Gardening Between Storms

May 15th – when it is usually a safe time to plant tender annual flowers – is six weeks away.  What can we do in the meantime?  Prep and plan!
All the beautiful flowers and bountiful veggies you want to grow this year begin in the soil.  It’s where seeds germinate, grow their roots and take their first steps toward the plants they will become.  Get the soil incubator ready now to nurture the seeds and plants you’ll be putting into the ground next month.  Add quality compost and till it into the soil either by hand or with a rototiller.

Consider a soil test.  The results will provide useful information about the quality of the soil and help guide your fertilizer program.  Colorado State University has a soil testing lab and provides instructions for collecting a soil sample and submitting it for evaluation.  Fees are reasonable.

Another productive task is to check out the condition of last season’s tomato towers and pea and bean trellises.  Early spring is a good time to stock up on these items and other supplies you will need later.  It’s a time saver to shop now before garden centers get busy and have long lines at checkout.

It’s always smart to have a plan for the edibles garden and seasonal color that will brighten beds and containers.  What would you like to do new or differently?  For example, striped petunias and those with a lime green edge will be popular this year.  If these trends are something you want to include, get them on your list and build your plan around them.

Planning checklist for annual flowers  

  • Color scheme – will 2014 mean a monochromatic mix of different flowers all of one color, an assortment of mixed colors, very bright colors or soft pastels?  Having a color scheme in mind will help direct your plant choices.
  • Texture and foliage – are you considering some containers that are exclusively foliage?  Do you want foliage plants interspersed with annuals?  Are you seeking a few plants with a dramatic texture?  Making these decisions ahead of time will further direct your choices.
  • Moisture and exposure – water and light needs vary among annuals.  Some need less than 1″ of water per week and others need more than 1 ½”.  Some flowers and foliage plants will thrive in sun, others need shade and still others can tolerate some of both.  Placing and grouping flowers based on these requirements will create a more successful garden.

Planning checklist for warm-season veggies

  • Go back through your records and list those all-time favorite varieties you want to grow again.
  • Try something new – what would challenge your green thumb?
  • When you draw the layout of this year’s garden, remember to rotate crops away from where the same plant was grown last year.  And keep a record of this year’s final planting plan so you can use it to plan rotations next year.
  • Plan enough space for each plant.  Over-crowding will limit production.
  • Plant a few extra varieties that grow well for you to share with friends, neighbors and the local food bank.

Sorting out seeds

Even though April is National Gardening Month, in Colorado our planting options are still very limited in mid-April.  At higher elevations, there’s an even longer wait before you can get out and get planting.

What can you do besides general garden clean-up and soil prep?  Sort out the seeds!  Here are some guidelines both for sorting out the old and shopping for the new.

Keep or toss old seeds?

  • Some seeds are longer lived than others.  Watermelon seeds don’t have the vitality that beans usually have, for example.
  • Planting old seeds that don’t germinate can cost you two to three weeks of outdoor growing time before you know the seeds have failed and you need to replant.  That’s time you don’t want to lose in Colorado’s growing season.
  • Best rule of thumb is to check the expiration date on seed packets from past seasons and toss expired seeds.
Another strategy with older seeds is trying them out earlier indoors before planting time to see how many germinate.  That can give you a benchmark for how many you need to plant outdoors.  If only half the old seeds germinate, then you know you should plant twice the normal number.

Can you use seeds harvested from last year’s garden?  The next generation of seeds from hybridized plants is generally less reliable than the fresh seeds you can buy.  Also, as plants cross-pollinate with other garden plants, the mixed-up results land in the seeds-and the next season’s plants.  As a result, this year’s veggies may look a lot different than last year’s.  Keep this in mind if you collected seeds from last year’s garden.

Tips for buying seeds
The seed selection in garden centers and hardware stores is almost overwhelming – and so are the cost variables.  There is no standard unit pricing that helps you compare costs like you can for a quart of milk.

Some packets sell 3 for $1 – and others are $3 per packet.  Some seeds are sold by the ounce and some by grams.  And because some seeds are bigger than others, a few grams of tiny seeds like lettuce, carrots and radishes may be all you need for a season.  Still others, like Atlantic pumpkins, are sold by the count – with a set number of seeds per packet.  Calculating the amount of seeds you get for the price will help sort out the best value.

The good news is that while you can’t comparison shop – like you do for that quart of milk – there are industry standards that govern the quality of seeds sold.  These standards dictate how clean and fresh seeds must be and that they must be sold with an expiration or planting season date.  Consequently, a high price doesn’t necessarily indicate the best quality.  The bottom line is to know the quantity of seeds you need and then, compare weights as best you can for the best dollar value.

Seed planting tips

  • If you want rows of plants, place seeds in garden rows that run east to west.  The east/west orientation gives the sunniest advantage for your crop and more even plant growth.
  • Use seed tape to speed up planting and get uniform spacing.  You can find these seeds in packets similar to loose seeds at garden centers.  Seeds come pre-attached to a paper tape so all you have to do is run the tape down the row and cover it with soil.  Within a few days, the tape disintegrates and the seeds germinate.
  • Place seeds so that when plants mature, the taller-growing plants don’t shade smaller plants.
  • Plant seeds for your early season crop of cool season veggies–like spinach, lettuce, carrots–before the end of April.