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June 7, 2008

Gardening has a whole new meaning


This summer, I'll be testing the theory that you don't have to be a gardening expert to grow a few vegetables.

I want to grow my own food for all the usual reasons: to save money, to help the environment by reducing the distance my food travels, to know exactly where my produce comes from and how it has been grown.

With food prices steadily rising, I'm sure I'm not the only one looking for ways to trim the grocery bill. In an area like ours, having a garden is a viable option. But how difficult is it, for the average person? Is the amount of money saved worth the time and effort required? Or are there other rewards that make all that digging, weeding and watering worthwhile?

These are the questions I hope to answer with my backyard gardening experiment. I have two goals: to see if I can actually grow something that tastes good, and to find out if the benefits of having a garden outweigh the work.

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I don't have a great track record when it comes to plants. The only houseplants I can keep alive are the kind hardy enough to survive the several days it takes for me to notice their wilted leaves and remember to water them.

Outdoor plants are even more daunting. I don't know anything about soil pH or fertilizer. I'm not sure what to do when bugs or other critters eat holes in your plants, or the leaves turn yellow, or the plants just don't grow.

I tried planting a vegetable garden several years ago, but the results were disappointing. In fact, I was so discouraged that the next year, I downsized to one patio tomato plant and let weeds take over my garden plot.

Things are different now. Food and fuel prices are at record highs, and protecting the environment seems more urgent. Since I've got the time and space for a garden, it seems foolish not to give it another try.

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This year's garden began indoors, with tiny broccoli, cucumber and bell pepper seeds sprinkled, one by one, into peat pellets. It was the first time I'd ever attempted to grow vegetables from seeds. I planted them with my daughters at the first whiff of spring and set them on the window ledge. Between us, we remembered to water most of them regularly, and, to my amazement, the first sprouts popped up within a week.

By early May, the broccoli and cucumber plants were getting too big for the peat pots, so we moved them into larger pots. The broccoli grew taller and the cucumbers got bushy, but I dutifully followed the advice of the gardeners I know and waited until Memorial Day before planting the seedlings in the garden.

Two days later, there was a frost advisory. Frost, the last week of May? I felt like a weather alarmist running outside with an armful of old sheets, yet there I was in the twilight, trying to figure out how to cover the tender plants without squashing them. After more than a month of watching them grow, I was fully invested in their health: I couldn't imagine the thought of coming out in the morning to find my beautiful broccoli slumped over, or those cute little cucumber plants all wilted and sad.

The plants survived. Whew. The following week, I planted more seeds: two kinds of lettuce, carrots, green beans, butternut squash and watermelon.

But I was still skeptical about my ability to grow real, live food from a bunch of 20-cent seed packets. I figured I'd increase my chances of success by adding a few professionally cultivated plants to the garden. At the local greenhouse, I spent $14.95 on 18 tomato plants, six sweet pepper plants and four cauliflower plants. I was surprised to find out there was no sales tax.

"It's food," said the woman who rang me up.

I felt a sudden burst of optimism at this matter-of-fact leap of faith _ a stranger's blind confidence that these spindly green stalks would not only survive, but actually produce something edible under my care.

I hope it's not just wishful thinking.

Check back in a couple of months and I'll let you know how my experiment turns out.

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Lisa Miller is a freelance writer who lives in Oneonta. She can be reached at lisamiller44@hotmail.com. ''