Now more than ever we’re becoming aware of how important it is to be food self-sufficient. Whether you’re new to gardening or not, the high desert can be a tricky place to grow. In hopes that you’re all growing big gardens (or interested in growing big gardens!) this year, I’ve put together some advice and tips that I’ve learned from putting my hands in this soil for the last 20 years.
So welcome to growing food in the high desert! If you can do it here you can do it anywhere.
The Daunting News First:
We growers here contend with: a short season, spring winds, intense sun, lean soils, hail, drought, predators, ants, grasshoppers, aphids, hot days, cold spells, snow and freezing nights any time of year—OH MY!
Growing a garden here can exercise your patience, but it’s also infinitely rewarding. There’s nothing like being outside, fingers and toes in the soil, tending plants and growing your own food that you will enjoy throughout the rest of the year. Well, you or someone else because we have a lively food bartering culture!
Some Things to Consider:
– WHEN TO PLANT –
The weather can fool you—just because it’s finally glorious one day doesn’t mean it will be tomorrow or next week. So don’t be fooled into planting too early, unless you’re willing to go the extra mile to coddle your crops to get an early start. Folks who have been here a while and have busy lives with other jobs, family, etc but like to put up a bunch of food tend to garden in a no-nonsense kind of way—they get it in at the earliest safe time and get it out and “put up” before the fall freezes.
Some folks will put everything in at once so as not to stretch it out any longer than necessary—peas, tomatoes and everything in between! Allie Andersen, who was an intern at Red House Farm then moved for a season to Escalante, noticed that everyone there just kind of instinctively knew when to get their gardens in, and everyone did it on the same weekend! Of course, Escalante is a thousand feet lower, but the “right time” could be as early as the second week in May if the weather is warm and looks to be for the predictable future (I’m talking about planting all at once). Or it could be the beginning of the second week in June, or when the snow melts in “the notch” upon the Aquarius above town. But don’t wait any longer than that or you’ll run out of time on the other side of the season.
– WHAT YOU SHOULD DO NOW –
A) PREPARE YOUR GARDEN SPACE: Make a Garden Plan, Amend and/or Turn your Soil, Layout your Rows.
Prepare your garden space now so that when the warmer, less tempestuous weather arrives you’ll be ready to plant.
How much space do you have? How much do you want to grow? Making a garden plan on graph paper is a great way to go. Do you wish to grow winter storage crops like cabbage, beets, carrots, onions, and potatoes? Do you want to bottle or dry a lot of tomatoes? Clarify your gardening goals, but don’t plan to do more than you can manage or you’ll get discouraged. Aim to be pleasurably productive. You’re growing a garden, but hopefully, you’re also growing yourself as a gardener.
Is your garden area full of grass or last year’s weeds? The grass is the bane of gardeners here. You can try to exhaust it by tilling it in multiple times but really I think loosening the soil with a shovel and pulling out the clumps is safer. Be sure to shake out all the valuable soil and worms! You can put the grass clumps somewhere you want it to grow—dig it in and water—presto new grass!
Also, remove from your garden plot any old weed seed heads, but other harmless debris can stay and be turned in. You want to clear and loosen your soil.
Then you want to amend your soil because it’s most likely quite lean. Most folks have very little organic matter in their soil here so that’s your number one priority—increasing your garden’s organic matter content. You want to feed your soil to increase all the microbial activity and critters that make your soil hum. Every time you plant a crop you want to add a layer of compost (really fall is a great time to add a layer of organics too- but more on that later). Aged manure is also an awesome soil amendment here – see if you can score some. Or even fresh manure works IF you won’t plant for more than a month AND you dig it in somewhat AND water it several times. Otherwise, you’ll scorch your crops. But that’s what Kim Nelson used to do and she had the best garden in Boulder.
Escalante Home Center is selling organic compost by the ton (826-4004); also good to know is that Eric Feiler has volunteered to be a composting consultant (335-7393).
B) SET UP YOUR IRRIGATION: Will you overhead water with a sprinkler? Hand water? Ditch irrigate? Or set up drip irrigation? Each method has its attributes. If you’re not sure which is right for you, ask your gardening friends and neighbors for opinions or ask someone from the Boulder Skills Foundation (I always have opinions!)
C) BEGIN YOUR STARTS* (optional): If you want to try your hand at that…
You’ll need either a sunny south-facing window, grow lights, or a heated greenhouse space. Also containers (old yogurt containers or nursery six-packs, seed-starting trays, whatever) and seeds!
*Otherwise you can direct-seed a lot of crops later. But some plants need a head start like tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, etc. These can be purchased locally from Escalante Home Center beginning around the third week of April, also Brian Farm Service (Loa), Late Bloomers (Lyman), and also check in with the Boulder Skills Foundation and other growers here who may have extra starts to buy or trade.
What’s Happening Now at Red House Farm?
I have quite a large garden because I preserve a bunch of food for winter and also sell at the market. So I try to get an early start so I have time to prep all my beds and plant before it’s too late. I usually start with my hardiest crops sometime in April and often finish a week into June with my last crop in—winter squash.
So I often first do peas, onion sets, radishes and possibly hardy greens like kale, arugula, and spinach. I haven’t gotten my pea zone ready yet this year though and my onions I started in February could be a bit bigger but I did transplant some spinach starts in the hoop house maybe a week ago and Larkin and I planted kale and arugula starts outside 2 days ago. They’re under Agribon though (the white protective garden fabric) and we waited until those below-freezing nights had passed. Not that there won’t be more but the starts should have time to settle before it gets quite cold again.
All I know is that my irises in the southeast corner of the house are looking perkier but the ones on the northeast side not as much. And the rhubarb? The redbuds are just now barely popping up through the soil.
Have you seen any penstemon, paintbrush or cactus at our elevation looking springly yet? It’s still feeling cold out there. We are down on Boulder Creek though so this is one of the coldest spots in town because of the cold air drainage down-canyon from the mountain every night.
The random self-seeded arugula and borage in the hoop house is now just looking eager to grow, however. It’s getting watered daily and is under agribon because of the spinach starts in there. Did I say it’s IT’S IN THE HOOP HOUSE? The point being that’s it’s definitely getting coddled.
— Brynn Brodie
Boulder Skills Foundation Founder