Dreaming of Your Spring Garden? Get Started Now

Daron "Farmer D" Joffe

Winter weather and a bit too much time inside may have you staring out the office window, dreaming of starting your spring garden. I know how you feel!

I have actually found that now is the perfect time to do the necessary research and planning so that you'll have the all right ingredients for growing healthy food.

Keep these tips in mind when choosing the following products and resources:

-- Garden beds. Although it may be tempting to repurpose railroad ties and other wood that may be easily accessible to you, think twice. Make sure to use untreated wood so that you are not introducing toxic chemicals into your garden. Also, give some thought to longevity in your estimation of cost. Pine is the least expensive, but you'll need to replace it every few years, and it really does start to look bad after a while. So if looks and longevity count, pine is not your best choice. Cedar is more expensive, but it lasts for more than 10 years and weathers nicely.

Also, consider the source of the wood. Choosing wood harvested from local, sustainably-managed forests means that you are making a truly environmentally-sound decision. Other materials, such as repurposed cinder blocks, make nice, affordable garden beds, but they do dry out quickly. Old tires are not recommended, as they can leach toxins into the soil.

-- Soil. If you live in an urban or suburban environment, your native topsoil has likely long since been removed. What's more, your existing soil may contain contaminants like lead.

Before you start a garden, I recommend testing your soil to determine if it's safe to use. If so, you can amend your soil with the needed nutrients. Contact your county's cooperative extension office for soil-testing directions. If your city or county offers municipal compost to gardeners (usually created from yard debris that's picked up from curbsides throughout the city), be sure it does not contain sewage sludge or persistent herbicides.

Start your own composting system as soon as possible so that you can rely on a free source of compost, and check out trusted, local suppliers for additional soil amendments. Ask for recommendations at community gardens--folks there know all the best dirt in town.

-- Seeds. You have numerous choices for seeds, all of which can be easily accessed online or bought at many local garden centers. Hybrid seeds are varieties that have been developed to be resistant to diseases and to produce certain desired characteristics. Some of these may be genetically modified, so pay attention to labeling if you want to avoid genetic modification. Heirloom seeds are age-old favorites, passed down from generation to generation. Both hybrid and heirloom seeds can be found in organic varieties as well.

If you're growing tomatoes, you can select from determinate and indeterminate seeds. Determinate tomato seeds will grow plants that produce a pre-determined amount of fruit (hence, the name) that matures around the same time. Indeterminate types grow and ripen continually and tend to need more room and staking. Determinate types are particularly useful if you are growing tomatoes to make sauce as you will have a greater bounty at one time. The indeterminate type is better for producing a continual supply of salad or sandwich tomatoes throughout the season. Most gardeners who plant tomatoes tend to plant some of each.

You may want to ask for a gift card to a garden center for the holidays so you can put your garden plan into practice as soon as winter ends. In the meantime, why not consider getting a seed-starting kit for your kitchen counter to get a jump on things?

Go to www.farmerd.com for more gardening tips, and tap in next week when I tell you how to put the power of social media to work for your community or company garden.

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns, and feedback.

Daron Joffe is a 30-something eco-entrepreneur who lives to make a difference in the world one homegrown organic fruit and vegetable at a time. Known as "Farmer D," Joffe has grown food for celebrities, private communities, and elementary schools in his "town-by-town mission to re-energize the food culture." His products are sold at select Whole Foods and Williams-Sonoma stores. Born in South Africa and based in Atlanta, Farmer D is online at www.farmerD.com.