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Black Thumb Rising 

A woman discovers her inner gardener. You can too.

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I've long wanted to be an earth mother, growing my own herbs, fruits and vegetables, wowing family and friends with my gardening and cooking skills. With all the love for locally grown produce and the serious chatter about sustainability, gardening and urban farming, the thought of growing fat, juicy Creole tomatoes, culinary herbs, crunchy cucumbers, lettuce and maybe some pretty little radishes (for butter and radish sandwiches, of course) had been germinating for some time.

  Sadly, I've always been the gardening world's equivalent of Apocalypse Now, ultimately relenting to collecting hardy, need-no-attention succulents. I learned to ignore my family's eye rolls as they commenced a death watch whenever I'd pull out my pink gardening gloves, a set of pink-handled gardening tools, and head outdoors with a copy of You Grow Girl tucked under my arm. I'd plant, water and wait until ... nothing poked its leafy head through the soil.

  So I got an Aerogarden (it really works) and grew lots and lots of flawless, completely flavorless lettuce. The mushroom-growing kit instructed me to "spank" the spore-loaded block, but so far, my mushrooms aren't responding to corporal punishment. The infomercial-famous Topsy-Turvy tomato didn't do a thing other than aid in my perpetual plant slaughter.

  That's how my garden grew until I finally researched container gardening, studied soil, sought out top local nurseries, and, most important for me, met with a local urban garden consultant to start digging in successfully. With the right information and tools, even the blackest of thumbs can grow delicious herbs and vegetables.

  Hitting the books is a great way to begin. There is a lot of literature available, and the Internet is a vast source for how to get growing. Thinking local is the way to go, and the gardening bible for New Orleans is Dan Gill's Month-by-Month Gardening In Louisiana. Gill's book is specific to local growing conditions, soil and pests. The monthly calendar for herbs and vegetables is invaluable and details which plants should be planted and harvested in particular months. Another great source for information about growing herbs and vegetables here is Louisiana State University Agriculture Center's Web site, www.lsuagcenter.com. You can even talk on the phone with LSU AgCenter experts who will answer your gardening questions from simple to complex. The Louisiana Cooperative Extension Service offers free copies of the Louisiana Vegetable Planting Guide, which recommends vegetable varieties that have been tested for this area. (You can download the guide at www.lsuagcenter.com/en/lawn_garden/home_gardening/vegetables/soil_fertility/Louisiana+Vegetable+Planting+Guide.htm.)

  Once you're ready to get started, ask yourself whether you want to take on urban farming or gardening. "Urban farm" is not the new buzzword for "victory garden," and not the latest way to label city folks who raise food crops in their backyards or in containers.

  "Farming is for profit; gardening is for enjoyment. Make sure you know that," says gardening consultant Anne Baker, sustainable gardening editor for www.neworleans.com as well as an educator and head of the Gentilly Urban Farm. Before helping people get their garden game on she warns them that serious gardening requires a commitment, and deciding how much time you're willing to dedicate is key to success or failure.

  That means making some ground-breaking decisions — such as whether to plant in a raised bed or a container garden.

  Raised beds are a container of sorts — an 8-inch-high soil bed with a protective border — while container gardens are planted in pots that can reside on a deck, porch or even a windowsill. Terra-cotta is the pot of choice, and although they appear easier to deal with, they usually require more feeding, fertilizer and water because terra-cotta "breathes" and releases nutrients and water easily. "Don't think you can get around that by buying black pots," Baker warns. " They get hot and can burn the soil."

  No matter which type of garden you establish, food and herbs need at least five hours of full sun a day and a good water source, so choose a spot that meets both requirements. (Make sure you plant close to a water faucet or hose; it's no fun to lug pail after pail of water to your garden when rains don't materialize.)

  Nutrient-rich, well-oxygenated soil is a must. "You want a $10 hole and a $2 plant," Baker says. That means testing the soil — whether it's from your yard or a store. The LSU AgCenter lab in Baton Rouge will test your soil for a nominal fee, and local extension offices provide kits for you to obtain soil samples to submit.

  Once you know the composition of your soil, you can add fertilizers, adjust the pH, etc. If that's digging too deep for you (as it was for me), Baker recommends heading to local nurseries such as Laughing Buddha (4516 Clearview Pkwy., Metairie, 887-4336; www.laughingbuddhanursery.com), Green Parrot (201 Nashville Ave., 894-1100; www.greenparrotnursery.com), The Plant Gallery (9401 Airline Hwy., 524-3716; www.theplantgallery.com) and Harold's Indoor and Outdoor Plants (1135 Press St., 947-7554), where staff members can answer your questions.

  In Baker's opinion, organic products are a must. Organic soils and pesticides are safer for people and the environment, are generally priced competitively with other materials and work well. "I use organics because I'm lazy and frugal," she says.

  Once the organic groundwork is laid and nutritionally right, it's time to plant. First-time gardeners should buy transplants (baby plants) instead of seeds and think seasonally and locally when selecting what to grow. According to Gill's Month-by-Month Gardening in Louisiana, April is the time to plant bell pepper, cantaloupe, collards, corn, cucumber, eggplant, gourds and squashes such as cucuzzi and cushaw, honeydew melon, lima beans, Malabar spinach, mirliton, okra, peppers, pumpkin, snap beans, Southern peas, sweet potato, Swiss chard, tomato, watermelon and yellow squash. Herb gardeners will want to get going with basil, perilla, sesame, lemon balm, mints and rosemary.

  When it comes to garden pests, the operative word is "prevention," not "control." Benign insecticides and sticky traps are good pest preventatives. Look for insecticide soap, all-season horticultural oil spray, BT (for caterpillars) and iron phosphate (for snails and slugs). Control weeds with a sprinkling of corn gluten meal and cover the soil (not the plants) with 3 inches of pine needle mulch or bark. While you're at the garden shop getting your organic soil, plants and pesticides, make sure to get some tools. For a container gardener, Baker recommends a trowel and gloves. For raised-bed gardening, you'll need a pointed shovel and a triangle hoe. That's it.

  My mouth is already watering for the tomato and basil salad I plan to serve my family, grown and picked from my garden. I dream of harvesting ripe tomatoes, bunches of tarragon, mounds of rosemary and fragrant lavender. Dreams for my garden are still germinating, and for now, so are my seeds. It's just about time to don my pink gloves, turn the soil with my pink trowel and say goodbye to the grocery store produce section.

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