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Planning Your Garden Can Require a Soft(ware) Touch

September 24, 1989|LAURIE K. SCHENDEN | Schenden is a Los Angeles free-lance writer

How difficult is it to fill in that little gap in your yard where the ferns fried and the day lilies choked and died?

If you've got a green thumb, it may not be a problem. If you're all thumbs--and none are green--you may seriously want to consider asphalt-- unless you own a home computer.

A new computer program called RootDirectory could appear like a ray of sunlight to homeowners and apartment gardeners who know nothing about plants but who can't justify paying someone else to tell them where to put their petunias.

Books such as Sunset Western Garden, Hortus Third or any of a number of do-it-yourself gardening books can be extremely helpful if you know what you're looking for.

But with this program, the answers can be supplied for you by punching a few keys; all you do is answer some simple questions, such as: Where do you live? How big is your planting space? Do you want shade?

This budding phenomenon is the brainchild of Randy Farrar, a lifelong gardener--and software developer at TRW. The program is the hybrid born of Farrar's combining his knack for computers with his love of gardening.

"It's a perfect match," said Farrar, 31, who developed the program during lunch hours, after work and on weekends. "And it's as easy to use as a microwave.

"There's so much information out there for gardening. There's an information overload. The program organizes it all. In Sunset (Western Garden Book), say you want a bulb-like flower, you want it to bloom in summer in filtered shade. You go to the index . . . and you have to jump around to look things up and cross reference--and it may take you a half an hour, or hours, to figure it out. That's why everyone's growing petunias.

"With RootDirectory, the program asks you what you want and gives you a detailed list of choices."

Farrar is convinced that with his program, indoor types (i.e. amateurs) can plan their yards with the aplomb of a landscape designer. Whether planting a simple bulb or planning an extensive landscape, it can be as productive as consulting a gardening expert, he said.

And that, essentially, is what users of RootDirectory are doing. All of the information contained in the program was gathered through Farrar's extensive research--and his own experience.

Farrar has always been at home with Mother Nature. From age 14 he worked in a nursery, watering, pulling weeds--and doing research with plant breeding and plant materials.

He branched out in college, earning a bachelor's degree in agricultural business management at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. At Cal Poly, he developed a sense for recognizing what he considers good and bad gardening practices.

"The instructor wanted us to use pesticides to kill off moths," he recalls about one field project. "We had to put on these space suits, and I asked, 'Do I have to wear this?' He said, 'You do if you want to have children.'

"It convinced me--and set my philosophy about pesticides--you don't need them."

Insects and Pests

In his Insects and Pests module, Farrar offers his own home remedies and proven natural methods ( organic is such a yuppie term, he said, flinching) to rid a garden of pesky intruders--and there's no space suit or threat to fertility involved.

With the insect and pest program, gardeners can find a solution to their pest problem if they know what the intruder looks like, or "the program will ask for a damage report," Farrar said, and the perpetrator can be identified that way.

"If the leaves are being chomped on, and there's slime all over, that's a snail or slug," he said.

After the pest is identified, the program "will give you information on their life cycle, because if you can control that organically, you can pretty much eliminate the problem for several years--I have, and this area is notorious for snails and slugs."

New Farming Methods

After college, Farrar went into farming. "It's what I really wanted to do," he said. But he didn't have unrealistic fantasies of living life like farmers of yesteryear. His ideas had to do with experimenting with new farming methods and improving efficiency, like farming in beds: Instead of turning the soil over, "you cut down 12-14 inches into the soil. Beds are permanent and they aerate the soil." And incorporating a chicken coop with a greenhouse: "The heat from the chicken coop keeps the greenhouse warm."

The best examples of Farrar's gardening philosophy are right in his own yard. Farrar, his wife, Sheri, and two daughters, Lindsay, 4, and Natalie, 7 months, live in a cozy home on a small lot in Redondo Beach--small enough that most people wouldn't even worry about landscaping.

But in this limited space, Farrar grows raspberries, nectarines, boysenberries, plums, apples, tangerines, vegetables and an array of lush plants arranged in a neat and attractive landscape--and all grown organically.

Third World Projects

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