You there. Step away from the tomato plant.
Oh yes, I’m talking to you. We’ve had some warm days and it’s tricking your brain into thinking it’s summer. Or maybe you’re worried that because the stores put out all those glorious pepper plants that it’s time to plant.
It’s not. Not quite yet.
In Colorado, the saying goes that you don’t plant before Mother’s Day- thanks to the risk of cold temps and spring snows (as we’ve experienced this year, it’s good advice). But after years of gardening here, I would edit that advice to add that you shouldn’t plant your summer garden until June or until the evening temps are consistently in the mid-50s.
Definition of a summer garden: warm-season veggies and fruits like tomatoes, peppers, melons, and squashes. Think of those quintessential summer cookout foods like juicy watermelon. If you’re still pulling on the layers when the sun goes down, it’s too cold for these plants, too.
If you’re truly itching to get some things in the ground, check out these recommendations for starting to garden with kids, especially the best colder-weather crops you can start from seed.
And as you wait for the nights to warm up, here are some summer gardening tips:
Choose your plants wisely, and go local.
Go for plants instead of seeds if you can afford it. You can start your tomatoes and peppers from seed now, but it’s slow growing. Give yourself a head start and less of a headache and get strong, healthy starts. Your kids really won’t mind, I promise- you still have to water seeds and starts regularly.
Buy from independent, local garden shops rather than the big box stores. Not only are you supporting local businesses, you’re also getting more regional-specific plants that will likely be more successful for you in the long run. Garden stores like Phelan Gardens on Austin Bluffs, Good Earth downtown, Summerland Gardens on the south side, and Rick’s on the west side grow their crops in their greenhouses on site, picking varieties that do well in our climate. I can’t say that is true of the big box stores where many of their garden center employees are seasonal employees who may not know much about the plants. (I say that because the last two times I bought there, the cashier kept asking me, “what’s that?” when it was a pretty obvious choice with a tag and a sticker on the pot!)
Be patient with your plants.
Especially if they’ve (hopefully) been in a greenhouse to stave off the cooler night temps, it can take them a while to adjust. Warm-season veggies like tomatoes are stunted by temps below 55 degrees, and we are often much cooler than that well into June. So buy later, and you’ll actually do better. I promise.
Planting in pots (rather than a raised bed) has its advantages.
You can move the plants around as needed (inside for rough weather, or next to the house for additional warmth, or out of the baking sun if they’ve been in a greenhouse) to ensure they grow well. However, pots should be roomy to allow for proper root growth. For tomatoes, the pots should be tall and wide just like the plant itself!
If you or your kids really want to try seeds -these vegetables are quick growing, do well come June, and prefer to go straight into the ground rather than be transplanted: zucchini, summer squashes, cucumber, and beans.
Here are some summer veggies and fruits that grow well in pots… and some that don’t.
GIVE IT TO ME, BABY:
- Zucchini and summer squash
IF YOU LOVE ME, SET ME RIGHT IN THE GROUND:
- Melons (they tend to ramble)
- Raspberries (see the rambling above)
- Corn (too tall, and you need a lot of it to pollinate itself)
- Cucumbers (they need something to climb)
- Vining squashes, like pumpkins (they send down other feeder roots, so they won’t be happy to be so contained)
Always, always, always be water wise.
Don’t plant too far away from your water source. Most summer veggies and fruits are thirsty plants (think of how much water is in a watermelon, tomato, or cucumber) and you’ll need to be consistent with your watering every day (water deeply at the roots) to get the best harvest.
Some crops are best bought at the store.
Personally, I’d rather support the Rocky Ford melon farmers each week at King Soopers than fight a losing (multi-year) battle with the ravaging herd of downtown squirrels. Those furry little punks.
Plant what you and your children love.
If you don’t like tomatoes, don’t plant twelve of them. Zucchini is notoriously prolific, and while I’ve found I prefer these great zucchini cookie recipes instead of the classic zucchini bread, I learned the hard way that eight zucchini plants was way too many. WAY too many.
Or, plant something crazy.
If your child loves the idea of a lemon cucumber, go for it! They’ll likely be more eager to eat it when the time comes!
Give your plants some fragrant friends. Tomatoes love basil at their feet. Beans and marigolds are best buds. Squash and oregano just love each other. Nasturtium goes with just about everything, and their flowers and leaves are edible, too! Put them in the same pot or close together and benefit from their camaraderie.