CO-Horts Blog

Monday, March 22, 2021

Tips for a New Garden

By Yvette Henson, San Miguel Basin, CSU Extension

Certainly, success is a harvest of delicious, nutritious, useful and beautiful fruits, veggies, herbs and flowers that we grew ourselves!  However, in more than 30 years of gardening, I’ve learned the most from my failures.  My ‘failures’ always teach me something that helps me become a better gardener.

The main goal is a harvest 

The tips I share in this blog post are my own.   Other experienced gardeners will likely have a slightly different list of things they think are most important. 

First, learn by researching.  Colorado State University Extension has quite a lot of up-to-date research-based information to help you.  Check out our Grow Resources on the Grow and Give website, our Fact Sheet publications on the CSU Extension website, our Colorado Master Gardener Notes and our Plant Talk articles.  When you do an internet search, type in your search terms followed by and you should find information you can trust.  (I am sure you know everything you find on the internet may not be reliable.)  You can also find good information in most seed catalogs, seed packets and some books.  You can call your local CSU Extension office and they will give you even more local resources.  And you can talk with a successful gardener where you live and/or join a community garden. 

Then, learn by doing. This is where the fun is.  The first year I was at university studying to be a Horticulturist, I took Horticulture 101, which was like a ‘basics of gardening’ class.  That summer, I started a garden using my notes from that class as my garden ‘bible’.  It was an adventure to experiment with what I had learned in class. 

I try something new every year- last year it was to grow a radish seed crop.

Following are a few things you will need to research.  (You may even need to research some of the terms I use in this article.) 

Learn about your climate.  Find out your average last spring frost date and your first fall frost date.  This is your average frost-free growing season.   Find out your minimum winter temperatures and your maximum summer temperatures. Understanding your climate will help you make educated choices about which plants may be best suited for your garden and when to plant them.  For example, if you live in a location with a short season and relatively cool summer temperatures, cool season annual plants and hardy perennial plants will do better in your garden.  If you live in a lower elevation with long, hot summers you will do best with warm season annual plants and more heat tolerant perennial plants.  You can find information about your local climate in Colorado Master Gardener notes and on Colorado Climate Summaries website. 

Learn about your soil.  Get a soil test done.  If you include information about what you want to grow with your soil test submission, your results will come with recommendations about nutrients and amendments you may need to add (or not add) specific to your plantings.

Compost is a good amendment- add 1" to soil a year

Observe your microclimate.  Things like sun exposure, slope, wind, buildings, trees, etc. will inform you even more about what you can grow.  This will help you choose the best locations for your garden beds and where you may need to add wind breaks or covers to your beds.

My raised bed garden at 8,400'
takes advantage of a south facing slope (microclimate)
and season-extension covers.

What source and how much water is available to you?  If you have a well, you will need to have your well water tested.  You may need to choose more drought tolerant plants and/or supplement your household water with rainwater or raw water if it is available in your community.  You may even need to haul water. 

Decide if you want to grow in the ground and/or in raised beds.  If you have rocky or clayey soils or do not want to do a lot of bending, raised beds are a great option.  Ask your local extension office about  options to obtain soil to fill your beds. 

Once you have done your research, get started! 

Start small by growing something like
cut-and-come-again lettuce in a container garden.
(In this photo lettuce seed is covered by fabric until it germinates. 
The flat is tomatoes that are hardening off before planting out.)

Do not try to grow all the food your family needs the first year.  To do so will require a lot of time, hard labor, space, and resources.  I personally have not heard of many people, even popular YouTube homesteaders, who are able to grow all their food. However, you may be able to grow enough of your own leafy greens, green beans, squash, potatoes, or berries for a year or two -- just maybe not all at the same time.  These crops are all relatively easy and can produce quite a bit in limited space.  And they can all be preserved in some way so you can enjoy them through the winter. 

Perpetual spinach is a chard with tender green leaves and narrow stems. 
 It produces well and is slow to bolt in the heat of summer.

BUT just because you can grow it does not mean you should.  If you don’t enjoy eating something, why grow that crop?  Or if your climate is not suited to grow something, do you really want to give the extra space, time, effort and expense to try to grow it? 

Is it worth the extra effort to grow these tomatoes
in a short season with cool nights?

Timing is critical.  There is a short window for when you should start seeds indoors and when you should plant outside. I have failed to get a good harvest more because of poor timing than anything else.  Learn from failure. There is always next year to try again.

It took me about 5 tries to grow onions that sized up before going to seed. 
The secret for me was finding a good long-day variety and starting them early inside.  

Don’t forget to have fun and to enjoy the ‘fruits of your labors’.  It is rewarding to grow your own food and beautiful flowers and to share with your family and community.  You may even become one of those people who posts pictures of their homegrown meals on social media!