By Judy Elliott, Education and Community Empowerment Coordinator
Planting at the Fairview Community GardenAs community gardeners, we naturally join together to commune, share and listen, thriving as we learn different strategies for growing our plants and ourselves. We do well as we contemplate mixed plantings, utilizing herbs and flowers to attract beneficial pollinators, reveling in the endless array of culinary masterpieces that can be created from several tiny seeds. Although our Stage 2 drought may be thought of as a reason to dampen our enthusiasm, I prefer to see it as yet another teaching tool that expands my horizons and ways of viewing gardening.
Devote time to planning that allows: season–wide productivity, essential soil preparation, planting smaller quantities of vegetables at the optimum time for their health, correct watering techniques, cultivation of the soil on a regular basis, mulching exposed soil surfaces, an evolving knowledge of specific insects and diseases that impact different crops, prompt harvesting and most of all, viewing your garden as a peaceful oasis.
Soil Preparation: DUG recommends that all gardeners get to know their soil, whether a heavy clay–based or sandy medium. Divide your plot prior to amending it with landscape–based compost, into several internal beds, each with walkways between the fixed growing areas. This not only welcomes feet into the garden, but also limits the areas that require watering (and also the possibilities for weed proliferation). Amend only the growing areas, and thoroughly mix around an inch of compost into the top three to four inches of soil, using a hoe to break up larger soil clumps until they form small aggregates. Do not work your soil when it is wet, as it will dry to the consistency of adobe brick.
Choosing Veggies: Make 2013 the year of quality, not quantity, when it comes to the veggies you plant. Cool season seeds, such as lettuce, arugula, mustard, spinach, radish, peas, beets, carrots, green onions, and herbs such as parsley, dill and cilantro can be planted in small quantities, using the succession planting method, after you have prepared your soil. In this method, ten or so seeds of preferred crops listed above are planted at one – week intervals until the middle of May, to assure a staggered maturity. As crops decrease in productivity, they should be removed, chopped up and put in the compost pile. It is preferable to leave sufficient space in each of your beds (within the larger plot) for warm and hot season vegetables such as beans, tomatoes, peppers, squash, and cucumbers. Plan on only growing a few tomatoes, one or two squash plants, and staggered plantings of cucumbers. Cool season veggies and herbs benefit greatly from adding calendula and bachelor buttons to different areas, to attract beneficial pollinator insects.
Correct watering, cultivating and mulching: DUG recommends that gardeners cultivate the soil around all plants prior to watering. With light cultivation, emerging weeds are broken off at the soil surface and can be left as a surface mulch. Bare soil leads to soil compaction, making it difficult for roots to penetrate deeply to withstand the effects of drought. Use a screwdriver, branch or your finger to assess whether plants need water. Insert your tool of choice about four inches into the soil, and if it has moist particles of soil adhering to it when you remove it, you can wait several days before watering. It is essential to water only at root level, keeping the water flow on low, so as to not erode the soil or disturb young stems or germinating seeds. Plants with hairy leaves, such as tomatoes, squash, pumpkins and cucumbers will resist mid and late season diseases much better when you do no overhead watering. Mulched soil retains water well, extends the growing season for both cool season crops, and provides a more moderate soil temperature for warm weather crops. As mulch decomposes, it stimulates the growth of beneficial microorganisms and increases organic matter, which is typically low in Colorado soils.
Insects and Diseases: Carry insect guides with you in the garden to correctly identify all stages of insects, whether they be the early season flea beetles, producing shotgun type holes in foliage, masses of aphids, producing curled growth, or the white cabbage butterfly, laying eggs on members of the broccoli family. Books such as: Pests of the West, by Whitney Cranshaw, or Rodale’s Color Handbook of Garden Insects, by Anna Carr, are invaluable. Communicate regularly with community gardeners who may have developed unique methods of pest and disease control.
Gardens as peaceful gathering places: A well maintained garden is far more than a bounty of produce. It stimulates our senses and encourages a certain slowing down as we work on communal tasks, develop strong friendships with the network of other dirt lovers and, perhaps most of all needs our nurturing. The 2013 year of using less water may turn out to be the year of planting deep roots that expand our notion of what is possible, of leaping into uncharted waters knowing that our fellow gardeners will help us along the way, of appreciating more and seeing the beauty in every leaf and flower. Plant less, grow more.
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