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Plant Parenting 

'First Garden' provides local gardening novices with some helpful, sound advice

To everything, there is a season, and Tucson gardeners are fortunate enough to have two planting seasons. The second one is underway.

Old Pueblo horticulturists have a lot of elements to combat--poor soil, limited rainfall and temperatures that either fry or freeze seedlings and tender-variety plants. The first window of planting opportunity occurs in the spring around the date of last frost (March 14). Plant too early, and you run the risk of a surprise late-season freeze. Plant too late, and there may not enough growing time left before blossoms wilt in 100-degree temperatures. A mistake in either direction can wipe out of those tender vegetables or pretty succulents.

But we get a second chance in the fall. As the intensity of the summer sun begins to wane, the green-thumb gang goes quickly to work revitalizing soil with nutrients, replacing trickle irrigation tubes and transplanting a new crop from seedling cup to permanent home. Do it fast, though, as the productive growing period runs just 60 to 90 days (if you're lucky) before TV meteorologists begin to warn of potential nighttime freezes.

There are lots of books on the market to help inexperienced folks with aqua thumbs (neophytes aspiring to full green-thumb status). One of the more informative and cleverly written is First Garden: How to Get Started in Southwest Gardening. What makes this offering so neat is it provides region-specific information for our part of the world, and it's co-authored by environmental horticulturist Janice Busco, member of the Arizona Native Plant Society and tiller of a small, private sustainable agriculture farm in Flagstaff.

Busco is knowledgeable; because she has walked the walk, she can talk the talk. "If you're not killing some plants from time to time," she writes, "you're not trying very hard to learn how to garden. I still kill my fair share of plants; it's just more embarrassing for me." If you've ever nurtured the weeds while killing the good stuff, you can relate.

She also has an enjoyable sense of humor in her introduction to the basics of climate, soil, design, planting, water and maintenance.

On the subject of trimming plant growth, she says: "If you've punished your plants for a job well done by disfiguring their leaves and cutting off their food supply, I'll knock on your door and give you a stern lecture. I travel extensively, so don't think you're safe just because you don't live in my town."

She's somewhat laid back about insects. "Don't panic at the arrival of the first aphid. Pure garden soap mixed with water doesn't poison insects, but dissolves their hard exoskeletons. Like the Wicked Witch of the West, they melt away. Explain that to your kids, and they'll be thrilled to help you spray your plants."

When it comes to weed strategies, Busco is accepting. "Weeds are a fact of life. Whoever said that a weed is just a flower growing in the wrong spot must have been on heavy medication or never ran into the likes of kudzu, bindweed, thistle, and various ivies. The only way to achieve a real garden is with real sweat. And that means weeding."

Speaking of ivies, Busco reminds gardeners, "Vines are really just shrubs with a posture problem, occupying a special niche in nature where they rely on their neighbors for support."

As to roses, the most popular of the shrubs, she advises, "Let's get realistic about roses. Novice gardeners want to grow them in the worst way and probably will. You'll end up with some for cutting, but don't get any ideas about opening your own flower shop."

Finally, when the traditional secrets of planting skill just don't cut it, Busco shifts emphasis to 50 foolproof plants she thinks are ideal for growing in the Southwest.

The book has been hyped as filling a void in the marketplace because of its regional foundation. Other manuals do that also, but this one provides a step-by-step process to teach beginners how, what and where to plant--making the process of getting started seem not so complicated--and providing realistic goals and expectations, as well as a few laughs.

In her chapter on "Start to Plant!" she advises that the best way to begin is to do so: "Take some classes. Read some books. Get dirty. And remember, if you kill a plant (and you will), figure out what went wrong and why. Plants want to live too."

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