One of the best ways to control weeds in the vegetable garden is to mulch it. Mulching consists of putting about two inches of straw, sawdust, pine bark, black plastic or newspapers on the ground around the plants.

The mulch can prevent weeds from getting started, conserve water by reducing evaporation losses, aid in the movement of water into the soil -- especially from hard showers, in which most of the water normally runs off -- and help check erosion.

Herbicides (weed-killing chemicals) should not be used in the vegetable garden. They are specific in character; a chemical safe for one plant may be deadly to another a few feet away, and the risk is too great.

Soil exposed to the sun is likely to crust badly. When it rains or when watering is done, the crust sheds most of the water with very little of it entering the soil for plant use. A suitable mulch prevents crusting and absorbs the impact of rain drops, thus reducing runoff and soil erosion.

Get rid of weeds before applying the mulch. When weed seeds germinate beneath the mulch, they do not have enough stored food to penetrate the mulch and they die.

Black plastic shuts off light, and weeds cannot get started; clear plastic reflects heat and light and allows weeds to grow beneath it.

Small holes can be punched in the plastic with an ice pick to allow for moisture penetration. A cover of half an inch of tree bark can take away the unattractive appearance of the plastic.

A black plastic mulch will absorb heat and thus result in a warmer soil -- a condition favorable to melons and other warm-weather crops. Tomatoes, for example should not be planted outdoors until the soil temperature stays at 60 degrees F. or above around the clock.

Research from several states has shown that tomatoes, cantaloupes and watermelons can be planted outdoors one or two weeks earlier with black plastic.

Compared to standard methods of melon production (transplant on bare soil), direct seeding through black plastic yielded 2.3 times as many good fruit.

Black plastic also can be successful with providing an earlier crop of tomatoes. Temperatures below 60 degrees F. appear to have a deterrent effect on them throughout their life in the garden. Q&A&Q&A&Q&A&Q&A&Q&A&Q&A&Q&A&Q&A Q: We have a shady spot in our garden. I'd like to grow some flowers there if it's possible. Which kinds are best? Impatiens, wax begonias and coleus are by far the best flowering annuals for a wide range of shade conditions. Nothing else in the flower kingdom can match them for long-lasting color in shady areas. Q: Last year my lima beans were ruined by beetles. If they show up again this year, what can I do to thwart them? A: The recommended treatment for the home garden is to spray or dust with Sevin. Directions on the label should be followed closely. Q: Is it true that if you smoke around your tomato plants they may become diseased? A: Tomatoes are susceptible to a virus disease called tobacco mosaic, which also can damage pepper, eggplant, petunia and most other members of the nightshade family. The plant may not be seriously damaged, but the quality of the fruit will be affected. The plants can become diseased if handled while smoking or soon after smoking. Do not smoke while in the garden and wash your hands thoroughly before handling your plants. Q: Every year I try to grow cauliflower and broccoli. The plants seem to grow all right, but the heads never amount to anything. Can you tell me what's wrong? A: It may be that when planted in the spring they just go to seed when hot weather sets in. The curds (heads) also can be damaged by frost. After danger of frost is over, plant varieties that mature quickest. Snow King matures in 50 days. Snow Queen in 53 days. Both are All-America varieties.