Gardening in the West: A Little Help from Jane Shellenberger
We recently spoke with Jane Shellenberger, publisher and editor of the regional gardening magazine Colorado Gardener
(now in its 15th year) and recent author of Organic Gardener’s Companion: Growing Vegetables in the West
(Fulcrum, $24.95, ISBN 978-1-55591-725-8) about the challenges and triumphs of organic gardening.
Jane is a lifelong eclectic gardener who first learned about plants from her botanist mother, and her new book guides both veteran and newbie gardeners through growing the best fruits and vegetables in the semi-arid, high-altitude West. The book is written in Jane’s accessible and humorous style, and also features vibrant color photos from her own gardens.
Fulcrum: How long have you been gardening organically and why should one follow such methods?
JS: I’ve always gardened without using poisons. It just seemed like common sense, especially when it comes to edibles. I don’t have a strong desire for controlled perfection. The ever-changing, transitory nature of gardening is what makes it interesting. I’d rather have a garden that attracts life any day than a sterile, insect-free plot. There are far more beneficial insects (and fungi and bacteria) than there are pests, and you usually can’t kill one without harming the other. Food that’s grown organically also tastes better, is more nutritious, and doesn’t pollute water or harm soil. In fact, building soil is one the satisfying pleasures of organic gardening. If gardeners step back and view their yards and gardens as part of a much larger whole, they’ll better understand the importance of gardening organically. The collective negative effect of each person using “just a little bit” of toxic pesticide can be huge, and likewise, an interconnected network of many individual organic yards and gardens can create a safe haven for many pollinators and other critters that once had a place to survive in the wild.
Fulcrum: What are some of the unique challenges of growing vegetables (or gardening in general) in the West?
JS: Most western native soils are lean; plus, we have many more sunny than rainy days, so supplemental, regular irrigation is a must. Drought recurs at regular intervals. Even when it does precipitate during the growing season, it often comes all at once or, even worse, as hail that violently pummels the garden. Then there’s our intense UV light at high altitude, coupled with drying western winds that suck all the moisture out of plants. Nights are often too cool for warm season vegetables like peppers, while summer days can be too hot for cool season broccoli and salad greens. Mountain conditions are even more extreme, with very short growing seasons. Some knowledge of which varieties can survive or thrive in the West will come in very handy. Did I mention deer?
Fulcrum: What vegetables are good “starter” veggies for those of us who have limited/no gardening experience?
JS: Cool season greens like arugula, chard, mustard greens, chives, and cilantro are great crops from seed for beginners. Garlic is super easy but best planted in the fall. As long as temperatures don’t get too hot, I find broccoli is always a winner — and delicious! Plant it early (March or April) from seed or starts and keep it mulched. Broccoli likes our bright light and cool nights, and keeps on producing lots of side shoots after you harvest the main head. Zucchini is a relatively easy and very productive warm season vegetable. It needs warm soil to get going, so wait until temperatures are consistently above 50 degrees at night before planting.
Looseleaf “cut and come again” lettuces like mesclun mixes are simple to grow. They can be trimmed for eating and will continue to grow for months. Bronze Arrowhead and Deer Tongue are very slow to bolt in hot weather and don’t turn bitter like some varieties. There are many, many varieties to try. Seed catalogs and seed company websites can be a wealth of information, especially those located in the West. If you’ve prepared your beds with good soil, everything will be easier to grow.
Fulcrum: What should gardeners in the West be doing right now to prepare their gardens and planning for growing season?
JS: It’s been dry and windy in January, which isn’t atypical. That’s why I like to cover my vegetable beds through the winter with dried fall leaves and hay mulch to keep the soil from drying out and blowing away.
Now, while it’s still wintery, do some research on varieties by reading seed catalogs and talking to gardener friends. Decide what you’d like to grow and where, how you’re going to water, and what you plan to use for mulch. Sketch out a plan for your garden to help yourself get organized. Even if you don’t stick to it, you’ll learn something during the process. Buy some seeds.
If you haven’t already prepared your vegetable beds by adding chopped-up leaves, compost, and other organic materials, pick a warm day and start now so you’ll be ready to plant when the time comes. Water the beds afterward to help the soil microbes and earthworms start the breakdown process. If the process seems overwhelming, get some help. Gardening is more fun and more productive with a friend. If you prefer to work a community garden plot, call your municipality or organizations like Denver Urban Gardens
and Pike’s Peak Urban Gardens
to reserve one now.
Thanks, Jane! Happy gardening, everyone!