Back to basics

What to do if it's your first time gardening

CANDACE WEST/Miami Herald, MCT<br><br>
Maria Marasigan plants tomatoes during a garden party in Miami recently. More and more first-timers are getting their hands dirty with gardening as the economy continues to falter.

CANDACE WEST/Miami Herald, MCT<br><br> Maria Marasigan plants tomatoes during a garden party in Miami recently. More and more first-timers are getting their hands dirty with gardening as the economy continues to falter.

OK, you can feel spring in the air. You are itching to get out and plant; it doesn't matter what. You have this almost instinctual urge to garden.

Most of us have had some experience planting. Perhaps we planted a seed in a cup in grade school or helped an adult weed the garden. If you are ready to progress beyond your first exposure to gardening, or if you simply want to brush up on the basics, this article is for you

Plant seeds

There are several steps to follow to make those seeds grow. Begin by making your bed - flowerbed, that is. About three weeks before you are ready to plant, sink a pitchfork into the earth. Loosen it down about 12 inches, add a layer of compost, and then rake the surface. Make sure to eliminate weeds, dirt clumps and stones.

Dig a furrow or maybe not. If you like order in all things, carve out a shallow trench with a hoe or a hand trowel. You do not have to plant in rows.

You can organize your garden as a grid, with plants at the four corners of each square. You may choose not to do this and just dig shallow holes for the seeds.

Water lightly. Moisten but don't soak the soil. Watering before rather than after planting the seeds protects them from being swamped or floating up and out of the soil.

Sow the seeds. Spread the seeds through the trench or place two or three in each hole. The seed packet will tell you how far apart to plant them. If you plant too closely, you can thin them out after they come up.

Cover with soil. Generally, bury seeds only as deep as their diameter. Sprinkle soil on top of the seeds, pressing gently so the seeds have contact with the soil.

Keep moist. Sprinkle water on the seedbed whenever the soil surface is dry until all the seeds have sprouted.

Transplant

Perhaps you bought plants and can skip the seed planting directions. If so, try these steps.

Dig a hole. Make the hole as deep as the plant's container and double the diameter. Water the plant before planting it. Until the roots start growing, they can't draw water from the soil.

Remove the plant from the pot. Place your hands on the top of the pot, with your fingers around the plant's stem. Turn the pot upside down and gently squeeze it or push it out from the bottom. Try not to tug it out, but if you must, pull it by a leaf rather than the stem. If a leaf comes off, no major harm is done. But if you damage the stem, the plant will not survive.

Check the roots. If the roots are wrapped around, carefully pull a few loose with your fingers. Place it in the hole. Set the plant in the hole at the same depth as it was in the pot.

Replace the soil and then water. Backfill the hole with the soil you removed and press gently to ensure that the roots have solid contact with soil. Be sure the soil remains moist until you see the plant is growing.

Manage weeds

While you are growing your plants, you want to be careful you are not growing weeds. Use these methods to control weeds:

• Mulch. Keep your soil covered at all times to prevent light reaching weed seeds. Spread a thick layer of mulch, such as straw, shredded leaves, etc., on your garden each spring and replace it during the growing season. Not only will the mulch prevent weeds, it nourishes your soil as it decomposes.

• Hand pull. By pulling weeds as soon as you see them, you can keep this job from becoming drudgery. By doing this daily or weekly, you are able to get a close-up view of your garden and keep ahead of any problems.

• Hoe. If you were on vacation and returned to a garden full of weeds, a hoe is the quickest way to restore order to your garden.

• Be persistent. Little by little, you will eliminate at best, or at least keep weeds at a minimum.

Control pests

Most insects are not a threat to plants, many are beneficial to plants, and they are an important part of the ecosystem. But what should you do if the insects truly become pests?

Grow healthy plants. Pests target weak or unhealthy plants. Make sure you choose plants that are suited to your growing conditions.

The more the merrier, or healthier plants have the best chance of survival. Mix different vegetables, herbs or flowers together in your beds. This keeps pests from destroying a complete crop of their favorite food.

Encourage pests' predators. The most effective way to control pests is to rely on the food chain. Plant herbs and flowers among your vegetables to entice ladybugs, for example, which feed on the nectar from flowers while their larvae eat insects.

Put out a birdbath to encourage birds to eliminate pests. Lizards, too, are our friends in the garden. Build barriers. Row cover is a woven fabric that lets light, air and water reach plants but keeps pests away from them.

Water wisely

Pick your plants. This is a given, but it needs to be said. Pick plants suited to your soil, climate and site. Every plant needs extra attention in its early days. Check newly planted ones often, and don't let them wilt from lack of water.

Water your garden in the early morning or in the evening. Cooler temperatures mean less moisture loss than in the heat of the day. Before you water, push your index finger two knuckles deep in the garden soil. If it feels damp, don't water the garden. To use water efficiently, use a soaker hose or a drip-irrigation system.

Using these suggestions as a guideline, may you experience the same thrill of gardening as when the first seed you planted began to sprout!