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Plotting your garden

Don't wait until it's warm to decide when, where and what you're planting

Don't wait until it's warm to decide when, where and what you're planting

February 07, 2009|By JULIE E. GREENE

Editor's note: This is the first in an occasional series about vegetable gardening.

A head of iceberg lettuce costs $1.89, while red leaf lettuce costs $1.99. Cluster-stem tomatoes cost about $3.69 pound. And cucumbers are going for $1.30 each.

Fruits and vegetables are supposed to be good for your body, but not necessarily for your wallet. And then there are those food contamination scares that break out every once in a while.

With fresh fruit and vegetable prices expected to continue increasing and people concerned about bacteria such as E. coli or salmonella, more people have been calling the Washington County office of the Maryland Cooperative Extension inquiring about starting a vegetable garden, says horticulture educator Annette Ipsan.

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The price index for fresh vegetables rose 5.6 percent in 2008 and is expected to rise 3.5 percent to 4.5 percent this year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service. The price index for fresh fruit rose 4.8 percent last year and is forecasted to go up 4 percent to 5 percent this year.

The value of the produce you harvest will exceed the cost of the seeds or transplants, and soil additives, Ipsan said. The cost of tools, if you didn't already have them, is a long-term investment. The time you put into gardening, too, if you don't consider it voluntary, is a long-term investment.

"We try to tell people up front you can make this as easy or as complicated as you want," Ipsan said.

What to grow

This is the time to decide what you want to grow so you can order seeds. If you want to make it a little easier, you can skip seeds and buy transplants either through mail-order companies or at local garden centers.

Pick things you like to eat.

Plants that tend to be easy to grow and many people like include tomatoes, peppers, onions, squash (if you have room), cucumber, peas, beans, greens such as lettuce and chard, and herbs such as basil, Ipsan said.

Check seed packets to determine when to start seeds, some of which you might want to start inside using starter flats, grow lights and a soilless starter mix, Ipsan said.

For transplants, there are several vegetables that can be planted in the Tri-State area starting in March and early April, according to the Maryland Cooperative Extension's Home and Garden Information Center. These include peas, lettuce, onions, potatoes, radishes, spinach, rhubarb, turnips, watercress, cauliflower and broccoli.

For a more extensive list, go to www.hgic.umd.edu and under Online Publications, download the flier for Planting Dates for Vegetable Crops in Maryland.

Keep in mind the dates on the flier are for Central Maryland, and should be delayed two weeks for the Western Maryland area.

To get an idea of some vegetable varieties many people wouldn't typically grow, but might want to try, Jennie Cejka will have a taster's table at her Sustainable Gardening Workshop in Hancock on Feb. 28.

The taster's table will include millet mash made with millet, cauliflower and onions; whole-wheat peach cake; and celery, which Cejka said is a crop often loaded with pesticides unless grown organically.

The workshop, for beginners and experienced gardeners, will focus on low-maintenance, chemical-free gardening, Cejka said.

Heirlooms vs. hybrids

Next you'll want to decide if you want heirloom versus hybrid varieties.

Hybrids tend to be newer varieties that are generally bred to be resistant to problems older, or heirloom, varieties have, Ipsan said.

Many people prefer heirloom varieties for their taste, Ipsan said. This includes Brandywine tomatoes, which date back to the 1800s. A new hybrid is Brandy Boy, developed to include the disease resistance Brandywine is missing.

Also, there are more varieties with heirlooms than with hybrids, Ipsan said.

Heirloom varieties are usually grown from seed, though some popular varieties are available as transplants, Ipsan said.

To learn more about vegetable varieties recommended for this area, go to www.hgic.umd.edu and under Online Publications download Recommended Vegetable Cultivars for Maryland Home Gardens.

Planning your plot

While waiting for your seeds to arrive, there are other tasks to be done.

Pick out a garden plot. It should be a flat area that receives full sun and has easy access to water.

Do not pick a spot under or near black walnut trees, Ipsan said.

They exude a toxin that can injure some vegetables such as tomatoes and peppers. Iowa State University's Web site recommends planting vegetables at least 50 to 60 feet from walnut trees.

Keep track of where you plant which vegetables in the plot as you will want to rotate your crops to help prevent disease and insect infestations that can occur through the soil.

Soil tests are recommended for new gardens to determine if any additives are needed to raise or lower the soil's pH level or if the soil needs certain nutrients. Contact your local extension service to find out how you can get your soil tested.

Check seed packet information for plant yield.

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