If you're a good detective, you can be a good gardener

Growing your own vegetables isn't such a big mystery. With a little detective work, you should be able to solve this case yourself. You can have fun and learn a lot, too, by preparing soil, seeding and weeding, watering and harvesting your own crops.

What's your first clue?

Vegetables that are fast and easy to grow are good for a beginner. Crunchy red radishes are about the fastest-growing spring vegetable. You can usually start to pick them three weeks after you have sown radish seeds. Other vegetables that mature in less than two months include green onions (scallions), leaf lettuce, and snap beans. Beets and carrots take only one or two weeks longer.

Find a sunny spot for your garden. Your plants will need at least six hours of bright sunlight every day. So you'll want a spot that is not shaded by a large building or tall trees most of the time. A plot about 5 by 8 feet (40 square feet) will be big enough to grow four or five vegetables. Make a drawing or plan for your garden, with a row for each of your favorites.

Loose, fertile soil will produce better harvests. Don't miss this important clue! Your garden soil should not be too sandy, and not heavy with clay. A soil testing kit from the garden center will show what ingredients your soil needs.

Many gardens require three important additions each year. These include: (1) soil conditioner (peat moss, leaf mold, or compost); (2) fertilizer (compost, well-rotted manure, or commercial fertilizer); (3) soil sweetener (lime or wood ashes). Use about three bushels of these on a plot 40 feet square. They should be spaded in deeply. An adult can help with this, while you pick out sticks, stones, and other debris. Later you can help with a light rake, smoothing off your plot and making it even.

Shop for seeds and onion sets. An adult will know where to find them, at the garden center, discount house, or supermarket. Be sure seed packages are stamped with this year's date.

Read the instructions printed on the back of each seed package. They'll tell you how deep to plant seeds, how far apart, and how far from the next row. Other helpful information includes how much space will be needed later, as plants mature, as well as how fast they mature.

It's a good idea to save seed packets, even if you use all the seeds. Keep them with your garden plan, and write down the date when you planted each kind.

At planting time, mark off rows about one foot apart, or as instructed. Experienced gardeners often make rows that run north and south. Many also tie string to small stakes at both ends of each row. This keeps rows straight during planting and helps avoid stepping on tiny seedlings later.

Next, dig a shallow furrow, or drill, with the corner of your hoe. Scatter seeds, following directions carefully, and cover with fine soil or sand. Gently press seed down into soil with the flat back of the hoe. Water with a fine mist. You can mark each row to show what kind of seed you planted. Use an ice cream stick, tongue depressor, or garden marker, and be sure to write with indelible ink.

Seeds need to be kept moist until they sprout. Water with care every day it doesn't rain. After seeds germinate, watch your tiny plants (seedlings) closely. Water as soon as they start to wilt - maybe two or three times a week, if days are warm and sunny.

Vegetables should be weeded, watered, and cultivated regularly, especially when plants are small. Weeds can be uprooted easily after a rainfall. But be careful not to get rid of seedlings, too. Another neat clue on your seed packet is a picture of each seedling, so you can tell the difference.

A productive garden needs about the same amount of water each week that 1 inch of rain would give. During a long summer drought, you might need to water two or three times weekly.

Harvest when vegetables are mature, yet tender. A good detective keeps track of his clues. If you saved those planting dates, you'll know about when to harvest each vegetable.

When your crops are ready, pick only as much as your family will enjoy for supper. Wash away dirt at the kitchen sink and bring your fresh, nutritious harvest to the table.

You've solved the good garden mystery in a hurry, haven't you?

Case closed!

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