Can You Dig It?

Let's get one thing clear: gardening is not for the clean-fingernail types. If you're going to start a garden, especially with your kids, you need to begin with this mantra: dirt is good.

In fact, dirt's even better than you might think. Research immunologists are saying that exposure to a wide variety of germs early in life helps build a strong immune system and is similar to how vaccines are supposed to work. (For more on this research, read the article "Let Them Eat Dirt," New Scientist, 18 July 1998).

But before you dig in, test your soil for lead. If you call the Minnesota Extension Service now, you'll receive a test kit in plenty of time to get the results back before you start excavating.

The remedy for high lead levels is a good gardening technique, regardless of soil: no-till gardening in raised beds.

Children-friendly gardens must also be free of chemical hazards, so plan to eschew all pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Lay the groundwork for a healthy garden by selecting a location with plenty of sunlight, away from thirsty tree roots, and with a good southwest exposure. The summer breezes coming from the southwest will discourage diseases like powdery mildew, which thrives in still, hot locations. Arrange your rows in a north-south alignment to maximize airflow.

Lay down ten or more pages of newspaper where the beds will go, right on top of the grass, bare soil, or even weeds. Saturate them with water and pile new soil or compost on that--about eight inches to a foot deep--fashioning an elongated mound about three to four feet wide or as long as you like. You may be able to get free compost from your city, if it has a municipal compost pile (remember to inquire about lead levels). By the time your plants' roots reach the newspapers, the papers will be well on their way to becoming compost, as will the sod, and this will fertilize your plants.

You could frame the beds with two-by-eights, but it isn't necessary. Leave grass paths wide enough to mow, or mulch these with newspaper, too, and cover with wood chips (lay the newspaper down thick or the weeds will grow through).

A variety of herbs, vegetables, and flowers will attract beneficial insects, which will in turn keep the bad guys in check. Small flowered herbs are especially attractive to the "good bugs," so ignore the conventional wisdom and let them flower; the leaves will still be tasty.

If you get an early start (April), begin planting peas, broccoli, and salad greens--since they all like cool weather and will stand a bit of frost. Peas are also nice big seeds, easy for kids to plant; snowpeas are good eaten raw straight from the garden. They'll wither when the weather warms up, but you can keep the lettuce and broccoli going all summer if you give them some shade and pick them often.

Around Mother's Day, plant zinnias in the southwest corner since they're prone to powdery mildew and need the breeze the most. Plant chamomile tea in the northeast corner so the seeds don't blow into the garden. Then plant mint elsewhere, in the shade, or it will take over the whole garden.

In mid to late May, plant warm season vegetables, such as peppers, tomatoes, squash (including pumpkins), cucumbers, and corn. Don't start tomatoes or peppers from seed at this point; they'll take too long to mature. Plant corn in short rows--four rows across. Because they are pollinated by the wind, a single long row may end up sterile.

Read the planting instructions and allow the recommended space between plants: good air circulation is key to disease prevention.

Once the garden is planted, top-dress the soil with composted manure (available by the forty-pound bag--don't use fresh manure, it's full of pathogens), then cover with more newspapers and mulch. You'll hardly have to weed, and the manure followed by the rotting newspaper and wood chips will slowly fertilize your garden.

If you start out right, you'll have a garden with very few weeds, diseases, or insect problems. Come to think of it, you won't even get much dirt on your hands, but nothing's perfect.

Call the Minnesota Extension Service's Yard and Garden Line, (612) 624-4771, to request soil test collection forms, request a call-back from a master gardener, and access one of the Yard & Garden Clinic experts ("Clinic" calls cost $5, the other information is free). Or visit their Web site for free printable information sheets or to order pamphlets at a nominal fee:


Sharon Parker is a long-time contributor to Minnesota Parent.

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