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Master gardener Jodi Torpey in her garden. Image courtesy of John Pendleton.

A Crash Course In Colorado Gardening

Armed with a trowel and master gardener Jodi Torpey's expert advice, you too can conquer our semi-arid climate to raise some veggies—and even a flower or two. 

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5280 Summer Guide 2015Whether you’re a master gardener or just hoping to turn your black thumb to a more pleasant shade of green, Colorado’s climate presents a unique cultivation challenge. “You’ve got poor soil, high-intensity sun, temperature fluctuations, low precipitation, and windy weather—yes, all of that—conspiring against gardeners,” says Jodi Torpey, Denver native, master gardener, and author of her Mile-High gardening guide, The Colorado Gardener’s Companion.

What’s an aspiring gardener to do? Here are a few of Torpey’s tips on how to work with the climatic quirks of our dearly beloved home on the range:

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Get started: Lay the foundation

Veg out: Try your hand at vegetable gardening

Grow this: Tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, beans, and cucumbers.

Plant now: “Wait until June because it gives the soil time to warm up,” says Torpey. “Plants like warm evenings in the 50 to 55 degrees [Fahrenheit] range.”

Anticipate short growing seasons: “Keep in mind that we have a short season,” she says. “Check the days to maturity. The shorter, the better for our area because you have a better chance of the plants growing, fruiting, and ripening before the weather gets bad.”

Flower power: Plant a decorative floral garden

Bloom this: Sage, Penstemon, Sunflowers, Agastache, and Echinacea.

Annuals: Since annuals die off each season, choose by color preference.

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Perennials: Put more thought into which perennials you plant. Torpey recommends using Plant Select, a collaborative effort by the Denver Botanic Gardens and Colorado State University. The program advises gardeners on smart flower choices for the Rocky Mountain Region.

Herb is the word: Get garnishes straight from the garden

Sprout this: Whichever herbs you like to cook with!

Tip: “Just about any herb works here, because most of them are annuals,” says Torpey. “You can mix your basil, oregano, or thyme in with your annual flowers.”

Save for later: Well-tended herbs will still be flourishing when that first winter freeze comes around. Torpey recommends hanging herbs or drying them on a screen to save for winter use. She also fills ice cube trays with large batches of pesto to freeze for later use.

Hit the pot: Try container gardening

Cultivate this: Small plants like bush beans and bush cucumbers, which are biologically engineered to yield full-sized vegetables from smaller plants.

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Advantages: City dwellers with only windowsills or patios can still get their hands dirty.

Get creative: Jodi Torpey’s Vegetable Gardening: Innovative Small-Space Solutions class, available online through Denver-based Craftsy, covers best practices for container gardening, including hanging planters, composting instruction, and tricks for preventing pests.

(Want more? Don’t forget to check out 5280’s guide to urban homesteading in the Mile High City!)

Dig a little deeper: Pick up a copy of The Colorado Gardener’s Companion at Tattered Cover or Barnes and Noble.

Discover more ways to enjoy summer in Denver at 5280.com/summerguide.

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