Gardening with Deb: Spring gardening in the mountains
With hints of spring in the air, many of us who enjoy gardening are itching to get out and start working in the garden. Should we?
Of course … but for garden clean-up and preparation, not for planting things yet. Now’s a great time to trim away spent grasses and seed heads that you left for winter interest and to neaten up your pathways and bring in hardscape — like rocks, benches, and other structures — for the garden. It’s also a good time to get your tools in good repair – clean off any soil from last fall, sharpen your shears and disinfect your tree and shrub pruners.
It’s also a good time to order your seeds and seedlings. Many local gardeners find that, by the time we can plant things outdoors, all of the plants and seeds we want are sold out to gardeners from more moderate climates who have already started their flower and vegetable gardens. Store your seeds and seedlings in a protected place until it’s time to plant them outdoors here.
So when should gardeners in Routt County begin spring planting? The magic date is June 11. That’s when this area experiences, on average, our last killing frost.
This is a 30-year average and will vary from year to year, but in the 15 years I’ve lived in Steamboat, we’ve almost always had frosty nights in late May and early June. If you have protected areas near your home that allow for early planting, you may be able to start some plants outdoors earlier than June 11.
Are there plants that can go into the ground before this date and survive a frost? At best, consider planting cold-tolerant annuals, perennials and vegetables. Some of the most cold-tolerant annuals for our elevation include California poppy (Eschscholzia californica), Gladiolus, Calendula, Petunia, Marigold, Pansy, and Zinnia.
Cold-tolerant vegetables include onions, lettuce, radish, spinach, peas, cabbage and turnips. These crops may be planted as early as two to four weeks before the date of our average last spring frost.
Cold-tolerant perennials include Yarrow (Achilles filipendula), Columbine (Aquilegia), Mountain bluet (Centaurea montana), Shasta daisy (Chrysanthemum maximum), Sweet William (Dianthus barbatus), Bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis) and Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea), among many others.
Take care with any of these plants, since most are grown (and coddled) in greenhouses and may have some fresh, green growth that is more susceptible to spring frost. Be sure to harden off these plants before setting them in the garden or provide some type of covering for them if the night temperatures are expected to drop near freezing.
To harden off a new plant or seedling, set it outside in a protected area during the warm daytime for a few hours the first day, and, over the course of a week to 10 days, extend the outdoor time by one to two hours per day to acclimate the plant to our mountain environment. By the end of a week to 10 days, it should be ready to be planted in the garden.
Generally, trees and shrubs will not be seriously damaged by the late freezes. Just be sure the soil has dried enough to allow for easy root movement and that your digging doesn’t compact the soil. Any foliage might be affected by a freeze, but the tree or shrub will usually recover.
The Yampa Valley is considered USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 3 – 4, meaning our lowest temperatures can reach -20 to -40 degrees. However, you may have a microclimate in your garden that allows you to plant early or requires that you wait before planting. The microclimate is affected by the contours of your property, your soil composition, winds, sun intensity, rainfall, shade and wind protectors. Match the needs of your plants to their growing site, and you’ll have best success in your garden.
So if your garden is pretty exposed to the elements, a good plan is to start some seeds and seedlings indoors to bring outside to plant in the ground after June 11. That’s what I’ll be doing.
Deb Babcock is a Master Gardener through the CSU Extension Routt County. Questions? Call 879-0825 or email: CSUMGProgram@co.routt.co.us
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Wildfire experts call the process “hardening a home,” or creating defensive space, which is what homeowners need to do if they want wildland firefighters to try to defend their home during an emergency.