Extension Connection: Winter is a good time to plan a garden

If you grow a garden,  now is the time of year for seed catalogs to start showing up.  The diversity of seeds available for a garden has never been greater.  There are old and new hybrid vegetables and the interest in heirloom vegetables has allowed many old and nearly lost types reappear. Many of these garden plants are only available via mail order.

For crops like tomatoes and peppers that are usually transplanted into the garden, you must be able to grow your own plants before you can take advantage of seeds. This does not require a high tech greenhouse or other expensive equipment.

You can built a 6-foot-square outdoor grow box heated by in-soil heater cables very inexpensively. One with a removable clear plastic cover and can produce enough plants to plant a two thousand square foot garden.

Once you have a way to start seeds, the choices for tomatoes, peppers and other transplanted vegetables are mind boggling. They come in a diversity of sizes, shapes, colors, maturities, flavors and prices. There are companies that offer literally hundreds of varieties, all sounding delicious and easy to grow in their descriptions.  It takes time to figure out which works best in your garden, using your cultural methods, and suiting your taste..

For example, I grew a paste type tomato called opalka last year. It’s not available as transplants here in western Colorado. It was a great tasting cooking and canning tomato.  It set quite a bit of fruit, most of which rotted before it matured. I gave some plants to a friend, and she had great yields of quality fruit. My experience was bad, I will not grow opalka again. Her experience was very good, and she will be looking for plants this year.

Here are some of my favorite vegetables that aren’t easy to find except in garden catalogs. Heirloom tomatoes — there are hundreds of varieties, some good some bad. I tried several Roma type tomatoes last year. The best was incas. It’s hard to find, especially in quantity. The tomatoes were good size (for Roma’s).  Tormenta and martino’s roma were also good varieties.  Sausage was a dismal failure — no usable fruit at all.

When it comes to slicing tomatoes, I still prefer to grow shady lady, which is available at some local garden centers.  They produce large, firm, tasty and long lasting fruit on a semi determinate plant. There are a lot of other good, productive, tasty tomato varieties available locally, but if you want to get out of the ordinary types, you have to grow your own.

Chili peppers are another plant where growing your own plants is an option.  They like warm soils, so soil heating coils are a must for outdoor grow box plantings. They also help a lot in a lot of indoor plantings. There are a lot of big Jim, numex big Jim and other Anaheim type plants available locally.

There are a lot of good old and new melon varieties out there. There is a pretty good diversity of traditional muskmelon and watermelon seed available locally. If you look at the diversity of heirloom types available from small seed producers, there are lots of very early melons and late storage melons. Try some Israeli perfume melons. They are small, but aromatic and very sweet. Canary melons look like spaghetti squash, but are very sweet with a white flesh.

Gardening is a great way to try foods that you will never find in a grocery store or even most farm markets. If you are new to gardening and want to learn more, CSU Extension has a great Master Gardening program that starts in January and meets weekly through March.

Learn gardening and make new gardening friends. Call the Tri River Area extension Office at 244-1834 for more information.

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