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  • The Tribulations and Triumphs of Gardening on Colorado’s Front Range

    Last year, 5280 restaurant critic Scott Mowbray opted to grow food in his Boulder backyard. Here's what happened.

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    Spring is here, and so the beautiful struggle that is Front Range vegetable gardening begins again. For me, in a house on a wind-pounded hill east of Boulder, it starts tenderly and optimistically, as it must, with tiny seedlings sprouting under the 6400 Kelvin grow lights in my basement. Then the campaign moves outdoors and progresses, like some sort of Kübler-Ross grief exercise, through the stages of hope, fear, heartbreak, renunciation, and, finally, acceptance, as the proud harvest commences, yielding heirloom tomatoes and weird cucumbers which, factoring everything in, cost me somewhere between 35 and infinity dollars per pound.

    When you don’t rely on the food you grow for survival, gardening is a civvy’s way to intimately experience nature’s violence without too much being on the line. There is always news to report, and you return to the kitchen with details of the latest attack by a gang of starlings, the start of a campaign against spider mites with a soap-based insecticide, or the need for terror tactics such as the deployment of dried pigs’ blood on the ground to frighten the nervous bunnies.

    Each development requires more intel. Some new blight assaults your tomatoes, and off to Google you go, because the wisdom of both crowds and experts is there, along with all the temptations of the military-vegetable complex: fungicides and bug killers (because you must admit that when an entire crop is threatened, you’re tempted to go nuclear with something made by Dow); specialized assault weapons, such as that lovely 14-inch Wilcox All-Pro 202S trowel you’ve been lusting after; and the endless temptations of the long-tail supply chain, especially the heirloom seed company rarities that, before planting season begins, make it seem like a very good idea to grow a 100-pound melon gourd that cooks “like zucchini” or a stripy heirloom tomato that, in my garden, tasted like the tears of the saddest farmer.

    Know this: You are the last creature on the food chain who will make any claim on your labor. You are planting for the rabbits and birds, for the fungi and bugs, and you must be generous with their share as a prophylactic against hypertension. You will be on the alert for “unseasonal” weather, because unseasonal in Colorado is another word for inevitable. If there’s not late frost, then there’s early frost; if not golf-ball-size hail, then winds that rip your pea trellises out of the earth and fling them toward the fence.

    In my field of operations, I am general and grunt, so you’d think I’d be a fanatic for tactics and intelligence. Not so. For a reason that will require Jungian analysis, I cling to the naïve method of the optimist, planting lots and hoping for the best. My research tends to be of the rear-view-mirror variety, as in, “What’s this white stuff on my squash leaves?” (Answer: powdery mildew.) And by the time I learn about the treacherous Golovinomyces orontii, it’s too late. The canopy leaves of the acorn and butternut plants have wilted away, exposing sensitive fruit to the punishing sun. The squash die like a vampire forced into a tanning bed. Better luck next year, buddies. And, important note to self: Don’t plant squash in the same place next year, because Golovinomyces orontii overwinters to rise again!

    Speaking of UV peril, did I click the few keystrokes required to research the importance of hardening off seedlings after sprouting them under my gentle grow lights? I did not. Hardening is a multistage process meant to gradually introduce indoor plants to the harsh rays of the sun. I knew that my lights approximated the sun’s spectrum, but I did not know this is like saying that a birthday candle gives off the same type of heat as the Cameron Peak Fire.

    Unaware, I took my babies outside and immediately transplanted them to a raised bed devoted entirely to growing the sacred red fruit of the marinara and the caprese. (Two other beds are reserved for riffraff like squash, radishes, and carrots.) I could not hear the tomato seedlings’ screams and so, a few days later, had to toss the ruined plants into the compost bin, where a family of resident voles—having tunneled up from the ground into a paradise of rotting splendor—gave me their little version of the middle finger.

    Another blunder along the gardening learning curve was to forget my fifth-grade math concerning volume. For example, let’s say the decorative red pebbly stuff around your raised garden beds is washed away in a biblical storm of rain and hail, and you decide to replace it with a brick path. Let’s also stipulate that you opt to do the work yourself. Did you know that the weight of the compacted clay you have to remove with a pickax to dig a trench that is just a few inches deep could total 3.6 metric tons? You do if you consult the wet-clay weight/volume calculator online. That’s not a part of my rear-view-mirror approach, however.

    When we moved from the town of Louisville to semirural Boulder County, we were not warned that water in the latter is priced as if it were fine wine. The property has an insanely complicated irrigation system whose control panel may have been designed by agents of Kim Jong Un to destroy the last shreds of our national sense of common purpose. Even now, after five years here, I dread a task as simple as changing the sprinkling time. Nor did the system set off any alarm messages when I accidentally programmed it to water all 17 zones of my parched yard at 2 o’clock in the morning, a duplicate watering that sent our monthly utility bill into the same price arena as a first-class plane ticket to the Plant Hunters’ Fair at Whittington Castle in Shropshire, England.

    It’s those Brits, of course, who are to blame for much of the prelapsarian gauze that shrouds the fantasy of home gardening. Just check out Gardeners’ World, a BBC program that dates to 1968. There is nothing more soothing and reassuring than Gardeners’ World; all problems are solved and all things tend toward the beautiful—until it occurs to you that it doesn’t hurt to have greenhouses, world-class expertise, 2,000 years of planting successes, and a climate that inspired Shakespeare to call England “…This other Eden, demi-paradise / This fortress built by Nature for herself.”

    Over here in Hardiness Zone 5B, it is also a paradise, but one with topsoil that hides a subterranean thistle-weed root system that may have inspired The Matrix. And by late summer, the air in my yard will be thick with incoming: millions of seeds that have taken flight from the thistly hill above us. It’s pure Whac-A-Mole out there, weed-wise, and the veggie beds are prime targets for new settlement. I’m tempted to use something organic this year, like Agent Orange.

    By now, you may have concluded that I don’t like vegetable gardening. Not true: I love it, and during quarantine had the time to really get schooled. The heirloom tomatoes were a disaster, but I produced 150 pounds of Early Girls and Big Boys, grown from cheap seeds purchased at Lowe’s. We had two weeks of the sweetest English peas, and a carrot the size of a hiking boot. But as any gardener knows, it is never just about the harvest. Gardening is about the campaign, the battle, and the humbling bliss of feeling like a fool, naked before the armies of nature.

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