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  • Larry Stebbins

Growing a Successful Garden in Challenging, Unpredictable Weather

By Larry Stebbins, "The Garden Father"

As a long time gardener I make decisions based on the weather—the short term, day to day forecasts. This is different than climate, which accounts for long-term trends. However, I am seeing a trend emerging– unpredictability. As I have often said in the past, plan for the worst and hope for the best.

"The Garden Father" with fruits of his labor
"The Garden Father" with fruits of his labor

As I look back at our weather this year, there were very cold days at the end of March and in April followed by very warm days. This has got to be hard on perennial plants and trees. Then came the continual rains, which we needed, accompanied by cool, cloudy weather through June. That leads me to what gardeners can do to increase their chances for a bountiful harvest, even when Mother Nature throws a curve ball (like baseball-size hail).

Timing is everything. In late spring, I look at the weather forecast at least 10 days out even though it is still a guessing game. If there are no signs of severe cold I take a chance and direct seed cool season crops; spinach, lettuce, onions, beets, and carrots can go into the garden at that time but they will suffer if the weather turns bitter cold (below 25º F). Seeds are cheap so be sure you have plenty in case of a crop failure. If your seeds don’t sprout, replant. This is an easy fix.

To help these small seeds along, I plant them in a very shallow trench (1" deep, about the width of my hand, and as long as I want), and cover with a 1/4" of fine soil. Then I place a moistened sheet of burlap over the row securing each corner with landscape pins. It is important to gently water at planting and at least daily thereafter. I check regularly and remove the burlap as soon as the seeds germinate. I use this trench-burlap method throughout the season to get lettuce, spinach, and carrots to come up even in the hottest of weather. This cover also keeps these small seeds in place until germination and through most rains.

Backup transplants are also a must. If I want to plant out 5 tomatoes, I start 8 to 10 indoors as a precaution. I have learned over the years not to rush to get out my warm season crops. This year I started extra tomato and pepper plants. When the weather stabilizes, and no frost is forecast, (ten days out, usually mid to late May here in Colorado Springs), out they go. But many of these plants still need further help, which brings us to plant protection.

This season has seen more damaging hail, torrential rains, and strong gusts of wind than I can remember. Plan for the worst weather by building structures for your veggies and herbs. I use three kinds. The first and easiest is a small hoop tunnel, built with three 1/2" diameter by 10' long PVC pipes bent over my 4' by 8' beds. Three additional, horizontally installed PVC pipes (one on top and one on each side) make for a stable hoop tunnel. For cool season crops I just use anti-hail netting, secured to eye-hooks on the sides with mini bungee cords, which allows for ease of entry. Carrots, spinach, onions, beets, and some lettuces don’t mind the cool but do need protection from hail.

Hoop tunnel for peppers with long-lasting Dewitt UV protected row coverPHOTOS: Larry Stebbins
Hoop tunnel for peppers with long-lasting Dewitt UV protected row cover PHOTOS: Larry Stebbins

For peppers and cucumbers, I use the long-lasting UV protected row cover, Dewitt 1 oz row cover deluxe, spun bound polyester. The one con is that it has only 65% light transmission. It has worked fine for these two plants but may not work for tomatoes. You can also try Agribon 19 row cover, which has 85 % light transmission, offers some protection from cool weather, and allows rain to pass through. It does not do as well as Dewitt with severe hail. Be prepared to have extra row cover on hand and store it away in the winter months.

Bird's eye view of Larry's garden structures
Bird's eye view of Larry's garden structures

Last is the larger version of the hoop tunnel for my tomatoes. Since all my varieties are indeterminate (vining type) I need the extra height. I may have to connect an 18" piece of PVC to each pipe to get that necessary height. It still is installed over my 4' by 8' garden beds. The top is covered with two panels of corrugated polycarbonate (27" X 8'). The largest hail just bounces off these panels. The end panels are clear polycarbonate cut to allow ventilation along the top. All these are screwed into the PVC. The side panels, that can be rolled up for extra ventilation and harvesting, are 6 mil UV treated clear greenhouse grade plastic. I have been reinstalling the same plastic side panels for over 10 years and hope to get another five out of them. My tomatoes do so well under these hoops that I only have room for two per bed.

To sum up, most of my garden is hail protected, and all the warm weather crops are covered for extra warmth and from strong gusts of wind. For those that want a more modest approach, you can use a one gallon milk jug with the bottom cut off for small single plants like one head of lettuce. Other than growing everything in a climate controlled greenhouse these methods seem to do the trick.

Larry Stebbins is a botanist, author, radio host and educator who has taught organic gardening classes to thousands of gardeners. He founded Pikes Peak Urban Gardens and under his guidance, over 12 new community gardens were built in the Pikes Peak region.



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