HOUSTON-More and more people are planting their own vegetable gardens during these recessionary times, according to master gardeners.

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Saving Cents: Grow your own gardens
June 25, 2009

"The downturn in the economy has created a significant upturn in the gardening business," said Betty Heacker, owner of Wabash Antiques & Feed.

Wabash is a 100-yea0old business that - especially of late-is booming. Heacker said customers are buying seeds and seedlings in record numbers.

If you don't know the first thing about starting a garden, here's your primer:

Pick a nice sunny spot in your yard for your garden. Vegetables are fast-growing little work horses that require a lot of energy, said Heacker. Your garden plot can be as small as one square foot or as big as you like

Cut away as much of the grass as you can, then get a shovel or spade and dig down about a foot. Break up the soil as you go, and turn it over also to loosen it and mix it.

Next, put in about two inches of good compost, which you can find at garden centers, then mix it into the dirt.

Sprinkle on a soil conditioner called Humates and mix that in.

Now you're ready to make your rows and plant your seeds on top of them.

After planting, give your new garden a nice deep watering, then let it dry out a bit. To tell when it's time to re-water, stick your finger down into the soil. If you feel dampness, it is too soon to water again.

To inhibit the growth of weeds, cover the sides of your rows with mulch.

"Most of the weeds in your garden didn't come up out of the dirt. They blew in on the wind," said Heacker. "Put some mulch between your rows, not on top of your seeds but basically cover the soil that's not where you've actually planted. If you shade that soil, weeds will not germinate."

If you have to pull some weeds, do it after you have watered your garden.

Houston's No. 1 vegetable garden favorite is the tomato. Other popular veggies are peppers and squash.

Late June is not a good time to plant tomatoes. You can do it, but Heacker said they will not bloom. The best time will be August, she said.

Peppers will thrive in June because they can take the heat, Heacker said. Don't be fooled by their seemingly dormant behavior. She said plant them now and all of a sudden in the middle of September you'll reap a bumper harvest.

Another popular thing to plant here in the Houston area is lettuce, but it's a little early to plant it, Heacker said. You'll have to wait to plant lettuce at the end of September. If you do, you'll be eating it fresh from your garden by Halloween, she said.

Gardening supplies cost less than $50. You probably already have the tools in your garage. Seeds cost about $3 a packet.

If you want to avoid digging up and preparing a patch in your yard for gardening, Heacker said there's another easier-but more costly-method. You cut away the grass in the area you have marked for your garden and box it in with 8-inch-high pieces of wood or blocks. Then Heacker said fill the bottom of the boxed area with about four layers of newspaper. After that, she said, you fill it with about seven inches of good quality dirt that already has nutrients added to it. That kind of soil is not "dirt cheap." But it will yield good food, Heacker said.

You will only have to invest in the soil once. You will pull up your plants by the roots at the end of the harvest season, and you may lose some soil in the process. If you lose a lot because you pulled up a lot of plants, then you would need to replenish some of the dirt, Heacker said.

Heacker also said you'll need to fertilize your garden every season, with every crop you raise, to replace the nutrients in the soil.

By the same token, your plants require food, she said. Check with your gardening center to see what products to use for the fruit or vegetable you want to grow.

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