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An obsession sprouts

About this time every year, the urge to plant strikes. Even the ignorant can produce bliss.

So you've never even planted a petunia, but those six-packs of flowers and veggies are beginning to beckon you from the nursery. You picked up a magazine at the dentist's office the other day, looked at the colorful photos and really considered, just for a minute, putting in a primrose border.

The yen to plant, as any seasoned gardener will tell you, is one of the primal urges that strikes about this time every year. It's why home and garden centers are filled on the weekends with people pushing empty carts and wandering aimlessly through the greenery.

There are those tantalizing terms: mulch, compost, bare-root, ground cover, high-nitrogen whatever.

It would be easy for a novice to just set down the watering can and slowly back away. But gardening isn't brain surgery or rocket science; it's not even algebra. Even novices who wouldn't know a trowel from a teacup can actually put plants in the ground and watch them bloom and flourish.

A garden, after all, is built like a fixer-upper mountain cabin; season by season, success upon success and, yes, failure upon failure. You learn what works and what doesn't.

One of the best places to start is with the colorful garden catalogs that begin to appear in your mailbox, the ones you can use that pesky little card in magazines or the Internet to send for. If you're ready to explore the wonderful world of getting your hands dirty, you can order seeds, plants, roots, rhizomes and corms. If you're still a bit timid, all those beautiful pictures of blooming flowers and bursting-with-flavor veggies can give you just the nudge you need to at least buy a big pot, fill it with soil and stick in a few seeds.

But before you run off to the North 40 in your megawave of enthusiasm, think for a moment about the garden you hope to have. Here are a few things to consider:

How big a garden can you accommodate? No matter what size your garden is, you can probably find a spot for a few tomato plants, at the very least. And while most garden books advocate planting vegetables in rows, some garden experts recommend using spaces as small as 1 square foot (that'll hold a cabbage, a couple of heads of lettuce, a few carrots, or a salad bowl full of green onions) to plant in.

A tiny but productive plot means no more getting tired before you finish hoeing to the end of a row. Pull a few weeds from this tiny patch today and that one tomorrow; water on the same staggered schedule, and you've taken the tedium out of gardening.

Want a bigger garden? Simply plant more tiny plots. Their small size makes them easier to weed and harvest; you can separate them with stepping stones, a wooden walkway, layers of old newspapers or gravel.

How much sun is available? Even in shady yards, there are usually a few spots that get sun for several hours. That's where you can plant your sun-loving vegetables like tomatoes and zucchini, and flowers like snapdragons, petunias and day lilies. If you can find a spot that gets at least six hours of sunshine in the morning, that's where roses will be happy. Shady spots are the places to plant impatiens, violets, coleus and other shade-loving flowers. Cool-season vegetables like lettuces and other greens often last into warmer weather if grown in a shady location.

How much time will you spend gardening? If you're an indifferent weeder or waterer, it's a waste of time and money to plant a big garden that'll burn to a crisp for want of care in the summer sun. Many novice gardeners have trouble containing their enthusiasm when the first seedlings appear in the nursery, but consider your gardening style before overcommitting yourself. If you know that in August you'll be too lazy to do more than water a single container, that should guide your planting.

Is your garden to eat, or to admire? If you yearn for vases of fresh-cut flowers for your dining table or desk, a flower garden is what you want. If sinking your teeth into a home-grown tomato is your thing, go for veggies. Or you can do both _ together. There's no law that says you can't plant flowers and veggies side by side. Leaf lettuce, in colors ranging from burgundy to light green, makes a lush background for many low-growing spring flowers.

Plants or seeds? It takes lots of patience to plant seeds, which is why so many of us opt instead for seedlings from the nursery. Many seed lovers get their gardens going early, planting seeds indoors under grow lights, but that takes a good deal of inside space and a commitment in time all its own. On the other hand, you can buy many more varieties of seeds from seed catalogs than you can find plants already growing in the nursery. If you'd like to try gourmet beets, Asian cucumbers or heirloom varieties of tomatoes, seeds are probably your best bet.

How's the land? Is the area you plan to plant nice and flat, or full of rocks? Is the ground workable, or hard as a brick and in need of mulch, compost or other amendments? Check with your local extension office for information on analyzing your soil.

What's your theme? Before you plant, decide whether you'd like an English cottage garden, one filled with herbs, a rose garden, a yardful of native plants, a container garden or expanses of grass with a flowery border.

Don't be afraid to be creative. You don't have to hide the herbs near the kitchen door; put them in the front yard with roses and other flowers where your guests can enjoy the fragrance as they walk up the path.

Enjoying the garden? Are you planning to plant a wilderness of native plants you can wander through? A formal garden with benches to rest on? Are dirt paths sufficient, or do you want to outline them with rocks or bricks? Would stepping stones add to the ambience, or a brick walkway? What about a sundial, a gazing ball, a bird bath or statuary? Check out local garden shops to see what's available.

Then get back to those waiting garden catalogs. Every gardener's got to start somewhere.