The days are getting longer, temperatures are rising and the yearly ritual of preparing the family garden is upon us again. But before you put your hands in the soil, plan ahead to make your gardening venture a success.
Making a diagram to specify land use and plant placement is a great way to get started, according to Denise Sharp, a horticulture specialist at the Home and Garden Information Center of the Cooperative Extension Service, Maryland Institute for Agriculture andNatural Resources.
"By forcing you to organize your thoughts, a diagram can help youavoid some common pitfalls later," says Sharp.
She recommends locating the garden where it will receive full sunlight throughout the day. If this is not possible, pick a spot that gets a minimum of six hours of sun daily.
Because water is essential, she advises locating your vegetable garden where running water is readily available.
But be sure the plot is far enough away from competing plants.
"Trees and shrubs can be a problem when located near a garden," says Sharp, "because their roots absorb moisture and nutrients from the garden while their branches add unwanted shade."
Also, certain trees orshrubs, most notably walnut, exude substances from their roots that are toxic to tomatoes and other vegetables.
Once you've decided onthe optimum location for a vegetable garden, you're ready to begin the physical preparations.
If you haven't tested your soil, Sharp recommends doing so right away. The test will show whether your gardenneeds lime and fertilizer, which provide plants with proper nutrition.
Maryland residents can get a soil test kit from their local extension office and have their garden soil tested for $5. Analysis of soil samples usually takes a week or two.
Cool-season plants -- those that can withstand frost -- may be planted from mid-March to earlyApril, says Sharp. Examples include cabbage, radishes, spinach, lettuce, onions and potatoes. Hold off on planting frost-sensitive plantslike tomatoes, beans, corn, peppers, cucumbers and squash until May.
Almost all traditional crops do well in Maryland's temperate climate, says Sharp. Among the "new" plants available to home vegetable gardeners are crossbed squash varieties, supersweet corns, seedless watermelons, edible podded peas and potatoes with unusual skin or fleshcolors.
When sowing seeds and placing your plants, try to avoid some common mistakes made by many recreational gardeners. Don't plant individual seeds or plants too close together. As they grow, thin theplants to reduce competition and encourage optimum growth. Don't forget to tend your garden regularly, and don't plant more than you can handle.
The Home and Garden Information Center and local cooperative extension service offices offer several publications that can helpyou in your gardening endeavors.
For further information, call the Home and Garden Information Center at 1-800-342-2507.