Starting a garden is a lot like buying a puppy. The whole family wants to help at first, until they learn how much time and effort is involved. Then everyone bails out, leaving mom or dad to do the work.

Like puppies, gardens need to be fed, watered and groomed. Invariably, both grow bigger over the years. And both pooch and plot often need a fence to protect them.

In short, planting a vegetable garden is reasonably easy; maintaining it is not. First-time gardeners should know the challenges -- and pitfalls -- facing them before digging up the lawn.

But gardening needn't be a discouraging experience. Anyone can enjoy moderate success growing their own food by following a few basic rules:

* Prepare the soil. Make it rich and loamy. Be a cheerleader for your vegetable plants. Give them something to root for. Soil preparation is 90 percent of gardening success. Have your soil tested, and follow the fertilizing tips of your local Cooperative Extension Service. Consider organic fertilizers, such as bloodmeal and rock phosphate, as an alternative to granular chemical fertilizers. Organic additives are more expensive, but they promote beneficial microorganisms in the soil. Chemicals do not.

* Ask neighbors what grows best for them. Chances are your soils, and garden pests, are similar. Like aphids. And kids.

* Start with a small garden. A 10-by-10 foot plot is fine for beginners, particularly if you are digging by hand and the ground has never been worked.

* Stick to plants that are easy to grow, such as tomatoes, lettuce and beans. Forget about finicky crops such as cauliflower, eggplant and celery. Beginners need confidence more than they need cauliflower. And forget about growing corn, unless your garden is the size of Towson. It's cheaper to buy corn at roadside.

* Order seeds from mail order catalogs, especially if you're a rookie. It's easier to study the selections at home than to hurriedly grab a packet of seeds off the supermarket shelf in April. Don't assume that expensive seeds are the best.

* Draw up a garden plan and try to stick to it, so you're not overrun with squash and spinach but short of broccoli and beets.

* Plant at proper times. The soil warms more slowly than the air. Many seeds will not germinate in cold ground. Remember, if the temperature hits 90 degrees in April, it will probably be 20 degrees in May.

* Anticipate shady areas in the garden. Plants which require full sun may not get it when a nearby tree awakens in spring.

* If your garden slants downhill, place the rows perpendicular to the slope to avoid water runoff.

* Water both newly planted seeds and seedlings. First-time gardeners assume that because it is spring, and spring is supposed to bring rain, they do not have to water. In a few weeks the plants assume that, because they are dead, they do not have to grow.

* Learn to tell the vegetable seedlings from the weeds. It is self-defeating to rip up young peas instead of purslane.

* Thin seedlings mercilessly, especially lettuce. New gardeners tend to sow seeds thickly and expect them to grow in clumps. Then they are disappointed with the poor harvests from the stunted plants.

* Do not mulch the garden too early. Wait until June. An early mulch keeps the ground cold, inhibits plant growth, harbors pests and promotes disease.

* Beat the bugs by protecting plants with a feather-lighpolyester row cover (trade name: Reemay). This thin, gauze-like fabric allows sunlight and moisture to reach plants, while protecting them from pest, frost and wind damage.

* Don't wait until planting time to purchase your plants, or all you'll get are the sickly wallflowers. Buy transplants early and keep them in a cold frame (see page 4D), garage or shed, in filtered sunlight, until ready to plant. Water them daily, as they tend to dry out quickly in flats and peat pots.

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