Archive for Thursday, February 28, 2008

Lawrence experts offer tips for growing your own produce

February 28, 2008

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A colorful array of bell peppers is one of Amy Albright's favorite summer sights.

"I always want to buy the beautiful orange bell peppers at the store," says the owner of Vinland Valley Nursery. "But it seems like they're, like, $4 a pound. That's one of those items you want to grow on your own."

Rising food costs and widespread interest in organic foods are fine reasons to finally start your own vegetable garden - if you don't mind getting your hands dirty.

"It's cool and fun to do," Albright says. "Especially if you have kids. And it's not that hard."

Getting started

First, decide whether you want to start produce from seeds or a starter plant. The latter, of course, takes away some of the legwork, as long as you make a careful selection.

"You want to find a good, healthy plant," says Karen Pendleton, owner of Pendleton's Country Market. "You don't always want to start out with the biggest, though - you want the roots to develop. Smaller is better."

She says tomatoes, eggplant and peppers will all grow well as starter plants, but they shouldn't go outside too soon.

"Those are heat-loving plants," she says. "You don't want to put them out too early. You want them out when it's around 50 degrees at night. For most people, they start them outside around May 10."

That allows time to plan for anyone who hasn't started their garden yet, but it's still early enough in the season to start from seeds, where you have the advantage of monitoring your food from its earliest point.

"It's easier to let someone else start the plants, but it depends on how much work a person wants to do," Albright says. "It's fun to start seeds. For me and the staff here, it's a magical time of year."

Setting seeds in fluorescent light is mandatory, she says. "The length of day just isn't long enough. There's not enough light, even coming through the window."

Pendleton recommends keeping the light just inches away from the plant.

"If the light is a foot away, 2 feet away, that's not going to do you much good," she says.

Pendleton also suggests putting a heating mat under the plants to help them germinate faster. But an eager gardener who overwaters will hinder rather than help their growth.

"You want to keep the seeds just moist," she says. "Just wet down the soil. You can put plastic wrap or even cellophane over them to keep them moist."

When it's time to move the plants outdoors, location is key to their livelihood.

"You definitely want full sun," Pendleton says. "Most vegetables and flowers, too - the sun is going to be better for almost any kind of garden.

"You also don't want to plant them too close to a tree where roots might become a problem," she adds.

Well-drained soil is important, too, Pendleton says. She recommends working with compost.

Container gardens

So you don't have your own land for a plot? That's no problem - you don't need one. Albright, for example, has abandoned the typical garden spread.

"The biggest issue for me has been the amount of time and energy that I'm going to have to plant in the ground," she says. "I actually have given up on having a big area outside. The kids and I are using tree containers, or you can use trash cans as a long as you put a hole in the bottom for drainage."

Albright says that makes it easier to control weeds and soil composition.

"We've grown tomatoes, we've grown squash. Potatoes work well in containers," she says. "You couldn't grow something like asparagus, which is a perennial that needs to spread its roots out, but it's been a great way for us to be able to grow some other things."

Regardless of how you start off the plants, the payoff will last many years if you keep up with maintenance.

"Start out on a realistic level," Albright says. "It's so easy this time of year to forget how hot it's going to be in July, and I hate for people to get frustrated. It's fun to do if you can just bite off a little bit at a time."

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