The calendar may claim that spring arrives in March, but those of us with high altitude gardens know that it really only begins after Mother’s Day. Even now, there is still a danger of a late frost, but at this point, we truly don’t care. We want to garden, and we want to garden now!
This is the dangerous season. We have so much pent-up enthusiasm just waiting to burst free that when the weather appears to be warm and settled (hah!), we can no longer control ourselves. Just look at the loaded shopping carts lined up (six feet apart) at the garden center check-out. I’m admit it, I’m as guilty as the next gardener—which is why I’ve learned to hand my wallet to my husband before entering a nursery.
If we want to keep our plant-buying frenzy under control, it’s vital that we do our homework ahead of time. Not all plants sold at the big box garden center will do well in our local climate. One year I found boysenberries for sale—in spite of their only being hardy to 20 degrees and only producing fruit on two-year-old canes, which would never survive our zone 5 winters. Another year, they were pushing hydrangeas—beautiful plants, but totally unsuited to Colorado’s harsh, drying winds, hail, and limited water supply. It’s simply not worth the hassle involved in attempting to grow things unsuited for our conditions. Better by far to choose plants that will thrive, and look terrific doing so.
Next is the issue of space. I always start far too many seedlings for my measly two veggie beds. I used to try to cram them all in—after raising them from seed-hood, I simply can’t bear to throw them onto the compost pile. Now I realize that I can just give the extras to my friends and neighbors. (Anyone want a couple of ‘Early Goliath’ tomato plants?) Yes, I’d love to buy a dozen daylilies in all their luscious colors, but I truly have space for only two. Must. Have. Self-control!
It’s hard to visualize how large some plants actually get, especially when they’re sitting in #1 pots. While this is particularly true of shrubs (I immediately picture of all the overgrown junipers around town), it applies to perennials as well. My beloved Beebalm (Monarda, left) seemed like the perfect choice for filling in under our semi-dwarf apple tree. I somehow didn’t think about it growing three feet tall! Now I’m stuck either keeping it pruned (and hopefully not cutting off the flower buds) or moving it all to another part of the yard. My inability to accurately estimate distances means that I’ve learned to pull out a tape measure. How much space do I really have? Then I keep that number in mind when reading plant tags.
Another consideration, especially with perennials, is bloom time. Stores tend to stock plants that already have blossoms on them. If I rush out and spend my entire garden budget now, everything will reach its peak early in the season, and my yard will be flower-less by the end of the summer. I find it better to make repeated trips all summer long. That way, some part of my yard will always be in bloom.
Garden center plants tend to look good. After all, they were likely grown and imported from a more benign part of the country, such as Oregon’s Willamette Valley. But what will they be like after a year or two in Colorado? The best way to find out is to look around town for examples. Last week I wrote about a small, local garden that’s still open to the public. I’ve picked up a lot of ideas from seeing what thrives there.
I also pay attention to what my neighbors are growing. With our gym closed, I’ve been doing a lot of walking around the neighborhood. As I walk, I look for plants I like, that are both healthy and attractive, that may be just the thing to fill in that hole in my own landscape. If it’s one I’m unfamiliar with, I snap a quick photo with my phone so I can look it up later. If the homeowner is outside (an increasingly common occurrence between the safter-at-home edict and the warming weather), I can simply ask what kind of plant it is. Most people are flattered that I want to know about their landscapes, plus I get to meet some other passionate gardeners.
My favorite nursery is now open, but only to a limited number of people at a time, and we’re only allowed in for a maximum of 30 minutes. There’s not time to happily browse the selection; I have to be prepared before I go. At first I was a bit frustrated about these limitations, but then I realized that intentionality is a good habit to develop.
Today, the sun is shining. The breeze is balmy. I simply have to go plant shopping. I just hope I can take my own advice!