Gardening basics: How to start a garden in Colorado during coronavirus

Colorado is under a stay at home order, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get into your backyard and start gardening. Everyone can get into the action, whether you live in an apartment or house on a large lot.

Even if you’ve never opened a packet of seeds before, in a matter of weeks you could be enjoying fresh homegrown salads.

The benefits of gardening are numerous. For starters, being outside in fresh air and getting some exercise is a welcome break from online bingeing. According to the National Gardening Association, between 200 and 300 calories are burned per hour while gardening.

Garden retailers along the Front Range say that many customers are learning how to garden and grow plants for the first time. This includes house plants as well as vegetables and herbs for preparedness in these uncertain times. It also gives people an activity to do with the family and establishes a connection to what their parents and grandparents may have experienced.

“People feel good when working in the garden, spiritually and emotionally, similar to the Victory Gardens during World War II,” said Michael Morris, hardgoods manager at The Flower Bin in Longmont.

“Gardening is the best therapy in the world, better than a therapist,” added Richard Ortega, co-owner of Nick’s Garden Center and Farm Market in Aurora.

Both stores are currently open for walk-in shopping (respecting CDC social distancing guidelines) as well as curbside pickup.

Here are some tips on getting started.

Outdoor Gardening

The keys to growing success are like anything in life: A little planning and a little know-how goes a long way toward enjoying the blooms and fruits of your efforts. Start small this first year: A few containers or a small raised bed should provide enough flowers, vegetables, fruits and herbs to give you a taste of success and experiences for next year.

Keep in mind the outdoor growing season for the Denver area is about 160 days, In Evergreen, it is 87 days, and in Castle Rock it’s 104 days.

Think about what you want to grow before you shop. Perhaps a few annuals and pops of color on the balcony or around the yard? Or is it your goal to become an urban farmer and share the harvest?

Now think about location. All plants need sun (some more than others). East-, south- and west-facing locations are ideal for most blooming plants and vegetables. North exposures work for more shade-loving plants and leafy vegetables. Garden centers group like-minded sun exposure plants together; when ordering online or over the phone, be sure to mention your sun exposure.

Next, look to the ground. All plants need soil conditions that encourage roots to develop and moisture to drain well; otherwise the roots can drown and die. Seasoned gardeners spend years amending in-ground planting areas (especially for vegetables) with bagged soils or homemade compost to loosen up soils for improved growth.

The quickest way to avoid dealing with our challenging soils this season is to grow plants in containers,  a do-it-yourself raised bed or a raised-bed kit from a garden center. Creating rectangular-shaped mounds with soil amendments and foregoing the frame works, too.

Containers need a drainage hole. Use a new coffee filter over the hole, then fill the container with bagged soil that is meant for growing plants in pots. Avoid using existing soil from the backyard; it’s too heavy and the contents can inhibit healthy plant growth.

Before you get too far along, you need to know when to plant. Along the Front Range, there are three planting windows with some overlap (add two to three weeks for higher elevations). This is based on what conditions and temperatures in which plants prefer to grow. The first cool-season window — April 15 to May 15 — is for plants that prefer cooler growing conditions, like pansies, snapdragons, lettuce, spinach, kale, broccoli, onions, strawberries and herbs like chives, parsley and cilantro.

For quicker growth, instead of starting seeds, purchase established plants or vegetable “starts” from garden centers. Many leafy green crops such as broccoli and beet starts are being sold at garden centers right now. Fruits like strawberries are sold bare-root (they look like dry rooted plants) or small starter plants sold in six-pack trays.

Onions grow the quickest when planted as small bulbs or sets. They can go in the ground right now since they are buried below the soil. They will be up and growing in a couple of weeks. Harvest early for green onions (scallions) or let them grow all summer for mature plants.

Before planting outside, “harden off” all new plants, getting them used to outdoor conditions by setting them out for an hour or two each day, and then increasing time and sun exposure over several days. Cover newbie plants on nights below 45 degrees with a box or lightweight sheet or when hail is predicted. Remove the protection the next day when it warms up.

The easiest cool-season plants for new gardeners are sweet peas (ornamental, not edible), lettuce, spinach, Swiss chard, beets, radish, arugula, kale and onions. Radishes are the easiest and quickest growing; they mature in about 25 days. Strawberries are everyone’s favorite and so fun to harvest and munch as you go — especially for young gardeners.

Warm-season plants, vegetables and herbs can be planted between May 15 (after the final spring frost) and June 15. Perennials (plants that will return each year) can be planted all summer long. New annuals like geraniums, petunias, and vegetables like tomatoes and peppers, and herbs including basil and rosemary cannot take cold nights with temperatures in the 40s. Purchase these plants closer to the planting window or buy now and keep them inside near a sunny window until it’s time to plant outside.

Wait and direct seed these easy warm-season ornamental annual plants, crops and herbs well after the final spring frost: zinnias, cosmos, hollyhocks, cucumbers, beans, pumpkins, squash and herbs like basil, tarragon, nasturtium, oregano and lemon balm.

It may go without saying, but warm-season plants need warm soil to germinate. Read seed packets carefully for the planting windows in relation to the most likely final spring frost of the year (around May 15). Look for planting depth, time for seeds to emerge and distance to thin plants (with scissors) when they’re up a couple of inches. (If crowded, they won’t develop well.) The packet will state plant maturity in weeks, care and harvest tips.

When direct seeding, avoid planting the entire packet at once; otherwise the harvest will yield all at the same time. Stagger seeding through the growing season. Seeds are inexpensive, so try different varieties and see what tastes best. Store leftover seeds in a dry, cool location (not hot garage) and use the remainder next year.

There’s one more planting season in Colorado: In mid- to late summer, cool-season crops can be planted again. Many can be directly seeded in the ground and containers, or use “starts” sold in garden centers.

All new plants will need tending throughout the growing season. Regular watering, fertilizing and scouting for pest insects and disease are all part of the fun outdoor experience. Read up on individual plants, vegetables, fruits and herbs for specific care at the links below.

Indoor Plants

There are a wide variety of indoor plants you can grow this spring and summer. All plants can differ on the amount of light, sunlight, fertilizer and water they need to grow. Try to match your indoor space and light exposure with the type of plants you want to grow.

The ever-popular succulent and cacti plants generally need less fertilizer and water with longer periods between watering. They like sun and prefer east-, south- or west-facing window exposures (not too close to windows on cold nights or when temperatures heat up during summer months). More traditional foliage plants like peace lily and pothos need more frequent watering and range from needing low light conditions to bright, half-day, indirect sun (within 5 feet of a sunny window).

For instant color and long bloom, orchid plants are very affordable, sold everywhere (including grocery stores), and require less routine care other than keeping them moist (always use tepid, room-temperature water). Hold onto the plant tag when purchasing or snap a photo of the tag for future plant care reference.

Garden Resources

Need to purchase plants, seeds, soil, fertilizer or just some advice once you get home? During the coronavirus pandemic, some garden centers are open while observing CDC-established social distancing guidelines. Most are open for phone orders, online ordering and curbside pick-up, and some are offering delivery. Call or check a store’s website before driving over.

Most, if not all, independent garden centers and specialty flower shops offer gratis planting advice, plant identification and growing care. They are happy to assist your growing success. Go to to see the many independent garden centers in the state.

Another place to go for help: The Colorado State University Extension Service is part of a nationwide program that offers various low-cost and free services to the general public. Among their outreach programs are educational garden classes, videos and assistance. While all the offices are closed during the shelter-in-place period, staffers are returning phone calls and emails. This is a free service. Reach all county offices through Direct emails can be sent to Ask an Expert.

More help:

  • CSU Extension free spring gardening webinars
  • CSU Extension PlantTalk garden videos
  • An indoor seeding video
  • Growing herbs video
  • Garden fact sheets
  • Growing houseplants

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