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New gardening book is pick of the crop. With more than 200 authors, this just may be the definitive guide

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``IT must have been a very meticulous and perhaps overly ambitious gardener who gave us the stern maxim: `To live off a garden, live in it.' '' So say the authors of Gardening: The Complete Guide to Growing America's Favorite Fruits and Vegetables. And gardeners, neophyte or experienced, who really want to understand their gardens might well spend much time living in this book -- which is exquisitely meticulous and is also successful in its considerable ambitions.

Four years in the making, ``Gardening'' comes as close as any book to being the definitive American work on its subject. It is published by Addison and Wesley in association with the National Gardening Association (NGA), which has its headquarters in this northern Vermont town.

The book has one author, the NGA, but more than 200 contributors -- all experts in their respective specialties -- drawn from around the country.

At $19.95 (soft cover) and $35.95 (hard cover) ``Gardening'' isn't cheap, but this quality production, with so much authority behind it, is worth every cent.

The 10-by-8-inch book boasts 325 full-color photographs and 160 drawings that illustrate crops, ideas, and techniques, as well as 70 maps and charts for easy reference.

It focuses on the 40 fruits and vegetables that repeated Gallup surveys, commissioned by the NGA, have shown to be the most favored in America.

Starting, literally, from the ground up, ``Gardening'' leads a reader through the minutiae of conceiving, preparing, planting, loving, nurturing, and harvesting a garden.

``Soil is more than just plain dirt,'' it says early on in the book. ``It is a dynamic mixture of mineral particles, living organisms, organic matter, air, and water that is the foundation not only of your garden, but of all plant life on earth. . . .

``The best way to get to know your soil is by working with it, digging through it, examining it, testing it, improving it. . . . Pick up a handful of moist soil and rub it between your thumb and fingers.''

From such homespun advice to highly detailed and technical instructions -- ``Side-dress corn with a fertilizer high in nitrogen such as urea or ammonium nitrate at the rate of about 2 pounds per 100 feet of row when the plants are 8 to 10 inches tall and again when the silks appear'' -- ``Gardening'' plows carefully and thoroughly through its subject.

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