Compared to other parts of the country, Gunnison County has a relatively short growing season. But according to local organic gardener Jan Scheefer, there are ways to protect crops in your vegetable garden against variable spring weather.
I met Scheefer at her home in Gunnison on a sunny day in May. We were there to talk about gardening, but she insisted on making me a lunch of locally grown veggies. I didn’t argue. She served a hearty gypsy soup with big chunks of carrot and green chilies cooked with cheese into a sort of cornmeal pancake.
When we finally get around to business, we start from the ground, with the soil.
“Ok so the soil in the Gunnison Valley is on the alkaline side,” says Scheefer, “So we don’t add a lot of wood ash.”
Good soil additives are what you may think – homemade compost, manure from local ranches – and some that may surprise you.
“Squirrel mulch! That’s found under the big pine trees where the squirrels take apart the cones and they eat the seeds, and then they drop the outside of the cone. That’s really good for the soil because it’s a little bit acidic. You know pine, pine needles, you know anything that falls. But no twigs. Twigs don’t really break down.”
Scheefer turns excitedly towards me like she’s just remembered something crucial.
“Leaves are really great, we forgot to say leaves! Aspen leaves, crab apple leaves but not so much cottonwood leaves…”
Jan’s Belgian Shepherd Gretel circles her as we tour her greenhouse, her garden beds, and rows of starter plants ready for customers. She says gardening in this climate means growing things that can withstand or even thrive in the cold.
“All the greens. All the roots. All the brassicas, which is cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli and kale, and brussels sprouts…”
With temperatures still falling into the thirties at night, Jan protects her Spring bounty with frost cloth, essentially lightweight porous blankets. She calls the frost-cloth a season extender, like a greenhouse.
“You can plant as soon as the snow melts and the ground has warmed up. . . And you can cover those seeds and it will come up under the frost cloth, and you leave the frost cloth on all the time. You can even water right through it.”
“I have enough frost cloth I could cover everything in my garden if I need to. If I hear that it’s going to snow, or even if it’s going to be a big hail storm, I can go out there quickly and just cover everything. And even if it snows three or four inches – or six inches –it’s probably going to be ok because it’s protected.”
Jan even says she uses melting snow piles to water her spring plants.
Jan had a lot to teach me that day, between what to grow, when to grow it, and how, I realized that there was just too much for one story, so expect to hear more from Jan this summer on KBUT.