tools that include a spade and shovel, trowel, garden fork and hoe, rake, shears, pruners, a pair of good gardening gloves and a kneeling pad. You can purchase these supplies at any garden retailer like Lowes and Home Depot, or even Wal-Mart or Kmart. Some of the larger stores even have an extensive collection of ready-to-assemble raised garden beds, wire, posts or fencing for your garden.
     Now that you’ve selected your garden spot, formulated a plan that includes what type of soil you have or need to purchase, what crops you’ve chosen to grow, and have acquired the necessary tools, the next step is to prepare the soil. (Heads up: The UMD Cooperative Extension also lists the best crops to grow in central Maryland at www.growit.umd.edu/VegetableProfiles/index.cfm)
     To groom your soil for gardening, Backyardgardener.com (www.backyardgardener.com/veg/VEGETABLE/growingvegetableforbeginners.htm) notes the importance of using a digging fork to loosen existing soil so the plants’ roots will have room to grow and can breathe and take up water and nutrients from the soil. Next, add any new soil to your backyard or garden box. The UMD Cooperative Extension will also provide soil testing. Experts can determine what type of soil you have, whether you need to add anything to correct Ph imbalances, how much compost or organic matter to add and how much fertilizer is necessary.
     The next and final preparatory step is to plant the seeds or settings you purchased. The UMD Cooperative Extension recommends choosing the plants that do grow well in Maryland, are expensive to buy in grocery stores, are most nutritious and those which your family loves to eat. Since the specifications for how far apart and deep you should plant your crops vary, follow the directions on the package or enlist the help of a cooperative extension or outdoor store expert.
      You will put your gardening tools to good use as you properly care for your crops as they grow. You will need to continuously fertilize, weed and water your garden. Now it’s time to start thinking of delicious and nutritious dishes you’ll be able to make with the rewards from your garden.
Leah will be enthusiastically planting her first vegetable patch this year, buoyed by last year’s success with tomatoes. Reach her at [email protected]

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