Let's face facts. Many Wyomingites have tried to garden but have failed. Blame our extreme weather, difficult soils, scarce water and hungry critters. Growing vegetables here can be disheartening to say the least.
My advice? Toughen up.
Now is the time to renew your relationship with gardening. There are few things more satisfying than working in the soil, watching your crops grow, picking them from the vine and enjoying them with your family.
So get started. The following vegetable-growing strategies will get you a bounty of harvest.
Plan your patch
Most veggies love the sun. Knowing that, find a place in your yard that faces south with minimal shade. The southern exposure provides the maximum amount of sunlight as the sun moves east to west. This is where you will want to plant your warm season crops such as peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash and sweet corn.
Make sure you plant the tallest crops towards the north and your shortest crops towards the south. Sweet corn is usually the tallest, so plant it on the north side of the garden. Squash is short and spreads out, plant it towards the south.
These heat-loving plants should not be planted until late May, after the danger of frost passes. Sorry to the folks in Afton, Jackson, Pinedale and Laramie: The danger of frost throughout summer will require you to provide insulation on these vegetables. Try row covers, cold frames, even a blanket to keep them from getting nipped by the cold.
Love thy shade
Not all veggies need sun. If you haven't done so, plant your cool-season crops now. With these, you can have a bountiful supply of greens and most greens don't need huge amounts of sunlight. As their name implies, cool-season crops love the coolness of spring, and by planting them in partial shade, you will keep them cool and happy.
Some common cool-season crops include lettuce, spinach, sweet peas, beats and carrots. Remember you can plant these again in August as the days begin to cool. These are good crops the folks in Afton, Jackson and the other cool towns.
Raise the beds?
Raised beds are exactly that -- raised. They are often simply made with landscape timbers or two-by-fours. Most people then buy soil to fill them.
Raised beds provide two advantages over ground gardens. One, the soil within a raised bed will warm more quickly because of its increased surface area. This favors our warm season crops. Two, it is far easier to bend over to weed or harvest your vegetables.
A tip to new raised bed enthusiasts: Don't build a bed wider than four feet across. As you walk around your raised bed, you'll never have to over extend your reach.
An advantage to in the ground gardening is you already have soil in place. Granted, it may be covered in lawn grass before it's turned into a garden space, but most people have lots of ground to work with.
Work the soil
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Remember, fertilizer is not plant food, but it is essential for maximum production. Fertilizer comes in so many different forms it can be overwhelming even to me.
You can go organic or man-made, the plants won't care. A good rule of thumb is to get a balanced fertilizer. That means nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) are in close relation to each other. The numbers on the fertilizer products represent N,P,K as a percentage. Look for numbers such as 10, 10, 10 or 15, 15, 15. Follow the directions as described on the package.
If you are a sweet corn enthusiast remember that corn loves nitrogen. Give corn twice as much nitrogen, so your fertilizer should contain 20 percent nitrogen and 10 percent phosphorus and potassium.
Amending the soil means adding organic matter, the elixir of life for the soil and plants. Aged cow manure, grass clippings and fallen leaves will do the trick. In sandy soils, organic matter slows water evaporation. In clay soils, it opens the soil allowing for more oxygen. Organic matter improves the tilth of your soil.
Whatever you do, don't add sand to clay soil or vice versa. You will have made cement, soil that is so hard it will take a jackhammer to break it apart.
Supplying too much or too little water is a problem for many folks.
If planting by seed, water to only the first inch of soil. You may have to do this once a day until germination.
As the plants begin to grow, water for longer periods to get deeper penetration into the soil, but water less frequently. As the roots grow even deeper, water to a maximum of 12 inches into the soil. You will need to probe the soil to see how long it takes to get to twelve inches, but once you figure it out, the time will never change.In the heat of summer, you may need to water three times a week.
For transplanted crops, such as peppers and tomatoes, start watering to four inches into the soil. As these plants begin to grow, water to 12 inches. If possible, irrigate as farmers do in furrows -- or canals around your garden plants. This keeps water off of the leaves and reduces disease caused by too much water on the plants themselves.
Control the critters
In Wyoming, we have to protect our gardens from bears to deer, from rabbits to antelope.
The best method is exclusion. By that, I mean a fence that keeps out unwanted animals. Think Fort Knox.
For deer, consider a fence that is eight feet tall. For rabbits consider a woven wire fence. For antelope just be sure they can't crawl underneath the first wire (antelope almost never jump fences).
If fencing is not in your plans, there are chemical products available that will discourage critters from feeding on your tender veggies. Be religious with their application schedules.
Grasshoppers are going to be a big issue again this year. Take advantage of your Weed and Pest District Office to get advice on controlling these critters early in their lifecycle when they are not a nuisance and can be easily controlled.
Look here each week for Grow WYO, a column devoted to gardening in Wyoming’s sometimes tricky climate. Tom Heald is a University of Wyoming Extension Educator. You can contact him at 307-235-9400 or firstname.lastname@example.org.