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How does the master's garden grow?

Liz Hille's small vegetable garden was so successful last year, she expanded it across most of her suburban Rock Hill home's backyard.

In the coming months, she hopes to harvest a bounty of broccoli, lettuce, beets, carrots, onions, tomatoes, black beans, sweet peas, tomatillos, rhubarb, radishes and raspberries.

"I was just shocked at how much food could grow here," she said.

Hille, a master gardener, is one of many area gardeners that have recently been cramming aisles at local nurseries and garden centers. Planting season is getting under way in York County and nurseries say business is brisk as gardeners emerge from a frosty winter to dig in.

"The bulk of our business is in the spring months," said Debi Hicklin, a salesperson at Wilson's Nursery and Garden Center in Rock Hill who couldn't talk long because the store was full of customers.

While gardening experts say the area's climate accommodates a variety of plants year-round, mid-April is a key time.

"Everybody's been in the house all winter and they're itching to get out and plant," said Paul Thompson , a horticulture agent with Clemson Extension Service's York County office. "They're rushing out to nurseries because they're itching to get out and dig in the dirt."

It's also the time to plant popular summer veggies such as tomatoes, cucumbers and corn.

Interest in vegetable gardens in general appears to be growing. Thompson said he's gotten more calls than before for information about how to plant them.

"This is the first year I can think of where so many people have asked about vegetable gardening," he said.

More people are also asking about them at garden centers.

"Vegetables are a hot item," said Hicklin, who hears from people who are growing them to help cut the cost of groceries. "People talk about the high price of tomatoes at the grocery store."

For Hille, gardening is a way of life. Her garden, which spans less than a third of an acre, yields enough produce to feed her family and then some. She donates parts of the harvest to local charities that feed the hungry.

Hille also volunteers with the Plant a Row garden on the Anne Springs Close Greenway in Fort Mill. The group harvests more than 2,000 pounds of fresh produce and donates it to the Fort Mill Nutrition Center, which delivers food to needy families.

Running the Plant a Row garden inspired Betsy McLean to start one at home. "I planted four apple trees and plan on putting vegetable plants in my front yard flower and shrub beds," McLean wrote via e-mail. "Growing your own food is fun, and the garden doesn't have to hide in the backyard. ... It's wonderful and lots better than all that green grass we spend so much money on."

Hille, who was inspired by the roma tomato garden her mother kept throughout Hille's childhood, focuses on organic methods.

She fights weeds by surrounding plant beds with wet newspaper, then covers it with grass clippings for mulch. Her tomatoes sprout in a mix of soil, manure and mushroom compost.

She hopes to make bird feeders out of gourds growing near the fence.

"I'm trying to plant flowers in here so we can get bees," she said pointing to a patch of yard near a teepee she made from sticks that will hold pole beans as they grow.

"I like being outside as much as I can," she said. And "it does taste better. It's amazing."

Hille hopes to galvanize enough people to seek out a plot of land near downtown Rock Hill and plant a community garden. Part of the bounty could go to needy families while she hopes the rest would spawn a farmers market.

Planning to plant

If you're thinking of starting a vegetable garden, the Clemson Extension Service offers a wealth of information about gardening and landscaping.

Here are a few tips:

Plan the garden on paper first. Draw a map showing arrangement and spacing of crops. If you wish to keep the garden growing all season, you may need a spring, summer and fall garden plan.

Plan the garden and order seeds by January or February. Some plants may be started indoors as early as January.

In your plan, place tall and trellised crops on the north side of the garden so they will not shade the shorter vegetables.

Group plants by length of growing period. Plant spring crops together so that later crops can be planted in these areas after the early crops mature. Consider length of harvest as well as time to maturity. Place perennial crops to the side of the garden where they will not be disturbed by annual tillage. Finally, practice crop rotation. Try not to plant the same vegetable or a related vegetable in the same location year after year.

Choosing and purchasing good-quality vegetable seeds is important to successful gardening. Keep notes about the seeds you purchase: germination, vigor of plants and tendencies toward insects and disease. From this information you can determine which seed company best meets your needs and which varieties are most suitable for your area or gardening style.

For more, visit: www.clemson.edu/extension/hgic or call 888-656-9988.

The Clemson Extension Service's York County office is at 120 N. Congress Street, York.

Phone: 803-684-9919

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