A small adventure in gardening

posted in: Gardening, such as it is | 7

I’ve gardened successfully in other places I’ve lived—especially the Northwest and New England—and I grew up in the Midwest, where dirt was dirt and manure was plentiful, especially in a family that owned a few hundred (older-style) Holsteins. In all the years I’ve lived in Colorado, I’ve made efforts at gardening and have only about a ten percent success rate in the changes I’ve attempted to make. Our soil is clay (impenetrable when dry), water is scarce, and heat beats down in the summer (except usually when hail is falling, although sometimes we get the heat and the hail simultaneously).

What’s worked okay here: Mexican evening primrose; Russian sage (which the bees adore . . . we need to be careful opening the car door on that side of the driveway); a few roses (the Louis Gimard is my daughter’s; the Autumn Damask is mine; our ‘The Fairy‘ bushes are very willing, even here); the lilac; a spirea; junipers. My daughter’s creeping phlox comes back for more abuse by heat and drought every year. Despite more sun than they’d like, the sweet woodruff and creeping thyme show up again every spring. I think last year’s catmint is still there, but I’m not sure about the yarrows yet. The rock roses came back. The blue flax is weedy but benign.

(Also weedy and not benign are the officially noxious plants, bindweed and thistle, which a serious organic gardener suggested attacking with poison; I continue to remove them manually, which is really boring).

We’ve got two crabapples, one of which was here and one that volunteered in not-the-greatest location, but it was happy and the positioning was not totally impossible so we left it.

There’s a small area of the back yard, right behind the garage and almost under the deck, that has a bit of shade. The mints are happy there, and for years we have snipped mint and chives (less enthusiastic but recurring) for cooking. The lamium’s okay back there, and so’s some of the hyssop we’ve planted. The irises sometimes like it here and sometimes don’t. It’s a challenge to keep the grasses from invading their space.

Up front again, the true oregano (that I got as a start from an Italian friend and at-the-time co-worker whose plot was overrunning itself) is ecstatic with its dry spot next to the driveway and we just let it take over. We have one well-established sorrel plant growing between a couple of pavers. Its predecessors were planted in the garden, but got weeded out by a helper one year.

What’s failed: berries (raspberries, gooseberries, strawberries), other herbs, other perennials I’ve liked that are supposed to be okay here, including most of the penstemons (which are reputed to be comfortable in our climate and soil), and even the state flower, the columbine. The two birch-like trees that were here when we arrived should probably be taken out. They’re ailing sadly. I’d like to replace them, perhaps with a linden or a honeylocust that would give us more shade during the summer. Then again, I give them credit for persevering at all . . . and replacing trees, even smallish ones, is beyond our budget right now. So they continue to limp along.

You’d think with steady trials over years the yards, front and back, would not still look about 75 percent neglected.

I don’t have much money or time to put into this effort, but I do miss having a garden that feels like a garden. I feel like a wuss for not having been able to get what I consider the minimal gardening results together in this locale. I’ve been here a long time. I’ve read about xeriscaping and visited demonstration gardens. The gardening prospects haven’t gotten more appealing with the years. This combination of soil, precipitation, climate has almost stumped me. If I could build raised beds and fill them with good dirt and compost, I think I’d have a chance. But that takes a both money and time to set up.

Nonetheless, yesterday we bought:

  • Three tomato plants at the farmer’s market: one each of Cherokee Purple, Sun Sugar, and Husky Red
  • Two basil plants, one regular and one Thai (more basil to come; we can never have enough basil . . . or garlic, but that’s another topic)
  • Three 14-inch plastic pots (plastic to conserve moisture) for the tomatoes
  • Three 10-inch plastic pots for the basil (because there will be more basil later)
  • Three tomato cages
  • Potting soil (because the dirt in our yard isn’t dirt)

The farmer’s market gardener we got the tomatoes from had a lot of heirloom varieties and it was really hard to choose. He described his varieties well, but we’ve been eating the store varieties so long we don’t know how to tell what we might like: more or less acid? sweeter or less so? color? shape? "Homegrown" will probably cover our requirements for now. We decided on three radically different types of tomatoes by almost random guessing. There’s a purple heirloom that’s supposed to have great flavor, a yellow cherry tomato that should be abundant and very sweet, and an all-around red tomato for sandwiches and tabbuli and the like.

We will also be getting:

  • Additional basil
  • Marigolds, and something to plant them in

I remember from somewhere in the recesses of my brain that basil, tomatoes, and marigolds look pretty together and the combination does something about keeping pests at bay.

This is primarily my daughter’s project, although I’m pitching in with some of the investment in pots and plants and a lot of encouragement. We both love real tomatoes. And we envision batches of pesto frozen in small containers to get us through next winter.

The pots are now on the back deck where we can see and enjoy them. They have good dirt in them (because it’s not from the yard). The challenge we’ll have is making sure they get watered daily because the pots will dry out faster than the ground (or maybe not, since the ground is almost always dry).

A wonderful friend who has acquired much wisdom in her travels and gardens beautifully in Colorado suggests that we get some water-holding polymer crystals and work them into the soil around the plants’ roots. That’s on the list for tomorrow. She also says to stay small in our efforts (very welcome advice). She has some suggestions as well for next year, which I look forward to implementing.

That thought is predicated on success this year. Here’s a picture of hope:

Webtomatoes1017

(Yes, the dirt in that front pot has become deeper since the photo was taken . . . we had to get another big bag of soil. And yes, the plant also rose within the pot so the "deeper" part is down where the roots need to be able to expand.)

Anybody who feels inspired is invited to send us good gardening thoughts.

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7 Responses

  1. Cathy

    Good luck! You are welcome to come out and see my gardens anytime. I have the same soil.

  2. Nancy J

    I highly suggest you tie the tomato cages to the rail. Also, feed your plants…fish emulsion or whatever someone more organically minded than I might suggest. The potted plants need food with their water.

  3. Joanne

    Cathy’s gardens (and spinning) are worth seeing! Now, on to cheap gardening tricks…compost. Do you compost already? If not, start your own compost pile, and make rich soil on your own. Those tea bags, coffee grounds, and veggie leftovers should go somewhere good. #2. Bags of composted manure or a friend with animals…Either is inexpensive or free. You can actually buy a bag of composted manure, rip it open, and plant in it. Not ideal for greens you’d eat raw, but ok for most everything else. Cheap, and a slow and steady way to improve your soil and whole garden over the years. As you probably know, friends with horses, cows, or camelids are worth cultivating for this reason. 🙂 #3. Small is good. Work on nurturing those tomatoes at a small level, even consider a bit of shade for them on occasion, if the sun and dry weather gets to be too much. I will be rooting for you! (pun intended!)

  4. Deborah Robson

    We’ve got compost, and the tie-to-deck instinct, thus reinforced, will be allowed to take over. The deck railing is on the downwind side of the pots, so with ties in place everything should be pretty stable. The tomato cages are currently wrapped, as well, to reduce some potential wind damage and maybe temper any hail we get in the next little bit, until the plants get used to their pots and reach their roots out into the new soil.

    I just came home from the greenhouse with the marigolds!

  5. Kris

    I’ll bring you down some of the pre-composted goodies from up here. The tomatoes and basil and marigolds will adore it, and it actually helps retain a bit of moisture.
    The polymer beads are available in bulk over on Mulberry…
    Another trick is to put pebbles in the top of the pots, to help slow evaporation. Cover the soil with pebbles, and they keep the soil warm and retard evaporation!

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