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An hour a week yields big harvest

There's a vegetable garden in this Philadelphia fringe town that is highly productive, neat, even picture perfect at times. It is a mere 200 square feet in size, yet it readily yields 400 pounds of fresh produce in a season -- enough to feed two adults for a year. Best of all, this productivity is achieved at an average cost of just 60 minutes a week of the gardener's time.

What is perhaps most exciting about the ``60 minute'' garden is that almost any gardener can have one. Jeff Ball -- an author, computer consultant, and avid gardener -- turned to his files on time-saving and season-extending gardening and designed this superefficient method, with the help of his computer. Then he built the garden to prove it worked. It does.

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So that anyone who wants it can have a similar garden, Mr. Ball has produced a book detailing his experience. ``Jeff Ball's 60-minute Garden'' (Rodale Press, Emmaus, Pa., $9.95 paperback, $16.95 hard cover) is due for release Sept. 17.

The book's fall publication is timely, because the 60-minute garden requires raised beds and other gardening devices thatcan be constructed in the North during the period when most gardeners do no more than dream about working the soil. The devices are straightforward and can be readily built by anyone who can use a saw and pound home a few nails.

I called at the Ball residence last week to talk gardening and computer science and see for myself what 60-minute gardening is all about. Getting two pounds of produce per square foot out of an intensive garden is no exceptional feat for a master gardener, but doing so on a mere one hour a week? Jeff Ball insists this sort of productivity is readily achieved and that those willing to invest more time in the postage-stamp-size garden can reap 600 to 700 pounds a year ``with ease.''

Mr. Ball has brought a remarkable degree of organization and efficiency to the garden, and because he has set out the step-by-step process in his book, it should be reasonably easy for others to follow.

The secret lies in being properly set up from the start. To that degree there's a catch. The homeowner must invest both time and money to build a fully operative 60-minute garden. On the other hand, the complete garden need not be built all at once. The investment can be spread over several years, but the superefficient results will be longer in coming.

As Mr. Ball puts it: ``If you develop the entire system at once, you will be spending approximately $3 a square foot in that first year of construction. Therefore if you have a 200-square-foot garden it will cost about $600 to install this comprehensive gardening system. At the same time you will produce more than $400 worth of food in that 200 square feet, returning a good portion of your investment in the first year.

``If we look at a five-year investment plan, you would spend $600 to install this system and about $75 a year to maintain it. In return you would grow $2,000 worth of fresh food, about a 200 percent return. You can't find a bank to give you that kind of payback.''

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There are eight basic components to the 60-minute garden: permanent raised beds, season extenders using tunnels, a vertical growing system, advanced soil-management techniques, growing techniques, watering and feeding devices, environmental management devices, and garden management techniques.

Because of these many devices, the growing season is prolonged at both ends to almost 10 months in Mr. Ball's Philadelphia region -- Feb. 1 to mid-December. He lists the seasons as ``early spring, spring, summer, fall, and early winter.''

Annual applications of compost spread over the top of the bed are about all the soil enrichment a 60-minute garden needs, once the soil has been built up. Mulches (plastic and organic) are used to raise or lower soil temperatures and to beat the weeds. For the rest, plastic-covered tunnels go a long way toward lengthening the season at both ends.

``In my area I can eat spinach and lettuce from the garden in March and peas in late April just a few weeks after the last frost,'' Mr. Ball says.

His yard has a 1,000-square-foot intensive vegetable garden with the new 60-minute garden alongside. The idea is to dismantle much of the older garden (``we produce way more vegetables than the family can eat,'' he says) and replace it with a mini orchard. The ultimate aim at the dinner table is to get the dessert as well as the main course from the garden.

``The suburban backyard,'' he says, ``can be made much more productive than the general public ever dreams.'' And in far less time, too.

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