Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi A Gardening Primer

By Dennis Domrzalski

MARCH 1, 1999:  A wannabe writer once wrote a newspaper columnist to ask for advice. The young man wanted to be a writer and asked the columnist what type of computer he should buy, what type of word processing program he should get and what other equipment he would need to write.

The columnist's reply was short and simple: If you want to write, go out and buy a pencil and a pad of paper. That's really all you need.

A similarly short and simple answer can be given to anyone who wants to start gardening. Really, all you need to get started in gardening is a strong garden spade, a metal garden rake and a hose to get water to your garden.

Oh, you can get fancier and buy things like rototillers, chipper/shredders and gas-powered edging tools as you get more involved in this wonderful hobby, but to get started, keep it simple.

Getting Started

If you don't have a garden spade and a steel rake, go out and buy them. Those huge, chain hardware and home improvement stores have the best deals on them. You can get the shovel, rake and a pair of rawhide work gloves for under $30. Make sure you buy the work gloves. If you start digging without wearing gloves, your delicate hands will be blistered so badly that it'll be weeks before you can lift a cup of espresso.

After you buy the rake, shovel and gloves, go home and look at your yard and plan. Figure out what it is you are going to do before you do it. Observe your yard at different times of the day so you can see which part gets the most sunlight. Plants need sun! Their little leaves turn it into food, and that's how they grow and produce all those beautiful flowers and delicious vegetables. Generally, the more sun a plant gets, the better.

So watch for the sun. Look where it is in the sky. Know that it moves from east to west and that it gets further and further north in our sky up until the summer solstice--around June 21--when it starts moving south again.

Start small. Gardening, although enjoyable, is a lot of work. You might find that as you go on, you prefer to spend your time sitting in a dark house guzzling cheap beer. If that's the case, you won't have to replant the entire yard back into grass.

A 10 feet by 10 feet plot is easily enough space for a beginning gardener. It's easily manageable for a first-year project and is enough, if all goes well, to spark a fanaticism for gardening that will last a lifetime.

Wear work or hiking boots when you dig, as you will be doing a lot of jumping on the shovel. Dig your dirt at least a foot down. Put the shovel blade into the ground and start turning over the dirt. Be methodical. Do a row at time. In just a couple of hours, you'll have the entire plot turned over.

There are reasons to do this. First, and foremost, you want to loosen the soil. This makes it easier for the roots of the plants to grow. If there is grass on your plot, you'll want to dig out the roots. Your garden plants don't need competition from grass for nutrients and water.

After you've dug up the ground and taken out all the grass roots and rocks, you'll want to smooth and level the dirt out with your garden rake. This shouldn't take more than 10 or 15 minutes.

If you're a real fanatical gardener, you can test your soil for its acidity and other nutrients. But for this year, just skip it. Chances are your dirt is pretty good. I have never tested my soil, and almost everything I've planted has grown. As a precaution against bad dirt, buy a few bags of steer manure (on sale, they cost 99-cents) and a couple of bags of peat moss or mulch (a little more expensive) and spread it out and dig it into your dirt.

What To Plant

Now comes the hardest thing about gardening--figuring out what to plant and where to put it in the garden. There are dozens of vegetables you can put in, and with limited garden space this can be an agonizing decision. For a first-time vegetable garden, it's a good idea to plant a few of a lot of different vegetables. That way you get the thrill of seeing a lot of different things grow.

In a first-year garden, you can easily have all this stuff: tomatoes, green beans, peppers, eggplant, carrots, lettuce, onions, radishes, peas, zucchini, cucumbers, chard, garlic, yellow squash and broccoli.

The two most important things to understand about vegetable gardening is that just about everything can be planted much closer together than what is recommended on the seed packages, and that you can get lots more stuff if you do what is called succession planting. That means planting cool weather plants like radishes and onions in the early spring, harvesting them, and then using the space to plant hot-weather plants like peppers and tomatoes.

For a 10 feet by 10 feet space, you can dig two feet-wide walkways and have four, two-foot-wide raised beds on which to plant stuff.

Let's Plant

To make this first garden incredibly easy and satisfying, do this now: Dig your raised beds, and in the space where you'll plant tomatoes and peppers, plant green peas. You can buy a packet or two of the kind that doesn't need staking. Plant in double rows three inches apart, leaving a foot between the double rows. Plant the seeds one to two inches apart. The peas will be up in April and May. And when it's time to plant peppers and tomatoes in mid-to-late-May, just dig up the peas.

Right now, like today or tomorrow, you should be planting onions and garlic. Buy the onion sets, which are tiny onion bulbs, from the plant stores. Just barely stick them into the soil four inches apart from each other. You can buy garlic at the grocery store. Pull the bulbs apart and plant the individual cloves. Put them about six inches apart.

In the space you've reserved for summer squash, go out and spread a few packages of radish seeds over the ground. Cover them with a thin layer of soil, and in three weeks or so, you'll have radishes. Since radishes are a cool weather plant, they'll be done growing by the time you are ready to plant the squash.

Some Tips

It's fun to grow everything from seed. You can go crazy in January and February starting hot weather plants like tomatoes, eggplants and peppers inside. But for the first year, you should buy the plants from the plant stores. They don't cost a lot, and they are well-rooted and ready to transplant. Almost everything else can be sown directly into the garden. Read the backs of the seed packages for the proper time to plant.

Don't ever plant carrots, parsnips or leaf lettuce the way they suggest on the packages. Do it that way and you'll have space for about four or five carrots. Do it this way instead: Scrape away the topsoil from a small area, say one or two feet by two feet, and sprinkle a packet or two of seeds as if you were spreading grass seed. Cover the seeds back up. You will get hundreds of carrots and lettuce plants. Sure, the plants will be crowded, but you can thin them out just by picking them on a regular basis.

Also, for green onions, or scallions as some call them, take the same sized space and dig out the dirt to a depth of two to three inches. Then just dump a bag or two of onion sets into the hole and fill it back up. With green onions, it doesn't matter how close they are to each other. You'll get hundreds of green onions this way from a very small space.

As I've said, you can usually plant things much closer to each other than the seed packets call for. One year I had at least 50 tomato plants in a five feet by 25 feet space. That year I got nearly a thousand tomatoes. Had I followed the rules that say tomatoes must be planted two to three feet apart, I would have had less than half that many plants. So put tomatoes 18 inches apart and put peppers 12 inches apart. Peppers are also ideal for planting in a star pattern, where one plant is in the middle of a square while four others are on the corners of the square.

Watering and Mulching

The biggest problem with gardening in the desert is that it hardly ever rains. Back East, you can actually go weeks without ever having to water a garden yourself. Since water is precious out here, you want to make sure to use as little of it as possible. So go out and buy soaker hoses. These things ooze water, and over an hour or so, soak an area four inches on either side of the hose. They're only about $7 for 50 feet. Get enough of them and you can connect them throughout the entire garden. That way, with just one turn of the faucet you can water the whole garden!

In the desert you also want to mulch, that is cover your soil with something--straw, leaves or old newspapers. The mulch will help retain moisture in the soil, and it will prevent weeds from growing. It's probably best to use straw. I used newspapers one year. They did the job, but they looked sloppy, and the neighbors got mad.

Buying Seeds

Sign up for as many seed catalogs as you can. This gives you something to do in the winter and a way to find unusual varieties and to compare prices. But I wouldn't order too much from the catalogs. They're usually pretty expensive. Just this year the big home improvement chains in Albuquerque were selling the seeds of a major catalog for half-price. I got a dozen packets of seeds one day for $5.95.

And don't overdo it with the seeds. For a small starter garden, you probably need only a packet or two of each thing you want to plant.

Happy gardening!

Stuff to Get Started:

Garden spade $14.98
Steel bow rake $5.96
Small garden shovel $4.96
Leather work gloves $4.97
Soaker hose, 75-feet $10.96

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