Planning a first garden? Put books aside

Most things would rather grow than not. Thus, as you ponder your first garden, remember that there is no strange alchemy to growing vegetables, although there are plenty of tricks to doing it well. Don't let an overly heavy soil or the fact that you may be a neophyte gardener stop you.

Admittedly somewhat unconventional, I suggest that under no circumstances should you read a gardening book before your first season.

If you can tell a cabbage from a pumpkin and have already made three-bean salad, you know enough to get started. Do you wish to be a gardener or an academician? Gardening books are unbearably dull, by and large, and they are confusing to the uninitiated, who do not yet know what it is they need to learn.

Read something good to make spring pass more quickly - you can always get someone else to do your research for you - and next year you'll be ready to select just the book you need.

Assuming you're starting from scratch - that is, you don't even have a gardening site yet - realize right now you aren't going to be able to feed your family of six and the rest of the neighborhood from this first year's effort. It just cannot be done.

In other words, you haven't seen the last of your local food market.

This isn't because you aren't willing to work hard, but you aren't sufficiently organized. Gardening productively and efficiently is a process you both learn and invent as you go. A nice ''five-year plan'' will come into focus of its own accord - after you get started. Relax.

There are two ways to get your garden underway. You can rent a Rototiller to turn the soil, or you can hire someone with a tractor-mounted tiller. I suggest the tractor if there is one for hire in your area.

In my area of Maine, there are a couple of men who will come and turn up whatever you want (mark it first), and charge a flat $30. Renting a Rototiller will cost at least as much. If your spot is brushy, the tractor becomes that much more critical.

You aren't sure where to put your garden? Well, the following factors are listed roughly in order of importance: In the sun, on a slope (preferably southern, but never northern), well-drained, away from big trees (their roots compete with the vegetables), and where the soil seems best.

How big a garden? Arbitrarily, small is 20x25 feet; medium is 30x40 feet; large is 40x50 feet and beyond.

The man who comes with the tractor will see plenty of soil in the spring, and he may make a few cogent remarks on the state of your soil.

First-year gardeners shouldn't pay much attention to nitrogen, phosphorus, magnesium, or the rest of the fertilizer components. Instead, find things to shovel into your garden that you think will be good for it, such as manures, rotten sawdust, leaves, grass clippings (with no weed killer applied), hay, or anything else that rots.

Whatever the initial composition of your soil, you want to add organic matter to it to lighten a heavy soil, firm up sandy soil, and make good soils perfect.

If you are east of the Mississippi River, your soil is acidic and will need liming at the rate of about 5 pounds per 100 square feet of garden.

You're wondering about a soil test? Have one done by your local agricultural extension service, if you wish.

Right now you can rest assured that your garden needs all the organic matter you can give it. One caution: Fresh manures may burn young plants.

All seed catalogs indicate which seeds of any variety are consistently good producers. Order these from one or two companies. Try not to buy seeds at the local hardware store.

Concentrate on the basic vegetables: peas (including the new Sugar Snaps), spinach, lettuce, beans, and squash; these almost never fail entirely.

When the seeds come, sit down and read the package instructions. Some varieties need to be started indoors, and you can do this by using commercial potting soil and peat pots or other containers as nursery flats. The flats must eventually be ''hardened off.'' A week or so before you transplant them into the garden, put the flats outside during the day, briefly at first, until they acclimate.

Most first-timers have, however, limited success with seedlings. If yours fail, you'll have to buy flats of seedlings at a local greenhouse. These are then transplanted into the garden at the spacing recommended for that particular vegetable. Don't overdo it. A half-dozen good tomato plants will produce plenty of tomatoes. And many vegetables - broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower - can be grown from seed planted directly into the garden.

Plant a few seedlings for early harvest, and then grow the rest from seed and thereby extend your season.

All this begins around the time indicated by the seed-package information and after the time the garden soil is dry enough and doesn't ''clump'' in your hand.

Everything goes into the garden in straight rows. Then everything that comes up that isn't in a straight row identifies itself as a weed.

The last bugaboo for most people is whether to go ''organic'' or ''chemical. Start out organic, because it's a lot easier to go from organic to chemical than vice versa.

All gardeners are increasingly coming to see the value of heavy applications of organic material for developing healthy soil. No matter which route you choose, be careful to follow good garden practice. And know what you are doing before you use a pesticide. This is one time to get some advice.

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