Robert Tucker grabs a clump of dirt with his hoe and loosens it fromthe earth.

He has learned that growing the sweet corn knee-high by the Fourth of July and a crop of potatoes better than Idaho takes time and know-how.

"There's no vegetable you can grow in your garden that isn't better than what you can buy in your store," said the 67-year-old man, a volunteer who helps the Maryland Cooperative Extension Service give Howard County residents tips to make their gardens lush. "I garden both for the relaxation and exercise."

Like many in the region, Tucker is preparing for spring by getting his trowel, rake and hoe ready to churn up the dirt in his two-acre garden just outside Clarksville.

Howard County Cooperative Extension Service Agent Scott Aker said that the last frost date is May 15, but many cool-weather vegetables,such as peas, some lettuces and collards, can be planted as early asmid-March or early April.

Aker hopes to bring a resurgence of interest in home gardening by providing tips to the public through his office and through the extension service's Home and Garden InformationCenter hot line.

"If you're having a problem with your asparagus,you can call and get the problem solved," he said.

"It's statistically proven that people perform better and they are more mentally fit if they have plants in their environment," Tucker said. "Getting outside to tend the vegetables is good for you."

Aker encourages gardeners to plant cool-season crops, like Brussels sprouts, peas and lettuce, in the early spring and late fall. People usually underutilize their gardens by planting only once, he explained, when three separate seasons can produce succulent vegetables and fruits.

He recommends that beginners start with vegetables and leave fruit to more experienced gardeners.

"There aren't that many vegetables that are difficult to grow here," he said.

Following each of the steps outlined by Aker and the extension service in its "Vegetable Gardening in Maryland" will make the hard work of hoeing and weeding much more rewarding.

Begin by planning your garden before planting. Be sure to choose vegetables that the family loves to eat. Then make a sketch on paper to help determine how much seed or how many plants you'll want and how they will be arranged in the garden.

Aker recommends that perennial crops, like asparagus and rhubarb, be planted along one side of the garden where they will not be disturbed during planting eachyear. If properly cared for, perennials can give a family fresh vegetables for up to 15 years.

Vegetables with common traits should begrouped together, he said. Tall plants should be planted along one side to avoid shading other crops. Plants that grow quickly and must be picked early should be grouped so the rest of the garden will not be disturbed when they are harvested.

Ideally, a gardener will havemade in the previous fall a compost pile of manure, leaves and otherorganic materials left to decompose over the winter. The heap shouldconsist of the organic matter laid on the ground, covered by fertilizer, then soil. Heavy soil also can be enriched by plowing or spadingit in the fall and leaving it in the rough over the winter.

"It acts like a sponge. It holds water and moisture in the soil," Aker said. "It has more air in it and it will be easier to till."

The soilwill produce more and tastier vegetables if it is checked for acidity and it is fertilized. The nitrogen, phosphoric acid and potash content for soil in this area should range from 5-10-5 to 5-10-15, 10-10-10 and 10-6-4. The numbers in the fertilizer combinations represent percentages of nitrogen, potassium and potash per volume. Nitrogen helps the plants become green, potassium helps the plants cells, and potash helps the plants to develop roots.

Acidity testing kits are available at the extension office. Call the home and garden information center at 1-800-342-2507 or 313-2707 to obtain a kit and more information.

Once a soil sample is taken, the kit, along with $4, should be sent back to the University of Maryland for testing. Results will be analyzed and returned by the agent within seven to 10 days.

Improved varieties are developed every year. Before buying seeds or plants, contact the extension agent, who can tell you which ones are more disease-resistant, produce more vegetables and are a better quality.

Gardens may be planted with seeds or plants. Some adventurous or more experienced gardeners may wish to grow their own plants from seeds before planting them in the garden. They should be sown in a mixture of equal parts of loam soil and peat moss. For heavy soil, add one part of sand to four parts of the mixture. Grow the seedlings in ahotbed or in a box next to a sunny window.

Planting seeds too thickly can result in crowding and give poor yields. They should be planted in straight, shallow trenches and covered with fine dirt. The trenches are usually about one-quarter to a half-inch deep. Straight rows can be dug by tying a string between stakes at each end of the row.

Remember that transplanting a small plant from an indoor hotbed into the ground will shock it. To avoid this, wet the soil in its original container overnight or at least several hours before transplanting. In the late afternoon or on a cloudy day, plant it a little deeper than it grew in the hotbed and add enough water to settle the soilaround the roots. Try to keep as much of the original soil around the roots as possible. A trick to keep cutworms and cucumber beetles away is to wrap a strip of newspaper or light cloth around the stem, extending from just under the ground.

Check for disease, insects andweeds as often as possible. Aker says that weeds should be cut immediately without disturbing the soil. The sooner they are attacked, thebetter the chance they will be controlled.

"I recommend every day," Aker said.

Though herbicides are available to control weeds, many preventive measures can be taken. Be sure to dispose of the remnants of last year's crop and rotate the location of each type of vegetable from year to year.

Even with all the advances to produce more vegetables, remember the basics. Most soils require at least one inchof water per week to produce a healthy crop. They also should be planted where they can get plenty of sunlight.

Keep a close eye on the garden as the vegetables mature to ensure they are harvested as they ripen.

"If you don't keep them picked, sometimes they'll quit," Aker said.

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