Planning, Planting & Preserving the Colorado Kitchen Garden
By Sara Stewart Martinelli:
There’s something incredibly satisfying and rewarding about growing your own food and preserving it for the winter. At times like these, there are many reasons to start and cultivate your own kitchen garden.
First and foremost, it’s an environmentally sound practice that brings you in tune with the rhythms of nature. We’ve become accustomed to global commerce and think nothing of watermelon in January or strawberries in March. Our food today travels halfway across the globe, using countless natural resources in its route. Food waste is also at an all-time high.
Homegrown food is organic, fresh, and nutritious; growing it is healthy and fun. The physical act of gardening is good for our bodies and minds.
Lastly, we’re currently seeing a global food shortage. Between the pandemic, import restrictions, and now the effects of war, food prices are skyrocketing to unprecedented highs. Growing your own can drastically reduce your grocery bill.
The Colorado Front Range is a unique ecosystem posing some unusual challenges for home gardeners. There’s a very short window to transplant seedlings started indoors due to our wildly changing weather patterns, especially in late spring. This makes planning especially important.
Review: The most important part of the planning process is to sit down and list the foods you and your family eat. As experienced gardeners will advise, don’t grow lots of kale unless you really love kale!
Research: Next, visit a seed catalog online with your list in hand, (don’t get sidetracked by all the other options!), and gather the following information:
How to plant. Should you start indoors and transplant? Or directly sow into the soil, and when?
Where to plant. Be sure to determine the best conditions for the plant. Does it need full sun, part shade, full shade? How much water? Do you have easy access to water
How much space does it need?
How tall and wide will it be?
How much does it produce and when? Seed catalogs usually give rate of germination and the number of days until harvest.
Record: When you choose your garden location record the types of soil, water availability, and sun time. Watch throughout the day and record where the sun hits at what time. Map out your garden, using the movement of the sun and other information you’ve gathered to insure a healthy crop. Use this planning time to prepare garden beds, amend soil if needed, and add any hardscaping. If you are planning to lay drip lines or sprinklers, it’s efficient to do this before planting.
It’s time to plant! For those that are appropriate, start seedlings indoors. This is where you may need restraint as it’s easy to become overwhelmed and overplant. Consider how much and which methods (described below) you’ll use to preserve the harvest. Planting a full tray of tomatoes will likely be far too much for your family. For plants that continue to produce throughout the season, consider succession planning (planting a few each week) so the harvest is spread out over many weeks. Some plants, both summer and winter squash for example, will produce heavily; a single plant may provide enough for the whole year.
Preserving food has been done for centuries and there are entire books devoted to topics like making jam, pickling, or preserving. It can be a true art form and by all means you should dig in. For an easy start, try one of the three simplest ways to preserve your bounty.
Freezing: A useful tip is to freeze in individual portion sizes. To process tomatoes, cut into quarters and freeze in quart sized Ziplock freezer bags in amounts you might need for a base of a soup, marinara, or chili. They defrost more quickly and it reduces waste. Many vegetables can be frozen without losing nutrients though some textures may change. You can also process fruits or vegetables into sauces or soups and freeze that way.
Drying: Many herbs are easily dried and far superior to store-bought. Try to dry and store the plants in as whole leaf form as possible to preserve essential and volatile oils (which give it flavor). Crumble just before use. A few sprigs of an herb (3-5) tied with twine and hung to dry will fully dry in about 2 weeks in our Colorado climate. Dehydrating is another method and in some cases can be done without a dehydrator.
Storing: Winter squashes, some fruits (like apples), onions, garlic, and potatoes can last for months if stored properly in dark, cool places.
Tips and Tricks
Most vegetables tend to be annual, but many herbs and fruits are perennial. Plan your garden so you can rotate crops in the annual area, but leave the perennials to provide year after year.
Schedule time in your garden. With busy lives, it’s easy to be too busy when you need to harvest & preserve your food. Put harvest dates on your calendar to mentally prepare and help from feeling overwhelmed.
Create your own shade. Colorado is higher with hotter sun than the rest of the country. When directions say “full sun”, they rarely mean our hot, cloudless, dry, sunny days. Put up trellises, shade cloth, or plant trees or hedges of sunflowers to offer some protection during the day.
Watch early season weather carefully and be prepared to baby your plants as needed. Between snow, hail, and early season freezes, being ready to cover plants could be key to saving your crop.
Sara Stewart Martinelli is a certified herbalist and professional tea blender. She owns five restaurants in the Boulder area and an organic farm where her family grows organic produce for their restaurants and their own use. To learn more, visit www.threeleaffarm.com