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New to gardening? Learn from Master Gardeners.

A sudden interest in vegetable gardening prompts questions from novice growers.

By Adrian HigginsWashington Post/LA Times syndicate / July 2, 2009

Master Gardener coordinator Christine Rainbolt, right, helps Rita Milelli identify plants in Stuart, Fla. The Master Gardener program provides horticulture training for avid gardeners, who in turn volunteer their gardening skills to local schools and their community.

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Washington

As a horticultural extension agent, Bobby Wilson is often approached by beginner vegetable gardeners who want to know if they should water every day.

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"You don't need to water every day," he says. "I tell them to water Monday, Wednesday, and Friday."

What he's really telling them is that they should soak the soil and water again only when the top three inches has dried out, determined by using that most accurate of probes, your finger. "That's the proper way to do it, but people need a number," said Mr. Wilson, who works in Atlanta and is also president of the American Community Gardening Association.

Like a lot of us in the gardening world, Wilson has been astonished and thrilled by the sudden interest in vegetable gardening, particularly among younger adults.

Seed producers have reported sales increases in the range of 30 percent over last year, itself a banner year. In an April survey by the Pew Research Center, 21 percent of those polled said they were planning to grow their own vegetables this year because of the recession.

At a day-long workshop on vegetable gardening in Loudoun County, Va., this spring, 90 percent of the participants were novice gardeners, said Debbie Dillion, the county's horticultural extension agent.

When I started beekeeping a few years ago, I was lucky to have a mentor who guided me through the inscrutable business of husbanding honeybees. At first, every aspect of it was mysterious, from assembling the frames for honeycomb to checking to see whether the queen was laying eggs. The manuals contained too much information. It was my mentor Pat's practical guidance and chirpy demeanor that made the difference.

Where does a new gardener find guidance? The optimum scenario would be to find a plot in an established community garden surrounded by old hands who could offer practical advice. The problem is that established community gardens are tough to get into these days, with long waiting lists.

Fortunately, there is an infrastructure to help. Most jurisdictions have extension agents such as Wilson who work with a cadre of trained volunteers called Master Gardeners.

In Loudoun County, the Master Gardeners this year began a project called Garden to Table, which included the seminar in April and a visit in June to their demonstration vegetable garden at Ida Lee Park in Leesburg. A third session is planned for late summer.