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Raise your garden beds to get plants growing

I’ve been stuck in a predicament.

All this moisture is such a godsend after months of dryness in 2017 and 2018, and when you live (and try to grow things) in a high elevation desert that typically receives 20 inches or less of precipitation every year, you should count any moisture as a blessing.

However, I like baseball. I coach baseball, and even though I love those kids, they aren’t always playing at their best, so we need as much practice as we can get. We are going on two weeks of rain-outs and soggy fields, and I’m tired of it.

And really, a little bit of warmth and dry weather may pay dividends in the vegetable garden, as we can be challenged in these cool, wet stretches to get our plants up and going. Seeds and transplants are just like many of you: They don’t like it when it’s cold. They can also just sit there and do nothing, waiting for it to get nice.

If you have ever taken the Colorado Master Gardener class from me (believe it or not, exactly 300 of you have!), you know that I preach the premise that if you have (or build) a healthy soil, you will have healthy plants. And since many of you are blessed with a clayey soil, which tends to hold water longer than sandy soils, you probably know that wet soils stay cooler longer.

So here is my secret to success: Add organic matter to your garden every year, and if possible, raise it up. Adding 1 inch of animal-based compost or 2 to 3 inches of plant-based compost every fall and mixing it in every spring will slowly increase your soil’s organic matter content. Organic matter can increase the pore space in your soil, allowing water to move at an even pace through the profile.

The next step is to create beds that are higher than the existing soil. This can be done by building raised beds with almost any material (don’t use treated lumber or railroad ties) and even clay can hold a shape pretty well without any support. If you raise the height of your garden beds, then the water tends to move faster through the soil profile (same premise as increasing organic matter). So our soils, which dry themselves before they warm themselves, will heat up more quickly in the spring. And for our early crops, such as lettuce, peas, carrots, beets, etc., this is key.

Seeds germinate at certain temperatures and germinate more quickly at higher soil temperatures. For example, lettuce will sprout at 35 degrees; however, it will typically take about 20 days to do so. Even when the weather is similar to what we’ve had this spring, increasing the temperature of your soil 10 degrees will cut that germination time in half. Carrots, which are notoriously finicky, will take 51 days to germinate when soil temperatures hover around 40 degrees, but if you are able to dry the soils quickly and wait a bit, they can take only 17 days when soil temperatures are at 50 degrees and 10 days when soils reach 60 degrees.

But remember: Our growing season can be quite short (some years it can last only 100 days), so instead of waiting for the soils to dry (and then warm), speed up that process by raising the bed.

Darrin Parmenter is the director and horticulture agent of the La Plata County Extension Office. Reach him at darrin.parmenter@co.laplata.co.us or 382-6464.

Darrin Parmenter