Organic Gardening Colorado Style! Cold Weather Crops
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Organic gardening in Colorado can be quite challenging sometimes. Searching for cold weather crops to add to my garden is somewhat of a hobby for me ( or obsession). I start my search in January or February and usually continue up until spring time. I scour every organic NON GMO heirloom seed catalog I can get my hands on, make my selection carefully and hope that the harsh Colorado winters and spring will let my precious seed give life to what will become a wonderfully cooked meal for my family and some yummy snacks for my chickens. I am a firm believer in having a greenhouse and using row covers. The two are almost a must have in some parts of Colorado. I also use a 4 tier inside greenhouse that I have set up in a sunny window area.
Southern Colorado, where I live, is considered to be a high mountain desert area. We are lucky to have mostly nice sunny days, but also known for our extreme weather patterns in spring (floods, snow) and ice and snow storms in winter.
Let’s Talk Seeds:
Organic, heirloom, non gmo, hybrid..Decisions, decisions, decision! In my garden, I use organic, heirlooms seeds so I am able to save the seeds year after year. A few of my favorite and trusted organic seed suppliers are Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds at rareseeds.com, Annie’s Heirloom Seeds, and Botanical Interests. I tend to go to Botanical Interests most often since they are a Colorado based company and I have never been disappointed in their seeds. It is very important you choose the correct seeds for your organic garden. You want seed suppliers you can trust that do not use any pesticides on their crops. Before selecting any seeds please thoroughly read the “About Us” page on their websites. Once you find the perfect seed supplies, stick with them! My favorite is Botanical Interests. If you click the banner below, it will take you directly to their website.
Hybrid seed is a seed that has two or more different parents resulting in an offspring that is new variety of that plant. These seeds are not sterile but when you plant seed you have saved from a hybrid plant you will get many different varieties of that plant the next year. .
Heirloom seeds are open pollinated which means the seed you save will produce plants that look exactly like the parents (as long as you don’t have any cross pollination which will produce a hybrid seed). heirlooms also have to have a history to them to be considered heirlooms and not just open pollinated. generally heirlooms are seeds that have been lovingly passed down from generation to generation for hundreds or years
I am extremely luckly to live only a few miles from a trusted organic grower at Desert Canyon Farm. I visit their farm every spring when they open to purchase my medicinal herbs and young garden plants to add to my garden. I have never been disappointed with my purchases. They are all Colorado grown and I know I am getting true organic, heirloom plants. See my Amazon favorites to order the owner of Desert Canyon Farm’s book Homegrown Herbs by Tammi Hartung. It is a must have for Colorado gardeners! If at all possible, buy your organic, heirlooms seeds and plants locally, that way you know they are already adapted to your climate and location.
Let’s Talk Compost:
The most important component of your garden soil is the organic matter you add such as leaves, grass clippings, cover crops, coffee grounds, tables scraps such as fruits and vegetables and eggs shells and worm castings. I will be writing a post related to garden compost on my next blog so stayed tuned! So I will keep this area of the blog fairly short and quick. The most important thing to remember is that you do not want to add any organic matter that may have been sprayed with pesticides. The best part is that most herbs are pretty forgiving regarding the quality of the soil, but you want the best nutrients for your plant to survive, thrive and be healthy.
Starting your own compost pile is pretty easy. Here is a link for Composting 101 that is easy to follow and goes into some very specific details to get you on your way. I have been creating my own compost for the past several years and my garden has never been healthier or happier!
Cold Weather Crops:
I usually start my cool weather crops indoors about March and April. I have never used a grow light for my seed starts. I just place the starters near a large sunny window area and make sure they are positioned to get enough sunshine. I reuse milk jugs, small plant pots that I have had for years, egg cartons and pretty much whatever I have lying around to put my seeds in to begin my indoor seed starting.
Below are cold weather crops that I have had very good luck with year after year in Colorado. I will only list early starting seeds and plants below. I do add a light layer of mulch around the young plants for added protection from the weather extremes we have here in Colorado once I transplant them outdoors..
Cabbage& Broccoli – I start the seeds indoors in early March and then transfer them to my greenhouse at the end of April. In early May I will add the young plants to the garden bed. My favorite heirloom cabbage are the Copenhagen heirloom, but pretty much any heirloom cabbage will grow well in cold weather climates. De Cicco Broccoli is a fast growing heirloom variety that has done well in my gardens. Since I am the only one who eats cabbage in my home, I will store the cabbage mostly for my chickens to use through the winter months.
Root Crops – Carrots, Radishes, and Beets. I have always had great success with these plants for my Colorado garden. I will direct sow my carrot, radish and beet seeds in early May, unless we are having a particularly nasty beginning of spring, then I will wait until mid to late May. I have noticed that the carrots I have planted over the years have grown twice as fast and twice as large if I plant them in raised beds instead of directly in the ground. I always plant extra carrots to use for canning to store and eat through the winter. Carrots also store very well in damp sand once pulled.
Spinach, Kale & Swiss Chard: I direct sow these seeds in my garden in late April or early May and have always had great success with them no matter what the temperature is. The Rainbow Swiss Chard or called Five Color Silverbeet is excellent for short season gardening. Bloomsdale Longstanding Heirloom spinach has always been a NO fail in my garden and is a good bolt resistant variety. I have grown kale of every variety and all seem to thrive in my Colorado garden, even through frost and heavy snow. An extra plot always goes in for the chickens to snack on.
Peas: This is my favorite garden food. My husband makes fun of me, because I will eat the peas right out of the garden as soon as they grow large enough and I usually do not share with anyone! I direct sow pea seeds as early as mid or even early March..snow or freeze doesn’t seem to matter with peas in my garden…they ALWAYS grow! You should plant your peas as early as able to give them a good start and try to plant them in an area where they can get some shade during the day. Once the weather gets hot, it seems, my peas anyway, slow down in production. I have always had great success and wonderful flavor with the Oregon Sugar Pod Heirloom pea.
I direct sow all my lettuce seeds at the beginning or middle of May. I plant one plot for me and my husband and one entire plot just for my chickens! There is a huge variety of lettuce types for you to choose from and I found that most all grow well as a cool crop in my Colorado garden. If planted to early I find that they freeze fairly quickly unless you use row covers. Once the heat of summer hits lettuce tends to bolt and turn bitter quickly. I have never had any luck growing iceberg lettuce though, so I stick to the loose leaf lettuce and grow a lot of my favorite butter crunch.
High altitude gardeners should focus on the following herbs, especially if you live in an extreme and fluctuating climate. Most herbs are very hardy but the following have a proven record and success rate for high altitude gardens.
Chives – can be direct sowed early in higher altitudes. Grows in clumps, so it will not spread to other areas of your garden.
Cilantro– I have cilantro all over my garden. Just a slight breeze will scatter the seeds everywhere! I don’t mind since I love cilantro, but you may want to find a way to contain it if you have a small garden area. Very hardy in high altitude climates. Direct sow in April or early May.
Sage – another hardy herb and also used in medicinal remedies for colds and flu. My sage plant tripled in size in one growing season, so if you have a smaller garden, you may want to put it in a container or keep it well trimmed during the summer months. Perfect for dehydrating and storing. I have had difficulty starting Sage from seed in my Colorado garden, so I buy the young plants from a local organic grower.
Fennel – Grows very tall and the smell is wonderful. One of my favorite cold hardy herbs to grow. I planted a plant and have not tried direct sowing seeds with fennel yet. I dry the leaves and use in tea and collect the seeds to add to bread. Fennel is one of the first plants that come back to life in my garden in early spring and has survived several heavy snow storms without any damage. This is a very hardy and forgiving plant and seems to tolerate any soil type. Keep in mind that it does grow to be quite large.
Mint– PUT IN CONTAINER! Mint spreads everywhere and if you aren’t careful it will completely take over your garden. I direct sow seeds in containers and just place the containers around my garden. I keep the plants trimmed throughout the summer. My favorite mint is spearmint. I use both fresh and dried for my teas. There are many varieties and flavors in the mint family for you to choose from.
Rosemary- I decided to try a small potted rosemary plant in a corner of my garden just to see how it did since I have heard rosemary can be quite temperament in cooler areas. It grew to triple in size in one season and survived every season since! I have even transplanted it twice and it just kept on growing!
Now you know that you can garden in a high altitude sometimes extreme climate and have great success. there are many Internet sites that offer education on cold weather crops and I encourage you to do your research. When I first started my Colorado garden many years ago, I did so by trial and error. I learned to slow down, take my time getting just the right seeds and plants for my high altitude climate, build a rich compost pile and then start playing in the dirt!
Below is a seed starting guide for zone 5b. I feel it is also useful for zone 4 & 5, which I am in.