Q: I had a great time growing my own vegetables and lettuce this summer and want some advice on expanding my garden next year. Where do I begin?
A: Whether you were a first time vegetable gardener or an experienced Front Range gardener, this is a great time to review your current gardening season and make some notes for next year! Evaluate your garden using the criteria listed below.
Performance: Many types of vegetables perform superbly in the Pikes Peak area. Cold weather crops such as broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower excel. Peas and potatoes may be planted before last frost and thrive. Spinach and lettuce planted successively provide salad greens all season and root crops such as carrots, beets and turnips are always dependable. Zucchini and beans produce more than we can eat or give away. Tomatoes, peppers, chilies are a bit more difficult to grow in the area; but not impossible. Learn from your garden this season and apply that wisdom to your garden next season.
Quantities: So you discovered that a package of radish seeds produces more radishes than you and your entire neighborhood could consume. The same could be said for zucchini, beans, carrots and even lettuce. Perhaps you only want to plant part of that envelope of seeds. Consider sharing your vegetable seeds with friends, family or neighbors with similar tastes.
Length of Growing Season: The length of the growing season in El Paso County at 6000 feet of elevation between average freeze dates of May 15 and October 15 is about 150 days. The unpredictable weather we receive in the Pikes Peak Region can seriously shorten that growing season. Gardeners at higher elevations can plan on an even shorter span of time to grow those vegetables. Choose varieties that will have a chance to ripen during the course of your growing season. If you have like-minded friends living at different elevations – co-op your vegetable growing – cool weather crops at higher altitudes; tomatoes and peppers at lower altitudes.
Extend the Season: Maybe you live at 8000’ of elevation; that doesn’t mean you can’t grow tomatoes. You may need to extend the growing season. Consider grow lights to start your seeds inside well before last frost date. Cold frames are easy to put together and give your plants a great head start outdoors. Use walls-of -water or floating row covers to protect plants from late frosts, intense sun, and even hail. Check out those small greenhouses…
Watering System: A drip system or using soaker hoses will maximize your water dollars. Overhead sprinklers give up too much of their moisture to evaporation and tend to encourage some types of plant disease. It’s difficult to change a watering system once the seeds have been planted, so plan ahead. Consider a mulch of grass clippings or even newspaper to regulate soil temperatures and conserve moisture.
Compost: While evaluating those failures and successes in this year’s garden, work compost or other amendments into the soil so your garden is ready for planting as soon as possible in the spring. Consider planting a cover crop such as winter rye or winter wheat to add nutrients that may be turned under at least four weeks before spring planting.
Expand Your Horizons: You tried some new types of produce from the Farmers’ Market and would like to grow your own eggplant, spaghetti squash, and Swiss chard or maybe even tomatillas. You’ve been reading about heirloom vegetables and want to explore some of those. Herbs like basil, cilantro, oregano, rosemary are so tasty when fresh – grow your own! You love the vegetables, but miss the color flowers provide – interplant nasturtium, marigold, sweet pea, zinnia and even morning glory seeds. Perhaps your favorite family vegetable is asparagus and you would like to check that out. Why not reach for the sky and grow your own apples, apricots, cherries and grapes!
Research: Take advantage of the upcoming cold, winter months to explore your options. Order some gardening books from your public library. Contact some of the many different seed companies and other gardening equipment companies to request catalogs.
Contributed by Peg Zimprich, Colorado Master Gardener. For answers to your horticultural questions, contact the Master Gardener Help Desk at 520-7684 or CSUmg2@elpasoco.com. Access fact sheets and seasonal information on the El Paso County Horticulture website http://elpasoco.colostate.edu/horticulture/.