Friday, March 4, 2016

Early Bed Prep

It's early March in Denver and outside the temperature feels warm enough to plant cool-season vegetable crops. It's shorts weather! The soil isn't too wet, so are you planting yet?  

You can plant the hardiest vegetables*, but you'll need to be ready for the return of cold and snow by lowering the lid on your cold frame or using a covered tunnel system for seed/plant protection and warmth.  I'm choosing to wait a few more weeks, mainly because I just turned over two raised beds that were growing a fall-planted cover crop, while the other beds are heavily mulched and filled with fall-planted garlic, so there's no room at the inn. But it won't be long. 

Your seeds are purchased or growing inside under lights, what kind of outdoor bed preparation should you be doing?  It's a short list that you can easily do this weekend while temperatures are still mild.  
  • First, lather on the sunscreen and put on comfortable clothes plus a hat. 
  • Gather your tools (hopefully put away last fall in clean and sharp condition, if not, work on the tools first).  Click here for tool tips - Garden Tools Care with Al Rollinger, Denver Post Video
  • Tools - shovel, trowel and scissors or pruners, box or garbage can for tossing weeds, spent foliage, leaves and roof shingle wrappers found everywhere from being blown into the yard.
  • Any remaining vegetable and annual ornamental foliage from last year needs to be removed.  All diseased stuff goes in the garbage, all other materials go to the compost pile or bin. This job can take you five minutes or less if you cleaned up last fall or more time depending on the area and how quickly you work. I work faster in the spring for some reason - I think if I work at a brisk pace spring will arrive sooner for earlier tomato planting.  Care to take the over or under bet on when tomatoes go in this spring?  I'll take the under - only because the last two seasons were rainy in April, May and June, so this third year should be smooth sailing, that's pure gardener optimism! 
  • Elsewhere in the landscape it's the perfect time to cut back last season's spent perennial foliage.  You'll see green growth at the base on some plants so careful not to cut into that new growth. And finish up pruning overgrown shrubs or small trees. Refer to my recent winter pruning blog for more information. 
  • Don't touch your rose plants, wait until late April or into May for the first prune of the year.  ANY pruning done now will stimulate growth which may be frosted or frozen in the next cold snap. 
  • Once your planting beds are cleaned out consider collecting soil for a soil test.  Now is the absolutely best time to do a test. It will be a quick turn around time to get back the results so you can make adjustments per the recommendations.  But most important - it is wise not to dump more organic matter or fertilizer on your beds if you don't know if it is needed or not.  It is possible to have too much OM in soil so plant growth may be compromised.  Same for too much N (nitrogen) - P (phosphorous) - K (potassium) fertilizers. The only way to find out what levels or amounts you currently have is to run a soil test.  It's as easy as using a non-metal, clean trowel or scoop to gather some soil, fill out a form and mail it to Fort Collins.  Links on soil test gathering and interpreting the results- 
  • It's optional to turn over the soil in planting beds once all the spent foliage is removed and smoothed out before planting.  Some gardeners till the area to break up clods or hard soils.  I do neither since my beds have been smothered in leaves all winter (tucked in) to keep the soil from cracking and blowing away. I will leave the leaf mulch in place until planting time. 
  • Clean out foliage from outdoor containers. Inspect for any cracks, especially on glazed or clay pots.  It's a good practice to bring indoors or cover porous containers each fall to prevent the freeze/thaw cycle which can damage them. 
  • Now it's up to you whether to wait for the soil test results before planting or direct seed some spinach or hit the shower after a great day in the garden. 
* The hardiest cool-season vegetables to plant in spring before the final frost (2-4 weeks or more if using cold frames or tunnels). They will grow with daytime temperatures as low as 40 degrees and frosts, but not uncovered in consistent cold, freezing temperatures.

Broccoli transplants (store bought)
Hardy Cool-Season: Broccoli**, cabbage**, onions, kohlrabi, peas, radish, arugula, lettuce, spinach and turnips

**Recommend using 4-week old transplants, not direct-seeded because by the time they are growing well, warm to hot temperatures may set in and cause the plant to bolt (set seed). It's much better to direct seed broccoli and cabbage mid-summer for a fall crop, same for cauliflower and Brussels sprouts (which are also considered cool-season, but are semi-hardy, so plant a couple weeks after hardy vegetables.)


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