Monday, February 18, 2019

New to Colorado? Five Gardening Tips for Success

Photo courtesy Colorado Dept. of Tourism

Welcome to Colorado! Regardless where you came from, you are likely to find gardening in Colorado different than it was in your home state - both rewarding and challenging. It's not too early to start thinking about your Colorado landscape. Following are five tips to help you get started on the right foot. 

Get familiar with your soil. Colorado has 30-40 different classes of soil, and soils can vary immensely even in the same neighborhood. Before you start planting, take time to get a soil test. Colorado State University will analyze your soil sample for pH, soluble salts, organic matter, nitrate nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, iron, copper, manganese, lime and soil texture. The report will include suggestions that relate your results to fertilizer and soil management. There is a cost for this service, but in the long run, it will save you time and money as you create your landscape. Check out the following website for information about soil testing:

Photo courtesy

Once you know about your soil, be prepared to amend it. Soil amendment is a challenge in our semiarid, highly alkaline, heavy clay soils. Adding too much organic matter all at once can lead to the accumulation of natural, soluble salts. A better strategy is to slowly, over a period of years, add small amounts of organic amendments to the soil. Here are some other DOs and DON’Ts. DO: use organic mulches in addition to adding organic matter and minimize soil compaction by adding walkways in garden areas. DON’T: do unnecessary rototilling - it breaks up the soil structure; don’t use unnecessary pesticides; and don’t use plastic mulch.

Pay attention to the microclimates in your yard. A microclimate is a variation of the climate within a localized area, like your yard. Walk around and make note of your different microclimates. Sunny south and west sides will be warmest. The east side of the house is cooler, and may be protected from wind. The north side of the house will be the shadiest, coolest and generally most damp. Dappled shade under trees will support plants that will burn in direct sunlight. Understanding your microclimates will help you put the right plant in the right place.

Photo by Donna Duffy
Manage your turf wisely. Generally speaking, each time you water the lawn, apply enough water to moisten as much of the root zone as possible. With most soils, do not apply all the necessary water in a short period of time. It is typically most effective to apply only a portion of the water, then switch to another sprinkler to water another section of the lawn. This allows water to soak into the soil rather than run off. An hour or so later, apply the rest of the water. Aerating the lawn in the spring and fall will help reduce thatch and compaction. When it comes to mowing, the preferred mowing height for all Colorado species is 2.5 to 3 inches. Mow the turf often enough so no more than 1/3 of the grass height is removed at any single mowing. A great resource is CSU’s Fact Sheet on Lawn Care.

Pulsatilla patens, Pasque flower, photo by Donna Duffy

Go native! Taking a walk in Colorado's plains, foothills or mountains will bring you face-to-face with the diversity of native plants in our area. For the home garden, select native plants that fit most closely with your elevation, soil, sun and water conditions (remember your microclimates!). Most native plants do well with non-native companion plants to produce continuous bloom from spring to fall.

For starters, you could consider these easy-to-grow natives: Penstemon strictus (Rocky Mountain penstemon); Ratibia columnifera (Prairie coneflower), Pulsatilla patens (Pasque flower); Asclepius speciosa (milkweed).  Some native shrubs include Fallugia paradoxa (Apache plume); Chrysothamnus nauseous (Rabbitbrush); and Prunus besseyi (Western sand cherry).

Check out CSU’s Native Plant Fact Sheets for extensive information about native plants, shrubs and trees.  You can also join the Colorado Native Plant Society for workshops, expert-led hikes, native plant sales and much more!