The summer has barely begun, and for most of us Rosh Hashana seems light years away. But on Rosh Hashana the shmita, or sabbatical, year of the Land in Israel begins. For those who want to observe the shmita and still have beautiful, green gardens, it is not too early to begin preparations. This was the main message of a conference on shmita gardening entitled "Who's Afraid of the Shmita Year?" that took place last week at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies in Rehavia. Sponsored by Shomera L'sviva Tova, the Jerusalem Foundation, the Jerusalem Municipality, the Environment Ministry, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel's Jerusalem branch and others, the conference briefly outlined the Halacha involved and then surveyed various ways to prepare municipal, community and private gardens for the shmita year. The audience was reminded that, as with all halachic issues, there are those who are more stringent and those who are more lenient, and was advised to consult a rabbi with respect to halachic questions. Not surprisingly, the booklet of guidelines published by the municipality is more stringent than those articulated by the mostly modern Orthodox participants of the conference. This year, due to a Jewish leap year (13-month year), the shmita will also last 13 months, which happens once in every seven or eight shmita years. The Torah commands observance of the shmita or seventh year, in which Jewish-owned land in the Land of Israel must remain fallow, in four different passages. "And six years thou shalt sow thy land, and gather in the increase thereof, but in the seventh year, thou shalt let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of thy people may eat; and what they leave, the beast of the field shall eat." (Exodus 23:10-11). Agricultural work is prohibited, especially sowing, pruning, plowing and harvesting. The harvest is left in the fields and anyone can enter and take whatever he or she needs for personal consumption. In commercial agriculture, the option exists for a heter mechira, the symbolic sale by Jewish farmers of their land to a non-Jew for the duration of the shmita year (something akin to selling hametz before Pessah). This enables Jewish farmers to continue to work their land during the shmita. But this option does not exist for private, community or municipal gardens. Rabbi Tzuriel Weiner, head of Beit Midrash Rava, looked at some of the ideas behind the commandment. He noted that shmita is linked with the six days of creation and Shabbat, imparting holiness to the Land of Israel. Just as God created the world in six days and then rested on the seventh, so should the land rest in the seventh year. Plus, the shmita reminds us that God is the true owner of the land and because of this, He can command us to stop working the land. Agronomists Motti Shomron of the Institute of Torah and the Land and Israeli Galon of the Ministry of Agriculture, looked at specific ways to prepare for and maintain one's garden in the shmita year. Shomron reminded the audience that in First and Second Temple times it is reasonable to assume that people didn't have gardens for aesthetic reasons only. "They wouldn't have drawn water from the well and made the effort to bring it to their land for this. If they had a garden, they grew food. But now, we can have this luxury. "The most important thing is to prepare ahead of time," he continued. "Shmita is like eating on Shabbat. If you prepare the food beforehand, it will be there. If you do not, then you have a recipe for failure. We have professional and technical solutions that can get you through the shmita year with a beautiful, well-kept garden." Since sowing, pruning, plowing and harvesting are the four big no-nos of shmita, these need to be done now. "Go now and buy seeds and saplings and plant them," he urged. "Plant new trees. Once they have taken root, you can tend to them during the shmita. Tu Be'av [July 30] is the last day for planting trees. Prune now because pruning for aesthetic reasons or to encourage growth is a halachic problem during shmita. Harvesting is not allowed, whether by combine or by hand. But everyone is allowed to pick fruits from trees." Vines, which need pruning for growth, should have this done now. Shomron assured the audience that if done properly, the vines will hold for the year. Fertilizing is a problem. But today, there are long-term fertilizers that last from nine months to a year. These can be applied before the start of the year so that no additional fertilizer will be necessary. Spraying for pests and weeds needs to be done beforehand so that the garden enters the shmita clean. Trees and bushes that present dangers - to electricity lines, for example - should be cut now. Also trimming for decorative reasons should be done ahead of time. Flowers can be planted from mid-Av (the beginning of August) to three days before Rosh Hashana but should not be watered after Rosh Hashana. The winter rains will cause them to grow. Shomron proposed planting different types of perennials that will bloom during the year at different times without human assistance. Grass can also be planted up to three days before Rosh Hashana. Irrigation systems should be prepared that will use the minimum amount of water needed. Galon looked at what is permissible to do during the shmita year to maintain the garden. He distributed a three-page list of dos and don'ts for the year. Basically, it is permissible to maintain an existing garden. "We want to maintain the beauty of the Land of Israel and not to dry out the country," Galon explained. "And for maintenance we can do a lot of things." It is permitted to spray for weeds or pests, cut hedges, mow the lawn, water and clean the garden if these are done to prevent significant or permanent damage to the garden. Watering must be kept to the minimum necessary. "During non-shmita years we are told not to waste water for ecological reasons. Now, wasting water is also a halachic transgression," he said. But under no circumstances is planting, seeding or fertilizing allowed. "Jerusalem has good land and our gardens can survive without these for the year," Galon stressed. "You can cut flowers for a bouquet but not to encourage growth." Tzachi Even-Or of Shomera talked about the option of greenhouse gardening. Greenhouses are not considered growing in the Land of Israel. Therefore, the shmita does not apply to them and planting, fertilizing, pruning, etc. can all be done. The only thing not allowed is growing grass. The greenhouse must have a floor and a roof. The floor can be something as simple as plastic sheeting. On this, containers with earth inside are placed. Flowers, vegetables, herbs, etc. can all be grown inside such containers. Flowers, such as annuals, can be planted and then transplanted in an outdoor garden at the end of the shmita year. The roof does not have to be a proper structure. It can be of cloth or plastic sheeting as long as it filters out 80 percent of the sunlight. The big problem with the greenhouse option is the cost. For a large greenhouse of 2.60 meters by 5.60 meters, the cost is around NIS 12,600. For the smallest size, 2.60 meters by 2.60 meters, the cost runs between NIS 8,000 to 9,000. This is high for individuals but not out of range for community, school or municipal gardens. Even-Or said the cost is not unreasonable if an individual plans to keep the greenhouse and use it permanently. "I have a greenhouse at home and this way I can grow vegetables in the winter or flowers that need warmer temperatures," he said. The last speaker, Ellor Levi of the Ginot Ha'ir Community Center, spoke about environmentally friendly gardening. "Let nature do its thing during the shmita. We can concentrate on doing other things than gardening." For more information, contact Shomera at 653-6883, Israel Galon at 050-624-1556 or (03) 948-5315, or consult the Ministry of Agriculture Web site at www.shalham.moag.gov.il. The Jerusalem Municipality, together with the Ministry of Agriculture and the Institute for Advanced Study of Halacha for Agricultural Settlements, has put out a booklet called "Shvi'it Gardening" on the shmita. For this booklet, call 050-410-5080.