Watching the snow melt is a wonderful time of year for the gardener. It signals that it’s time to sharpen the gardening tools and stretch the muscles in preparation for gardening season, and it’s a treat to watch the natural world wake up, from the trees and bushes leafing out to the explosion of dandelions. And remembering that the dandelions are beneficial to the pollinators will keep the gardener calm while waiting to see if the garden will shape up as envisioned during the long winter.
Spring came early this year, or so we thought. Then the subsequent snow flurries and cold temperatures reminded us that one must be patient before planting in the high country and wait for consistently warmer weather. Guides to spring planting in Colorado may be misleading unless one remembers: “Higher elevation gardens generally run anywhere from three to five weeks later for seeding or transplanting unless using cold frames or tunnels.” (http://www.denverpost.com/2017/04/14/colorado-gardening-punch-list-april-15/)
A number of other garden activities will keep the mountain gardener busy while waiting for planting season. General clean up and mulching of garden beds is a great way to introduce the gardener to this year’s garden. Early season weeding is also rewarding. For example, the noxious weed, houndstongue, leafs out early with bluish green leaves, standing out from the bright greens of grasses and wildflower leaves. Cutting the plant’s taproot 2” below the soil surface will kill the biennial and prevent the spread of thousands of seeds through the “hitchhiker” burrs. Other weeds (plants in the wrong places) are also easier to see and dig this time of year, before the soil dries out and the roots have a chance to grow deeper and stronger.
Vegetable gardeners can get started with indoor planting, using seed varieties that recommend early starts. One may also plant outside if minimum soil temperatures have been met, so investing in a soil thermometer (or using a metal meat thermometer from your kitchen) is a useful tool. Soil temperatures are not only critical for seed germination, but also for root development and efficiency. Many factors affect soil temperature (soil moisture content, soil texture, surface cover, aspect and elevation), so it is important to check temperatures in all planting beds. Details can be found here: http://coloradomountaingardener.blogspot.com/2016/03/taking-your-soils-temperature-to-ensure.html.
A variety of crops can be planted early. When the garden soil reaches a minimum of 35 degrees, extra-hardy crops (lettuce, onion, parsnips) can be seeded. At 40 degrees or warmer, hardy cool season vegetables can be planted (peas, radish, spinach, swiss chard, turnips, leeks, beets, carrots, kale, arugula, potatoes, parsley, and cilantro). CMG GardenNotes #720 provides more details. (http://www.ext.colostate.edu/mg/gardennotes/720.pdf)
Lastly, now is a good time to firm up the winter’s garden dreams and reengage a passion for mountain gardening. There are great resources online; Colorado Master Gardener GardenNotes provide information on many topics. Those with an interest in native gardening will find the Native Plant Society’s website quite useful. A specific guide to plants is here: https://conps.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Native-Plant-Guide-Mountains.pdf. For those who prefer face to face interaction, the Routt County Extension office will provide a number of activities throughout the spring and summer. An Evening with the Master Gardeners will be held at the Bud Werner Library on Wednesday, MAY 17th where stations will be set up in Library Hall for hands-on learning with Master Gardeners. Weekly office hours on Thursday mornings at the Extension office also are great for answers to specific questions. Finally, check the paper weekly during the growing season for articles written by Master Gardeners on various topics.
Even though weather this time of year can be challenging, there are lots of ways to get your gardening season started.
A long time Steamboat resident and casual gardener, Vicky Barney is a member of the Master Gardener Class of 2011.