In the Garden:
Western Mountains and High Plains
March, 2011
Regional Report

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A homemade cloche can be easily covered with plastic sheeting to jump-start the fruiting season.

Jump-Start on Spring

Spring is often slow to arrive in the Rockies. If it isn't raining in March, then it's likely that it's snowing. March can be one of the snowiest months and and all that white stuff can disrupt gardening activities.

Despite the short growing season in many parts of our region, we can cultivate a wide variety of vegetables and fruits. I've learned to work around cold temperatures and soggy, cold soils that delay gardening by selecting the right kinds of plants and preparing to nurse them along with techniques that create microclimates in the garden. Even if you live in a milder climate, I'll share some ideas that will help you jump-start spring.

Don't feel you need to wait until Memorial Day to plant a garden. Capitalize on the early season by growing plants that prefer cooler temperatures and wetter conditions. You can sow seeds or set out transplants after the last hard frost (around May 7 where I live). Light frosts won't set them back, and the spring moisture can help smaller seeds like carrots and onions to germinate more quickly.

Onions, radishes, peas, carrots, beets, spinach, Swiss chard, broccoli, bok choy, lettuces, parsnips, potatoes, and arugula can be sown directly outdoors in mid to late April. Cool season vegetable transplants can be set out too, including cabbages, onion plants and sets, broccoli, lettuce, parsley, and leeks.

Cool-season flowering annuals, including larkspur, calendulas, bachelor's buttons, pansies, violas, sweet peas, alyssum, stock, Shirley and peony poppies, do better when planted in early spring either from seeding or transplanting.

Poor drainage and wet soils will delay plantings, rot seeds, and drown seedlings. Creating raised beds will improve drainage and allow the soil to warm up sooner as the sun can hit the edges and top of the growing areas. You can build permanent raised beds with wood frames or simply pull up the soil into a raised mound.

Stretch the growing season by using cold frames and various kinds of cloches. Whether made of specially designed wooden boxes or simply constructed from straw bales, cold frames can easily be covered with a glass or plastic top. Place them in the garden to protect and speed up early crops of greens, root crops, and lettuces. I like to utilize cold frames to help in the hardening-off process for warm-season seedlings destined for the garden.

The larger, upright transplants such as peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, okra, and others are better suited for cloches. Traditional cloches are bell-shaped covers placed over individual plants. Hot caps, homemade plastic gallon jugs, water-filled protectors, and solar cones are a few modern versions of cloches.

Experiment with different techniques to see which ones will help get the season off to an earlier start. You won't be able to fool all vegetables though. Tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants belong in the warmth of the greenhouse when it's snowing outside.


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