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Your guide to a beginner's backdoor garden

Spring has arrived and we're waiting for the ground the thaw.

And if you've been thinking about planting a garden but don't really know where to start, Anne Smith of the Grand Forks Horticultural Society has a plan for you.

Smith has designed a 4-foot by 8-foot garden with the first-time gardener in mind. With flowers and vegetables, including fragrant sweet alyssum and tall and colorful cleome, it also has multiple varieties of leaf lettuce and tomatoes.

It is low-maintenance and easy to weed, with zinnias to attract butterflies and marigolds to repel aphids. If you wanted, you could even add a row of radishes in the back. Radishes are pretty much the definition of instant gratification when it comes to vegetables. You should be eating your own radishes in about four weeks.

"Everything in this garden is pretty much fail-safe," said Smith, who began gardening with her mother when she was 5.

Smith calls her beginner's garden plan a backdoor garden because she recommends planting it in a sunny spot outside your backdoor. Her plan even has an exit strategy, so if it turns out gardening isn't your thing, you can take steps to return your plot to grass by the following spring.

Here's Smith's step-by-step plan:

• Decide where you want your garden. If you put it outside your back door, be sure to keep it at least a foot away from the house, so it's not entirely under the eaves.

• Use stakes and string to mark exactly where you will plant your garden and then outline the area with spray paint. Spray the area with Round up grass and weed killer. The grass should be dead in five to seven days, but use more Roundup if it looks like it needs it. (People and pets can enter the treated area after the product has dried.)

• Let the grass killer do its work, and once the grass is dead, go in with a spade and turn the dirt. Pull out the roots as much as possible and smooth dirt with a garden rake. In about two weeks, your bed should be ready to plant. You can use your stakes and string again to mark where you're going to plant. Once plants start popping out of the ground, the strings will help you determine plants and weeds. Also, save the seed packets because they have pictures of the seedlings on the back.

• Next, it's time to plant your seeds and seedlings. In the front row, plant a couple of six packs of alyssum seedlings, a low-growing plant with tiny fragrant flowers, often in pink, white or purple. (Garden centers and greenhouse generally sell seedlings in singles, four-packs or six-packs, depending on the type of plant.)

• The next row? Leaf lettuce. This one you can grow from seed. Pick seed packets with all one kind of leaf lettuce or packets of mixed varieties.

• Right after that, plant some marigolds. Go to the greenhouse and pick up seedlings. No flower is more cheerful or easier to grow, and marigolds come in orange and gold and lots of combinations of color and flower. Look for a variety that will grow taller than the lettuce, which will be about 8 inches at maturity. Marigolds, like zinnias, will attract butterflies to your garden.

• After that, Smith suggests a row of zinnias. Their flowers can be a single row of petals or a dome in colors from pale pink and white to bold orange and purple. Zinnias are a flower that grows well from seed.

• Then, tomatoes. Smith suggests six tomato plants that produce small fruit, such as two cherry tomato, two pear (teardrop) tomato and two grape tomato. At the end of the tomato row, put in one plant that will grow large tomatoes. "I suggest the Early Girl (variety)," Smith said. "Buy one plant in a pack. That is going to be your pet tomato."

• Here's where you get really smart, Smith said. The tomatoes should be planted one foot apart. Buy a packet of carrot seed -- a variety with a short growing season, about 65 days. In each spot in front of the tomatoes and in between them, plant six or so carrot seeds. The carrot plants will grow lovely, lacy leaves, a fitting backdrop and pretty accent for the zinnias.

• Your last row can be planted with cleome, tall and graceful with spidery fine and colorful flowers, often white, pink or purple. Garden centers often sell cleome in variety packs. You'll need about 12 plants.

• Then for fun, between the cleome, plant garlic. Get a garlic clove and break it into sections. Plant the garlic sections between and in front of the cleome, repeat the zigzag you did for the tomatoes and the carrot seed. Garlic is another plant that repels aphids.

• If you want, in the back you could plant a row of radishes from seed. Smith likes the ones that look like small red balls. Within four or five weeks of planting, you will have radishes to eat. And lettuce too.

Some general tips for gardeners

• Gardening tools: To start, Smith recommends gardening gloves and a sturdy trowel and mini shovel; flower scissors or nippers (for deadheading zinnias and marigolds, unless you intend to pinch them back with your fingernails); a kneepad or two, for kneeling or sitting during garden work; a plastic pail for depositing pulled weeds.

• Watering: Keep an eye on your garden. Moisture levels can change quickly. Water the roots of the plants, not the leaves. Lay the hose in the garden and give a gentle trickle to the root area. Move the hose as needed.

• Weeding: You'll need to weed your garden every week. If you keep up with it, the weeds will be small and easy to pull. Weeding offers is a good opportunity to evaluate your garden and decide if you'd like to plant more in other areas. Here's the most important gardening tip of all, Smith says: Don't plant more than you can take care of.

• Harvesting lettuce. Tear, don't cut leaf lettuce when you harvest it. Don't uproot the whole plant. Be gentle, and quickly snap off each mature leaf leaving behind those that are not yet ready, so they can grow bigger for another day. Don't let your lettuce become overgrown with large, overly ripened leaf lettuce. Those leaves will be tough and bitter.

• Tomatoes. In the fall, if you have tomatoes left, wrap them in newspaper and gently place them in a paper box, with the tomatoes stacked no more than two high. Keep them in a cool place. When you are ready to use them, take them out a few at a time and let them mature.

• An exit strategy. So, say the summer is over, and you're thinking: I hate gardening. Here's your exit strategy. Finish your harvest, remove dead plants and smooth the soil. You'll need a bag of grass seed. Just before the coming of the snow that is going to stay, throw grass seed by clumps onto your garden patch. Make it a heavy application because birds and other critters will eat the seeds. The grass seed that remains will absorb the water of the snow and sink down. When spring comes, your grass will begin growing. If it looks patchy, apply more grass seed.

• Looking forward to next spring. If the summer is over, and you'd like to plant another garden in the spring, finish your harvest and clean up the dead plants. Turn the dirt and rake it smooth with a garden rake. In the spring, you'll be ready to go again.

Reach Tobin at (701) 780-1134; (800) 477-6572, ext. 134; or send e-mail to