Virtual Gardening 

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Practicing point-and-click horticulture in the spring

Last weekend, the earth finally warmed enough that I wouldn't break my shovel.

So I pried my carpal-tunnel-ridden, knobby-knuckled fingers away from my overused keyboard, and went out in the back yard to dig in the dirt. Sure enough, the soil was rich, loose, and loamy (courtesy of about 30 wheelbarrow loads of topsoil and compost I picked up a year ago).

Princess Tiffy and Goofball Floyd, the hounds, gnawed cow femurs disinterestedly as I weeded, turned, sifted, gouged, and otherwise prepared my garden. But then I stopped. What to plant? And where? And what next to what? Back inside I went.

One thing I knew was that I wasn't going to be spraying my vegies with poison (amazing some think that's reasonable anyway), so I did a quick search on Excite (www.excite.com) for organic gardening tips.

Up popped an Australian site called "The Vegetable Patch," at www.netspace.net.au/~atkinson/. Here I found Gavin and Paula's (a suburban couple in Brisbane) garden diary, complete with daily updates of what's been harvested lately, soil guidelines, info on "companion species"-plants which grow well near one another-and garden positioning advice.

Next, on a whim, I typed in www.garden.com. (This continues to be an effective way to find what you're looking for on the net, but beware the "adult" sites which have snatched zillions of web addresses to trick people in visiting their flesh-fests.)

A visually beautiful site, Garden.com touts itself as the "Ultimate resource for everything gardening". And they sure seem to deliver. By registering (which is free), you can shop for seeds and plants (add them to your "wheelbarrow" rather than "shopping cart"), design a garden with a cool drag-and-drop Java interface, keep a personalized notebook, and even get your questions answered by certified Master Gardeners.

There's so much at this site that it's a little overwhelming and, being on a deadline and generally having a short attention span, I moved on.

Next I found myself at the Weather Channel's gardening site, www.weather.com/gardening/. My soil sure did look great, but I'm no expert, and this site reminded me of that. Do you know what to do if your soil is low in potassium? Do you even know how to test for potassium? Or why potassium is important? Check out this site for the answers.

Eager to be content providers on every front, Time-Warner has a gardening site, "The Virtual Garden," at www.pathfinder.com/vg/. Another sprawling, content-rich site, The Virtual Garden provides articles straight from the pages of publications like Southern Living and Orchids Magazine, as well as columns on composting, landscaping, lawn care and vegetables. One of the most powerful features offered is a searchable interface with the Time-Life plant encyclopedia.

My next stop was www.gardenweb.com, the "Internet's Garden Community"; well-named, it turns out, as scores of user forums are provided, on topics ranging from flower crafts to herbalism to bonsai trees to preserving your harvest. This is a great site to get quick answers for your gardening questions, provided free of charge by other gardening enthusiasts around the world.

Sierra Online, a software publishing, content providing powerhouse in California, provides us with www.gardening.com. In addition to selling gardening and landscaping software, Gardening.com offers an online gardening encyclopedia, a soil and plant care troubleshooter, and even a searchable directory of other gardening sites which allows you to narrow your hunt by region or plant type.

At www.naturalland.com/gv.htm, a "natural living" site, you'll find more user discussion boards, tips on picking your garden tools, and a bunch of excellent articles on choosing which vegies will work best in your neck of the woods. Unlike some of the other more commercial sites I've mentioned, this one is content-rich without trying to sell you anything or wow you with fancy graphics.

My tour of some of the top gardening sites on the web complete, and a small notebook, I approached my backyard food factory with a slightly different mindset.

I'll not simply scatter seeds in random locations this year; I know that my broccoli and green onions would prefer to be near each other. I know now that I really need to turn over the soil from down deep to allow roots to get a firm footing. I know that I probably shouldn't plant tomatoes in the same place as I did last year. And the best things for me to plant right away include spinach, lettuce, and snow peas.

Whether you're already a Master Gardener or the only thing you've ever grown is mold on bread, the wealth of free information available on the net assures you'll have some success growing your own.


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