New Spring Gardens

by Matie Belle Lakish

Many people are planning on gardening this year who may not have gardened much in our high-altitude area. Maybe you had a small plot in the past, or are moving here from another area. Or perhaps you have more time on your hands because of COVID-19, or would like to become more food self-sufficient in the projected recession. Whatever the reason, now is a good time to start, or to enlarge, your food-growing capacity.

Some readers may not be aware of the Crestone Community Gardens Facebook page. If you aren’t, you’re welcome to go to the page and request a membership. You will see many gardening friends, and the format offers an opportunity to ask questions of experienced gardeners and join in a lively discussion on the challenges we all face gardening in the mountains. Two recent discussions had to do with critters eating small plants in a greenhouse, and whether, and how, to plant potatoes. Other recent topics include how soon to plant what in the springtime, and how to deal with “all those rocks”. Since these are all topics gardeners must deal with in the mountains, I thought I would share some of my thoughts on a couple of these spring topics, in print.

When to plant what

There are no guarantees in the mountains, but it is generally accepted that we can have freezes until at least June 1. That will vary from year to year, and from place to place, but it is not likely to freeze enough to kill tender plants after June 1 in the Crestone area, although in 2019 we had a serious frost the third week of June. If your garden is lower, remember that cold air settles. Gardeners in the Moffat area often have to wait two weeks. We can get our first killing frost in the fall around September 1, so we have about 90 days of semi-reliable frost-free weather.

Because the season is short, experienced gardeners are always looking to extend the season. That means choosing varieties that have short growing seasons and mature quickly, starting seeds indoors and setting out the already-established young plants, covering plants when frost threatens, and looking for frost-tolerant plants.

Last month I talked about 3 plants that are frost tolerant enough to be planted in late April and May: spinach, kale, and parsley. All three can be started from seed or transplanted into the garden now. Lettuce, arugula, and oriental greens are all hardy enough to plant, as are turnip and mustard greens, and chard. It is also time to transplant out those broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage plants, although you may want to put little paper collars around them to protect from cutworms, if those earth-dwellers have been a problem for you in the past. Most root crops are hardy enough to go in this month, including carrots, beets, turnips, and their cousins, rutabagas and parsnips. You may have already planted potatoes, but it’s not too late to plant those tubers, as well. Onions, either plants or sets, can go in early this month. If you like Jerusalem Artichokes, also known as Sunchokes, these can go in now.  Peas can also tolerate a light frost once they are up, but the seed may rot in the ground if planted just before an extended cold spell.

I’ve added some mountain favorites to my garden, like quinoa. This high-altitude plant is a natural for our valley, and both the greens and the seeds are edible. Plant it early and close, then harvest the greens as you thin. Leave plants about 10” apart to mature for seed.

Hold off on planting out the beans, corn, squash, pumpkins, and tomatoes. These will all be killed by a frost. If, as last year, you plant these out and a frost threatens, be sure you have something to cover them with. Row cover is a good choice, but you may have to double it up. Old sheets work well also. Many gardeners use Wall-O-Water to protect tomatoes. These work pretty well, if you have enough of them, but you may want to cover the tops with fabric as well.

Even more sensitive to cold are the cucumbers, eggplant and peppers. Some valley gardeners plant them inside old tires and count on the tires to gather and hold the heat through the night. Others place large dark-colored stones around these plants. If you grow these tender plants, look for the varieties that are earliest to mature. So far, I have not been successful with some of my old favorites from the southland—cantaloupes, watermelons, and okra. I keep trying, but without much hope.

Growing potatoes on new ground

Potatoes grow great in the valley, but for many local gardeners, the question is “why bother?” We can buy fine organic potatoes so inexpensively that it doesn’t make sense to use valuable garden space for such a crop. Generally, I only grow a few hills for new potatoes, but I find potatoes to be a fine crop for developing new garden soil.

For the last several years I have been filling in a shallow ravine on my property that no longer has water flowing through it. I started by making a compost pile on the upper end, then turned it into a planting bed using potatoes. I am now on my fifth bed, and this is what I did.

First, I sifted through the large plant residue in the pile, and removed the largest chunky stuff, like old broccoli stems and tough sunflower stalks. I spread out the remainder until it is about 3” to 4” thick. On top of this I placed some old manure and hay residue that I got from the stables, about 2” thick. Any manure will do as long as it isn’t really fresh. Next, I placed my potato pieces, each cut with one or more eyes, about a foot apart on top of the manure. If the potatoes were small, I used the whole potato. I then covered them with another layer of the aged manure and hay mix, sprinkled on some bone meal, a good source of calcium and phosphorus, then topped it with 2” to 3” of straw. I put the sprinkler on to saturate the layered bed. I will continue watering throughout the season, either with a sprinkler or soaker hose.

Sometime around June 1, I anticipate seeing my first potato plants, which will both grow and create soil, so that by next year I will have fine humus. As a bonus, I’ll have about 150 pounds of potatoes. I have used this technique in many climate types, using whatever sources of nitrogen and carbon present themselves—think dairy manure and aged sawdust, even kelp and sawdust. Potatoes are very forgiving and tolerate it all, to reward us with a good source of energy, as well as some vitamins and minerals. Umm! Potato salad.

It’s dry out there! Please pray for rain.