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Hail, drought, snow: In Colorado, you’ll need these climate-resilient gardening practices 

Gardening in Colorado has never been for the faint of heart. People refer to gardening as a journey or a sport (win some, lose some) or as a battle between them and the grasshoppers and Japanese beetles.

The need for responsive gardening practices is evident in light of what is both Colorado gardening and the shifting climate weather patterns and irregularities. It points to a need for some proactive, climate-resilient gardening practices.

Gardeners up and down the Front Range from three large gardening online groups and some from Colorado Master Gardener offices share stories of recent summers being hit with hail, drought or aridification, and last year’s wet spring. Gardeners, though, do not seem to be a complaining bunch; rather, they openly share and seek advice. One story felt particularly on point to my own experience — it was poetic, even. Keah Schuenemann, who has been gardening in Colorado for about two decades, shared this:

“With heavy snow as late as the end of May and as early as Labor Day week, hail shredding leaves during seedling season through August, weeks of drought without so much as a cloud, flooding rains to wash away seeds and rot tubers, Japanese beetles and grasshoppers eating blooms, and frying sun most of July through September, it’s a wonder any of us even try.  I’ve begun to see Colorado gardening as a sport! You win some, you lose some.”

Schuenemann, a professor of climate change and meteorology at Metro State University Denver, has been observing the tangible impacts of climate that have shown up as unpredictable weather events and patterns. Why, then, do we all show up season after season playing this game? (Her response offered a balance of the enjoyment of gardening with the responsibility of stewarding resources with water conservation.)

Gardening these days requires both — and thinking. Enter, then, climate-resilient gardening. Resilience is about adapting and transforming in response to the environment. Climate-resilient gardening is both about responding to climate change as well as helping to mitigate climate change through more sustainable practices. One part is the response to climate, i.e., how are we making our gardens more climate-ready and resilient. Our gardens become more resilient by adding in native plants, improving soil health, using water conversation practices and creating protective structures.

The second part is that our gardening practices must become more sustainable by reducing carbon emissions and increasing carbon storage in soil and plants. Such as, phasing out gas-powered lawn equipment and leaf blowers. Or changing out grass lawns with lawn alternatives that require less water and fertilizers.

While climate-resilient gardening is a huge topic, this time of year is when gardeners up and down the Front Range shift into planning and preparation mode. Now is the time to build in and prepare for possibilities later in the season so a few ways you can shift your garden towards a more climate-resilient one.

Weather responsive planting

When and what to plant feels sometimes like a mix of science, art and luck. The best: Wait until after Mother’s Day weekend. This year, that is about a week after the Almanac’s last spring frost date for the area. However, as we have seen with recent weather fluctuations, determining an optimal planting time is more challenging than usual. Some summers, I have planted early and had great success. Last summer, with the long, wet, cool spring, I planted my heat-loving crops later, so they had a much shorter growing season.

Some gardeners use succession planting with this in mind. Others choose to not transplant all their seedlings at the same time but stagger out over a few weeks. This gives them backups as long as possible early in the season.

Part of weather-responsive gardening is plant selection. It is not a surprise that many food and ornamental plants tend to be far more susceptible to weather pattern extremes and weather events like hail and flooding. Climate-resilient gardeners opt to increase drought-resistant, native and pollinator-friendly plants that can withstand changing climate conditions. Opt for small leaf plants, grasses, or late-in-the-season leafing plants. While these do not include your annuals and vegetable garden, adding more into your yard and gardening areas can improve soil health and pollination.

If you are not sure where to start with adding in native plants, there are amazing organizations across the state that can help, like Wild Ones Front Range, Colorado Native Plant Society and High Plains Environmental Center. These organizations offer advice, education, and even seeds and plants.

Of course, do not give up on your vegetables as a part of climate resilience. The more you grow of your own and share with others, the less carbon emission with food shipped in from beyond our local area. For your vegetable gardening, some companion planting can help provide some shade or hail protection, like viney options mixed in with corn or sunflowers. There is a movement toward more heat-tolerant vegetables that make a lot of sense in Colorado’s intense mid- to late-summer sun.

A plug for end-of-season planting is cover cropping. It is not just for farms and fields but implementing cover cropping as a climate strategy can help protect against drought and maintain soil structure as well as nutrients without chemical fertilizers.

Proactive structures

In planning your garden this year, check garden exposure and think about how previous seasons went. Structures that can support different types of cloth or coverings can help with hail, intense sun and some insects or birds. More gardeners create innovative structures above their gardens, specifically their annual beds or rows. The structures themselves can be hoop houses or poly-tunnel greenhouses around garden beds. Place poles, wood or metal, at the corners to drape or attach covers. Of course, there are always makeshift versions of draping an old bedsheet or tarp over for a last-minute quick fix.

The benefit of some type of structure, though, is that it can offer support throughout the season and years. You can add a plastic sheet at the bookends of the season for warmth or protect from frost and sun shade or hail cloth at other parts of the season.

Hail is one of the biggest concerns. The topic of hail prevention and damage is an annual conversation here as we live in what is referred to as “hail alley.” Last summer, many gardeners experienced more than a handful of hail storms with many areas experiencing repeated storms. Some gardeners keep plants in fabric bags or moveable pots so they can be quickly moved if needed.

Due to changing weather patterns, the need for shade in gardening has become more critical. Consider incorporating shade structures to protect crops, even for heat-loving plants. Overall, depending on your specific needs, you may require various types of covering throughout the season.

The more gardeners can do to make changes with climate-resilience gardening as a framework, the better off gardens will be. And in doing so, you are building up your own inner resilience of hope and adaptability.

Tamara Yakaboski is a freelance writer and avid gardener.

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