Plenty of planting can be done in Colorado Springs region now
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Itchy green thumbs can find relief in April.

Colorado Springs weather normally is accommodating enough for gardeners to plant cool-weather vegetables, such as lettuce, spinach, peas, potatoes and radishes, and edible perennials including strawberries and raspberries.

Seeds and some plants can go in the ground over the next few weeks, for a late July harvest and possible second summer planting, said Larry Stebbins, founder and executive director of Pikes Peak Urban Gardens.

The nonprofit founded in 2007 educates people about gardening, operates a "learning lab garden" at Harlan Wolfe Ranch, holds gardening workshops and builds community gardens.

Stebbins, known as "The Garden Father," recently announced that he will retire from the organization May 31. Barbara Gibb will be the new executive director.

He will hold his last organic gardening seminar at 10 a.m. April 28 at Horace Mann Middle School, 1001 E Van Buren St. Tips for growing "warm-season veggies," such as tomatoes, peppers and corn, will be the focus. More information and registration is available at ppug.org.

Gardeners who didn't prepare their plots in the fall with soil amendments can do so now. But stay away from fresh animal manure, Stebbins warns. Bagged manure that's been cured will be all right, but fresh manure won't have time to break enough and can harm plants.

Stebbins' favorite recipe for amending soil: For each 4-by-8-foot bed, work 4 cubic feet of composted cotton burr mulch to a depth of 8 to 10 inches, add 2 pounds of Yum Yum Mix, an all-natural fertilizer blend, and 2 to 5 pounds of worm castings. The latter, essentially bagged earthworm poo, is optional but recommended. The products can be found at local gardening shops.

Stebbins also recommends designing your garden to include pollinator-attracting plants, such as bee balm, oregano, chamomile, yarrow, fennel, dill or coriander. Monarch butterflies love the tuberous milkweed, for example, and medicinal comfrey is a bumblebee magnet.

Tips for cool-weather crops

- Strawberries: Plant at crown 15 days after nighttime temperatures stay above 28 degrees Fahrenheit. Soak roots in lukewarm water for a couple of hours before putting in ground. Pinch off first blossoms and remove all runners in the first season, or your plants will be stunted. Keep 1 to 2 inches of mulch on strawberry patch year-round, but don't cover the plants. The Mara Des Bois species, available at such local nurseries as Summerland Gardens and Good Earth Garden Center, are yummy, Stebbins says.

- Raspberries: Plant in early spring, either bare-root soaked in lukewarm water one hour before planting, or potted plants. Dig an 18-inch trench for plants, space 2 feet apart, add good compost and keep moist. Boyne raspberries are best, Stebbins says.

- April is for asparagus, with Jersey all-male varieties and Martha and Mary Washington good for this region. Select large roots and soak for six hours in a fish- emulsion solution before planting in a mound or trench. Spread out roots and cover with 3 to 4 inches of soil. Harvest when spears are as big as your little finger, Stebbins says, which probably will not be the first year.

- Beets: Wait 15 days after nighttime temperatures stay above 28 degrees F to plant. Detroit Dark Red and Burpee's Golden are Stebbin's favorites. Leaves can be eaten as greens. Mulch to prevent sun-scald on leaves. Don't let flower.

- The Brassicas (cabbage, broccoli, kohlrabi, kale, collard greens): They like cool weather and moist soil, so poke holes around plants for water absorption. But they need protection at first with bottomed-out milk jugs or Wall-of-Water. Remove protection in early June. Stake broccoli, three sticks per plant.

- Carrots: Don't overplant these small seeds. Thin with scissors. Don't pull shoots because that can damage nearby plants. Spring varieties include Mokum and Ya Ya, which can be harvested in the first week of July. Then plant Sugarsnax carrots for early fall harvest. Plant in trenches 1 inch apart. Prepare rich, loose soil and mulch with burlap until germination, which can take up to two weeks, then remove the burlap.

- Lettuce: Buttercrunch and most Romaines do well in the Pikes Peak region. Plant 2-foot-long rows in trenches every two weeks for a continuous harvest. Pick leaves above soil when young and tender; start from outside and work inside. Never let the soil dry out, as it turns the leaves bitter.

- Radish: Plant radish on top of carrot trenches in spring, and harvest when tender to avoid sponginess. Try Bier, French Breakfast and Cherry Belle varieties.

- Onions: Buy onion sets, with Candy yellow, Red Candy Cane Apple and Superstar White being sweet, and Copra a pungent, long-storing yellow. Plant 6 inches apart and mulch with grass clippings. Pinch off flowers. Watch for onion root maggot, which eats roots and turns bulbs mushy. Pull and dispose of infected plants. Plant aromatic herbs as a deterrent, or spread ground oyster shell on top of plants.

Onions can be harvested at any stage, but the longer they are left in the ground, the bigger the bulb. When tops fall down, they should be harvested. Dry on a rack for one week before storing. Cut off tops and place in cool area. "If juice runs out, they're not ready to be stored yet," Stebbins says.

- Peas: These are one of the few seeds that can be crowded to hold each other up. Gardeners also can trellis vines. Sprout seeds in a jar prior to planting by soaking overnight, then rinsing twice daily until seeds sprout. Douse with pea innoculant (a nitrogen-fixing bacteria) for a bigger harvest and plant immediately, 1 inch deep.

- Potatoes: Buy seed potatoes from a nursery. Red Norland, Yukon Gold, Russet and other varieties are good for this region. A week before planting, place in a bright, warm window. Dig narrow trenches 1 foot apart, and cover the potatoes with 3 inches of soil. Never cover leaves, but mulch around the base.

- Spinach: Dig a deep trench, and plant seeds in the base. Pat seeds and sides down, mulch lightly and keep moist during germination. You can use burlap strips, from a fabric store or coffee roaster, as mulch. But remove them as soon as seeds germinate. Try Tyree seeds for tender plants. Replant and harvest through September.

Plants need food when they start to grow, but fertilizing can be stopped after plants flower, Stebbins said. Avoid using salt-based fertilizers, with ingredients such as sulfate, chloride and phosphate.

Finally, try organic solutions first to address pests. Inspect the garden regularly for intruders, and use gloved hands to pick them off. Spray with a mild soapy solution, and introduce ladybugs, praying mantis, lacewings or beneficial nematodes. If necessary, use commercial pest control sparingly, and avoid spraying flowers.

And happy spring planting, Stebbins says.

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