Green thumbs not required.
"Gardening is easy," assured master gardener John Atkinson. "You don't have to have a Ph.D. to start a garden."
That assertion is especially true when fruits and vegetables come pre-planted, already growing in a clump of soil that can be transferred into the ground or a pot.
"It couldn't be any easier," Atkinson said, pointing out tomato, pepper and cucumber plants at Lawrenceville's The Home Depot. Those are three of the easiest plants to grow, he said, and the beginning of April is a good time to plant these warm weather crops. A large space, or even a yard, is not necessary.
"Even people with a small deck where they get their sunlight can grow tomatoes in pots," Atkinson said. He and his wife live in a townhome in Duluth and usually grow two to three different types of tomatoes on their back deck. Atkinson usually raises grape and cherry tomatoes to be used in salads.
Norcross resident Beth Powell holds the title of master gardener, with an expertise in flowers. In the past few years, she and her husband, Mark, have been trying their luck at a food garden.
The small, 4- by 8-foot garden in the Powells' backyard is sprouting peas and lettuce.
"It doesn't take a large amount of acreage to have a small garden in your yard," Atkinson said. "The main thing that you want to have is access to good sun."
Vegetable gardens typically require six to eight hours of sunlight, he said. Gardeners should remember that sunlight shifts from day to day. As we move into the summer months, the sun will move overhead, providing more sunlight.
Good, healthy soil is also a requirement, whether you're planting in the ground or in a container.
"You've got to think about feeding your crop as well as your crop feeding you," said Atkinson, who suggested those planting in the ground at their homes have their soil tested by the Gwinnett County Cooperative Extension Office. For a fee of $8, Gwinnett residents can bring in about two cups of soil in a resealable bag and the office will provide a chemical analysis with a complete computerized report including what nutrients need to be added to grow garden crops in that particular soil.
"It's a good idea to start out with a soil analysis," Atkinson said. "Most of the soil in Gwinnett and north Georgia is composed primarily of clay. There's nothing wrong with good, clay soil. The only thing is it tends to hold moisture longer ... than a sandy soil or a rocky soil would."
The Powells began readying soil during winter, composting leaves, vegetable scraps and even ashes from their fireplace.
In addition to using good soil, vegetables that grow down into the ground, such as beets, carrots and onions, need an area of dirt that can be tilled. Other crops, such as beans, peas, okra, tomatoes, squash, zucchini - anything on a vine - need a fair amount of space to grow.
"You don't want to have a pumpkin vine growing in a small space," Atkinson advised. "I tried to grow squash one time and the squash vine grew right up into my back door."
Mark Powell said those growing vegetables should be careful not to overcrowd their plants. The Powells' garden has just three long rows, but the couple does plan to double that size, planting tomatoes soon and possibly cucumbers.
Once the plants are in good soil and have adequate space to grow, watering is an ongoing maintenance aspect.
"Most people tend to drown things that they're trying to grow," Atkinson said.
The soil in which vegetables are planted should always be damp but not wet, he said, suggesting giving plants a small amount of water more frequently.
In addition to vegetables, Atkinson suggested growing herbs and even flowers, such as marigolds and zinnias, which can be planted in the same pots as long as both types of plants have space to grow.
"There's nothing like harvesting a few fresh herbs to spice up a meal," Atkinson added, and some flowers can help keep insects away from the food plants.
Atkinson said those who want to save money with their gardens should be able to plant at least three rows of crops, like the Powells have now. Otherwise, more money will be spent on supplies for growing than will be saved at the grocery store.
"For us, it was probably the recent run-up in prices and the increased cost of living," Mark Powell said of starting a garden.
But Atkinson warns about growing an expensive tomato: William Alexander details his gardening exploits in his book "The $64 Tomato." The title is taken from the cost Alexander calculated of growing each of his heirloom tomatoes one season.
Those interested in growing their food should take into account, though, that Alexander's garden was quite expansive and expensive: initial construction alone cost him $8,500, and the total amount he spent on creating his garden was $16,565.
In comparison, supplies for starting a tomato plant in a pot would cost about $30 if purchased at a store. That price includes the costs for a single tomato plant (about $3.50), a 17-inch planter (on sale for $17), a 42-inch tomato cage (about $2) and a bag of garden soil ($6 to $7).
According to Robert Brannen with the Gwinnett Cooperative Extension Office, the average yield for a single tomato plant is about 12 to 15 tomatoes, or 11 to 12 pounds. That yield would bring the cost for a pound of tomatoes between $2 and $2.50. The Publix Supermarket off Duluth Highway was selling typical red tomatoes for $1.69 per pound this week.
Despite the cost comparison, Atkinson said many tomatoes in stores have been raised to have tough skins to fare better when being shipped. Tomatoes raised in someone's backyard don't need that tough skin.
"They really taste a lot better," Atkinson said of fresh tomatoes. "There's a huge difference."
There is also a difference in being able to pluck fresh vegetables right off a plant, head into the kitchen and prepare something delicious. Add to that the prospect of what Beth Powell calls a "new adventure."
"We're just so excited," she said of her garden. "(Mark and I) have been watching our (plants) grow every day. We're excited about being able to go out and pick lettuce and have that for meals."
SideBar: Planting tomatoes and peppers
Fruit and vegetable plants that are pre-planted are already growing in a clump of soil that can be transferred into the ground or a pot. Tomatoes also need a cage to grow into because the stems are flimsy. To plant these tomato plants:
1. Drench the peat pot thoroughly just before planting, then let it drain for a few minutes before putting it into soil.
2. Dig a planting hole in the ground or in the pot of soil.
3. Cut the shrink-wrap label from the rim of the peat pot using scissors and tear away the top so the rim is not exposed above ground after planting.
4. Tear away the bottom half of the pot before placing the plant in a hole in the soil.
5. Bury the plant deep enough so that 2/3 of the entire plant is in the ground.
6. Refill the planting hole, gently pressing the soil back into the hole, leaving no empty spaces, or air pockets, underground.
7. Water thoroughly after planting so that the peat pot and soil settle in place.
Follow these directions to plant peppers, but instead of planting 2/3 of the seedling, set the pepper plant in the soil so the top of the clump of soil, the root-ball, is level with the surface.
Cucumber plants that are already growing in a clump of soil can be easily transferred into the ground or a pot. Like tomatoes, cucumbers, which grow on vines, need a cage or trellis to grow upward. The cucumber plants can be planted at the bottom of a cage or trellis. Follow these directions for planting:
1. Dig a planting hole in the ground or in the pot of soil.
2. Carefully remove the cucumber plant from the plastic container. Don't tug on the plant stem or you risk tearing it from the roots. If the plant roots are tangled, use your fingertips to gently untangle them.
3. Place the cucumber plant in the hole in the soil so that the top of the root-ball is level with the ground surface.
4. Refill the planting hole, gently pressing the soil back into the hole, leaving no empty spaces, or air pockets, underground.
5. Water soil thoroughly.