HOME GARDENING continues to boom as grocery prices escalate and the nation awaits recessions. But unlike other forms of belt-tightening home-grown foods are often superior in taste and quality to more expensive alternatives. Whether a garden consists of several tubs on a patio, a communal plot donated by the Park Service, or your own backyard, the requirements for growing your own nutrient-rich vegetables and fruits are few:
Full sun 6 to 8 hours daily.
Slightly acid soil (pH 6 to 6.5) that drains adequately. Most gardens in this area need liming and lightening, but it's best to have your soil analyzed before you begin working it. Extension Services of the USDA will run soil samples free of charge for residents of their state.
Relatively clean air. Produce grown within 300 feet of heavily trafficked roads may contain dangerously high levels of lead.
Available water for prolonged dry spells. A watering can with adjustable nozzle or perforated "soaker" hose are the best ways to water a garden.
A few basic tools. Trowel and claw are enough for patio gardening, but you'll need a spade, garden fork and hoe if you plan to break ground. Good gloves are worth the investment, and a wheelbarrow or wagon will help move compost or mulch.
One basic book on growing your own food. Sunset magazine's "Vegtable Gardening," Lane Publishing ($3.95 paperback), is a well-illustrated, comprehensive source for beginners. "your Kitchen Garden," a Fireside Book ($9.95 paperback) provides specifics for growing and cooking fruits and vegetables, while "The Self-Sufficient Gardener," Dolphin Books ($7.95) explores year round at intensive, deep digging methods that advocates claim can produce four thimes the yield of standard techniques. If you have grown perennials and shrubs before, you may be familiar enough with gardening to survive with only some free brochures or adivce from your local Extension Agent. In Washington, gardening questions are answered daily on HORT-line, 9 a.m. to noon (call 282-7400).
To maximize productivity, plant rows or patches that run north/south, or plant taller crops to the north so they won't shade others. Plan to intercrop (plant fast growing vegetables like radishes in the same row with slower maturing beets) and successivley plant your space (use the same row to grow spring lettuce, summer beans and brussel sprouts for fall and winter). Pole beans, bush squash, mini-varieties are important space savers in the small garden.
Compost is the one ingredient that can be added to any soil -- rich or poor, sandy or heavy clay. Plus it's one of our last renewable resources. A trash burner or garbage can with holes punched in sides and top makes a cheap composter. Start with a layer of twigs or heavy garden debris and add non-fatty wastes -- weeds, grass clippings, leaves, animal manures, coffee grounds, fruit and vegetable skins, egg shells. If kept damp and turned periodically, you'll have dark, crumbly, earthy-smelling humus in a matter of months.