How to Grow Your Own in Colorado – Urban Garden Ideas
Plant Aid is committed to changing the way we farm so that we can all work together to save our planet. We know that farming used to be a collaboration, a labor of love to feed the population, and something that was passed down from generation to generation. When mega farms and corporations took over, we lost a lot of the meaning behind farming and gardening – the love of feeding people, and the knowledge that was accumulated by learning from the earth. We want to change that, so we have started interviewing incredible people who are growing food, regardless of the size of their operation, and we’re sharing their urban garden ideas with you. Hopefully you will be inspired by Jenny, just like we were, to go outside and start planting that garden! As Jenny says, “don’t be intimidated by a lack of space to grow in…When it comes to gardening, start small with something you love.”
PA: Is your farm/garden/homestead related to your job? If not, what do you do professionally?
JC: No, it is not related to my current job. I work as a Culture & Operations Manager for a gourmet cracker company in Denver, CO.
PA: How and why did you get into gardening/homesteading?
JC: I majored in TV Production with a minor in Food Science with the ambition of working for the Food Network. I was lucky enough to spend the first few years of my career doing exactly what I went to school for but soon realized that this was not my passion. I left my career in production to work on an organic farm in Tampa, Florida where I was paid only in veggies for the first year I was there. It was a great way to learn about sustainable agriculture and figure out what I am most passionate about – food. My grandmother taught me the basics of cooking and food preparation but she also stoked my curiosity when it came to food preservation, herbal remedies and doing things “the old fashioned way.” Since that first step away from my initial career path, I have worked steadily in the food industry in one way or another for the past decade.
PA: How long have you been growing food?
JC: I have been growing food for the past 10 years but only in the last 5 years have I been lucky enough to have a homestead of my own to grow food, flowers and medicine on my own property.
PA: Where is your garden located?
JC: We have an extra large urban lot just northeast of downtown Denver. We have all the amenities of living in a big city but are lucky to have a green space to cultivate and reimagine as an oasis that provides food for us year-round.
PA: Do you have previous experience in growing food? Tell us about your background!
JC: I have always had an interest in gardening, food preservation, self-sufficiency and handcrafts. I’ve worked on several urban farms over the last 10 years, farmers markets, an organic fruit and vegetable cannery and as a personal chef.
PA: Tell us about some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced with your garden and how you overcame them.
JC: The biggest challenge for us in this space has been cultivating the soil. Our neighborhood is a former super-fund site and our property had not been well-cared for over the years. As we’ve dug around the property for various projects, we’ve uncovered years of trash that we’ve had to remove. As we work to bring the soil back to good health around the property, we are growing our food in raised beds to control the quality of the growing matter. We have been challenged by the hot, dry climate in Colorado, pests and have made plenty of mistakes along the way. My husband is an engineer and I am a problem solver by nature so we have faced all of these challenges as opportunities to learn and grow. We are lucky to have various growing sites all over our property and strongly believe in diversity so when something isn’t working out in one location or a particular crop fails, we try it somewhere else but always have plenty of food and flowers growing to make up for any issues we face. The internet and countless books on urban farming have been immensely helpful as we try, fail and learn from our endeavors.
PA: Can you share some of the best urban garden ideas you’ve had along the way?
JC: The key to gardening, particularly organic gardening is observation. You need to walk around your garden and really observe your surrounding every day to see if there are any issues that you need to address. Most problems are easier to deal with when they are small and just emerging, be it pests, irrigation, fertilization, etc.
In Colorado, we have a particularly dry climate and often have watering restrictions. We’ve always deeply mulched our garden beds (typically with straw) to keep the moisture in and the soil cooler during the very hot summers. We’ve had great luck with DIY slow-watering systems like the Plant Nanny that holds inverted wine bottles in place for constant moisture.
Composting is key and we have a 3 bin compost system as well as several passive compost systems built into our garden beds. Feeding the soil and the soil life is the absolute most important thing you can do as a home gardener and it’s not difficult at all. If there is one thing I would tell all gardeners to do, it would be to set up your composting as soon as possible!
When you are starting your garden, think about what you really love and what makes sense to grow, particularly if you have limited space. Think about the input vs. the output and decide if it makes sense to grow or not. For example, growing a head of cabbage takes months, more than half of the growing season and at harvest time, you have only one head of cabbage. But, when you grow Kale, you have a plant that you can harvest from for most of the growing season continuously. Things like corn are very labor intensive and require an enormous amount of water to grow but are relatively inexpensive to pick up from your local farmers market in season so I would skip that! We grow proven plants that do well in our climate (like tomatoes and peppers) but focus on varieties of these plants that are not readily available or are very unique.
Whenever possible, grow a variety of your favorite vegetable in an unusual color that is more vibrant. These are typically a more nutrient-dense produce and also more fun! Purple, black and deep red plants in particular are very high in anthocyanins so try to grow purple peppers, beans, cauliflower or red carrots and lettuce rather than their green counterparts for a healthier option!
Do not underestimate the value of flowers in your garden. They are essential for pollinators, can act as “trap crops” and can even be an edible produce that you can harvest as well. We always interplant flowers with our fruits and veggies to add a pop of color, bring beneficial insects and a more diverse plant in the beds. Marigolds, zinnias, nasturtiums, chives, and pansies are all excellent additions to your garden and work harder for you than veggies do.
Finally, don’t be intimidated by a lack of space to grow in. I’ve grown food on small balconies in pots and on large acreages. More space is great but it’s also more work. Start small, even if you have a lot of room to work with. If you have limited space, container gardens are fantastic and dwarf varieties of your favorite veggies and fruits are perfect for these types of space. If you plant in containers, pay close attention to moisture levels and location to make sure you’re getting enough sunlight.
PA: How do you navigate gardening with unpredictable Colorado weather?
JC: If you can garden in Colorado, you can garden anywhere but really every climate has its own challenges. In Colorado, you must pay attention to the weather every day to make note of temperatures and extreme weather like hail, strong winds or unexpected spring or fall snow. Know that if you garden here, you will inevitably have a year when things just don’t go right but rest assured, you are not the only one! Growing here can be challenging but once you know what to look out for, it’s less frustrating.
PA: Tell us about your bee project!
JC: Pollinators are so important – we must not be afraid of bees (or really any of the insects that we share our space with). We built a “bug hotel” this spring to accommodate solitary bees and other beneficials. This bug hotel is for bees that do not live in a hive with a colony – there are more solitary bees than social bees! Creating a beautiful and beneficial habitat for solitary bees means we have plenty of pollinators in our gardens who make sure our veggies can set fruit. It’s also fascinating to watch the bees work around our property.
PA: Give us some of your best advice to aspiring gardeners and homesteaders!
JC: When it comes to gardening, start small with something you love. Know that it is a lot of work to tend to your garden so starting out small reduces the stress and allows you to get the hang of what you need to do before you have a big project on your hands. If you’re just getting started, buying plant starts from local farms or garden centers is a great way to start off on the right foot and it means you don’t need to start your seeds in late-winter!
Read, read, read! If you want to be a great homesteader or gardener, you will never stop learning, improving, changing and tweaking your techniques. There is always room for improvement and the opportunity to, “work smarter, not harder,” is a goal you should have in mind at all times. If you are short on time for extensive reading, YouTube is your best friend for quick information and guidelines.
Social media is a great way to get more urban garden ideas and to stay connected with other gardeners, homesteaders and creators. Join gardening groups in your city or state to stay connected with others in your region who may be helpful (or need your advice). Joining a pest and weed identification group on social media is also a great way to passively learn about these things that will pop up!
If you do nothing more than plant flowers on your property rather than grass, you are doing more for the environment than you can imagine!