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.
Master gardener Jodi Torpey in her garden. Image courtesy of John Pendleton.
Whether 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:
Get started: Lay the foundation
- Amend soil with manure and compost to increase fertility, drainage, and fluffiness.
- Allow potted vegetables to acclimate to the outdoor environment for a day or two before transferring to the garden.
- Plant at the recommended ground depth for any given crop.
- Water plants at ground level. Avoid wetting leaves in order to prevent disease or rot.
- Feed your plants one inch of water each week (not too much, not too little).
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.
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.
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.
Dig a little deeper: Pick up a copy of The Colorado Gardener’s Companion at Tattered Cover or Barnes and Noble.