For the Sake of Food, Flowers, and Feeling Good. Gardening in Colorado comes with its own challenges and rewards.
Have you heard? Gardening like our grandparents did is on trend again (minus the mass use of DDT). Choosing to grow an old-fashioned sustainable garden can mean focusing on any number of things: growing your own clean food, creating habitats and food sources for urban wildlife, growing plants that sequester more carbon than grass alone, or creating an office or in-home garden that can put up a fight against indoor air pollution. Gardening also has therapeutic benefits. And, of course, who doesn’t love seeing a yard full of colorful, blooming flowers?
Get Started Gardening For Good
Before you stick a seed or a bulb in the ground, you’ll need to pick a place where your garden will thrive. If you already know what kind of plants you’d like to grow, you should choose a location that has the amount of sun you’ll need (full, partial, or shady). Remember, you can improve soil and irrigation just about anywhere, but you cannot move the sun. Spend time researching your plants before you plant.
Soil can be tricky in Colorado. Gardening experts recommend buying or renting a tiller to help break up dry, clay-rich soil. Getting really good loose loamy soil could take three to five growing seasons of tilling and adding in organic matter. According to the National Gardening Association, the ideal soil will contain 40% sand, 40% silt, and 20% clay. You can easily test your soil at home or with the help of pros. Knowing the content of your soil will help you make adjustments. Just remember that with each year of gardening, your soil will get better.
Once you’ve thought about sun and soil, you’ll need to make a water plan. In our high desert climate, irrigation should take serious consideration. Traditional overhead sprinklers are useful when it’s very hot and you need to cool down your crops, but it shouldn’t be the main watering source. Installing drip irrigation is a far more efficient use of water.
If you’d like to be even more water conscious, consider active or passive rainwater harvesting when you can. With an active irrigation plan, you are using water captured in rain barrels. Counterintuitive to the name, passive rainwater harvesting requires a little more planning. Boulder County’s CSU Horticulture Extension Agent, Deryn Davidson describes the process as storing water in the soil. “That would be designing your landscape to capture water so that it stays in your yard, rather than hitting your roof, going down the gutter and the down spout, down your driveway and sidewalk and into your storm drain,” she says. The Colorado Stormwater Center has resources that can help you create a rainwater harvesting plan.
When you’re ready to purchase your plants, you’ll need to decide on seeds, bulbs, or transplants. Seeds tend to offer more variety but are not nearly as convenient as transplants. Seed sharing events, which take place in early spring, are a great way to come across new and interesting fruits, veggies, and flowers. At the seed sharing event hosted by Slow Food Boulder this year, growers were able to get their hands on Makah Ozette potato seeds—which were eaten for 200 years by the Makah Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest.
For even more fruit or vegetable variety, Slow Food USA has curated the Ark of Taste. The program catalogs heritage foods that are endangered, at risk, or have cultural value. The Makah Ozette potato is part of this catalog. Visit the Slow Food website for a list of retailers that sell Ark of Taste seeds.
Choosing to grow food, especially with heritage seeds, can be a major step in making healthier eating choices as well.
“Rather than using the term ‘Food is Medicine,’ food should be our guide to health,” says Jodie Lindsay Popma, the vice chair of Slow Food Boulder.
If you’re not sure about whether to focus your time, energy, and limited garden space on food or flowers, there’s nothing wrong with choosing both with a mixed garden. Lauren Kelso, the site director of Boulder’s Growing Gardens, advocates for the symbiotic relationship that the two categories of plants can have. After all, flowers attract pollinators which help crops. Produce can be a beautiful addition to a flower garden (especially chard or cabbage). And herbs, as Kelso says, “are incredibly beautiful, most of them bring pollinators very nicely, they look really good in a flower garden, and then they also give a little bit to your kitchen.”
Need more foundational or expert tips? The National Gardening Association website has a free online course that covers the fundamentals of gardening. Organizations like Growing Gardens and the Denver Botanic Gardens also offer a variety of courses from design to pest management. Master Gardeners from the Boulder County CSU Extension Office are also available for diagnostic questions involving gardens, lawns, and trees.
“Sustainable gardening on the Front Range involves pest management: big, small, and otherwise,” says Kelso. A big part of that is understanding that you will need to share some of your greens with urban wildlife, but there are ways of making it more difficult for pests. Physical barriers such as fences and heavy netting work best in keeping animals like deer or rabbits away.
Kelso also recommends beneficial insects—like green lacewing, ladybugs, praying mantis, and certain parasitic wasps—as a natural way to mitigate harmful pests.
Creating Pollinator-Friendly Habitats
Pollinators go beyond just bees and butterflies, which tend to get the bulk of our attention. Moths, bats, birds, beetles, flies, and wasps are all very important pollinators. Creating habitats that foster healthy pollinator populations will help not only your garden, but the surrounding ecosystem. Each group has their own specific needs.
Moths are attracted to white and pale colored flowers that open in the late afternoon and evening such as hummingbird yucca and trumpet flowers. Because of their long beaks, hummingbirds consume nectar from tubular flowers like columbines or beebalm. Flies and beetles—the two largest groups of pollinators—are not picky but prefer foul smelling plants. There are also smartphone apps like BeeSmart, that will help you select region-specific plants and filter by bloom color, the pollinator it attracts, sunlight, and soil type.
If you don’t live near a body of water, leave out a bird bath or plastic tray filled with water. Including a few rocks that jut out of the water will ensure that smaller flying creatures can enjoy without drowning.
Bird and bat houses are common shelters, but it’s bees that need the most assistance. Seventy percent of Colorado wild bees nest in the ground. Bare patches of undisturbed soil (not even mulch) make great nesting ground for these pollinators. Bee houses can be purchased at most garden supply stores.
The Permaculture Approach
The word “permaculture,” coined in 1978 by Bill Mollison, is a combination of permanent (as in sustainable) and agriculture. More recently, the word culture has also wedged its way in as the practice is a way of living. The concept is essentially an agricultural system that is designed and maintained in a way that is resilient, sustainable, and harmonious with nature. There are courses that will help you get fully ingrained in the technicalities of permaculture, but here are some beginning guiding principles:
- Let nature do the hard work. By observing how things grow and thrive on their own, we can mimic the processes and give ourselves a break.
- Your garden should function on a closed-loop system. For every input, there is an output that can be utilized as an input. Passive rainwater harvesting is one example of this, though it is referred to as earthworks in permaculture.
- Think strategically when choosing and planting crops. Though many food crops are annuals, opting for as many perennials as possible will keep the soil from being over-tilled. Rotate where you plant your annual crops every season to prevent erosion, control weeds and diseases, and make your soil more fertile.
- Every part of the landscape should serve a dual purpose. Fences can function to keep unwanted animals out, as well as a trellis to support more plants. A pond or water feature can function as part of your passive rainwater harvesting and also attract dragonflies, which eat many pests.
Over Labor Day weekend, the Colorado Permaculture Guild is hosting the Colorado Permaculture Convergence in Loveland. The weekend will include music, workshops, local food, and plenty of permaculture networking.
Beyond the Garden
18 percent of people don’t garden because of limited or no outdoor space.
According to a 2017 survey by the Garden Media Group, 18 percent of people don’t garden because of limited or no outdoor space. For others, the time commitment is hard to manage. People who rent, especially millennials, are working around those challenges by investing in indoor plants that require less effort to keep but provide a similar amount of joy in return.
There is also now an industry for home plant delivery. E-commerce businesses like Bloomscape will deliver potted indoor plants right to your home. Their website is also full of plant care tips and a resident “Plant Mom,” who is available virtually to solve plant woes.
Truly, caring for plants can be time consuming, as well as demanding physically and financially. But whether the plant life spans your entire yard or sits humbly in your windowsill, watching them grow provides a sense of fulfillment and cleaner air for our lungs. Plant life fosters a more sustainable planet as well as sustains our body and minds.
“Doing it a little bit and the best you can, is better than not doing it all,” says Kelso.