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How Does Your Garden Grow? Prof. Preston Adams Offers Tips for Getting Started

March 24, 1999

March 24, 1999, Greencastle, Ind. - If you want to enjoy fresh vegetables from your own garden this year, now is the time to begin. W. Preston Adams, professor of botany at DePauw University and a vegetable grower for more than 30 years, offers an easy-to-follow guide to gardening that will get you through from start to harvest.

Adams says it is not unusual for the beginning gardener to be overwhelmed with decisions about where to locate the garden, when to plant, what to plant, and when to weed and water. He gives simple solutions to these common questions.

Step 1: Start with choosing a place and size for your garden. "You want an area that is relatively level and not shady," says Adams. "Also, avoid areas close to trees because your plants will have to compete for water and nutrients with the tree roots. The garden can be as large or small as you like, but first-time gardeners may want to start with a small garden."

Step 2: Fertilize the soil. Adams uses the leaves he collects in the fall as fertilizer for his garden. "Compost is nice," he says. "If you want to use compost, just save all of your organic trash and throw it on your garden during the winter and early spring." Commercial fertilizers can also be used. 

Step 3: Then till, or mix up, the soil. "It's really difficult if you don't have a tilling machine," says Adams. "I would recommend borrowing a tiller from a neighbor if you don't have one. Tillers can also be rented from tool rental stores. If you have grass growing in your garden area, you should peel back the top layer of sod, removing the grass and its roots, before tilling.

Step 4: Now you can choose what vegetables you're going to grow. "You want plants that can withstand the occasional nightly frost," Adams explains. Spring vegetables include peas, carrots, corn, potatoes, beans, broccoli, cabbage, green and yellow onions, spinach, radishes and lettuce. As you may have noticed, many salad vegetables can be planted in the spring. 

"These vegetables can grow almost anywhere in the United States," Adams says. "The farther south you live, the earlier you can plant, that's all. Most seeds can be found at grocery or garden stores," he says. "Some vegetables, like potatoes, can be planted whole in the ground, but you have to buy the starter potatoes from a garden store. The ones you buy at the grocery are treated so they won't produce buds."

Step 5: Once you've chosen your vegetables, make rows using a garden hoe. "Make the rows a foot apart or more, depending on the size of your plant," explains Adams. "It's very important not to crowd your garden. Give your vegetables plenty of space to grow."

Step 6: Planting time is usually late March and early April, depending upon the year's weather. "Make sure the soil is dry before you plant," Adams says. "Tilling your garden in the fall will help the ground dry quicker." If you're not sure whether your soil is dry enough, Adams says a simple rule is to test it with your hoe. This is like testing a cake by poking it with a toothpick. If the hoe comes out clean, it's time to plant. If the soil sticks to the hoe, wait a few days and try again.

When you buy the seeds, they should come with instructions on when, how deep and how far apart to plant them. "Usually, the smaller the seed, the more shallow you should plant it," Adams says. For instance, he says small bean seeds can be planted one and one-half to two inches below the surface.

60692"All of these vegetables should be planted by mid-April. If you wait any longer, it will be too warm for the plants to grow properly." After you plant your seeds, label your rows in some way. "Some people just hang the seed packet over a twig, and stick that in the ground," Adams says. "Any kind of labeling system will do."

Step 7: Now that you've got the seeds in the ground, you need to protect them from weeds. "Around April, as the soil starts to warm up, those pesky little weeds will begin to peek their heads up, and by May they'll take over," Adams says.

He says that weeding is an important step that many people overlook. "Don't be afraid to get your hands dirty. Too many first-time gardeners plant their seeds and expect to come back in a few weeks and harvest without having done anything in between. This just won't work. Especially if there are several days of heavy rains, the weeds will destroy your plants."

One simple way of weeding is to run a hoe between the rows of plants; then carefully remove the weeds growing inside the rows by hand. Adams says to cut all the way down to the roots, but you don't have to completely remove them. "Just expose the roots to the sun, and the weeds will die," he says.

Not sure whether that little green sprout is a filthy weed or a lovely carrot top? Adams has a simple rule: "If it comes up in a row, don't pick it."

Step 8: You may also need to water your garden. "If it doesn't rain for 10 days, water your plants with a sprinkler, but always water after the sun has gone down. This will keep the water from evaporating and help plants absorb it better," Adams says.

Step 9: Pests such as rabbits, raccoons, groundhogs and chipmunks can also be a threat to your vegetables. He says you can keep out many of these animals with low chicken-wire fencing. Adams doesn't plant corn anymore due to the many battles he has lost to furry thieves in the past.

Step 10: If you've successfully protected your plants from drought, pests and weeds, your vegetables should be ready to harvest in June, Adams says. "There's an art to knowing when your vegetables are ready. It will be different each year, depending on rainfall and the weather.

EAST COLLEGE BOULDER hdr"Plant enough of each type of vegetable so that you can test a few plants before picking them all," he recommends. "As a general rule, a spring garden is finished by the end of June. Onions may continue into early July."

If you're satisfied with the results of your spring garden, you may want to do it all over again, this time with sweet, summer vegetables such as tomatoes, eggplant, cucumbers, squash, yams (sweet potatoes), pumpkin and zucchini.

Besides the obvious benefit of the harvest, Adams says vegetable gardening is a great hobby for other reasons. "You get some exercise, you're out in the sunshine, communing with nature, and you even get to vent some rage once in a while at the creatures that try to steal your food."

One might assume that a person like Adams would have a wide range of gardening interests, but Adams is happy just growing vegetables and the occasional herb. When asked why he doesn't venture into flower gardening, he supplies another one of his no-nonsense rules of gardening: "If I can't eat it, I don't grow it."

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