NEW BEGINNINGS: Along the eastern foothills and plains of Colorado, a vegetable garden doesn’t come easily. Every year would-be gardeners put out their spindly tomato plants too early and suffer a cold snap. Or they watch their spinach bolt on a blistery hot day. It’s either too cold, or too hot -- or both -- all in the same day. Then, of course, there are the winds. Not to mention the hard-packed clay soil.
Growing vegetables isn’t for the fainthearted, but neither should it be impossible. With the right soil amendments it’s possible to grow a garden you can crow over. It just takes some planning. Several experts explain their methods.
GARDENING WITH CHILDREN: My friend Lawrie once designed rose gardens, heirloom flower gardens and romantic getaway gardens. But now that she has retired, her gardening skills and expertise are lavished on a small fruit orchard that surrounds her bungalow. In the middle of the orchard stands a honeybee hive for bees that pollinate her plums, apples, cherries and raspberries. She expected a steady hum of busy honeybees. What she didn’t expect was the small throng of neighborhood kids who watched her from afar, ventured in and now help her with the task of harvesting honey—complete with their own beekeeper’s uniforms.
MINTS & LEGUMES: Like the rose family of apples and pears, strawberries and cherries, legumes and mints also define much of the world’s cuisine. Legumes provide beans and peas, the staples of a human diet around the world. Mints provide the flavorings. They include the aromatic herbs of thyme, lavender, basil, rosemary, oregano and peppermint. These gifts alone make them esteemed plant families. But they offer more.
HEIRLOOM VEGGIES--Like most home gardeners, I was first introduced to heirloom vegetables through tomatoes. The Amish Brandywine couldn’t be beat, I was told, and my pulse quickened at the thought of plump, misshapen beauties all summer long. I’ve grown a number of heirloom tomatoes and found some of them fickle. But I've found heirloom tomatoes that thrive in my garden given the soil, summer temperatures and dates to maturity. Starting with tomatoes opened the world of heirloom vegetables for me and introduced the history that comes with them.
THE FRUGAL GARDEN -Now that we’ve entered a new historical era of tighter bank regulations, stringent loan requirements and credit card crunches, gardening comes to the rescue. What many of us once considered a harmless hobby takes on an urgency: abandoned urban lots converted to vegetable gardens, rooftop food gardens and community gardens. "We once grew organic food for flavor and health," one longtime gardener said, "now we’ll be growing to feed others." If you need to feed your family or your neighborhood, it’s time to find ways to garden on a tight budget. In lush times or lean times, gardening doesn’t have to break the bank.
AUTUMN SALAD GARDEN --After the summer heat abates and a cooling rain sets in, it’s time to consider an autumn garden. Although a summer garden is what we all prize, an autumn garden is one of the sweetest times of the year to sow a few seeds. Chard, radishes, spinach, parsley, lettuces—the crops that defined a green spring may be easier to grow in autumn. Seeds germinate quickly in cooling temperatures and the weather is generally more settled. Even if you’re exhausted from pulling up tomato vines and prickly squash plants, an autumn garden is quick and easy.
THE HERB GARDEN --While diehard gardeners fiddle with finicky tomatoes and delicate eggplants, there’s another garden to be considered by those looking for sturdier, less demanding edibles. It’s one that cuts grocery bills substantially, provides perennials as well as annuals and grows vigorously with minimal time and effort from the gardener. This is the herb garden. Here, basil and parsley, cilantro and dill flourish in the vegetable garden while thyme, lavender, mint and sage fit into a perennial garden. Garlic, as a bulb, is well worth growing but best set aside in a bed of its own.
PLANNING A SPRING GREENS GARDEN --February is the quiet month of the year for gardeners. We’ve perused the catalogues that arrived January and wait for March to plant early crops. This is the month when we revise our original plans, look over last year’s notes and exchange seeds with fellow gardeners. February is the month when we decide what the first garden will be.
IN PRAISE OF PENSTEMONS Penstemons, a spectacular collection of Western wildflowers, have jumped fences from wild to mild, settling into drought-tolerant landscapes. Gardeners love their brilliant colors, tough natures and unkempt appearances. But these wildflowers do have exacting needs. Some, like glaber, thrive on disturbed soil of a recent burn. Others will take to regular garden soil a little more easily. Penstemons occasionally are hybrids. But most often they are species plants, exactly as Mother Nature designed. The key to including them into a garden is to match soil, site and penstemon.
A COLORADO GARDEN OF NATIVE PLANTS--Logic would have us believe that a garden of native plants would be the simplest approach to horticulture. After all, plants that Mother Nature intended for Colorado should flourish in our front yards, buoyed by our attention and love.
THE PROMISE OF A ROSE GARDEN --In a garden of a hundred roses, or more, lies a botanical marvel. Ruth Roberts has filled her flower beds with miniature, shrub, floribunda, hybrid tea, climbers and old garden roses from rose cuttings. "See this climber," Ruth says about a vigorous six-foot rose studded with tiny pink buds, "it’s only three or four years old." September is the optimum time to begin rose cuttings in your garden.
HEIRLOOMS IN THE GARDEN: When it comes to drought-busting plants, tough native specimens and imported new ornamentals from faraway arid climates occupy front rows at garden centers. But there’s another group of plants that should rise to the top of our lists when it comes to sturdy growth, longevity and sheer persistence. Heirlooms, flowers and vegetables that our grandmothers grew, have a few standouts that have survived wet years and dry years. They’ll stand by us today during difficult seasons and serve us as well as they served those who brought them to Colorado one hundred years ago.
SUNFLOWERS: A RETURN OF THE NATIVE: Vincent Van Gogh’s painted sunflowers may mark the signature of European Impressionism in the 19th century, but the cheerful yellow flowers are native to North America. Sunflowers, like corn, Concord grapes, blueberries and cranberries, originated on this continent and were ferried across the Atlantic hundreds of years ago.
A COLORADO KITCHEN GARDEN: The American kitchen garden may have reached its zenith with the victory gardens of World War II, but it's on the upswing again. This time taste and unique cultivars, rather than survival, rally the troops. Recently the French potager has renewed enthusiasm: marigolds nestle alongside Marmande tomatoes and Genovese basil. In Colorado, we have classic combinations of our own.
HARDY ROSES: Roses may be the most beloved and one of the sturdiest flowers throughout history. It’s not uncommon to see lilacs, bearded iris and tough roses growing alongside dilapidated farmhouses on 19th century Colorado homesteads. The blossoms of old-fashioned species roses like the bright-red Austrian copper or Harison’s yellow spill over many a rickety turn-of-the-century farm fence.
THE PLIGHT OF THE HONEYBEE -- The world's busiest creature is essential for pollinating our flowering and fruiting crops. That's why beekeeper Tom Theobald is alarmed that their numbers are declining in Colorado and elsewhere.
SUNFLOWERS AND WILD BEES: For several years I’ve tried to protect wild bees in my garden by growing sunflowers. Scientists believe populations of wild bees to be in decline. Widespread single-crop farming has contributed to wiping out their habitat. And while many gardeners, including me, have worried about the plight of honeybees, wild bees suffer in silence. Their disappearance barely is noticed by anyone other than a handful of entomologists. Now there's new research indicating how important native bees may be.
ANNUAL SEEDS: Whether you’re a frugal gardener, a lover of bees and butterflies, a conservationist, or an experimental gardener--annual seeds will form the backbone of your garden. For the frugal, sowing seeds is less expensive than nearly any other approach to gardening. A few dollars will seed a meadow, grow edibles and feed the bees.
A COLORADO GARDEN THAT'S EASY AND NUTRITIOUS--As a longtime Colorado gardener, I’ve prided myself on plump heirloom tomatoes, delicate lettuces frilled and ruffled, Italian eggplants with glistening alabaster skins and large sweet onions. Our climate challenges these beautiful vegetables. Hail, steep drops in temperatures or soaring summer heat hinders the most intrepid gardener. And it may be the wrong approach to good nutrition as well. After I read Jo Robinson’s book Eating on the Wild Side, I decided to take a new look at what I am growing and why.
COVER CROPS: WINTER PROTECTION--Cover crops are the last detail, the finishing touch to the end of an autumn season. Nothing will protect a vegetable garden as well throughout a frosty winter with strong winds. Turning over a cover crop in the spring adds humus and nitrogen. It’s the easiest way to enrich your garden and the best insurance that healthy soil awaits when you plant seeds. Most garden centers provide a variety of cover crop seeds, which you can buy by the pound. Above: peas fix nitrogen in the soil for next year's crops.
TOWARD A NEW GARDEN: WHEN VEGGIES MIX WITH FLOWERS--Vegetable beds traditionally come in rows for a practical reason. This timeless design is intended to weed and harvest as efficiently as possible. But as suburban plots shrink so do wide open spaces for vegetable gardens. That’s when it makes sense to look at vegetables in a different light—as ornamental plants as well as practical food producers. We plan flowerbeds to buffer a sidewalk, surround a building or line a path. Those places may be the sunniest or best drained. Why not locate vegetables where they will be happy, even if it’s among the bearded iris or roses.
GOING PESTICIDE FREE - We are advised to stop to smell the roses occasionally. But along with the perfume comes a whiff of pesticide. Most of us want to get away from pesticides and herbicides. Is it possible? Where do we start? It begins with a change of heart. The reluctance to bring out the pest-killing sprays takes hold when a gardener embraces the philosophy of a naturalist. And with that comes the abolition of poisons.
BUTTERFLY ENCOUNTERS --Throughout July and August some of nature’s most colorful creatures bob and float in the garden. A Western tiger swallowtail hovers over zinnias. The tiny white cabbage butterfly zigzags toward daisies. When they were caterpillars in the garden during the months of May and June, we hated them. By August, we’ve forgotten about the destruction; we’re ready to enjoy their company.
THE SECRET LIFE OF BEANS --Beans are among the easiest of crops to grow, especially in the arid West. No bean likes to sit in watery soil. And all like warmth. Many derived from North America and we can claim them as our own. It’s hard to imagine a more widely grown crop that has sustained humans. Perhaps most importantly, beans are among the easiest crops to save seeds and pass them along to friends, family and the next generation.
A FIRST GARDEN --To curtail global warming, here are the usual tips: ride a bike, use low-energy light bulbs, hang the wash outside, plant a garden. Not just any garden, but a garden that will feed you. A garden that is pesticide and chemical fertilizer-free not only will feed your body, it will feed your soul. And it may take the pressure off global farmers who now must feed their own people rather than ship produce to the United States and Europe.
FALL CLEANUP BEFORE WINTER ARRIVES --Autumn commands our attention as attentively as spring, but without the feverish anticipation of what’s to come. Instead, we size up the past, review our triumphs and mistakes, assess changes for next year and plant fall crops. More urgently, it’s time to consider how to prevent erosion and add nutrients to a well-used plot.
OLD SUMMER COLORS:--Spring may herald the pastels of traditional English gardens but summer is all-American: neon yellow daisies, sherbet orange lilies, satiny magenta hollyhocks, and robust sunflowers. Summer is a time of bold and hot colors.
GROWING PERENNIALS FROM SEED: If you crave a sea of columbine, a raft of penstemon or a meadow of coneflowers, you’ll get buckets of plants for the cost of pennies. If you long for a rare plant that isn’t offered in any garden center but sprouts on a seed jacket, you’ll have to consider taking it home. In a few cases, some perennials may be easy to divide, like purple coneflower, but you’ll have to wait a few years for a clump to grow large enough to take advantage of division. That’s another reason to consider seeds.
UNDERCOVER: GARDENING THROUGH THE WINTER IN A COLD FRAME: Eliot Coleman, a market greens grower in Maine, has made a name for himself by raising exquisite greens under cold frames. Although his climate is wetter than can be found in Colorado, Maine's zone is 5, the same as ours. Could this New England approach to winter gardening transfer to our soil and weather conditions? Some gardeners believe it can.
THE DIRT ON COMPOSTING: "If you get involved in composting, you can enjoy the fruits of your labor instead of laboring over your fruits," says Judy Elliot, an educator with Denver Urban Gardeners. "Composting makes gardening easier. It’s a no-fail endeavor." Composting turns trash to treasure. It’s as simple as that.
By Colleen Smith
FLOWERING CRABAPPLE TREES USHER IN SPRING: As any gardener knows, Colorado’s spring weather is uneven. Snow showers may follow a summery day in April and temperatures fluctuate wildly. For a brief period of time, crabapple trees bloom with their showy white or pink blossoms and we are lulled into believing that warm weather is here to stay.
THE COLORADO WINTER GARDEN: Winter allows Colorado gardeners to rest—much like their gardens. But this approaching winter, coming after a summer drought, has forced gardeners to reconsider time-honored approaches. Horticultural experts are suggesting that we leave perennial beds alone, allowing the top growth to bend over and protect roots throughout the dry months. Applying mulches around trees, perennials and shrubs is urgent. Winter watering may be necessary, along with drip irrigation and compost bins. This winter, more than ever, requires planning for spring.
A GARDEN OF REPOSE: Searching for a pla
ce to soothe your soul, restore your spirit or calm your nerves? Vail's Betty Ford Alpine Garden is a summer destination for the worn and weary. No parades of people, no jostling, no ticket taking. The garden is free, rarely packed, beautifully planted and inviting. You are beckoned to find a seat and stay awhile. Meditation is encouraged.
WINGS ALONG THE ROCKIES: Colorado is home to 250 species of butterflies, more than anywhere else in North America. George Brinkmann, retired horticulturist from the Butterfly Pavilion and former staff horticulturalist of Denver Botanic Gardens, tells us how to plant a butterfly habitat and why it's so important.