Cultivating a home garden can be tricky. On the surface, growing plants in your yard sounds simple: mark off a plot, dig, seed, cover, water, watch and wait. Voila. But Colorado is no Garden of Eden. Its roller coaster temperatures and diverse range in elevations make for an environment where one-size-fits-all gardening is all but impossible. If you want to navigate Colorado’s unusual growing conditions but don’t know where to start, look no further.
Understand Your Plot
According to Dr. Michael Bartolo, a research scientist at the Arkansas Valley Research Center, the first step in becoming a master gardener is to master your local conditions. Know before you grow. “Most gardeners usually fall into the same pitfalls,” Bartolo said. “You need to understand what you’re working with in terms of soil and water.”
He recommends aspiring gardeners test their soil before planting seeds. Many department stores carry over-the-counter soil testing devices; or, Bartolo said, you could send in a soil sample to your local university who should be able to analyze it for you. Because of Colorado’s climactic diversity, understanding the soil you have to work with is the “foundational thing any gardener can do,” Bartolo said.
Mind Your Region
Unless you’ve built a greenhouse, you’d best give your garden plants a realistic chance. In Boulder County, according to Carol O’Meara, the BoCo extension agent with Colorado State University, that means “regionally adaptive varieties” of green beans, winter squashes, tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and onions.
These crops tend to be successful given Boulder’s conditions: limited water, highly alkaline soil, a short growing season and high solar intensity. But given those conditions, there are some crops that you should stay away from, no matter how tempting they may be. Watermelons and blueberries, a favorite among many home-gardeners, O’Meara said, don’t do well in Boulder County. Collard greens, musk melons (like cantaloupe and honeydew), and butternut squash are other varieties that you’re better off staying away from.
How to Handle the Frost
BoCo has a short growing season — abvout 150 days — from early May to early October. So unless you want to go without home-grown goodies for over half the year, then you’ll need to know how to plant during the frost, which ends mid-May and usually returns mid-October.
According to O’Meara, there is no shortage of crops that can survive — and thrive-BoCo’s lengthy frost. These include: beets, carrots, spinach, potatoes, parsnips, onions, lettuce, cabbage (not Napa), broccoli, cauliflower, bok choi, peas, fav beans, kale, and mustard greens. In the fall, beets, broccoli, bok choi, greens, and spinach work well, though you’ll want to refrigerate the seeds for a few weeks before planting.
In what O’Meara calls a “crucial component to any kind of gardening,” Colorado’s droughts can be combated with drip irrigation. When water restrictions are imposed—and even when they are not—drip irrigation is a good idea for any conservation-minded gardener.
Delivered directly to the soil, water dispersed via a drip doesn’t evaporate like that sprayed around, and is thus much more efficient than simply hosing crops with water.
Protect Your Bounty
Of course, if your garden is as bountiful as you hope it’d be, unwelcome guests might try to help harvest it—like rabbits, deer and even bears. Protecting your garden is key.
Boulder County is full of deer. And while sightings while hiking might be a delight, they turn into pests once they start feasting on your garden. To protect your bounty from Bambi, you’ll have to erect an eight- to 10-foot fence around your garden. There are sprays you can buy, but those are not always effective. Bears are attracted to small fruits like berries, so you’d either want to enclose your fruit with fencing, or abstain from growing them altogether.
The Front Range is known for its beer, but less known is how well one of beers crucial ingredients grows here. Give your garden life beyond traditional vegetables, tubers, and occasional fruit by growing hops. Even if they’ll never see the inside of a brewing vat, the light green spindly vines are a fun and vibrant addition to a garden plot, and can be used to shade other plants from late afternoon sun. Hops are a good challenge to test your green thumb credentials, as they require more than planting a seed and forgetting about.
First: purchase hop roots from your local nursery or garden center. Roots can also be purchased from online retailers. O’Meara, the BoCo extension agent, recommends the Cascade, Chinook, or Nugget hop varieties.
Once you have a location in mind—make sure it’s in an area with good sun coverage—plant the roots and grab a beer—it could be a long wait! For stability, you’ll want to place some natural twine fiber for the hops to hold onto as they climb.
Growing hops is a years-long project, so you really want to make sure you’ve got all the preparations right from the beginning. As the summer solstice creeps up in June, you’ll want to fertilize the soil that is giving life to your hops; for the two weeks leading up to the solstice, you’ll want to fertilize the crops.
At about year three, the hops will really start to expand, and you’ll need to contain them so they don’t run amok. Place the hops—roots, soil, twine, and all—in some big barrels. As they grow, the bine of the plant will run up the trellis, surely but slowly, and can reach as high as 25 feet. At the end of each summer, you’ll be able to harvest your hops. Year one won’t yield much, but in a few years time, you’ll be the neighborhood’s hop haven. We’re sure you can a brewer who would take some off your hands and share in the end product.