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From the Compost Bin

(Tips for high-altitude gardeners)

by Suzanne Ward

The quiet of the winter and the warmth of the inside fire, which was such a blessing in January, feels too confining in spring.? We long for the warmth of sunshine after the dark and cold of winter.? It is time to plan the garden.? My Aunt Virginia, who will celebrate her 100th birthday this month, once told me, “If I can’t dig in the dirt and plant something, it is not spring!”?

?There are many reasons to garden. Your garden is positive way of connecting with the Earth.? It is therapeutic.? The garden is a place of beauty and meditation.? The garden is a way of involving and teaching your children about the cycles of nature.? The garden attracts wildlife and furnishes food for them as well as your family.? It helps with the economics of your family budget.? When I work in the garden, it is the closest I get to being “in the flow.”

?Ideally, if you were in a new home or space, you would observe the area for one year, learning the pattern of the sun, the wind, the light, and the shade.? You would note the highs and lows of temperatures, the directions and strength of the winds, the life cycles of the existing plants and animals.? You would simply watch, wait and learn.? I have never been able to do this and perhaps you too want to jump right into it.

?Planning the garden is the first step in the process of stretching your harvest.? With careful planning you will increase the time you are able to eat fresh vegetables and decrease the amount you need to preserve for winter.? Careful planning eliminates waste of seed and vegetables.?

?Whether a first time gardener or an old pro, there are basic steps to consider in your plan.?

Make certain your garden has full exposure to the sun. Plant the taller plants north of the smaller plants. This prevents the shading of small plants by the taller ones.? Perennial plants need to be located in a space which will not be disturbed yearly.? Strawberries, asparagus and rhubarb are perennials, which can be planted to the side of the vegetable garden.? Plan for succession planting. Succession planting involves planting fast growing vegetables, such as radishes and spinach, into areas already harvested.? There will be spring plantings, summer plantings and fall plantings.? Also, you can interplant. Interplanting involves planting fast growing plants between the rows of slower growing plants.? For instance, radishes and spinach may be planted between peas.? The fast growing plants will be ready to harvest before the slower one shades them.? You will need to know the requirements of each type of plant as well as the last frost dates of spring and first dates of fall, and the time frame in your garden.? Salida is in Zone 4, however, the particular area in which you are gardening may have dates other than the common first and last frost dates.? Will you weed by hand or by hoe or by tractor?? The rows must accommodate whatever weeding plan you have.? Don’t plant too much of one variety (cabbage) or varieties you know your family does not like.? Plant early crops together, so when they are taken out, you can follow it with another succession of plants.? Keep a journal of your gardening successes to make planning next year easier.? Also, keep in mind the time you have to spend on your garden, don’t overestimate your time and energy and become discouraged.

?Get out a paper and a pencil and make a plan to scale, using the measurements of your garden.? This will help save time later.? Check to see how much space each of your varieties need when mature.? If you are like me, you do not enjoy thinning.? I always feel if the little plants came up, they deserve to live!? However, this approach does not produce good carrots.? You need to note if there is a succession planting and what the succession is going to be.? This may sound time consuming, but it pays off in healthy plants.? Visualizing your garden in advance throughout the season is a good plan for success.

?Before you begin planting you will need to check your soil quality.? (Notice I did not say dirt.? I believe that word belongs to that which is under our fingernails.)? Soil is a living thing.? Keeping the soil alive is very important for your gardening success.? Any soil can be improved, but first you must know what you have to work with.?

?There are several types of soils such as loam, sand and clay.? Loam is a mixture of clay and sand.? Sandy soils drain well and are well aerated.? They dry out quickly and often lack nutrients.? Clay soils are rich in nutrients and hold water well buy are sticky and difficult to work with.? All soils can be amended.? The best solution to either clay or sandy soils is to add organic matter.?

?Roll some of your garden’s moistened soil between your fingers.? If the soil forms a solid ball, is smooth and sticky, you have a soil high in clay.? If you cannot form a ball and it is very coarse, you may have sandy soil.? Somewhere in between is the loam.

?Nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium are the three basic soil nutrients.? If your soil lacks any of these three, you can add what you need.? There are many ways to do this. You can buy kits from a nursery and test your own soil.? The Extension Service will also provide you with a place to send your soil for testing.?

?You also need to know the pH, or measure of acidity, of your soil.? On a scale of 0-14, find out whether your soil is an acid, neutral or alkaline soil.? The optimal range is around 7 pH,where you will find microorganisms which decompose plants to make humus and collect nitrogen from the air.? The nutrients in the soil are best utilized in this pH range.? If microorganisms can live there, then your plants will be happy as well.? Get a test kit from a nursery and test for the pH.

There is much more to be said about soils, but you do not have to be a chemist to understand the basics about soil and balancing it out.? Call your local Extension Agent or visit a local nursery.? Ask a Master Gardener.

?If your soil does not measure up, consider raised beds with purchased soil until you can build up your soils in the garden. ?Or, you could grow in large containers for a few years.

?If you have spring fever and have already studied the seed catalogues, you can start your plants indoors.? This works well for those of us in cold climates and provides to opportunity to start before the last frost date, somewhere around the beginning of June.???

?Stagger your planting to coincide with the needs of the plants.? Most of us start tomatoes and peppers inside, eight to ten weeks respectively, before transplanting into the garden.? These plants like warm temperatures (70-80 degrees F) and a grow light is a useful tool for keeping these starts warm enough to germinate.

??Other plants good to start are broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower.? These are cool weather plants and they prefer cooler temperatures (50-60 degrees F).? These can be started without grow lights, as they can withstand cooler temperatures, especially at night.?

?Squash and cucumbers can be started inside as well, four to five weeks before the last frost.? As they do not like their roots to be disturbed,? put these seeds in pots, which you can put directly into the garden soil.? Generally, I put these seeds directly into the warm soil and they produce within the season.

?By beginning plants inside early and outside later, you can stagger your harvest and extend your fresh vegetable growing season.

?Pots for stating plants can be found at your local nursery, or you can make pots with newspaper and a pot maker.? This is a wooden tool, especially designed to make starter pots. They can be found in seed catalogues or at a nursery.? As the newspaper disintegrates directly into the soil, it is also a good way to recycle newspapers.

?Another option is to start your seeds in half-gallon milk cartons, cottage cheese and yogurt containers, or paper cups.? Make certain they are clean, washing them thoroughly with soap and water.? Put holes in the bottom of each for drainage.

?You can either make the starting soil yourself or you can purchase a starting medium.? I buy a starting mixture from the nursery, to assure the starting medium is properly balanced.? Call your local Extension Service to get information about creating your own medium.

?Read the labels of plants which you are starting, to determine the depth of the planting.? Some larger seeds need to be placed ¼ to ½ inches in the starting soil.? Smaller seeds can just be pressed into the top of the medium.? Don’t plant them too deep.

?Label your pots with a marking pen and Popsicle sticks.? Also, label them with the planting dates.? Keep the seed packets handy so you can read the outside planting information as well.

?Water is essential to sprouting of the seeds.? The seeds must be kept damp enough to sprout, but not too wet or they will rot.? Keep the sprouts damp, but do not over-water them.? This is a daily process of checking the soil by pressing your finger gently into the pots, checking the dampness of the soil.? A long-spouted watering can or a spray bottle is a useful tool for this watering process.?

?Cover your seeds with a plastic wrap to create a miniature greenhouse.? This keeps the seeds damp.? Put them in a warm, dark place.? Remove the plastic when the seedlings begin to emerge and expose the seedlings to light.

?Seeds germinate at different times.? Again, the tomatoes and pepper seedlings require warmer temperatures to germinate, and harder seeds like cooler temperatures. More fragile plants; tomatoes, peppers and eggplant, like days in the 70s and nights in the 60s.? The cool weather plants, cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli like the days in the 60s and the nights in the 50s.? You will need to determine which place in your home offers these conditions.

?When the seedlings have their first true leaves, transplant them into larger pots.? Again, you can purchase these larger pots and reuse them annually, or you can recycle milk cartons, larger plastic containers or paper cups making sure they are clean.? Do not use shallow pots, as the seedlings are now developing their roots and do not want to be crowded.? The roots are fragile, so be very gentle when transplanting into the larger pots.? Follow the same rules with the water above, not too much and not too little.

??Thinning is also done at this time.? You will need to thin the starts, if you have too many, by choosing the larger, stronger seedlings and take the others out.? By not thinning you will have long, leggy and weak plants.

?June is the time to harden off your starts and move them outdoors to create that garden which you have already imagined in your mind and on your plan.? We will discuss that next month.?

?As we move into the warmer months of spring, enjoy your indoor gardening experience.? Each morning, I go directly into the sunroom to check on the status of my starts.? My sunroom smells like damp, rich earth.? It is a spring smell which I dearly love!

?Many more people are getting into gardening for the first time or returning to gardening.? I have recently heard the term “recession gardens,” like the victory gardens of the past, describing our renewed interest in gardening.? Whatever you call it, you will find gardening to be a fascinating experience.? I am never bored when gardening.? I love participating in this miracle of Earth, planting, weeding, harvesting and preserving.? I am co-creating with the Earth.?


?Suzanne Ward lives in Salida.? When she is not gardening, she is involved in sustainability projects.