Yellow Leaves with Green Veins

GOG_20090812_LAH_9072r-signedColorado—the word means “red” in Spanish. And Colorado’s soils are often reddish, due to the abundance of oxidized iron. Here in Colorado Springs, Garden of the Gods (right) attracts visitors with bright orange sandstone monoliths. Further north, Red Rocks Park and Amphitheatre is part of the same formation. Our well water has so much iron in it that our white laundry turned pink—we had to install an iron-removal component to our water system.

So, with all this iron present in our soils, why do so many plants here suffer from a deficiency?

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Putting Your Garden to Bed

I first posted this back in 2009, but (with one exception, below) my advice hasn’t changed. While I‘m off looking for migrating warblers today, you should be out in your garden. Here’s why:

  • carrot-sleeping-in-bedSpending time now on chores such as weeding and garden cleanup will reward you many times over when spring arrives.
  • Amending your soil this fall will give you a head start on next year’s garden.
  • Fall is also a great time to build a new patio or raised bed.
  • Protecting your less-hardy plants will increase the odds of them surviving a Colorado winter.
  • Winter’s cold weather is a great time to read articles, take classes, and prowl the Internet to become a more knowledgeable gardener.
  • And the most pressing issue? The weather gurus are predicting snow tonight and/or tomorrow!

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A Blanket for Your Garden

Snow at home_LAH_762As I write this, the sky is a brilliant blue, the sun is shining, and the thermometer in my garden reads a pleasant 55 degrees. However, only two weeks ago my plants were subjected to a frigid minus 17, and tomorrow’s high is supposed to barely pass freezing. It’s only February, with plenty of winter yet to come. Sometimes I wonder, how do my shrubs and perennials manage to survive such extremes?

In most years, the parts of the country that experience arctic temperatures also have a significant amount of snow. While we think of snow as very cold, it actually acts as an insulating blanket in our gardens, keeping the soil temperature relatively stable—often not much lower than 32. Then, during warm spells, such as we’re experiencing this week, that snow keeps the ground frozen. Plants stay dormant, and the roots stay buried.

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Stop Fighting Mother Nature

Penstemon 'Red Rocks' @ExtDemoGarden 2008sept25 LAH 264Alkaline soils, sparse rainfall, extreme temperatures, low fertility. Colorado doesn’t exactly sound like a gardener’s paradise. Few places do. Lamenting the current drought and expected summer water restrictions, I often dream of gardening in a place with ample rainfall. Wouldn’t it be wonderful?

Then I visited my daughter in western Washington. She and her husband live in Everett, north of Seattle. They have a view (on a rare clear day) looking east to the Cascades. These impressive mountains form a barrier blocking clouds that would otherwise move on into eastern Washington and Idaho. As a result, my daughter’s area gets a lot of rain.

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Taking Your Garden’s Temperature

soil thermometerThe calendar says late April, the weekend forecast is warm and sunny, but there’s still snow melting off the trees and loitering in the shadows. With our off-again, on-again spring, how can a gardener possibly know when to plant?

There’s no foolproof formula, but a soil thermometer can help take much of the guesswork out of gardening in Colorado.

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Digging Dirt

Winter beds @home LAH 7Ahh, March. Snow is still quite likely, but on some days our intense, high elevation sunshine beckons me into the garden. There, I’m greeted by one of my favorite smells—the aroma of humus-laden soil. The ground is no longer frozen. Let the growing season begin!

I’ve had my current garden for twenty years now. In that time, I have never stepped on the soil in my boxed beds. After an initial double-digging, the soil remains uncompacted, perfect for planting. Additionally, a soil test last year showed that I have plenty of humus—too much, actually—so I don’t even need to add compost for a while. Aside from adding a side-dressing of nitrogen, I won’t have to dig this year.

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Planning Ahead

garden-dreams2

It’s the beginning of a new year, and time to dream about the upcoming growing season. Do you want to add some permanent plantings?  Are you imagining flower beds brimming with annuals? Will you be buying from catalogs? (Get that order in early before they run out of that must-have variety.)

With the Christmas decorations packed away for another year, I finally have time to take a deep breath, brew a cup of tea, and begin to think about spring. I start by making a list of topics, and then mark down what will need doing, and when.

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Feeding Your Lawn

lawn_uplandin_20090615_lah_3607The summer is heading for fall, and it’s time to fertilize lawns. Go to any garden center and you’ll see piles of name brand lawn fertilizer, complete with directions on the back. Just follow these simple steps and you’ll have a healthy, green, weed-free lawn.

What these manufacturers don’t take into account is that different parts of the country have different soils. What may be excellent advice for Pennsylvania or Maine may not work for Colorado. Unlike much of the north and east, the Front Range loses more water to evaporation than it gains in rainfall. Combine that with the native rock from which our soils are derived, and we typically have soils that are alkaline, high in phosphorus and potassium, and low in organic matter and nitrogen.

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New Advice on Soil Amendments

compost-in-bags-no-label-lowes-cs_lah_5090-1You’re gotten your test results back from the soil lab, telling you to add some organic matter. What’s the best thing to add?

In the past, I’d just bop on down to the local garden center and load up a few bags of… something. Soil amendment, composted manure, planting mix, potting mix, top soil, compost… there are hundreds of products, and the names are pretty random.

So are the ingredients. Since there are no legal standards, these bags can contain whatever the manufacturer wants them to. There’s no labeling law, either. If there’s a label at all, often you’ll see something like, “Contains (peat, forest products compost, and/or compost), wetting agent, fertilizer.” You have no idea if this particular bag has peat or compost, much less what went into that compost. And what’s a forest product? Bark? Sawdust? Squirrels?

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Take the Test!

The sun is shining, the lawn is turning green, and the birds are chirping. In fact, it’s a balmy spring day. Surely there must be something you can do to start your veggie garden! As a matter of fact, there is, but it doesn’t involve a single seed.

If you’re like most gardeners, you’ve never had your soil tested. Every year you dutifully spread a layer of compost and/or manure over your garden, dig it in, and plant. After all, that’s what every book, article, and website tells you to do. You might even add some fertilizer, just to be on the safe side. But if you’ve never had a soil test, you’re flying blind.

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