By REBECCA SLOAN
Red, ripe tomatoes; crunchy cucumbers; sweet, juicy watermelons -- nothing beats a bite out of summer's bounty, especially when the bounty came right from your very own vegetable garden.
May is the month to get that garden going, but before you plant a plot of ground big enough to feed a family of 12, make sure you've got a handle on the basics.
Timing: First of all, do not plant your garden too soon. Although each year the weather in this part of the country can vary quite a bit, the basic rule of thumb is to put your vegetable garden in around Memorial Day, said Tony Bernard of Bernard's Garden Center and Nursery in Warren.
Although Bernard said it is safe to put cold crops, such as cabbages, peas, kohlrabies, potatoes and onions in the ground sooner, planting warm-weather wonders such as tomatoes or green peppers too early can equal trouble and extra work.
"Sometimes people will put all their plants in the ground earlier than Memorial Day, but then they have to cover them up every time there's a threat of frost, and they run the risk of losing them," Bernard said.
Laying the groundwork: Before you put anything in the ground, Bernard recommends tilling your soil thoroughly, making sure it's not too wet or too dry, and adding a healthy dose of good, old-fashioned manure.
You can also buy bags of compost at garden centers if you don't have access to fresh manure, Bernard said. Once the soil is just right, proceed with planting -- but if this is not the first time you've planted a crop in this particular piece of ground, know that planting the same kinds of plants over and over in the same spot can exhaust the soil.
Different plants take different nutrients from the soil, so it's best to rotate your crops or vary the location of your garden, Bernard said. It's also best if your garden site receives a minimum of four to five hours of intense sunlight daily; otherwise, your cantaloupes and cucumbers certainly will not blossom into blue-ribbon winners fit for the county fair.
Harvest time: It takes roughly 40 to 45 days for vegetables to bear fruit, so most of your vegetables will be ready to pick around mid-July, although the cold crops that were put in the ground earlier than Memorial Day will produce sooner.
Some plants, like tomatoes, will continue to produce right up until fall's first frost, but others, such as green beans or sweet corn, will produce only for a few weeks. It just depends on the plant. Each variety has a specific time for harvesting, Bernard said.
Common picks: Bernard said tomatoes, peppers, squash and cucumbers continue to be the most popular plants gardeners in this neck of the woods buy each spring, but herbs are becoming almost as popular as the traditional standbys.
Other vegetable-garden trends taking root, according to Bernard, are planting a garden in a raised bed or buying just a few plants and growing them in containers on the patio.
"If you have raised beds or potted plants, you may need to water them a little more than you would if they were just in the ground," Bernard said.
What not to do: Watering too much or too little is the most common mistake gardeners make.
"Watering too much can hurt a plant as much as not watering it enough. Another mistake people make is to fertilize young plants too much. This can kill them," he said.
Bernard said it is best to use liquid fertilizer sparingly on tender young plants, and whatever you do, do not douse fragile new shoots with liquid fertilizer during the heat of the day.
"Fertilize in the morning or in the evening, preferably in the morning," Bernard said.
Fending off pests: To keep pests such as cucumber beetles and cutworms from devouring your prized plants, Bernard advises treating leaves with insect dusts and powders every seven to 10 days.
However, Bernard doesn't advise using pesticides to keep weeds at bay.
"I don't trust putting too many chemicals on the soil. The plants absorb the chemicals, and then you end up eating them. Pull your weeds or use straw, plastic or mulch around the plants to keep weeds under control," he said.
Although Bernard doesn't put much stock in old wives' tales, such as the notion that it's best to plant gardens by the light of a full moon, what he does believe is that this year, people will be planting bigger vegetable gardens.
"Whenever the economy gets shaky, people tend to plant larger gardens and do more canning and freezing," he said. "I had a woman in my store the other day whose husband was just laid off, and she was talking about how she was going to plant an extra-large garden because money was going to be tight."