With the economy in tatters, it's time for vegetable platters.
That seems to sum up what many area residents are thinking, as they tighten their budget belts by growing their own produce.
"We're definitely seeing more requests on how to grow a vegetable garden," said Tom Ford, director of the Penn State Cooperative Extension Blair County. "Our community gardens are already leased this year, and that's pretty dramatic - very indicative of how people are wanting to be more self-sufficient. The demand is strong."
Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec
Priscilla Beach of Roaring Spring prepares a plot for planting at the Blair County Community Gardens, Hollidaysburg.
Ford said more people than usual also are calling the extension office to ask questions about canning vegetables.
"For some, there's the peace of mind you get from knowing how the product was produced," he said. "Also, from a health and fitness standpoint, (gardening) is physical work. It's good for you."
Pat Trimble, master gardener with the extension office, said the Blair County Com-munity Gardens, near St. Bernardine's Monastery in Hollidaysburg, were all leased out in January - "even after we increased the size from 28 to 40 plots."
Soil prep 101
The most important tips on planting a vegetable garden have to do with preparing the soil before you plant. It gives your vegetables a good head start.
n If you don't know much about the quality of your soil, a soil test kit can give you a lot of information. You can do the tests yourself or give a soil sample from the area where you would like to put your garden to your local cooperative extension service. They can recommend soil treatments or amendments based on the types of vegetables you want to plant. Call Penn State Cooperative Extension Blair County at 940-5989. The office is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays.
- Most vegetables like well-balanced, well-drained soil. Use of a conventional or organic fertilizer, as well as anything needed to change the pH of your soil, should be done before you plant. Most common vegetable plants thrive in soils with a pH of 5 to 7.
- To make the soil more friendly to vegetable plants, add compost or manure to the garden plot as well as the other soil amendments. Compost provides nutrients and a good home for beneficial microbes, as well as aerating the soil and improving its drainage.
- If possible, till these amendments into the soil a few weeks before you want to plant your vegetables and water.
- For more information on getting a soil test kit, call Penn State Cooperative Extension Blair County at 940-5989. The office is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays.
She said interest "has also been reflected in the in-creased attendances at our master gardener classes. We had no less than 57 people at our class at the (Altoona Area Public) library. Between the economy and food safety issues, more and more people are vegetable gardening ... and it's not just for summer, either - you can grow enough to preserve (vegetables) through the fall and winter."
Moreover, seed sales are showing double-digit increases, Google online searches for "vegetable gardening" are markedly up and a new National Gardening Associa-tion (South Burlington, Vt.) survey found an estimated 7 million new households plan to start a food garden this spring.
"We're just getting started, but there's definitely a bit more interest in vegetable gardening this year," said Judith Martin, a sales associate at Martin's Garden Center in Tyrone.
"We've been selling a lot of compost and soil, so far. It's a little bit early to plant most things, but come the beginning of May you can start planting just about anything."
Good choices to plant in the next two to three weeks include transplants of cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, parsley and lettuce; seeds of peas, spinach, lettuce, greens, kohlrabi, turnips, radishes, beets and carrots; and bulbets or eyes of onions, leeks, garlic, shallots and potatoes, she said.
Come mid-May, choices include warm-weather crops such as transplants of tomatoes, peppers, hot peppers, eggplants and basil, seeds of squash, green beans, melons, cantaloupe, corn, okra and cucumbers and sweet potatoes.
Right now is a great time to start a vegetable garden, because the soil is no longer soggy from winter, said Bernice Cellini, also a master gardener for the extension office. A sunny, well-drained and fairly level spot is best.
"You don't want to plant on a slope because you'll get soil erosion," she said. "Find a place that gets at least eight to 10 hours of sunlight a day. ... It's also good if you start a garden near your house. That way you're more apt to take care of it."
Lousy soil is the first major hurdle in cultivating a vegetable garden, but you'll overcome that with raised beds and compost, she said. Animal pests such as rabbits, deer and voles are the bane of most vegetable gardeners. That's why most vegetable gardens are fenced - you'll need a tall one for deer and a semi-buried one for groundhogs and rabbits.
Most bug problems can be overcome with floating row covers (light-weight blankets that are draped right over growing plants) or by organic methods such as hand-picking, blasts of water or sprays of insecticidal soap or horticultural oil.
"When using pesticides, you just need to read the labels and follow the instructions to a tee," she said, "and follow the instructions to a tee."
The last major issue is water. Assuming rain doesn't do its part, give the garden a good soaking once or twice a week in the summer," Cellini said. Mulch the soil after planting, and consider adding soaker hoses, drip lines, sprinklers and similar automatic systems to lighten your labor.
"Always water your garden in the morning," she said, "because if you water at night, the leaves and ground get wet - and that causes a lot of diseases, not to mention wasted water."
So is all the work worth it?
"All you need is a small, sunny plot to enjoy the savings," Tom Ford said. "If you manage your costs and your fertilizer input, there's gonna be an economic advantage."
Mirror Staff Writer Jimmy Mincin is at 946-7460.