Your own veggie patch: Raising your own vegetables is easier than you may think … and it’s not too early to get growing.

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Imagine having lettuce, celery, carrots and green peppers chopped for a salad and realizing you don’t have cucumbers and tomatoes, or worse, they’ve gone bad. The last thing you want to do is take a trip to the store.

Too bad you hadn’t planted a small garden on your deck or in your backyard; you’d be only steps away from fresh vegetables. Spring is around the corner, and for some people that means the start of vegetable garden season. If you’d like to be one of those people, it’s not as difficult as you may think — even if you have little or no land.

Keep two things in mind: Thanks to the Extension service, your local garden-supply dealers and the internet, answers to your questions are always nearby. And, all vegetables are created differently, so you’re sure to find some that will succeed and lead you down the garden path to even more vegetable successes.

For instance, low-maintenance plants like green beans, peas, cucumbers, tomatoes and other bush variety vegetables will grow well in containers, box gardens or right in the ground. Meanwhile, corn, squash, pumpkin and root vegetables require more space either above or below ground than container or box gardens allow.

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“Cucumbers are probably even easier than pumpkins to grow,” says Tori Jackson, University of Maine Extension educator for agriculture and natural resources. “They produce a lot of fruit, so if you’re a first-timer it can be very gratifying to grow something that you can eat in your first year.”

Other lower maintenance plants are bush variety tomatoes, string beans, squash and pumpkins. Potatoes need to be mounded over with soil regularly and carrots need loose soil, making these choices a bit more tricky, time consuming and laborious.

Jackson recommends that first-time gardeners limit what they plant to six types of vegetables. She also says seed packets should be kept to refer back to when planting, watering and fertilizing. Those packets will also provide a fairly good idea of how big each plant will grow, so they can be planted accordingly to avoid crowding.

Regardless, getting a little info first will make the process much more rewarding and successful. “If you’re a first-time gardener, go online or go to the library and get all the help you can, because there’s no sense in spending $2 on that package (of seeds) if you don’t know how to grow it,” says Ken Hilton of J.L. Hayes in Auburn. Advice, he said, is free.

Getting started

After considering what vegetable varieties you want to plant, the next step is deciding where you want to plant your garden.

Whether it’s in a bucket in your house or a quarter-acre garden outside, the experts recommend knowing your soil first. It’s easier if you’re buying the soil for some indoor gardening or germinating. If you’re gardening outside, “I would encourage anyone with any type of garden to do a soil test,” says Jackson. She noted this test should ideally be done in the fall prior to the planting season for gardens set directly in the ground.

Now, if you you decide to get an early start and germinate your vegetable seeds indoors, Michael Bilodeau, certified nursery consultant at The Home Depot, says a common mistake people make is using too heavy of a soil. Bilodeau says packaged soil that is labeled “seed starter formula” is best, as it is lighter weight and contains nutrients essential to germination. For most home gardens, Bilodeau said one or two starter trays of 72 pellets for seedlings is more than enough.

A word to the penny-pincher: Bilodeau notes that if saving money is the motivation behind starting your own seedlings, the end cost of germinating yourself can be comparable to buying the seedlings from a supplier. Grow them if you enjoy the process, not because you’ll save a lot of money, he says.

Starting seedlings is “a lot of work” and “take a lot of time,” Hilton acknowledges.

One reason: Tim Kane, manager of J.L. Hayes, says certain seeds need warm temperatures and plenty of light to germinate.

Many seedlings require 14 to 16 hours of light a day; said Kane. This is more than many people get in any one room of their home, so artificial light is important.

The germination process benefits from having a light source close by for both warmth and the prevention of “leggy” seedlings. Plants will reach toward the light if it is too far away, growing faster than they should, which creates weak and stringy stalks. By keeping the light source within two to four inches of the seedlings, the new plants will soak up the warmth and nutrients slowly, allowing them fill out and strengthen, says Bilodeau.

If access to sunlight is available, make sure to rotate trays to avoid leaning, adds Bilodeau.

As for other factors, whether you’re new to gardening or simply want to take the guesswork out of how much to water the seeds, try a self-watering tray. These trays, Bilodeau says, have a water reservoir that allows the plants to get water from the roots upward.

Another tip Bilodeau offers is to use a small oscillating fan near the seedlings, which, he says, will strengthened the plants.”Blowing (the plant) around makes the stock sturdy.”

Once seedlings get six or seven inches tall, says Hilton, they are most likely in need of being transplanted.

Taking it outside

If you’re going to take your seedlings outdoors for planting, never remove them from inside and plant them immediately. First, harden them off by putting them in a breezeway or garage or even a makeshift shelter that allows the plants to acclimate to the cooler temperatures. After a week, they are ready to plant if the soil has warmed up.

“A big mistake people make every year is planting too early,” says Kane. “You rush spring, get a few warm days and start planting. You shouldn’t put (most) anything in the ground in Maine until after Memorial Day.”

“Things aren’t going to grow properly until the soil reaches 58 degrees,” says Hilton, whether that’s for seedlings or seeds.

In preparation for your outdoor planting, it’s always a good idea to plot out the garden first, our experts say. Consider the amount of sun each plant requires, as well as the best location for sunlight. Group vegetables together based on the amount of exposure to the sun they need, says Kane.

Hilton cautions to be aware of how tall each plant will grow to avoid overcrowding, which will diminish the light each plant gets.

“They may look small when they go in the ground, but hopefully they’re going to get big and hearty,” says Jackson. “You don’t want them to get too crowded, because then they compete for nutrients, water and life.”

The square foot gardening concept was created by Mel Bartholomew, a former civil engineer. Similar to the victory gardens of the World War II era, raised boxes that measure two feet by two feet, three by three, and four by four are the most common, but they can be any size. Using some type of grid, these gardens can be organized to hold a variety of different vegetables even if space is limited. Another benefit is that the soil in the box will be warmer than what is in the ground, making planting easier.

“I grow pole beans in big boxes,” says Bilodeau. “I do a lot of square foot gardening. In a four-foot-by-four-foot box I can plant enough food for a family of three.”

 If you have limited space, there are options available to in-ground planting. It can be as simple as a five-gallon bucket, says Bilodeau, or a hanging planter.

Container gardening is great when space is limited, and makes growing vegetables on your deck or patio possible, adds Hilton.

Bilodeau likes hanging bag planters for their ease, and by removing the top on most of these bags, you can plant herbs in the same bag as tomatoes, peppers or strawberries, he says.

For container gardening, both Hilton and Kane recommend five-gallon buckets with holes made in the bottom for drainage.

“Put an inch or so of crushed stone in the bottom of the bucket; it helps with the drainage,” says Kane. “And use a good quality potting soil.”

Kane notes that regular, amended soil isn’t designed for container gardening.

Let’s talk food

Plants need nutrients to grow, so Hilton says fertilizing them once a week is beneficial. While some people may be seasoned gardeners and know the right fertilizer-to-soil mix for their plantings, others will probably like the simplicity of a liquid fertilizer like Miracle Grow, says Bilodeau. Fertilizing should begin when the first true set of leaves form, which is actually the second pair of leaves a seedling sprouts.

“Plants are going to tell you when they are hungry,” says Jackson. “When they are starting to look a little bit light green, or you know they are about to set fruit and they haven’t been fertilized in awhile, that would be a good time to add a little more fertilizer.”

The state of Maine is encouraging the use of non-phosphorus fertilizers to reduce the negative effects of toxic blue-green algae in watershed areas. For those who have animals and want to use natural fertilizer, Hilton says the animal waste needs to be composted first, otherwise it will burn the plants.

As for water, just because the soil looks wet, Hilton cautions that it’s best to have a sprinkler set up to water for at least a half-hour daily.

“You can’t make up for rain,” adds Kane. “Depending on the weather, you need to water every day.”

Pest-free zone

There are many environmentally friendly alternatives for keeping bugs and wildlife from consuming your hard work. Hilton says one method that seems to work well is to plant marigolds in between plants.

“A lot of your pests do not like the smell of marigolds,” says Hilton. Garden sprays that contain oils from marigold, peppermint, garlic and even lemon will keep pests at bay, he adds.

To keep wildlife at bay try spraying predator scents or using double hydrated lime, Kane recommends. Also blood meal will keep groundhogs away and actually enriches the soil because it’s nitrate rich, he says.

For more information visit the University of Maine’s Cooperative Extension Web site at http://extension.umaine.edu/gardening/. To learn more about square foot gardening, check out inventor Mel Bartholomew’s Web site at http://www.squarefootgardening.com/.

Tips:

Remember: warmth and light for seed germination are key.

Know what can be transplanted and what cannot; some plants don’t transplant well.

From Memorial Day, count back six to eight weeks to start seedlings, in most cases.

Do not use potting or gardening soils to start seedlings.

Research and ask questions when in doubt.

What makes a plant organic?

It all starts with the seed. A seed is only truly organic when it comes from plants that have been grown organically for six generations or greater. Also, the fertilizer and soil must meet organic standards.

What does “bush variety” mean?

Exactly what it sounds like: The plant grows as a bush, and most often needs no stabilizing aids, such as stakes.

Why are phosphate-rich fertilizers advised against?

Water and soil that are phosphate rich might be good for plants, but the run-off can introduce phosphate to rivers, ponds and lakes, which increases blue-green algae growth. An algae that grows at an aggressive rate, blue-green can have toxic effects on marine life, animals and humans when it is disturbed or dies; more algae increases the odds of toxic effects.

Where to start

Local vegetable garden supply retailers include:

• J.L. Hayes in Auburn, 784-2499, www.jlhayes.com

• Paris Farmers’ Union in Auburn, 783-1366, www.parisfarmersunion.net/contact.html

• The Home Depot in Auburn, 777-0042

• Lowe’s in Auburn, 514-2300

• Garden Spot Farm in Pownal, 688-4462

• Your local garden center

• Department and hardware stores often carry gardening supplies

For more garden retailers visit http://www.gardens.com/go/browse/gardencenters/Maine/Auburn/.

http://www.extension.umaine.edu/onlinepubs/htmpubs/2751.htm

For information and advice also try the Cooperative Extension at http://extension.umaine.edu/ or in Androscoggin County (at 24 Main St., Lisbon Falls) call 353-5550 or 800-287-1458 (in Maine) or e-mail: andsag@umext.maine.edu

Upcoming gardening event

The 17th Annual Maine Garden Day will take place on April 17 at Lewiston High School.

Some workshops this year include:

 * Better Garlic in the Home Garden

* Gardening as a Lifetime Pursuit: How to Work Less and Enjoy More

* Growing Highbush Blueberries

* Growing Food and Community: Establishing a Community Garden to Supply Your Local Food Pantry

* Gardening to Preserve the Native Landscape: Plants to Use & Plants to Avoid

* Preserving the Harvest

* Getting Back to the Garden via Digital Photography

* Vegetables Like it Hot!

* Building and Maintaining Soil Health

* Too Many Zucchini

* Raising Poultry for Eggs or Meat

* Growing Pumpkins, Winter Squash and Other Vine Crops

Cost: $50 a person (includes lunch and all workshops).

Registration: Advance registration required. Seating limited to first 350 registrants.

FMI: Call 1-800-287-1482 (in Maine) or 207-743-6329, or go to http://extension.umaine.edu/gardening/maine-garden-day/.

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