Game On…COVID Victory Gardens

Nostalgic victory gardens are the new black in this era of modern plague. We gardened our way through two World Wars and the Spanish Flu out of necessity to address food shortages and boost morale. Gardens are our secret weapon as we learn to live with COVID and other viruses.  Our gardens are a source of anti-inflammatory foods like dark green leafy vegetables. Exposure to soil microbes provides mood-boosting effects. Sunshine catalyzes vitamin D production which protects our bones and stimulates our immune systems. Plus, there’s no better or safer place to socialize in these peculiar times than outdoors, where many hands make light work in a garden. Gardens are also the great unifier; it is one topic with universal appeal no matter one’s political party affiliation. Liberal, chicken-naming, Portlandia metrosexuals and conservative doomsday preppers can all find common ground in a garden. So, how can you up your COVID victory garden game this year?

The general rule of thumb is to plant your garden in May, right around Mother’s Day. Our altitude and climate present a number of gardening challenges. Here are some tips to help you grow a COVID Victory Garden that will keep you busy and nourished while we near the end of the pandemic:

Sheet Mulch

1. Lasagna mulch. The most important step you can take is to prepare your soil. Whether you have a garden plot or grow in containers, be sure to amend your soil with mature compost and keep it moist, think: the consistency of chocolate cake. Slowing evaporation is the key to efficient watering and healthy gardens in our dry climate. “Lasagna mulching” your garden beds is the easiest way to achieve chocolate cake soil, it breaks up our clay soils, attracts earthworms, suppresses weeds, and holds moisture. A Google search of “lasagna mulch” will turn up all manner of recipes. Great choices for spring are mature compost or llama beans (llamas with their five stomachs are Nature’s composting machines, as their “beans” or poop comes out fully composted) as a base layer covered by moistened cardboard and straw.

2. Harden off and reduce transplant shock.  Plants are like people, they loathe change.  Before planting your seedlings, be sure they are hardened-off or in other words gradually exposed to the major stressors: sun, wind, and drought. As with people, a little stress results in stronger plants. You will know the plants are sufficiently hardened off when the leaves go from the tender, spring green to a more leathery dark green appearance. When transplanting young seedlings, limit how much you disturb the roots (just enough to tease apart any root binding that may have occurred from constriction in the seedling pot). Be sure to plant toward the end of the day, ideally before a forecast of cloudy days, and give your plants a dose of Liquid Karma by Botanicare to help alleviate transplant shock. Consider using a temporary shade structure if the seedlings will be exposed to full sun (6+ hours per day) immediately, and gradually build up exposure time over a couple of days.

3. Plan now, share later.  Coordinate your garden planning with your friends and neighbors.  Select plant varieties according to a theme such as a French Potager (think potimarron squash, French breakfast radish, Tavera green beans, and Noire des Carmes melons) or a Northside heritage garden that reflects our indigenous and immigrant Mexican and Italian roots (think speckled roman tomatoes, cilantro, oregano, basil, hot peppers, Marconi Red peppers, listada di gandia eggplant, and Aunt Mollies ground cherries which are like a pineapple and a tomato had a baby and called it a tomatillo). Even apartment dwellers can get in on the action with a container garden planted with determinate (bush variety that sets all of its fruit around the same time) tomato varieties, as well as zucchini, cucumbers, green beans, greens, and root veggies like carrots and radish. Sharing garden bounty with friends and neighbors is a fun and easy way to increase access to a greater variety of produce when garden space is at a premium.

4. Extend the season.  Local realtor, Heidi Newhart, who ordinarily hosted the wildly popular and much missed Sloan’s Lake Plant Exchange (which I hate to report is on hold again this year), installed hoop houses over her raised beds and cold frames to extend our short growing season. The insulating properties of these structures allow gardeners to get a head start in the spring and enjoy fresh veggies well into the fall and even early winter. Check out James Prigioni’s The Gardening Channel tutorial “How to Build a Hinged Hoophouse for a Raised Garden Bed” on YouTube for easy to follow instructions.

5. Buy local seedlings.  The end of April/beginning of May is seedling sale time in Denver.  Urban farmers across the city have been coaxing new plants out of their seeds since at least St. Patrick’s Day. Ordinarily I sell seedlings through Sunnyside Urban Farm, but COVID has my farmette under construction with a new greenhouse. I’ll rely on my fellow urban farmers to supply heirloom, organic seedlings for my garden this year. Check out some of my favorites: Heirloom Tomato Farms (in RiNo), Sparrow Farm (in Alamo Placita), Floppy Hat Farm (in Englewood), and my neighbor Sunnyside Farms (in Sunnyside at the corner of 45th & Vallejo). 

Sloan’s Lake Neighborhood Association is also hosting a plant sale on May 1st. For more information, check out the community calendar.

6. Connect & learn.  Local gardening clubs and organizations offer seed exchanges, seedling/plant sales, and classes in all things related to organic gardening. For more information on events and classes check out Denver Urban Gardens, Front Range Organic Gardeners, Denver Permaculture Guild, and Denver Botanic Gardens.

Use this time to get your COVID Victory Garden game on. Happy gardening!

Katherine has lived in North Denver for 20 years and runs Sunnyside Urban Farm. She created Denver’s Sustainable Food Policy Council and her Lip Smackin’ Sour Cherry Jam won the Blue Ribbon at the first Denver County Fair.


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