New to vegetable gardening? We’re here to help!
A group of experienced CSU-Denver Master Gardeners answered the call to help new vegetable gardeners plant and grow their first gardens. These tips cover most of the basics for the best chance of success growing fruits, vegetables and herbs this season.
Their advice covers how to get your garden started, what to plant, when to plant, where to plant, how to care for your garden and a primer on growing tomatoes.
John H. Ashworth, Master Gardener since 2014, shares his thoughts on various veggies that do well in Colorado vegetable gardens:
Radishes are the ideal crop to start with, especially if you get your kids involved. Radishes emerge very quickly, even in cold soil, and are ready for eating in 30 days or less.
Carrots can do well here, but can struggle if you have heavy clay soil in your garden. Before you plant in clay soil, mix in a healthy dose of play sand and mix in well. This will allow the carrot roots to grow down without extensive use of a garden fork for cultivating. Plant the shorter, stubbier carrot varieties, Nantes and half Danvers, if you have heavy soil.
Basil seeds can be started indoors under lights or in a sunny window, but DO NOT plant them outside too soon! Wait until early to mid-June. Basil grows well in containers — I plant ten basil plants in a large pot and get enough to make pesto all summer long. Be aware that Japanese beetles love basil, so pick the beetles off the plants early each morning.
Tomatoes are heavy feeders and like rich soil. Add compost and fertilizer (either well-rotted steer manure or a balanced chemical fertilizer) to the planting hole. Fertilize every few weeks. Because our climate is dry and lacks humidity, some tomato varieties, like large beefsteak tomatoes, tend to split open prematurely. Instead, try Sungold cherry tomatoes, Early Boy or Early Girl varieties, or any of the heirloom varieties such as Brandywine, or the Eastern European varieties such as Black Krim or Polish paste tomatoes.
John’s final piece of advice: Above all, have fun!
Mary Carnegie, Master Gardener since 2002, is also the Garden Leader for the Denver Urban Gardens (DUG) Park Hill School garden. Her top three tips for new gardeners are concise and to the point:
1. Be willing to get your hands dirty; stick your finger in the soil to see if plants need water.
2. Know the “safe” planting dates; don’t plant too early. (CSU Extension’s Vegetable Planting Guide can help with planting dates.)
Rikki Hanson, Master Gardener since 2014, says something that stuck with her as a beginning gardener is that “Colorado gardeners do it for the challenge. Lucky for me, I like a challenge.” To meet that challenge, she advises to start small.
1. Start with a few veggies that you enjoy eating. Have a mix of things that grow quickly and slowly, that way you can enjoy the fruits of your labor sooner while you wait for the big-ticket items. Radishes and lettuces are great fast-rewards foods.
2. Make a plan for watering: early in the morning or after 6 pm. This is especially important when you have seeds and seedlings. We have a very dry climate that lends itself nicely to mulch.
3. Find the joy in your own plot of Earth. Vegetable gardening is something to be enjoyed and to help you destress!
Jill Fielder, Master Gardener since 2012, is happy to share her trio of tips:
Tip 1: Many vegetable plants need sunlight to grow sturdy and strong. Planting sun-worshiping vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and eggplants in less than full sun (about 6-8 hours of sun) sets one up for heartbreak. Tomato plants aren’t going to be vigorous and productive in 3 or 4 hours of sun no matter how much you will it. If you don’t have adequate sun in your space, choose plants that will thrive in partial sun (3-5 hours) such as lettuces, chard, spinach, scallions, kale, beets, Asian greens and radishes. In Colorado basil, thyme, chives, mint, oregano and parsley grow beautifully with just morning sun.
Tip 2: Find a place for bunching onions or scallions (also called Welch onions, spring onions and green onions). These onions are super easy, speedy and fun. They can be grown from seed or slender starts from the nursery. Choose the customary white variety or scoop up the pretty deep red ones if you can find them. Plant in mid spring and you can eat the greens during the summer (snipped into eggs, stir fries and salads) and harvest the whole onion plants in the fall. Left in the garden, they’ll usually overwinter.
Tip 3: Start seeds for ruffled, loose leaf lettuces outdoors early, even if there will likely still be frosts and maybe snow. Lettuce seedlings are remarkably tough. Depending on the lettuce variety, leaves can be ready in 40-55 days. Don’t let your precious garden space go unused in the spring!
Elizabeth Gundlach Neufeld, long-time gardener and Master Gardener since 2017, reveals her 8 tips for tomato growing. These are the key points she wishes she would’ve known years ago when it comes to planting tomato seedlings:
1. Choose seedlings that are strong and relatively straight.
2. Harden off all seedlings for a good week after purchasing. “Hardening Off” means leaving them outside, in a sheltered location, with little exposure to the elements. Be sure to water the seedlings to keep moist before planting.
3. When ready, plant tomatoes in a trench. Cut off all the leaves and small branches EXCEPT for the top 2 inches. Plant the rest sideways in the trench. Those fuzzy little hairs on the stem will become roots! Planting the tomatoes more-or-less horizontally will produce greater numbers of roots and lead to a stronger plant.
4. Here’s the hard part. For the subsequent 3 weeks, remove ALL the flowers. Doing this allows the plant to spend its energy producing a strong root system. I sometimes compare this to humans in the following way: Although, say, young teenagers may be physically possible to bear children, they are not ready to. Similarly, the tomato plant needs to mature in the ground before producing tomatoes.
5. Pinch off all ‘suckers’ in indeterminate varieties. Suckers appear in the crotches of the tomato branches and can harm the overall plant by weakening the main stem.
6. Stake or cage the plants! Because you’ve trench-planted and picked the blossoms, the main stock will be thick and able to support many more tomatoes.
7. Water tomatoes ONLY at the bottom at soil level, trying not to wet any leaves. Keep only moderately moist. They will likely not need watering every day.
8. Enjoy the harvest!
A big thank you to John, Mary, Rikki, Jill and Elizabeth for generously sharing their hard-won secrets to vegetable-growing success.
Of course, Master Gardeners are available to answer specific questions through the Denver Master Gardener Helpline at 720-913-5278 or email denvermg @ colostate.edu. Also, please take a minute to review the list of Free CSU Extension Spring Gardening webinars and our new Grow & Give program.
By Jodi Torpey, Master Gardener since 2005
Photos provided by each gardener