Now is the time to start planning your garden.

If you missed the vegetable gardening bandwagon last season, don't worry. There is plenty of time to jump on for 2010, and we're here to help.

Start with small steps, because your first garden should be a small garden. No need to try to grow the entire produce aisle the first year.

Along the way, we will be asking the advice of garden experts.

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The first step? Location, location, location. Where, exactly, do you want your vegetable garden to grow?

"The first step is siting the garden," said Carrie Engel of Valley View Farms in Cockeysville, Md. "You need to take into consideration sun and the availability of water."

Most vegetable gardeners plant in full sun, but there are cool crops that can do OK with some shade. Spinach and lettuce, for example, will not bolt as quickly if planted in some shade.

"And, look for a site where you don't have to compete with tree roots, like the silver maple I once went up against," said Engel.

After you pick a spot for your first vegetable garden, decide whether or not it will be a raised bed, because that will determine how you handle soil preparation.

Engel says it might be easiest to create a raised bed, and I agree. There are kits available in catalogs, and they range from an 18-inch-by-3-foot bed from Gardener's Supply for $39.95 to a terraced, triangle raised bed from White Flower Farms for $349. But if you are handy, you can create your own out of treated wood.

A raised bed means you do not have to worry about the quality of your soil because you will be filling it with fresh compost. This eliminates the need for soil testing, too, and for the soil amendments you would no doubt need to use.

Once you choose a spot for your garden and decide how big it can be, start thinking about what you would like to grow - and how much of it.

"Start with what you actually eat," said Engel. "Think about what you serve at the dinner table. A family of four might do fine with six tomato plants and a couple of pepper plants."

If your mailbox is not already full of garden catalogs, here are several seed catalogs to order: Tomato Growers Supply Company; The Cook's Garden; Seeds of Change; John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds; Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds; D. Landreth Seed Co.; White Flower Farms; Burpee; and Johnny's Select Seeds.

When they arrive, you can begin the vegetable gardener's favorite winter task - choosing what to plant when spring arrives.


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