Gardening in Pagosa The battle for the bounty

Gardening in Pagosa Springs has a reputation for difficulty, but with a few tips from locals and smart plant choices, you can have a bountiful garden from planting through harvest.

Don Heitkamp is in his 33rd year of gardening in Pagosa Springs. His daughter Elly recently moved back to Pagosa Springs and helps her dad with the garden that is located on Snowball Road. Already, one group of their plants, the Japanese Pearl Onions, look like large chives and were towering above the other rows of seedlings that barely poked out of the ground. The pearl onions grew in little round clusters near the top of the tall, narrow leaves. The Heitkamps explained that the plants already well out of the ground were the crops that come back every year: asparagus, onions, garlic, and horse radish. The horse radish plant that Don pointed out was large and bushy.

“It’s a perennial,” Don explained, “and it’s pretty hard to get rid of.”

In the early hours before I met with Don and Elly, the temperature had been below freezing. The morning air after sunrise was crisp and cool, and the soil in the garden was soaked from watering.

“If you know a frost is coming, you should turn on the sprinkler,” Don warned. The water protects the plants from freezing temperatures that can damage or kill the young plants. It is widely known by gardeners in Pagosa Springs that the threat of frost can occur through mid-June. The date is based on an average and changes yearly. This year’s date for last frost is June 19.

Many a newcomer to the area has been lulled into thinking that once June’s warm weather comes, their gardens are safe, only to find their freshly planted herbs and vegetables lost to an early morning freeze.

To protect plants that are especially susceptible to freezing temperatures, the Heitkamps encircle many seedlings with scrap pieces of PVC pipe. In addition to protecting from frost, the pipe also provides shade to keep the intense sun from burning the new leaves.

Another patch of their garden was covered with burlap strips. Elly explained that the strips covered carrot seeds which are planted shallow and can dry out quickly. The burlap keeps the ground moist while the seeds are sprouting, and also protects the new seedlings from frost.

Don and Elly said they follow the Farmer’s Almanac to determine planting dates. Root vegetables can be planted earlier (they will remain below ground until after the threat of frost is over), and the above-ground vegetables were planted from seeds the first week of June. Elly pointed out the lettuce rows that were coming up in two stages. An early batch planted in May was already several inches tall and was nearly ready to start picking. The second batch, planted a few weeks later, was much smaller and barely out of the ground. The smaller lettuce plants would make it through a frost that could kill the larger leaves. Staggering the harvest into two plantings helps cut losses from frost damage.

The Heitkamp garden includes beets, chard, corn, broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, cabbage and asparagus, chives, basil, dill, and six types of squash.

Tomatoes and peppers have not been planted, but are scheduled to be in the ground soon. Elly has prepared beds for the pepper plants by burying pots in the soil against a south facing wall that receives full sun. She started the peppers indoors and will soon transplant them into the larger pots in the ground.

“The plants are easier to water and stay moister when they’re down in the ground,” Elly explained. “Plus, when the frosts come this fall, you can pull the pots out of the ground and bring them inside at night.” For now, she brings the peppers out during the day to acclimate before they will be planted outside after the last frost date of June 19th.

Another local gardening enthusiast, Julie Simmons, learned the hard way about leaving pepper plants outside during a spring frost.

“A friend told me that peppers getting damaged by frost was an old wives tale,” Julie said.

She had been bringing her pepper plants indoors at night, but instead decided to leave them outside. She pointed sadly to one of the pepper plants — brown, wilted and looking to be beyond the point of perking up. She now brings the remaining pepper plants indoors each night.

Julie starts her vegetables indoors from seeds each year, following the package directions for our local zone. Located in downtown Pagosa Springs, her garden consists of three rectangular boxes in her back yard, as well as two plastic buckets for potatoes.

This year is her first attempt at growing potatoes, which she got from the Archuleta County Extension of Colorado State University. According to Bill Nobles, the Extension Agent, planting potatoes in the same area year after year may lead to disease and insect problems. With a small yard to work with, Julie’s potato buckets can be emptied and re-filled with fresh soil each year.

Her early crop of hardy seedlings that won’t be harmed by freezes was already coming up in the soil that she had mended using compost, peat moss and fertilizer. Rising over the top of one of the garden boxes is a large trellis that she just completed from wood and string. It will serve as a climbing ladder for beans and peas, as well as help the large squash blossoms stand up.

In addition to the vegetables, Julie’s garden also boasts thyme, dill, oregano, parsley, basil, cilantro, lavender, chamomile, sage and hops.

“Between my husband and my parents, we had a good harvest of herbs and vegetables last year,” Julie said. The harvest included enough tomatillos for 12 pints of salsa.

Living in a downtown neighborhood, Julie said she doesn’t have a rabbit or deer problem. But, the same cannot be said for the much larger Heitkamp garden located a mile from town.

“The fence needs to be eight to ten feet high to keep the deer out,” Elly suggests. “A deer can easily jump a 6 foot fence for fresh produce.”

The Heitkamp fence also has a lower piece of corrugated steel that surrounds the garden to keep out rabbits. Remaining inside the garden fence, however, are “thousands and thousands of worms working the soil,” Don says. The worms love the three inches of fresh manure that he works into the soil each year, as soon as the ground is dry enough.

“There were enough worms in the garden to earn Elly a plane ticket to Florida when she was in sixth grade,” Don joked. “At five cents a piece,” Elly added. She earned the money by selling the worms to a local sporting goods store as bait.

In addition to planting from organic seeds that Elly picked up from a grower in northern Colorado, the Heitkamps also get seeds and plants from local friends and neighbors. Don pointed to a healthy patch of garlic plants, which he fondly referred to as “Mrs. Brown’s garlic,” from longtime Pagosa Spring’s resident, the late Faye Brown. After being seeded the previous fall, the results are small but hearty garlic cloves with an intense flavor.

If you don’t have a connection for local seeds and plants, Nobles recommends buying varieties made for our area with short growing periods.

“Plants with long growing periods just don’t produce here,” he explains.

When purchasing small plants, Bill recommends looking for smaller plants that aren’t too tall and “leggy,” a sign that the plants are old and possibly root-bound, which makes them harder to introduce into new soil when transplanted. He notes that nursery plants that have been transplanted into larger 1 gallon or 5 gallon pots will probably be fine.

“Buyers can ask where the nurseries get their plants,” Bill adds. “Some plants come from far away and aren’t right for our growing conditions.”

Most local gardeners will agree that a discount plant may save you money up front, but the extra yield you get by paying more for a well-acclimated plant will make up for the cost difference in the long run.

When asked what advice would be most important for new gardeners in Pagosa Springs, Bill, Julie and the Heitkamps all answered the same: remember the last frost date of June 19! Keep an eye on the weather forecast. If your plants aren’t in pots that can be brought indoors, wetting them before a frost will help keep the plant temperature above freezing. Plants close to the house, including flowers, can be covered with sheets or cloth to protect the fragile leaves and blossoms from damaging frost.

If you are interested in joining a gardening group, the Mountain High Gardeners Club meets at the Extension building the third Wednesday of every month.

For more information on planting in Pagosa Springs, speak to a neighbor with a good garden, stop by your local nursery, or call the County Extension Office at 264-5931.

Photo courtesy Natalie Carpenter
Julie Simmons has learned some valuable lessons with her downtown Pagosa Springs garden — including how to avoid the ravages of late-season frost. Here, she tends some hops and parsley growing next to her home.

Photo courtesy Natalie Carpenter
Don Heitkamp and his daughter, Elly, tend a large garden at a location on Snowball Road using good sense gained from experience, plenty of low-tech techniques, and the Farmer’s Almanac in their yearly quest to produce a plethora of produce.