Early crops may be most productive in what's projected to be another dry year.

It's been said there is no off-season for gardeners; they're either digging in the dirt or planning to dig in the dirt. In southern Kansas, by the middle of March, the actual digging can begin. Gardening catalogs have been clogging mailboxes for months now, and local stores have seed potatoes and onion sets in stock, as well as colorful racks of seed packets.

Cool season crops like potatoes, peas, lettuce, radishes, broccoli and onions benefit from planting in March, even though they may not come up right away.

If the weather cycle of hot, dry summers continues, as conventional wisdom says it will, according to Kansas State Research and Extension gardening associate Ward Upham, spring crops may be the best bet for gardening again in 2013.

The recent snowfall — equivalent to 2.5 to 2.75 inches of rain from both storms, according to Pratt County Extension Agent Mark Ploger — may affect how quickly local gardens can be planted. Tilling the garden when it is too wet can adversely affect the soil structure and garden yield. More information about that is in the Master Gardener column on page three of Thursday's Tribune

Upham recommends pushing a metal rod into the ground until it stops, meaning it has hit dry ground. Don't till until the top four to six inches is dry and crumbly.

The recent snowfall and some predicted rain are hopeful signs for gardeners, but the drought has not broken — "not by a long shot," according to Ploger, "but this will get us going for lawns and gardens."

Because subsoil moisture is deficient, it may be necessary to start watering earlier than normal, Upham said, but it is possible to over-water.

"Plants need moist, not wet soil," he said. "When we get in a drought, people over-water. The roots need to breathe; you can suffocate them by watering too much."

He recommended scratching the soil to the depth of an inch or so, and watering when the soil is dry that far down.

Unless watering is restricted, Upham said another summer of drought doesn't necessarily change what one plants or when, as long as water is available.

Temperatures, both daytime and nighttime, have more affect on yield than dry weather.

Plants make food through a process called photosynthesis and burn food up by respiration. When temperatures are high, plants can't make as much food, and they burn it quicker, Upham explained.

Some gardeners have used shade cloth to try to keep their plants cooler; it helps, but for most people, it's not really practical, he said.

His best advice for gardening in challenging conditions is to cut down on the size of the garden and just grow the things you really like.

Even factoring in the cost of watering and fertilizing, gardening can be cost effective. Upham mentioned research by a statewide Master Gardener coordinator in Oregon that placed the average value at 74 cents per square foot; a modest plot of 200 square feet would save $148 at the grocery store. Most of the studies included the cost of starting a garden the first year.

Crops that provide the greatest return per square food include tomatoes, salad greens, beets, broccoli and potatoes — but only if they are eaten.

Economy aside, a home garden gives you the freshest produce, you know where your food is coming from, it's good exercise, children learn a lot by helping, and they're more likely to eat their vegetables if they help grow them, Upham said.

The Extension experts offered some tips:

• A soil test should be taken from a new garden, and depending on the results, every two or three years afterwards. Collect at least 10 samples spread over the space, at a depth of 6 to 8 inches, mix together in a bucket and take it to the Extension office at 824 W. First, where it can be sent to the lab at K-State. The cost is $8 to $12.

• Drip irrigation is much more efficient than a sprinkler, which allows much of the water to evaporate. If there is not a local source for a drip tape, Upham suggested searching online for something that's easy to install above ground.

• Soaker hoses are notorious for non-uniform watering. To equalize the water pressure, connect both ends of the hose with a Y-connection to make a loop. A female-to female hose connector will also be needed.

• Get more information from the Pratt County Extension website, www.pratt.ksu.edu. Click Lawn and Garden on the left side of the page, then KSU Hort News on the right to access a weekly horticulture newsletter and how-to videos.