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Meet Steamboat’s Master Gardeners: Britni Johnson






John F. Russell

Sure, a lot of us have gardens. But few among us have sprouted with the pastime like Jack’s proverbial beanstalk, taking the activity to new levels. These are our local Colorado Master Gardeners, a registered service mark of Colorado State University Extension used to identify official accredited volunteers. They’ve completed the necessary coursework and are some of our town’s best. We canvased three of them for some of their tips.

Britni Johnson

Britni Johnson, 28, is all about keeping it local. A guide for Steamboat Powdercats in the winter and waitress and caterer come summer, the Master Gardener is a master at growing vegetables and has her eye on becoming a nutrition therapy practitioner, all while helping others follow her Yampa Valley ways. 



SL: How did you end up in Steamboat?
Johnson
: I was ending my studies at Michigan State University and looking for a summer job away from the city. So I took a job with Rocky Mountain Youth Corps and had an incredible summer working on trail conservation projects. Save for a six-month hiatus working on a farm in Montana, Steamboat has been my home for the past six years. When you’re a gardener, who doesn’t love the challenge of our climate’s 59 frost-free days?

SL: What do you like about gardening?
Johnson:
Being outside, connecting with the earth, digging around in the dirt and nurturing something that will do the same thing for me. It’s therapeutic, both mentally and physically.  



SL: How did you get into it?
Johnson:
I became interested in sustainable agriculture in college. Then, while studying in India, I met a woman who was involved in Michigan State’s Student Organic Farm. It was fascinating learning how backwards our industrial agriculture system is. I later interned on an organic farm in Montana, learning how to grow food for a community. I hope to utilize those skills to create a viable, food/nutrition-based business here. 

SL: Is it easy to grow vegetables here?
Johnson:
No. But once you learn a few things about our climate, soil and growing season, it is possible. What you grow depends on how badly you want it and the lengths you’re willing to take. Two of our biggest hurdles are our clay-based soil, which has less room for oxygen and water percolation, and short growing season. Amending the soil is the first step, followed by season extension practices. With just 59 days of frost-free growing, this is crucial. For plants to mature and bear fruit, you have to go to great lengths, from buying seedlings to transplant to using row covers, cold frames, high tunnels or greenhouses.

SL: What vegetables grow best here?
Johnson
: Look for seeds that mature in less than 70 to 90 days, ideally in the 60-day range. Avoid planting tomatoes, cucumbers, melons, peppers, eggplant, basil and certain types of squash unless you have a heated greenhouse or container garden that can be wheeled inside and out. These need 100-plus days to grow and don’t like large temperature swings. Lettuces, other greens like kale, swiss chard, arugula and spinach, radishes, turnips, parsnips, carrots, beets, potatoes, onions, garlic, bush beans, snap peas, kohlrabi, leeks, certain types of broccoli, cauliflower, horseradish, mint, dill, parsley, chives, strawberries and raspberries are all ‘cool-season’ crops that do well here.

SL: Any growing hints?
Johnson:
1) Test/amend your soil, and make sure you have proper drainage; 2) Choose the right seeds and plant according to instruction, minding our last-frost date, which is typically between Memorial Day and Father’s Day; 3) Choose a sunny spot (six to eight hours a day for most plants; four to six for leafy greens) that’s sheltered from the wind; 4) Consider your financial and time resources, and if you’ll be around to water, weed and harvest; 5) Water — don’t let the soil dry out during the first few weeks, after transplanting or during flowering/fruit production; too much water can also be bad — irrigate when the soil’s top 2 to 4 inches are dry to the touch; 6) Educate yourself on season extension practices and figure out what works best for you.

SL: How do you know when to harvest?
Johnson:
Keep a garden log to track things like when you planted so you know when to harvest. Every seed packet lists a plant’s “days to maturity.” For certain vegetables, like greens, it’s pretty apparent. Others, like root vegetables, require more guess work. And there’s no harm in digging up a guinea pig for an early snack. Keep a good log, and the next year’s season will be that much easier.

SL: Any common mistakes people make? 
Johnson:
Don’t assume you can just throw seeds in and they’ll grow. Our climate and soil are finicky. Educate yourself on your micro-climate and start small. Build up your confidence and then expand, in both space and varieties. Gardening is challenging. Problem-solving and persistence is key.

SL: Any other advice?
Johnson:
Start small, dig in and get your hands dirty. It’s the best way to learn. Do your homework by seeking out advice and resources within our community. Find someone to start a garden with you to make it more affordable and enjoyable. Visit the Community Garden to witness raised-bed gardening and see what other people are growing. Also, have a plan and keep a log. The basic framework includes: obtaining seeds and/or transplants; prepping your soil; planting; weeding; watering; harvesting; succession-planting; preservation; storage and bedding. Think about companion planting and using beneficial plants and insects to deter pests.


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