The Farmer on the Deck - It's spring: Time to dig in and get your deck garden started

Are you a Gardener, a yoostoobe Gardener, or Gardener wannabe? This column focuses on easy container gardening with an eye for fabulously fresh food and flowers. Whether you live in a high-rise or an urban ranch, container gardening is a great way to connect with the earth, its gifts and seasonal cycles without an armload of cash (unless you're determined) or oodles of time (what's that?!). The emphasis is on easy and the goal is to reward your senses and spirit. Roll up your sleeves or slip on your gloves and let's dig in!

It's just about that time of year. Puget Sound weather in March and April teases us with exquisite interludes of occasionally clear balmy fragrant days that summon our lizard brains to wake up and smell Spring coming. It is healthy for us human 'moss backs' to get outside into the light (with sun block schmeer, of course!). Playing outside with our kids or dogs, walking with a friend, or tending a container garden are all great invitations to pause, and feel the light and fresh air on our faces, smell the season and feel truly alive in this very moment.

If you haven't already, consider getting at least a container of herbs started. Limited time or limited space? Of course. You may not be able to grow that northwest asparagus available now in the Market (It takes about 60 square feet to produce 5-10 pounds annually after five years of getting established). Buy some asparagus and add your own touch to the food web by sprinkling deck-grown fresh cut parsley, chives and burnet on top after steaming or sautéing or try my new favorite oven roasting the asparagus 'al dente'. What the heck, take it over the top by mixing your herbs with a chopped egg, a little crème fraiche and then draping this sauce over the spears.

No matter how harried you might be right now, it is always nice to have a friendly pot of herbs close at hand for snipping over your 30 minute dinner of pasta, veggies, entrée or salad. Parsley is easy to grow from seed (if you are patient) or from starter pots. Curly parsley stays more compact, while the sturdier flat leaf, or Italian parsley, is soooo good, too. Neither needs that southern or western exposure basil and tomatoes beg to bask in. Parsley grows quickly enough to yield a steady supply within a limited surface area (conceptualize a square foot or two of dense tops to supply each person during its long season). You can experience Sunday scrambled eggs or tofu with a little crumbled cheese, a sprinkle of your own chopped parsley and fresh garlic bread - simple bliss. Check out Beechers Handmade Cheese and DeLaurenti, for local cheeses.

Are you a more adventurous or experienced deck farmer? Consider theme gardening. Try a 'Tuscan' container cluster of tomatoes, basil, baby beets, and chard (did you know chard is in the beet family?); a 'Zacatecas' cluster of tomatoes, peppers and zucchini; a'Provence' cluster of chives, mesclun (salad greens), and tender filet green beans; or, a 'Guangzhou' cluster of bok choy, snow peas and carrots. Plan what you want while considering which plants will thrive in your micro-environment(s). Choose some beautiful pots (sanitize them if previously used). Be sure to consider the pot's weight if that could become an issue on your deck or balcony. Buy your seeds or starter plants and keep them cool and protected until you're ready to set them out in their new home.

Now you're ready to plant up. If you are a novice gardener, or rusty, here is a quick re-cap of basic planting technique. I like to add a small square of screening or a little square of paper towel over the drainage hole(s) so the potting mix doesn't run out. Some gardeners use a pot shard while others don't add anything. Fill the pots with high quality potting mix up to two inches from the top. A good mix contains equal parts of something to hold the water, like peat moss or ground bark, and something that keeps the base from compacting, like perlite or vermiculite.

I like mixes that contain earthworm castings and some lime to balance the acid pH of the peat since most food plants and flowers prefer neutral pH. Avoid mixes containing large pieces of anything and avoid any soil or topsoil as it is too heavy and will make life difficult for your roots. The key here is to optimize the growing conditions so the plant can thrive on its own and you don't have to fuss later. Water thoroughly.

Plant seeds according to their packets or move transplants as follows. Make sure your mix is evenly damp and that the little plants are freshly watered. Dig a hole as deep as the small containers. Gently cradle the plant by its base in one hand, turn the container upside down and squeeze the pot to release the root ball. Fit the root ball into the new hole keeping the old and new surface levels about the same. Fill with extra potting mix if needed and tamp lightly with your hand to ensure good soil contact between old and new mixes. Continue transplanting any additional plants and then water the new pot thoroughly. Keep the containers out of the sun for the next few days.

The key ingredients for gardening success are soil, light, temperature and fertilizer, understanding the plant's needs and your level of interest. Align these forces to find great satisfaction with little effort and the creative possibilities are infinite. A helpful resource for detailed cultivation information is the King County Cooperative Extension service. Start with the Community Horticulture Fact Sheet

We'll talk about deck flowers next time. For gratification right now, simply swing by the flower stalls and treat yourself to cheery mixed bouquets that smile back all week. Enjoy!

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