Be it the exercise or the food, a garden is a great selling point – and a way to make your friends envious. But is it realistic for your home, and how much space do you need to pull it off?

Kitchen gardens, once a mainstay in American homes, lost their allure as families grew busier. Now with rising food and gasoline prices, along with food safety concerns, more folks want to harvest produce in their own backyard.

“Recessions makes people try to figure out how they can grow and make things themselves,” says Bruce Butterfield, market research director at the National Gardening Association in South Burlington, Vt. His group estimates that the number of households tending to fruit and vegetables gardens will increase from 22 to 25 percent in 2008. The 2001 recession brought on a similar growth spurt, he says.

The public is already spending more money on preparing gardens. An annual survey of more than 2,000 households by the National Gardening Association found that average spending in 2007 on vegetable plants rose 21 percent to $58. Spending on herbs and herb seedlings rose 45 percent to $32 per household last year.

Even in late summer, homeowners can start a garden by either planting fall seeds or preparing the soil for spring planting. Most expert gardeners plant year-round, often nurturing seedlings under special lights in the dead of winter.

Butterfield says new gardeners should try to contain their large ambitions and, instead, start small. A good harvest always requires time to weed, water and cultivate.
“You’ve got to be prepared to spend one to two hours a week out there,” he says.

Veteran gardener Ray Stahl of Half Moon Bay, Calif., says he’s found more of his neighbors take an interest in gardening. And among like-minded gardeners, discussions revolve around how to yield more with the land they have.
He says that savvy gardeners can take advantage of any size square of land. He even plants artichokes in his front yard and asparagus in the side of his home.

“It’s a misconception that you need a big yard,” he says. Even a single 4-by-4-foot plot is enough to grow a couple varieties of vegetables. Those with limited space could also develop a container garden.

Expert gardeners say it’s important to understand USDA Plant Hardiness Zones to select the appropriate produce for your area.

You may want to plant crops that grow easily, such as tomatoes, peas, cucumbers, watermelons, onions and squash.
Other tips to consider:

• Follow the sun’s rays: Crops need at least eight hours of full sun each day, Butterfield says. Root and leafy vegetables, such as carrots and beets, will survive with less sun. Find a spot that has easy access to an outdoor faucet, particularly if considering the use of irrigation hoses.

• Determine a method: Fruits and vegetables grow with a variety of techniques, such as:

• Companion planting, the science of placing different plants in close proximity so that they may benefit each other.

• Organic gardening, the practice of growing produce without the use of chemicals.

• Raised-bed gardening, the technique of mounting the soil in wide rectangular beds.

• Square-foot gardening, a method of using a four foot by four foot bed rather than rows.
Spend a day or two talking with neighbors and friends about what works best in your location.

• Plot the plants: Before digging, take a couple minutes to think it through. A sketch could include rows, distance between rows, expected planting dates and even harvest dates. Stahl developed a vegetable garden design application that runs on the Web. Vegetable gardeners can visit www.plangarden.com to create a visual layout of their garden and exchange ideas from other Plangarden community members. A free trial is available.

• Prepare the soil: Vegetable gardens thrive in a well-drained soil with a high organic-matter content (a mixture, for instance, of compost, ground bark, manure and peat moss). Butterfield suggests testing the soil to determine what it may need. Then, till or spade the area to a depth of six inches. Mix it with the organic matter.

• Follow directions: When sowing, space the seeds according to the instructions on the packets. Vegetables typically grow well with seeds. The bigger the seed, the easier it is for it to grow in the ground. Seedlings from small-seed produce like tomatoes and parsley may offer faster results the first year. Young seedlings and germinating seeds will require more frequent watering at first.

• Plan for next year: A simple and manageable first-year garden gives growers the confidence to branch out in the future. Once the harvest time ends, cover the soil with mulch. Then evaluate the experience and exchange ideas with other gardeners. Stahl says gardeners in your community offer the best advice for dealing with temperatures and soil conditions in your area.

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