Mary’s gardening tips for homegrown wonders
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Spring is here and I’m going to write about something cheery for a change, namely gardening. I don’t claim to be any sort of expert, but I know a few things since I’ve been at it for years.
A garden is a real solace in hard times. Not because it doesn’t present problems and challenges as well as rewards, but because it is simply very therapeutic when you immerse yourself in the basic elements of nature. The feel of good soil, the healthy exercise, the hours outside, all of it takes your mind off the world’s troubles.
And then there is nothing money can buy that comes near to the taste of a freshly picked salad of vibrant mixed greens that were grown in rich soil. A variety of lettuces, some spinach, both Bloomsdale and Bordeaux types, some Tuscan kale, some sorrel, beet greens and raddiccio, maybe a few piquant mustard green leaves – a feast for the eyes and tastebuds as well as a nutritional boost for the body.
But notice I said “grown in rich soil.” If your soil is not rich in the organic matter that feeds the microorganisms that make nutrients available to your plants, then your salad will taste no better than something bought at the store several days ago.
And there’s the work and the main challenge here in the Rockies. Our soils are not naturally rich in organic matter and take a lot of amendment. As a practical matter, it’s almost impossible to add too much compost or aged manure.
One trick I have used is to buy 50-pound bags of alfalfa pellets, the type used for rabbit feed. After it’s wetted down, this makes a good mulch as well as soil enricher. Another good method is to call around until you find a rancher or horse person with a pile of spoiled hay you can buy cheap. Mix a thick layer of that into your soil in the fall and you’re set for next spring.
I should also emphasize that mulch is essential in this climate. I use straw as well as the pellets. Mulch helps the top few inches of the soil retain moisture and mitigates wind and temperature extremes.
What can you grow here in addition to salad greens? The area is famous for strawberries and potatoes. But I have also found the following to be problem- and pest-free: green beans, peas, chard, onions, carrots, early maturing tomatoes, cucumbers, squash and raspberries.
You will only have fresh tomatoes a few weeks in late summer and early fall, but just before the first forecast frost, you can pull all the tomatoes and bring them inside. Layered with newspaper in cardboard boxes, most will gradually ripen. I crush these in a processor and freeze them. Then all fall and winter they make delicious spaghetti sauce, spiced and thickened with some tomato paste.
The chard also freezes up beautifully and, lightly steamed and dressed with olive oil and salt, it is a delicious winter green. In fact, I don’t even eat it fresh in summer when so much else is available. The same is pretty much true of the green beans, which I mostly freeze for winter.
Unfortunately, I have never been able to cope with the pest problems presented by anything in the cabbage family nor have I managed to extend my growing season enough to mature winter squash. So I warn you away from these.
Except for potatoes, green beans and spinach, I start all my vegetables indoors in trays. It is much easier to germinate, thin, and generally care for starts indoors than it is outside in the harsh spring winds and cold nights.
My husband made me a 48-inch-wide, three-shelf affair with growlights so I have plenty of room for trays of starts. Here again, soil is key to success. You need a good, sterile, well-balanced seed starting mix. And you can save a lot of money by buying this in really large bags. Planted Earth is one local source. I also add a bit of diluted liquid fish fertilizer every eight or nine days until time for transplanting.
If you haven’t gardened at all before or have a new house and yard, sheet composting is an easy way to create good garden soil for next year. And you can make raised beds edged in stone or wood at the same time.
Simply lay down brown cardboard right on top of the grass or whatever is there, and add manure (fresh or aged), straw, spoiled or low quality hay, grass clippings, leaves, whatever, in layers. At least every third layer should be manure. Keep this moist all summer and fall.
As soon as possible next spring, dig or pitchfork this into the top few inches of underlying soil, and continue to keep moist. By late spring, you will have decent ground for growing, which you can continue to improve each year.
– “What Do We Really Want?” appears on the second and fourth Thursdays of the month. Mary Boland is a retired teacher and journalist, a proud grandmother, and a longtime resident of Carbondale. Follow her on twitter@grannyboland.
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