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To the gardener's heart, spring sings a love song

The bug hit me after a few days of near-80-degree temperatures signaled the end of what passes for winter in these parts. And, despite the modest cool front that arrived Friday, my infection now has developed into a full-blown case of spring fever.

It's nothing exotic or mysterious; it's just a garden variety affliction for which the only cure is the warm sun on your back, dirt under your fingernails and the curiously satisfying bouquet of compost.

Like the plant life all around us, gardeners are waking up and can't wait to get started. In fact, most already have.

Some have spent the past few months using their green thumbs to flip through seed catalogs or surf the Internet looking for advice and inspiration. There is so much to ponder: Perennials or annuals. Sun or shade. Pruning. Soil preparation. Irrigation. Mulch. When to fertilize. When to harvest. Indeterminates vs. hybrids. Staking.

Then there are those gardeners who have been digging and, if they haven't already, are poised to plant.

For both groups, what they plant doesn't matter as much as how it makes them feel.

People who grow flowers do it to brighten more than their yards. The splashes of color decorate their souls and lighten their outlook.

Those who plant and nurture trees find pleasure in the patience they learn in the slow process.

And the herb gardener dreams of the day when his dinner guests fawn over the seasoning in his latest culinary concoction.

Then there are the vegetables, which are the object of my gardening affection this time of year. Flowers and fauna are fine, but when spring's fever has you in its grip, vegetables are just what the doctor ordered.

Squash: Yellow crookneck or zucchini?

Eggplant: Ichiban or Black Beauty?

Sweet peppers: All green? Or mix in the orange and yellows?

Cucumbers: Slicing or Burpless?

But the crown jewels of the vegetable garden are tomatoes. That's partly because they taste so dadgum good, but also because they aren't easy to grow on this ancient beach we call Florida. The sandy, acidic soil needs help to produce flavorful fruit (technically speaking, that's how tomatoes are classified), and the intense summer heat demands that, for best results, you plant them in March.

I'm hooked on a soil preparation method that organic gardener John Starnes wrote about in the Times a few years back. It's sometimes called "the dog garden." Read on and you'll see why.

In an area approximately 10 feet by 10 feet, turn up the soil with a tiller or shovel. Evenly spread 50 pounds of cheap dog food, 50 pounds of alfalfa pellets (in feed stores) and a 20-pound bag of cat litter. Churn it up and saturate the whole area with water. Then lay cardboard over the entire garden. Soak it, too. Then spread about 4 inches of the cheapest hay (pine needles work, too) you can buy and wet that down as well. Let it sit for four to six weeks. Water about once a week, but only if hasn't rained.

During that time nutrients from the pellets and dog food will enrich the soil and attract earthworms, and the cat litter will help retain moisture. When it's time, cut a hole in the cardboard and plant your seedlings. The cardboard and hay will keep the weeds down all summer.

Keep the plants watered and wait for Mother Nature to do her magic. Make sure you buy tall stakes; depending on the variety, the tomato plants can reach 6 feet.

Follow that recipe, and by mid June you should be enjoying Better Boys on your BLTs, Big Boys and Beefsteaks in your mozzarella-tomato salad (with fresh mint and balsamic vinegar, please), and Romas in your homemade spaghetti sauce. Don't forget to plant a few Golden Jubilees to impress your neighbor or anyone else who poked fun at your "dog garden."

But if a vegetable garden is too labor-intensive, there are plenty of other gardening projects into which you can plunge your spade. Try one before spring fever succumbs to the heat and humidity.

And remember: Reaping the harvest is fun, but sowing the seeds can be the best part of any garden party.

Reach Jeff Webb at or (352) 754-6123.