5 Ways To Master Your Colorado Summer Garden, From Testing Soil To Battling Beetles

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Photo: Purple garlic Larry Stebbins garden
Garlic from Larry Stebbins' garden in Colorado Springs.

Gardening is fun, but fickle. That's true whether you're a veteran green thumb looking for new ways to give your raspberries some TLC, or a total novice wondering where to start. Invasive pests, drought and Colorado’s changeable weather conditions don't making it any easier. So Colorado Matters spoke to Colorado State University master gardener Loni Gaudet to answer our growing questions and concerns.

1. Test Your Soil (It's Easier Than You'd Think)

Soil testing reveals a lot about our gardens. The results will cover soil texture, pH level (Colorado is typically pretty alkaline) and what nutrients are already in the ground. Testing is crucial -- you’ll learn how to best fertilize and water your garden and improve the soil before you even begin planting. Otherwise, you could end up with plants that are all leaves and no fruit or a variety of other garden troubles.

You can mail in your soil test to CSU Soil Testing Lab and they’ll send back your results. The lab test costs $35. You'll want to send a representative sample that reflects your entire bed, so mix soil from all corners of your garden and follow the directions from the lab. The soil lab will also give you recommendations for the best fertilizers and other treatments to use. Test your garden yearly, as soil will change.

2. Pick The Best Vegetables For Your Colorado Garden

First of all, know your climate. Colorado, and even the Front Range, are home to a variety of environments. Then, when you're selecting plants, start with what you want to eat and will enjoy growing. Onions and garlics always grow well in Colorado. Kale, chard and other lettuces grow well in cooler seasons, while green beans, corns and squashes favor warmer weather. Gardening in the high country is different -- there's a shorter growing season, so plan on bringing your plants in earlier or starting them inside.

3. Master The Art Of Battling Beetles

Japanese beetles are an invasive species that have been found in Colorado in the past decade, and they're here to stay. The timing of the insecticide application is crucial. When introduced to the soil at the right time, nematodes are effective at killing off the grubs. The CSU gardening website has a full list of insecticides and a guide to the lifecycle of Japanese beetles.

4. Cool Down With Your Yard's Help

It may seem like the easiest and most logical way to cut water use on your property is to just rip out your lawn and lay down rocks. But that’s not always the most effective tactic. Gravel fields hold onto heat far more than a lawn. You can and should still be conservative in your water use during the drought, so consider letting your bluegrass lawn go dormant during the summer. It’ll come back to life in the winter, and still absorb heat in the meantime. Buffalo grass is an option that requires less water. If you do have rock landscaping or choose to install it, plant shade trees. Kentucky coffee trees provide filtered shade, are drought tolerant and have beautiful golden leaves in fall. The burr oak is a large tree with heavier shade than the Kentucky coffee tree, and is also drought tolerant.

5. In Order To Garden Confidently, You Have To Take Chances

Gardening is like an experiment and often the best way to learn is to not be intimidated and give it a try. To let go of your fear of flora failure, you may have to kill a few tomatoes. And green beans. And herbs. Sometimes the only way to learn the best way to garden is to make a few mistakes your first few seasons. Go straight to the dirt, and don't be afraid to ask for help.