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Your first vegetable garden

It's cold. It's wet. Summer's heat is a vague dream. And then, in the mail — the first seed catalog! Spring suddenly seems closer, because you've decided this is the year you will have a vegetable garden. It's time to get out a big sheet of paper and begin the garden plan. But, how does one begin?

Well, if you've never grown your own veggies, start with what you and your family will eat. The goal is to have an enjoyable and successful experience. If your family turns up its collective nose at eggplant or beets, don't grow them, especially on your first try.

Next, select a place in your yard for the garden. It should receive a minimum of six to eight hours of continuous sunlight. Observing how sunlight and shadows fall in various parts of your yard helps you select a good garden site. A plot 16 by 20 feet will provide ample food for a family of four. Start even smaller — it is better to have a small well-tended garden that gives you satisfaction than a big weedy mess.

You'll also have to decide whether to plant directly in existing soil, or to use raised beds. The Rogue Valley has several kinds of soil, from the "black sticky" clay of Sams Valley to decomposed granite around Ashland. Most, if not all, valley soils will need some amendment by incorporating lots of compost. If you know that your soil is "difficult," consider raised beds, so you can construct more ideal soil. A mantra of successful gardeners is: "Healthy soil makes healthy plants."

Although raised beds can mean berms — soil mounds — vegetables are easier to grow in a framed bed constructed with wood or concrete blocks. (Don't use timbers containing creosote.) Make your beds as long as you want, but no wider than four feet, so you can reach the middle without walking in the bed. Greg Stewart, associate at the south Medford Grange Co-op says untreated juniper in 4 by 4-inch timbers are a good choice because they last nearly as long as cedar.

Build the depth of your bed to suit the vegetables you want to plant. For root vegetables like beets or carrots, the bed should be at least a foot deep. If gophers are a problem, line the bottom of the bed with wire "hardware cloth" to keep these burrowing critters from munching on your crops. If you are planting on former lawn, lining the bottom of the bed with cardboard or several thicknesses of newspaper can suppress weeds without harming the action of microbes and worms needed for healthy soil.

Gardeners soon learn that opinions differ on how to go about growing things. That's also true of what kind of mixture to put in the raised bed. Marie Chubb, customer service rep at Hilton Fuel suggests a mixture of topsoil, composted chicken manure and aged sawdust. At Phoenix Organics, manager and plant scientist Ajit Singh says their mix contains organic compost, perlite, coconut fiber, all-purpose fertilizer and micro-nutrients. If you decide not to use a raised bed, be sure to incorporate plenty of compost or aged manure into your soil to insure good drainage.

If you're planning to start a garden, start simply. "Cool" season vegetables grow best in early spring or in the fall and include spinach, peas, lettuce, radishes, and beets. Carrots and corn like the "in-between weather." Beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash and peppers prefer growing in warm weather. For the beginning gardener, it usually works best to purchase seedlings of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and squash. Local nurseries and the farmers' market sell varieties adapted to this area.

Make it easy on yourself when you can, and you will be growing in your garden for years to come.

Your first vegetable garden