Some tips on starting a vegetable garden
Ask four experts about how to make a garden grow, and you’ll get four different pieces of advice. What the experts have to say about cultivating healthy soil and when and where to water varies, but then, so do backyards. Familiarize yourself first with the term “microclimate.” Your backyard has one, and the amount of shade it gets, the soil in it and the nearest water sources will all play into what you can grow and how to successfully grow it. But for a novice gardener, a few tips from the pros can be helpful just getting off the ground — or rather, getting your seeds to come up through it.
Here, a few local gardening experts share their knowledge on everything from soil to sun, watering to pests, and what plants a first-time gardener can have most success with.
Pick a mostly sunny spot. Fruiting plants like tomatoes need full sun, but other crops, like lettuces, require a little shading. Kelly Simmons, a local permaculture teacher, suggests four to six hours of daily sunlight because a lot of plants — particularly at Colorado’s altitude — grow well with some shading. Hannah Upham, assistant manager at Sturtz and Copeland, suggests looking for full sun for about seven hours a day. Plants need long sunlight exposure and heat to undergo photosynthesis and grow properly, she says.
You also want to choose a location that is not peppered with weeds or grass, says Connor Murphy, the market garden grower for Growing Gardens. It’s best to select a spot that has already been worked a bit — like an abandoned garden. If that’s not an option, try creating raised beds. Simmons stresses that you should never pull grass up because it disturbs the soil and removes nutrients. Instead, she suggests placing cardboard over the grass and putting the raised beds over the cardboard. It’s easier to control soil in raised beds than in the ground, Upham says, which is critical, since Colorado soil is notoriously alkaline and full of clay.
Finally, be sure to choose a location where there is easy access to water, Murphy says.
Colorado soil is not the most nutrient-rich, so most soil will have to be amended. All the experts stress the importance of adding organic matter, like compost, to your soil.
“Soil is the most critical piece of gardening, and it takes awhile to build it up,” says Simmons. “Even though grass grows in an area, that does not mean that food will easily.”
Compost can be bought in areas around the community or directly from the city, but it’s best if you make it yourself, because you’ll know exactly what has gone into it, Simmons says. Also, make sure that what you put on the soil is fully composted, because if it’s not and is still raw, it can burn the plants out, Upham says. And it’s important to note that organic plants and soil need as much care as conventional gardens.
“You will need to fertilize and you will need to add organic matter,” says Carol O’Meara, a CSU extension agent in horticulture and entomology. “Organic does not mean that you have to do nothing. It means that what you use — fertilizers and such — is naturally derived and not synthetic.”
“The first thing I would say to a first-time gardener is to start small,” says Simmons. “Gardening can be more work than some people realize. Pick three or four things that you really like, like tomatoes, peas and lettuce. Start there and you can build on your success next year.”
When choosing what crops to grow, all the experts say it’s important to select crops that you and the members of your household like to eat. It’s especially important to plant crops that your kids or roommates like too if you want help, O’Meara says, which can be important for firsttime gardeners who may not realize how much work maintaining a garden can take.
Salad greens often give the biggest reward for the investment. Greens, which can be expensive at the grocery store, grow fairly easily from seed — especially early and late in the growing season, Murphy says. Keeping these going throughout the hot summer months can be tricky, though, as their tendency will be to flower and return to seed. Plant greens, along with crops like chard, kale, parsley, cilantro and green onions, in early April and they will feed you April through June, Simmons says.
Plants that thrive in hot weather should be planted around Mother’s Day. Crops that grow well in the summer include tomatoes, peppers, squashes, green beans and many herbs. You may want to consider buying starters — plants that have been started indoors and are available to purchase — if you choose to grow tomatoes or peppers, as these can be difficult to start from seed. Squash plants, however, do not transplant well, so it is better to start these varieties directly in the ground from seed. And, when buying seeds, Upland suggests purchasing from local growers, since the seeds have come from plants that were grown successfully in Colorado.
“There is a lot of trial and error in the process,” Simmons says. “Plants have personalities and it takes some time to get to know them. But, with time, you will get to know them and discover what they need and how they grow best.”
Most plants are pretty easy to grow in Colorado as long as they get enough water. As a general rule, Murphy says, most plants need about an inch of water a day, although you may need a bit more during hot or windy days and a little less in the spring.
Simmons says that it’s crucial that the soil is covered once the garden is established so it can stay moist and not get baked by the sun. She says covering the ground with dead leaves, mulch or hay will keep the soil cooler and help it retain water. When watering, she suggests pulling the covering back from the plants and watering directly into the ground, checking often to make sure that the soil — not the covering — is absorbing the water.
Upham suggests giving plants a deep watering by holding a hose to the root source of the plant and giving it a long soak. This will allow you to water less frequently, once a day or even every other day.
ORGANIC PEST MITIGATION
Growing organically means sharing a little of your produce.
“If you’re going to have an organic garden, you need to get used to having bugs around,” says O’Meara.
“There will be good bugs and bad bugs, and you need them both. If the good — the beneficial insects — don’t have the bad bugs to eat, they won’t stick around.”
If plants are healthy, with plenty of water and nutrient-rich soil, there should be minimal pests, Simmons says.
If your plants do have pests, Murphy suggests putting ladybugs in your garden. The ladybugs will eat many of the pests, but you shouldn’t expect them to stick around too long. Once they’ve eaten all the bugs in your garden, they’ll leave in search of more.
He also says you can try adding a small amount of biodegradable dish soap to water and spraying the plants.
“The film causes some bugs to fall off,” says Murphy. “It’s remarkably effective for how simple it is.”
Mainly though, organic gardening requires tolerance, and perhaps some thorough washing.
In the end, understanding the investments required may be as important as studying detailed advice. A little extra time allows you to experiment and observe what’s working in your personal garden’s climate, and what’s not.
“Gardening is a lot of fun, but it does take work,” O’Meara says. “Any gardener needs to keep in mind that gardening is really a lifestyle choice. It is not a sprint, but more of a marathon. You must gauge your time and commitment in order to be successful.”