How, What, Why?

One short week ago we had our seed starting party. A lot has changed in that week. Seeds into nice little plants. Winter into spring (or so it seems). Many people asked how I decide what to plant in pots, what in seed blocks, what in the ground. So here is how, what, why… a bit about the method to my madness, I mean, gardening. I know the title is out of order but I’m going to start with whatHow seems to need some background and I’m not even sure I can answer Why.  : )

What do we do.  We grow food in urban yards.  We start seeds indoors (and some out of doors) early in the spring.  We nurture them until it is safe to put them outside.  Sometimes we’re wrong on the timing; sometimes we’re not.  But how do we decide?  We start with a basic assumption that there are “cool weather” crops and “warm weather” crops.  Cool weather crops are the those that are likely to make it through a late spring snow (as long as it doesn’t sit on them for days.) and cool night temperatures.  Warm weather crops are those that are unlikely to survive night time temperatures below 50 and definitely can’t tolerate a freeze.  Most cool weather crops (peas, lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, beets, carrots, etc.) can be planted directly in the ground and still make it to harvest before winter.  So many of those are put on “seed tape“, planted directly in the ground and are not started indoors.  While some seeds can withstand short durations of cold temperatures, their grown is inhibited outside wo we prefer to start them indoors, to give them a head start before they face the outdoor weather.  With many of these seeds, we make newspaper pots, fill them with soil and keep them indoors under lights until they have reached a more sturdy size and the weather outside is more welcoming.   We do this with chard, broccoli and kale.

Warm weather crops (tomatoes, peppers, eggplant) are not only unable to withstand the cool temperatures but also need a little more time than our Colorado summers have to reach their peak of production.  Therefore, we plant them indoors and keep them indoors until all reasonable danger of frost has passed.

How do we approach this daunting task?  Given the guidelines laid out above, we then look at the locations and the calendar.  For our spring plantings everything is driven off of the “last frost date”.  Forty-seven (47) years of weather data tells us that in the Denver metro area, there is an 80% chance that it will not frost past May 12.  This is why you will frequently hear that you plant warm weather crops on Mother’s Day.  If you’re a risk taker, there’s a 50% chance it won’t frost past May 2.  For planting fall crops, plantings are driven off of the “first frost date” or the earliest it is likely to frost killing our warm weather crops and slowing the growth of our cool weather crops.  Armed with this information, I prepare a Gant chart laying out the number of days a particular crop takes to mature, when the last frost date is and how far in advance of the last frost I can plant it either outside or in.  The Gant chart not only tells us when to plant but it helps estimate when crops will reach maturity.

In addition to the Gant chart telling us when to plant I also have a complex spreadsheet laying out estimated yields (based on previous years actuals) per plant.  Using the yields and quanitity desired, the spreadsheet calculates how many of each crop we should plant and how much space this will require.  Then using data from past years experience and current soil tests we plan what to plant in each garden.

All this and we haven’t even planted anything outside yet!

Which leads me to why.  Obviously I don’t do it because it makes fiscal sense – I’ve spent all this time without even selling a share.  Or because it’s easy.  I do it because I’m driven to eat good food.  And the only thing better than eating good food is sharing good food. 

-join me.


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