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Soil moisture may stay cold

I had the pleasure of being born and raised here in Durango – back when the family could fulfill all its shopping needs in the Town Plaza (Safeway, Montgomery Ward and TG&Y), Main Avenue got pretty sleepy in the wintertime, and Bula Britches and DTW backpacks were all the rage with middle schoolers.

So with all the talk about how epic this winter has been, I hearken back to the years when, well, they all felt like this. Now, my perspective may be skewed, as I was under four feet tall for a portion of those years, so everything may have looked bigger. But I do remember jumping off the roof of the house into snowbanks, sledding down Crestview Drive, and that distinct odor of wet snowpants, nowhere-near-waterproof mittens, and those snowboots with a drawstring all in the grade school cubbie.

But over the past 15 years that I have been back in my hometown, those type of winters seem to be exception rather than the norm. All of this snow has pushed our patience, tired our backs and shoulders, and occasionally pushed us to look at long-term rentals in southern Arizona. And even us gardeners, who love to praise the snowpack and soil moisture, look at the garden daily to see if any of that snow has melted off yet. In any given year, I feel comfortable with an April 1 date for seeding some of our cold season crops like spinach, peas, or lettuce, as long as the soil temperatures are above 45 degrees. However, this spring, that soil may still be frozen, under feet of snow or even too wet.

A soil will put almost all of its energy into drying itself before it warms itself. And clay soils, which predominate in our area, have smaller pore spaces between their particles, so water drains at a much slower rate. These wet soils will stay cold, or cool, for much longer than a dry soil, and this issue can wreak havoc on the early-season garden. If the soil stays wet, then it stays cool, and all those garden processes – seed germination, root growth, reduced nutrient and water uptake – remain is stasis and not much happens.

Take carrots, for example. They have a penchant for being slow to germinate, if at all. I am sure seed companies field numerous emails every year about “faulty seed” that they are selling, but I would put that fault with the seed-planter, not the seed-grower, nine out of 10 times. If you plant carrots when the soil temperatures are at 40 degrees, it will take, on average, 53 days to germinate. That is ridiculous and is a failed planting in my estimation. I will have given up on that crop way before that. But if you wait until the temperatures reach 50 degrees, that germination time is slashed to 17 days, which is typical of carrots and what you would read on the seed package.

A simple (ish) solution to getting your soils to dry, and then warm, is to raise them up. A mere six inches can greatly decrease that amount of time. As an in-town gardener, I don’t have a ton of space, so I love the raised beds. Made out of (untreated) wood, metal, or even rocks, you can build a bed pretty cheaply. And really, a soil made up of clay and some organic matter will hold its form as a “bed,” even without the side support.

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.