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Eat and Drink

Colorado Farmers Answer 6 Common Gardening Questions

From the best ways to kill weeds naturally to saving leggy seedlings, farmers Krisan Christensen and Dan Hobbs share their expertise.

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It’s spring in the Centennial State, which means it’s time to start thinking about your garden again (and start planting some veggies and herbs). But as fun and relaxing as gardening can be, it can also be pretty fraught. Although Colorado-grown plants are pretty hardy, many also prefer those seemingly hard-to-achieve, Goldilocks-style “just right” conditions.

We wanted to get the scoop on some of the most common gardening ailments and questions out there: Overwatering or underwatering? Too much sun or not enough sun? Fertilizer overload or nutrient deficiency? So we tapped local farmers to share their expertise. Here’s what they had to say.

What are the best natural ways to kill weeds?

You’re probably not going to like this answer very much, but … out of the mouth of a farmer: “Pull ’em,” says Krisan Christensen, a 35-year-old, queer-identified farmer and the owner of Farm N’ Wild Wellspring in Boulder. 

“Most of organic gardening and farming is pulling weeds. It’s a labor-intensive endeavor. People ask me what I do. I crawl around on the ground and I make piles of weeds; that’s what I do for a living. And then I move those piles from one place to another. Pull the weeds and try to get the roots,” she says.

If you want to prevent next year’s weeds from growing, consider laying down a weed barrier now and letting it work its magic for a whole season. You might still have some weeds next year, but hopefully, there will be fewer.

Another way to prevent weeds in the first place: Plant other plants that can outcompete weeds. “Make sure your garden is covered—every inch—with vegetables, with greens, do lots of layers and interplanting and the vegetables will outcompete the weeds if they don’t have access to sunlight,” says Christensen. “Plant things closer than you think.”

Is it worth saving leggy, weak seedlings? If so, how?

If your seedlings are leggy and weak—meaning they have long, thin stalks and small leaves—you may want to consider cutting your losses (as long as you have enough healthy seedlings to plant instead!).

“There is hope but, if you have the option not to plant them, I would not,” says Christensen. “That is all just based on making sure you have the healthiest, most vibrant-looking plants from the start to go in the ground. Especially in Colorado, we have a limited number of days in which we know the weather will be nice so we don’t have as many windows to let them catch up.” 

But if you really, really want to save those seedlings, all is not lost. For tomatoes, for example, simply bury the seedlings very deep into the soil.

“Tomatoes will set roots out from all the way at the stem so you could even plant them sideways,” says Dan Hobbs, who owns Hobbs & Meyer Farms and Pueblo Seed & Food Co. near Pueblo with his wife, Nanna Meyer. “Just try to get it upright and stake it, but it’s better to just plant them deep and let them root out from the stem a little bit. It might be worth just pinching off some of those outer leaves and reducing the size of your plant so you don’t have all this dangly foliage.”

Why aren’t my vegetable plants flowering?

Your vegetable plants have big, green, healthy stalks and leaves, but no flowers. What gives? Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to this one, but on the most basic level, your plant isn’t flowering because it doesn’t have optimal conditions for success.

“That could be environmental stress—not enough light, not enough water, too much heat,” says Hobbs. “One thing that will happen with tomatoes, especially where we are, if it gets so hot that it’s over 95 degrees, those tomatoes will blast off. They’ll abort their flowers. So usually that’s environmental stress. The plant’s just trying to survive and so it doesn’t have the energy to reproduce.”

Do I really need to fertilize?

The answer, as always, is: It depends. Root vegetables like carrots, for example, can thrive in less fertile soil, Hobbs says. Same with legumes like beans and peas. But tomatoes and peppers are “pretty heavy feeders” that like a rich soil environment, he added.

It also depends on your soil type. The most surefire way to know what your soil needs? Send off a sample for testing at Colorado State University.

If you’re not that organized, Hobbs recommends looking at your plants. Do they look hungry? Are the leaves yellowing? Are they spindly? Some of these ailments may be related to the amount of light and water they’re getting, but they may also be missing some important soil nutrients.

If you’re planting vegetables and herbs that you plan to eat, you should put down compost and manure at least 120 days before harvest for food safety reasons, Hobbs says.

Christensen also recommends rotating your crops each year, even if you’ve got a super small gardening space, to help even out the strain on your soil. She also recommends planting cover crops—plants like rye, vetch, oats, and peas—which have an array of benefits for the soil’s health.

“Even with an eight-by-four-foot garden bed, put your tomatoes on the west side one year and the east side the next year just to have some rotation of those heavy feeders,” she says. “And then find ways to feed the soil.” 

What are the biggest mistakes gardeners make when growing veggies, herbs, etc. from seeds?

Growing vegetables and herbs from seeds can seem intimidating. But as long as you do a little research, you should have happy, healthy plants in no time.

“It’s important to really learn the plants. All plants are different so it’s good to get to know the different genuses and species and that they all behave a little differently,” Hobbs says.

But one mistake Colorado gardeners make is starting some plants too early. 

“The alliums—like leeks and onions—you can generally start in February, peppers in March and April,” Hobbs says. “Tomatoes are the ones that we see the biggest mistakes on. Tomatoes are very fast-growing plants and they do not want to be started in February. So it’s good to start the tomatoes, depending on your elevation, after April 1. We start ours as late as May 1 sometimes.”

There are also some plants that simply don’t like to be transplanted, so growing from seed indoors and then replanting into your garden isn’t ideal. “There are plants that really want to be direct-sewn like the cucurbits — the squashes and melons and cucumbers,” Hobbs says.

Do I really need to wash my homegrown fruits and veggies with those special soaps before I eat them?

Nope, you really don’t. Plain, old tap water will work just fine.

“You might have some dirt or insects but, in general, if it’s coming straight from your garden and into your kitchen, it’s probably going to be pretty darn safe,” Hobbs said. “Just rinse it with water.”

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