Colorado Gardening 101
Haven’t you heard? Gardening is officially cool. Maybe it’s because grocery shopping is a hassle, and people are craving fresh produce, or because we’re all stuck at home, but more people than ever are starting backyard vegetable gardens, pulling out collections of colorful containers for urban balcony flower gardens, and otherwise enhancing their personal green spaces. Whether you’re an old pro or a complete newbie when it comes to growing your own garden, here are some tips to help you and your green thumb this summer in Colorado.
Where to Plant
When deciding where to create your garden, take a few factors into account. Perhaps most important is how much sun your space gets. When you have a plot in mind, keep an eye on it for a day or two. Go outside every few hours and note how long the area is in direct sunlight, indirect sunlight, and full shade throughout the day. This will tell you what types of plants will grow best there. Forget-me-nots, hydrangeas, cilantro, spinach, and Swiss chard are some popular plants that love shade, while marigolds, zinnias, cucumbers, peppers, and tomatoes need as many hours of sunshine as possible.
If you live in a place that’s exceptionally windy, you’ll want to make sure your garden has some protection from the strong gusts, especially if you plan on growing tall plants that are at risk of breaking in the wind.
You’ll also want to keep an eye on the soil when it comes to figuring out where to plant. Make sure your bed is free from big rocks, and in a place where it’s not going to flood if there’s a lot of rain. Soil type, whether you’ve got a fine sandy soil or a thick clay, can easily be remedied with the help of some fresh compost or gardening soil, which you can turn and mix into the dirt to create a nice, nutrient-rich bed.
When to Plant
From the Front Range to Summit County, the weather in Colorado can vary drastically, and it’s important to know the final frost date or growing zone for where you live. Some cold-hardy plants, like pansies, sweet peas, or radishes, can handle a bit of light frost, and it’s okay to start planting these even if there’s a chance the weather will drop in the near future. Other plants, such as sunflowers, tomatoes, and squash will die if they get too cold. In most of the lower elevation regions of Colorado, including the Front Range, the Eastern Plains, and the Western Slope, the rule of thumb generally states that you shouldn’t plant warm-weather crops until after Mother’s Day, but even this isn’t foolproof. (In 2019, the Front Range was getting snowstorms until June!)
Up in higher elevations like Summit County, for example, temperatures are apt to get below freezing at any point in the year, even in the height of summer, and optimal growing seasons can be as short as just a few weeks. In places like these, it might be best to stick to colder weather veggies, but if you’re really craving a fresh tomato in the high country, you’ve still got options. Start your seeds indoors, in a sunny window, weeks before they go into the ground to give them the head start they’re going to need (St. Patrick’s Day is a good time to start your indoor seedlings, but if you didn’t get to it this year, there are countless nurseries and greenhouses that sell starter plants for you). When it is time to plant them outside, build or buy raised beds and a cold frame to help trap as much heat in there as you can when the temperature drops. Make sure to keep an eye on the weather so you know when it’s going to get cold. With a little creative planning, you can grow a beautiful—and delicious—garden wherever you are. Most folks who live in higher elevation areas typically plant outdoors on or after Memorial Day!
For a full, interactive map of average last frost dates throughout the state, click here.
What to Plant
Now, this is the fun part. When you’re deciding what you want to plant, whether it’s flowers, herbs, or vegetables, there are a few things to consider. First, how much maintenance do you want your garden to be? If you’re looking for something pretty but that requires little to no work, try some native plants, like wildflowers (pollinator-friendly wildflower mixes are easy to find and require very little work!), low-growing cover plants, or perennial flowers like blanketflower, bee-balm, black-eyed susan, or scarlet globemallow, all of which require very little water and will come back year after year in the right conditions. Herb gardens are another great option for a low-maintenance or beginner gardener. Basil, sage, chamomile, oregano, rosemary, lavender… your options are nearly endless, and not only do these plants look beautiful in your garden, they’ll taste fantastic when you use them in your cooking all summer long!
If you’re looking for something that requires a little more care, step up to vegetables. Try your hand at growing tomatoes, squash, and peppers, all of which grow especially well in Colorado’s lower elevations, or rhubarb, which thrives in much of the state, including higher elevations. As far as ornamental flowers go, a mix of hardy perennials like vibrant dianthus, Rocky Mountain penstemon, and Rocky Mountain Columbine (our state flower), along with a healthy selection of beautiful annuals such as zinnias, cosmos, marigolds, and more will leave you with flower beds that are colorful, gorgeous, and friendly to local pollinators like bees and butterflies.
Gardening with Limited Space
Not everyone has a backyard, but that doesn’t mean you have to miss out on gardening. If you have a balcony, you can plant some beautiful flowers, or even vegetables like lettuce or tomatoes in containers. If you find a nice wide planter, you can build your own herb garden with a selection of culinary herbs to keep you going in the kitchen all summer (and if you don’t have access to a nursery or greenhouse, you can usually buy live herbs from your local grocery store!). Other options for urban gardening include community gardens, though usually, space fills up fast, or even indoor plants. If you have a bright, sunny window (south-facing is usually best), you can grow herbs or put together a window box full of pansies, alyssum, and other beautiful flowers, or hang mason jars with potted herbs in a window in your kitchen. And if your window light isn’t the best, you can always place your plants under a UV grow-lamp anywhere in your home.
Gardening as a Gateway to Nature
It’s hard being stuck at home right now, especially if you’re an outdoorsy type of person who is itching to get out there in nature. But gardening can be a lovely alternative to help you get your fix until the trails are open to the public again. Working in the dirt can be incredibly relaxing, and watching your hard work grow—and in some cases, literally eating the fruits of your labor—is unbelievably rewarding. In the meantime, go for a walk around your neighborhood and keep an eye out for your neighbors’ gardens. What are they growing? What would you like to grow in your own garden?
Written by Emily Krempholtz
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