Spring has sprung and it’s time to start turning some dirt out in the home garden.
But if you’re one of those who’s afraid their dreams of harvesting bushels of fresh veggies just might be beyond their capabilities, the Delaware’s Master Gardeners are ready to help.
“The biggest reason for our existence is outreach,” Larry Cook said during a visit to the Delaware State University’s Outreach and Research Center east of Smyrna.
Cook was there with his wife Leslie Cook; both have earned the coveted title of Delaware Master Gardener.
“We’re there for people who want to start a garden or work on a garden,” Cook said.
There are about 300 volunteer horticulture educators -- Master Gardeners -- in Delaware, Megan Pleasanton of DSU’s College of Agriculture said. Candidates undergo an intensive 16-week course taught by experts from DSU and the University of Delaware Cooperative Extension. After certification as a Master Gardener, each is expected to donate at least 40 hours of their time to helping other gardeners.
Watch the temperature
A garden starts with paper and pencil, Larry Cook said. Backyard gardeners first must decide how large it will be, what they want to plant and where it will be.
Gardeners may contact the Cooperative Extension for a no-cost soil survey. Earth from several spots in the prospective garden is tested and the results give the gardener information about adding nutrients or adjusting the pH balance.
The raised garden has become popular in recent years, Pleasanton said. Instead of planting directly into the ground, soil is inside a box-like structure and the plants are higher, meaning less bending over while tending them. This gives people with limited mobility, such as those in wheelchairs, a chance to do gardening, she said.
A planting schedule must take into account factors such as soil temperature and ambient air temperature, which affects when seeds or seedlings go in. All of that is on seed packets or supplied with plants bought in nurseries or home improvement stores.
“You have to have proper temperatures,” Larry Cook said. “For example, Brussels sprouts won’t germinate if the soil temperature is below 75 degrees. You just can’t make them grow.”
Tomatoes are finicky about the temperatures they like, he said.
“Tomatoes are hot weather plants; if you put one in the ground now, it will not grow,” he said.
And a convenient water supply is important, “unless you like carrying buckets of water around,” he said.
When planting vegetables, Pleasanton recommends putting flowers or other blooming plants nearby. They attract bees necessary for pollination. Zinnias and marigolds are excellent for this, she said.
Because each species requires different amounts of space to grow and mature, gardeners must balance the garden size with the room each plant will need.
Careful thought must go into whether to put in vines such as cucumber or melons, as they take up a lot of room. Planting different types of creeping plants in the same area can result in the vines tangling, making care more difficult.
It’s important to remember that tomatoes are vines and must be tied to some sort of support, Larry Cook said, and ensuring plants are properly spaced plays a large part in suppressing weeds.
And on the subject of keeping the plants healthy, gardeners must also deal with pests -- from ants and aphids to rabbits and moles.
Perhaps the easiest way to deal with the former is to get the family involved, Larry Cook said.
“Get the kids or grandkids out there over the weekends and let them pick the bugs off,” he said.
Pleasanton and Cook both say pesticides generally are not welcome in vegetable gardens.
“There are some you can use and it won’t impact the fruit you’ll eventually eat, but if you’re not diligent about it you might end up eating something that could be harmful,” he said.
A small bit of fencing will keep out rabbits and other small animals, and a barrier put several inches down into the ground will help deter groundhogs and moles.
“They’re bad,” Larry Cook said. “A single groundhog will eat a garden in a day.” After harvesting, it’s a good idea to grow something different the following year, Leslie Cook said.
“The first year, keep a map of what you have, and in year two, rotate the crop,” she said. “That allows the soil to refresh itself and support something else.”
Help for free
And while this sounds complicated, it needn’t be.
Volunteer Master Gardeners are available April through October and are a phone call away. Call the Kent County Garden Helpline at 302-730-4000 for free help. The helpline is staffed from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m., Monday through Friday.
More free information is at the University of Delaware Paradee Center on the DelDOT campus, 169 Transportation Circle, Dover.