Our Colorado sun is typically intense, but this year, the weather has been a brutal for June.
That leaves us gardeners and plant lovers wondering what to do. How do you protect those young plants so they don’t shrivel? How can you keep garden vegetables from burning to a crisp? What should you put in the place of cooler-weather veggies that are bolting flowers? We’re here to help.
Colorado has low rain averages, high elevation, alkaline clay soil and drying winds — all of which make it hard for some plants to grow and thrive. Select plants with the high desert in mind. For newcomers to the area, this can be challenging at first. But thoughtful plant selection is a key step. For example, instead of coastal rhododendrons, check out rabbitbrush or serviceberry. Geek out over native plants and their cool adaptations and habits.
Read a “full sun” plant tag with Colorado’s unique climate conditions in mind. Consider the conditions context of the plant tag instructions. Six hours of full sun in the midwest isn’t the same as ours. Non-native or adapted plants that say “full sun” thrive best in morning sun and afternoon shade here.
Connect with specialist nurseries for help transitioning to a localized selection. Harlequin’s Gardens in Boulder specializes in Colorado-adapted and xeriscape plants. Plant Select, a non-profit collaboration with the Denver Botanical Gardens and Colorado State University, finds which plants do best in our Rocky Mountain region by requiring less water, offering more resiliency and disease and pest resistance, are non-invasive and more. On their website, plantselect.org, you can research plants, learn where to buy and find design ideas. Also, Colorado Master Gardeners has a list of native plants for the Front Range, which you can find at extension.colostate.edu.
Change your planting procedure
It’s common to talk about hardening off vegetable seedlings, but if you’re purchasing any plant grown in a greenhouse, hardening will be especially important. It is too jarring for plants to go from cozy greenhouses to the shocking wind and sun of Colorado in one or even a few days, and there’s not a hard fast formula for acclimation. A good guideline is a few hours in the morning sun for about a week at least; some say longer. I’m an inpatient gardener and ready to play in the dirt.
Mikl Brawner, co-owner of Harlequin’s Gardens in Boulder, recommends a couple cool tips. Plant in the evening and soak new plants in a bucket of water before putting in the hole. Try to avoid planting in temperatures over 90 degrees as well.
Maximize your vegetable garden design for our climate. Block planting offers a better alternative to monoculture row planting. Plant vegetables with similar water needs in a smaller space. Divide your area into squares of 3×4 feet or some version around that. As they grow, their leaves will shade the soil.
Water, water and more water
Did we mention water? Even heat-loving plants like beans and cucumbers can get sunburn on their leaves at 90-plus degrees. I’m a fan of early morning watering for gardens and nighttime watering for lawns. There’s less water evaporation, so more goes to in the soil and less is wasted in our drought conditions. With clay soil, too much water too fast equals a fast run off. Do a short, first water to prep the surface, then a longer next cycle to retain and soak deeper.
For example, in a garden bed, water by drip for two minutes, wait, then deep water for a bit longer. A caveat: Container gardens and potted plants need daily saturated watering. They heat up more and dry out faster. Another tip from Brawner is that plants with big flowers need more water; non-flowering plants require less.
Throw some shade
Adding in shade can reduce the risk of sunburn. For Colorado, shade is critical for fruit-setting of tomatoes and peppers. Gardens planted in an area that gets afternoon shade are the most protected, followed by moveable container plants, plants beneath a shade cloth and those with row covers.
Shade cloth comes in percentages of coverage or weight and is permeable and synthetic. Generally 30-50% is recommended for gardens. But here in Colorado, go with closer to 50% coverage to last you a few years, as heat waves are here to stay.
Other options can include DIY or reuse of materials such as nylon netting or burlap. The trick is to make sure it blocks enough, is permeable and doesn’t trap heat. Floating row covers also work depending on your yard and garden set up. Make sure anything used avoids contact with plants themselves. The easiest thing might be to move plants in containers when possible into afternoon shade.
Mulch is your friend
Mulching around plants offers great benefits. A few inches can retain moisture longer, and it can deter or block weeds. Mulch moderates soil temp and protects those top couple inches of soil from heating more. It can even deter garden pests like slugs from getting to your seedlings.
There are lots of mulch options, and some work better for Colorado than others. Some aren’t great for gardens but are good for flower beds. Grass clippings make great, free mulch if you have a lawn, but be sure the lawn is chemical-free. And ideally, let them dry out a day before piling around vegetables to reduce the heat wet grass can generate.
Wood chip mulch is great for flower beds and around trees, but not gardens beds. Check online for neighbors giving away free mulch. I had good luck getting wood mulch after our last snowstorm. Try to avoid using rocks, as they increase heat and can’t hold water. People moving here from other areas might be used to plastic sheeting as mulch. I prefer organic, natural materials for the flexibility, ease and benefits.
I’m a big fan of straw. It’s cheap, serves as a weed barrier and saves water. It also breaks down nicely over time, adding nutrients to the soil. A word of caution, though: Check that you get straw, not hay. Straw is from the lower part of the grain, so it tends to have less seeds sneaking in.
If all else fails
And if all this is just too much, jump on the pandemic trend of indoor plant parenting. Even then, Victor Sosa, owner of The Plant Room in Denver, says to watch indoor plants that are close to windows, which can intensify the heat and sun and cause damage to indoor plants.
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