Ready to garden? Plant seeds of commitment

Wednesday, February 13, 2002

Mike Gettler knows a thing or two about tomatoes.

And peppers. And lettuce. After all, he sold 10 million vegetable plants last year, a number he expects to grow this year.

As head garden guy for Lowes Home Improvement Warehouse, Gettler sees a nation of green thumbs as gardeners galore prepare for the spring planting season.

"There is a garden revolution going on," says Gettler.

"Interest has exploded. It may be the No. 1 outdoor pastime, and it fits the trend to spend more time at home. People see their home as a shelter and a vegetable or flower plot as one way to improve it."

But before turning the first spade of rich earth, Gettler advises green thumb wannabes to first turn a few pages, either in magazines or free e-gardening newsletters.

"Any person who wants to garden can do it," says Gettler, "but if you don't do basic reading or answer basic questions, you might not be as successful."

Garden outlets hear a bumper crop of questions from first-time gardeners. Gettler trains his staff to quiz customers on the size of plot, vegetables or flowers to be grown, availability of sun and soil quality. As recently as five years ago, Lowes didn't hear as many basic questions because most gardeners were veterans.

Yet the most important question has little to do with daylight and soil: "Are you committed to gardening?"

Too often, he says, people are primed to garden but neglect their plants as the growing season goes on. "They become bored," says Gettler. "All of a sudden, they're not weeding, not watering, not testing the soil or checking for bugs. Gardening is one of those things that takes time and TLC. People like to garden because when you're on your hands and knees tending plants, you don't think about work or paying bills. All the information in the world won't make you a good gardener without the drive to seed, feed, and weed."

Gettler's golden rules are simple:

Think small. Especially true for beginners. A large plot can be more work than the novice expects. "Choose a few hardy plants, such as tomatoes, peppers or marigolds that do pretty well no matter what you do to them," says Gettler. "See what luck you have. Then expand your garden and plant more varieties the next year."

Get in touch -- literally -- with your soil. "People tell us, 'my plants didn't grow' and often they don't know why," says Gettler. "It all starts with the soil." Inexpensive soil-testing kits to analyze soil condition range from a basic 97-cent model to an elaborate $13.54 unit. Amendments such as lime or peat are often needed to bring dirt to peak-growing ability.

Buy good plant stock from reputable nurseries. Look for healthy and vibrant plants. Gettler says the gardening industry has created high-quality products such as environmentally friendly time-release fertilizers, ultra-hardy plants and water-retaining soil enhancers to take the guesswork out of caring for seeds and a variety of plants.

Have a patio, small yard or no yard? No problem. Container gardens have sprouted in metropolitan areas thanks to plant varieties suited to small spaces. Water gardens are suddenly hot, too.

A garden plot is part of the larger landscaping picture for many homeowners. "Most homeowners see vegetable and flower gardens as just another element in a relaxing whole-yard environment that includes patios, decks and water gardens," says Gettler.

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