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The time is ripe for picking strawberries

With the coming of June, thoughts turn to picking strawberries.

Cultivating your own garden can be a growth experience for both your plants and yourself.

In fact, experts say backyard gardening helps growers take an interest in food and make better choices about what goes on their dinner plates.

“By growing your own food, you get a certain satisfaction of knowing what went in and on your plants,” said Mary Davis, a LaPorte County master gardener.

Wayne Gruber, owner of Gardens on the Prairie in Lowell, said gardening benefits both your physical and mental wellbeing.

“Every form of gardening, from raking tilling, digging, planting and pruning, burns calories and is a great form of exercise,” he said. “Mentally, there is great satisfaction to plant something, nurture it, and watch it grow and mature. There is a simple beauty to gardening as plants change every season and every year.”

Not sure where to start? Here are a few tips to get your garden started this spring.

What should I know?

Before you head outdoors, consider your options, and choose fruits and vegetables you enjoy eating, Davis advised. Consider as well Northwest Indiana’s climate.

Where you live often determines what and when you should plant. The USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map outlines which plants are most likely to thrive when at a certain location. Most of Northwest Indiana falls into zones 5b or 6a.

“Some of the early vegetables you can plant are lettuce, radishes, peas and onions,” Davis said.

What do I need?

Essential tools include the basics, Gruber said. You’ll likely need a rake, shovel, trowel, a set of hand pruners, a hand saw, loppers and a soil knife for tough weeds.

There’s also plenty of resources out there to help as well, such as books like “Urban Gardening for Dummies” and “Container Gardening for All Seasons: Enjoy Year-Round Color with 101 Designs.”

Gruber also recommends the Master Gardener Program that’s sponsored by Purdue University.

“Local lectures on gardening would also be a source of information,” he said. “Purdue University Cooperative Extension is a great resource for all kinds of information, from vegetable gardening, to lawns, to landscape plants — all free on the internet.”

What if I don’t have space?

Container gardening works well for those who don’t have enough room for a garden, she said.

“Flower pots work well, just have a good potting soil for those containers,” Davis said. “They need to be in an area that gets at least 6 to 8 hours of sun.”

Tomatoes are a must in every garden, and also do well in a container.

“It is a heat-lover and tender, so it must not be planted until after our frost date,” Davis said. “We are in zone 5 and we could get frost well into May.”

Tomatoes produce a hefty bounty, so be prepared with tomato-based recipes or snack away.

“Herbs are also a must for everyone,” Davis said. “Again, you can plant multiple herbs in one container and keep them handy near your kitchen.”

Basil, which is a tender plant, is especially useful for cooks, along with parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.

If you prefer something sweet, strawberries are fun to grow, and do well in containers, Davis said.

“There’s nothing better than going out and picking a red ripe warm strawberry,” she said. “It just doesn’t compare with store bought.”

A single strawberry plant will not produce a lot of fruit, so Davis advises to plant a few.

“They can be planted as soon as the soil can be worked,” she said.