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Harvesting the Internet

April 01, 1999|DAVID COLKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Finding information on automobiles, cell phones and sex on the Internet is easy. Maybe too easy, in some cases.

But finding gardening information apropos to Southern California on the Internet can tax the skills of even experienced Net surfers. The problem is that our Mediterranean climate is practically unique in North America, making the advice given on most Internet gardening sites of little value in the Southland.

One of the very few exceptions can be found in The Times' site, where the entire text of garden editor Robert Smaus' wonderfully helpful book, "52 Weeks in the California Garden," is online. Go to http://www.latimes.com/HOME/NEWS/REALEST/ATHOME/52WEEKS/contents.html for the table of contents.

As suggested by the title, Smaus' book is a week-by-week guide to gardening in our area, with tips on what to plant, as well as when and how. Also included are ample tips on preparing this area's soil, fertilizing, watering and dealing with local pests.

But no book can cover all gardening topics and situations--you can dig deeper (sorry) on the Internet by using a search engine to explore the World Wide Web; you also can delve into a less-used but sometimes highly useful part of the Internet called the Usenet.

For example, this year I decided to plant my backyard vegetable garden on a raised bed to better control the soil content, conserve water and make it easier to keep out the snails that seem to consider my yard a theme park. To make the bed look neat, I wanted to build a wood frame around it.

On the Web, I turned to my preferred search engine, AltaVista, at http://www.alta-vista.net, and clicked on the "Advanced' link to get access to better hone a search.

My first search was for: "raised bed gardening" and wood, leading to 36 sites that contained the exact phrase "raised bed gardening" and the word "wood."

Browsing through these sites, many of which turned out to be irrelevant to my needs, I happened on an "Ohio State University Extension Fact Sheet" on raised beds that gave general advice on this kind of gardening.

Not being handy enough at carpentry that I could wing it, I searched: "raised bed" and garden and plans. This led to a couple sets of exact construction plans even I could follow. Finally, I searched: "treated wood" and garden. This located several sites, pro and con, concerning the use of long-lasting, pressure-treated wood in a food garden.

Web searches take time and patience, and almost always produce numerous false leads. But think of the experience as akin to wandering through a library, stopping occasionally to look through a text and then going on to the next one.

The Usenet consists of thousands of electronic bulletin boards, full of messages that pose questions, express views and argue a point (sometimes with rancor). One of the most popular Usenet search tools is DejaNews at http://www.dejarnews.com. I entered "raised bed," producing 865 hits. Adding the word "garden" narrowed down the choices--I found more plans and tips on keeping cats out of a raised bed.

I could have done more searching, but I was stalling. It was time to leave the virtual gardening world and get my hands dirty.

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