Now is the season of dreams, when gardeners flip through seed catalogs circling enticing pictures. As a child I did the same with the Sears catalog, until the toy section was filled with black marker. My parents pointed out that since I’d circled everything, Santa wouldn’t know what I really wanted, and I’d likely end up with the Pet Rock.
The same is true for my garden. I don’t have space for every plant that catches my fancy and many flowers that bloom on the page would wilt in this climate. How to weed through my wishes?
To start, I can cross off anything that takes more than 70 days to be harvest-ready, or only thrives in USDA zones 7 and up. In general the growing season for Flagstaff is about 103 days, and the USDA Hardiness zone 6a, but both vary widely by neighborhood and year. I’m out in Fort Valley, sometimes called “Little Siberia,” where the USDA zone is 4, on a good year. Last summer the time between hard frosts was barely 30 days. Some crops do fine with the cold: root vegetables like beets and carrots, and Cole crops like kale. But I can’t live on just kale.
For guidance, I turn to my notes from the Master Gardener class and to the Master Gardeners website, which has an extensive listing of catalogs specializing in short-season, cold-tolerant plants. To find it, go to http://coconinomgassociation.blogspot.com/p/references-and-resources.html and select the Seed Plant and Tool Catalogs 2018.
For tomatoes the Master Gardeners recommend Early Girl and Better Boy, a pair of “love apples” I’d expect to find on an online dating site. Other Flag-tested tomatoes include Pixie Hybrid, Kellogg’s Breakfast, Sweet 100, Yellow Pear, Lemon Boy and Stupice. But living in “Little Siberia” I’ll be trying a few of the varieties brought back from the big Siberia, including Galina and Sasha’s Altai. Seeds for these short-season varieties can be ordered from Seeds Trust in Cornville, AZ (www.seedstrust.com), which specializes in high-elevation crops.
I also note what has worked for my neighbors. After dining on fresh asparagus from a neighbors yard, I dug a trench for my own asparagus patch. Following his lead, I interspersed rhubarb with the asparagus. Both hardy perennials like deep, rich soil and water. I’ve been assured that once established, both asparagus and rhubarb will produce for decades, with minimal effort.
Another neighbor gave me a few onion bulbs to plant. After gardening here for 30 years, she’s found alliums to be reliable in our unreliable conditions. The bulbs she gave me will be better adapted to local conditions than any I could buy from a catalog. That’s also why the Master Gardeners keeps a seed library of locally adapted plants. Gardeners can use some of the seeds to grow a new crop, then return some seed at the end of the season. For those of us who don’t get around to starting seeds, there will be a Master Gardener plant sale on June 16 at Fort Tuthill, where we can buy suitable plant starts.
I’m not waiting until June to enjoy my garden though. I wander down the paths, noting areas where the snow already melted to mud. These are my warmer microclimates, where I can plant the light lovers like heat-hungry herbs, fruits and flowers. The shaded corners where snow lingers will be appropriate for leafy vegetables that thrive in dimmer conditions. I envision the future in full-color. Golden marigolds perfume the air with natural bug-repellant. Nasturtiums climb beanstalks. Blue borage flowers peek from between tomato plants, waiting to be tossed with vinaigrette on salad. The acid turns the flowers pink, which delighted me as a child. And clearly I’m still a child at heart, because my winter dream garden is bursting with unrealistic expectations.