Monday, January 25, 2016

Plan, Then Do

We're starting the final week of January so you know what that means?  Yes, my mother turns 91* on the 31st, but it also means we can officially start the countdown (number of weeks) to the average last frost date for planting outdoors.  For those who have recently arrived to Colorado from warmer locales, the average last frost date meaning can be confusing.  Off the top of many people's heads, they'll often say that the last frost of the spring along the Front Range is Mother's Day weekend.  I think we can stretch that meaning to include most garden centers, box stores and every son who wants to make mom happy by planting a new rose or a couple of 'Early Girl' tomatoes on her special day.  So are they correct?  Is Mother's Day THE day to officially start the presses and dig the first hole?  The short answer is some years yes, some years no.

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The average last frost date is based on 30-year averages (1980-2010) for normal climate temperatures. This historical data implies there will only be a 10% chance of a freeze event on or after a certain date. Frost occurs around 36 degrees. So, determining the exact date that temperatures won't dip below freezing (32 degrees) is about as accurate as getting the right date for your child's birth. You'll probably get it within days to a week, not bad averages unless you've planted several geraniums that get hit by severe frost one day off from your calculation.  Or worse, your mother-in-law arrives two weeks BEFORE Johnny is born!
My best recommendation is to rely on your past planting experiences, or your expert garden neighbor's recommendation. Check the long-range weather forecasts but cross your fingers for accuracy. The last two Junes ('13 & '14) are recent reminders that a good offense - later planting, and a well-planned defense - cloches, row covers, sheets etc. is the best bet to get your garden in.

Internet Photo from
For newbies, to further clarify the planting windows in our area, there are three overlapping seasons to plant. The cool-season planting period ranges anywhere from March to the first of May.  These include cool-vegetables like spinach, peas and beets and cool-season annuals like pansy, calendula and sweet peas. Some newly planted cool season plants may tolerate lows in the 40s but prefer growing in temperatures from the 60s to 80s.  Keep in mind that cool-season planting or direct seeding is all dependent on the weather - if snow is on the ground or it's raining or snowing from mid-March to mid-May, the cool-season planting window may either be delayed or skipped.  Using tunnels, row covers and cloches are recommended if the weather isn't ideal.

The warm-season window is anywhere from mid-May to the first of July and includes herbs like basil, vegetables - tomatoes, peppers, squash and corn, plus annuals - petunias, marigolds, sunflowers and cosmos. Hardy perennials, shrubs and trees can be planted during this time as well and all the way to early fall.  The exception is to try to avoid planting when temperatures are extremely warm. It can be done, but pay close attention to watering and providing some shade.  Mid-summer is when the third season planting window begins - mostly cool-season vegetables that mature in sixty days or less and warm-season crops that also have a shorter maturity date like summer squash, okra and basil.

Knowing about last spring frost dates and planting windows will help you plan your schedule for seed purchases (don't delay much longer) and indoor seeding for planting during the correct window - cool or warm-season. The timing and planting information on seed packets vary per company.  Some mention soil temperatures or map zones as guides to direct seed outdoors, or a certain number of days from frost dates to start seeds indoors.  Pay attention and familiarize yourself with the seed packet information. More - Garden Primer How to Read a Seed Packet.  Some gardeners use a chart or graph to list when and what to seed indoors for later planting or when to direct seed outdoors.  Click here for the vegetable planting chart I did on an earlier blog Vegetable Planting Chart

An excellent resource for climate summaries in Colorado that may also help you plan - Colorado Average Frost Dates and Length of Growing Season

Vegetable seeds that you need to get started soon (indoors) for early transplanting out in March to April include -  broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, parsnips, onions and celery. Tunnels or cold frames are recommended for early planting when freezes and frosts are the norm.  Also check out Niki Jabbour's blog on how to seed, then plant 'imperial star' artichoke in our cold northern climate for harvest in one growing season - Direct Seed 'Imperial Star' artichoke.

Keep in mind that if you miss the window to start your seeds indoors, you can always purchase cool-season transplants at garden centers starting in late winter into spring, and later in the spring for warm-season plants. Warm-season seeds are generally started indoors in April for late May transplanting. 

Now for my Mom*

My mother Madylene is known as "Dickie" to her friends and sister - my Aunt Jo, her only remaining sibling. Why the unusual sobriquet you ask?  That comes from her father Sherman who gave his ten children nicknames. Pauline was "Pat," Irene was "Kelly," Florence, the oldest was called "Sister," and Martha was "Hibbie." My Uncle "Tummy's" given name was Sherman.  Martin, who died at age seven, was called "Buddy." I wish I could have known my grandfather, but he died a year before I was born. Sherman and Emma hailed from the Lee County Iowa area and moved to eastern Montana a little over one hundred years ago.

Emma and Sherman Beall 50th Wedding anniversary 1955
In my youth it was unusual for mothers to work outside the home but I didn't realize this fact until I was older.  She was before her time with a career, four children, husband, pets and a garden. My parents kept us active with weekend and summer camping outings, family reunions and visiting relatives around Montana and Colorado. "Dickie" was a registered nurse, first working at one of the hospitals in Billings, later she rose to Director of Nurses at a well-respected nursing home. In those days nursing homes took care of people young to old with disabilities or illnesses across a broad spectrum. Her patients, their families, and nurses respected and liked her very much. She often worked weekends and holidays for nurses or staff who wanted to be with their families.  Both my parents worked extremely hard and set lasting examples of the power of self-reliance by getting up every day and doing a good job.  They paid for our college educations and to this day my Mom says "that's your inheritance Betty!" Thank you SO much Mom!

My Mom is a lifelong gardener, as were her parents, siblings and relatives on my Dad's side of the family. My first cousin, and his son still work and live on a ranch forty-miles east of Billings in a small community named Rapelje, MT.  I am sure there is scientific research somewhere that proves a gardening gene exists, if not there should be.

My Mom and sister Lee, in front of compromised junipers from the November '14 freeze

Happy Birthday Mom!  You've been a great influence on my love of gardening today!


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