Catch the green fever
EAGLE COUNTY — Spring weather has made its way to the Vail Valley, and for many people, that means it’s time to get their hands dirty in the garden.
Some will cultivate plants in their yards or tend to pots on their balcony, while others will head to their local community garden. (Communal gardens have popped up throughout the valley in the past few years.)
When to plant
Marty Jones, owner of Colorado Alpines & Wildflower Farm in Edwards, says gardeners can start planting early crops as soon as the threat of frost is gone and the soil is thawed enough to dig. Around the High Country, that often means late May or even early June — after all, you don’t want your new seedlings to get wiped out on a cold mountain night.
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Plants that can go into the soil first are typically the hardier ones that can withstand some cold, such as potatoes, peas and onions. Lettuce can be planted two to four weeks before the average last frost and tends to like cooler temperatures.
Even when summer officially arrives in the mountains, Jones says there are limited plants that do well in our climate and advises beginner gardeners to stick with the easy-to-grow variety. That includes perennial flowers that thrive on cool nights and sunny days, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, lettuce, cabbage, some herbs and root crops such as carrots, radishes and beets.
Because the valley has such a short growing season, experts recommend sticking with plants that mature quickly. Jones said his Edwards nursery generally sells seeds that mature in 65 days or less. Farther upvalley, Vail Community Garden organizer Marian Cartin recommends plants with a maturation periods of less than 50 days. In Eagle, with its warmer climate, gardeners may be able to eke out an even longer growing season.
Jones points out that many gardeners need to adjust their expectations for High Country plants. Hard squashes such as pumpkins and watermelons typically take too long to grow for the mountains, and hot-weather loving plants such as basil or tomatoes may struggle.
“Especially if you have a little garden, you have to be practical. Don’t stick a tomato plant in there and hope it’s going to do something — because it’s not,” he said. “If you choose to do something that is more difficult up here, like tomatoes, you’ll need to bring them inside, but even then, you’ll be limited to smaller tomatoes.”
Before planting anything, garden experts will tell you to check your soil and “amend” it, meaning you’ll need to supplement it with whatever nutrients it needs. You’ll likely want to add a layer of compost or other organic material that is free of weeds.
Next, plan your plants. Jones said he likes to sit down with his seeds and map out where in the garden everything will go and when they need to be planted.
Also, make sure your garden is protected to keep critters out, unless your goal is to feed the local wildlife.
Next, it’s time to get your plants started. Jones recommends that beginner gardeners buy starter plants from the nursery. However, if you’re looking for more of a challenge, or simply are watching your costs, planting from seed is the more economical way to go.
That way, you can start your plants indoors before the weather warms up, watching your plants sprout up out of the soil. Starters can be planted in prepared trays that can be purchased from your local nursery or hardware store, or you can make your own recycled containers out of toilet paper rolls or newspapers.
“Be aware that you need to keep things moist during the germination time. The top quarter-inch of soil can dry out quickly. You might have to water it once a day at least until they spread out their roots,” said Jones.
Once they sprout, be careful not to keep the plants in too warm a place, lest they shoot up too fast and become unable to support their weight. Work on putting the starters out during the day for periods so they can become hardy and won’t be shocked when they are planted outside a few weeks later.
Perhaps the best way to learn how to garden is to talk to other gardeners in the area who have figured out some of the quirks and tricks to planting in a high alpine environment. Jones said that’s how he started — reading books, running a landscaping business and talking to other gardeners.
“Educate yourself as much as you can about what you’re growing,” he said, adding that the Wildflower Farm always welcomes questions. “It’s challenging up here, so find an old-time gardener and ask what they’re doing.”
Cartin said she encourages new gardeners at the Vail Community Garden to plant what they’ll eat and consider planting a row to donate to the Salvation Army’s fresh food pantry.
“Set yourself up for success and plant some tried-and-true simple plants like lettuce and radishes,” she said. “Also, plant a wild card each season, something new, an experiment or something that intimidates you.”
Also, she said, don’t forget your garden once you get it planted.
“It is easy to be excited in the spring and put a lot of time and resources into your garden but to then spend less time caring for those plants as the season continues,” she said. “Stay committed to your garden, and you will see long-lasting bounty.”
Assistant Managing Editor Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2927 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @mwongvail.
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