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Gina’s Garden Crash Course: Tips and Tricks for Success

May 24, 2021

Gina Schley, one of our garden founders and now owner of “ SHEGROWS” ( flower farm, came out to share some tips and tricks she’s learned over the years. Gardeners who were able to attend were delighted with all they learned. I wish I had taken this course ten years ago, which is why I’d like to share with you some of her best ideas to set your garden up for success.

Here are some basic gardening questions answered.

Q: What are the basics of soil health?

Gina: I like to picture a funnel when thinking about important soil components. At the top of the funnel, the largest section, you have NPK also known as Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium. You need large amounts of each to grow big strong healthy vegetables. These can be found in varying amounts in locally available organic fertilizers, depending on what you want to grow.

On the next level of the funnel you have Calcium and Magnesium, which vegetables like tomatoes really need to grow strong stems and large tomatoes. I recommend adding “Hi Yield” fast acting gypsum to increase calcium uptake from the soil if your vegetables are having trouble thriving. I also really like “Cal-Mag” liquid you purchase in a concentrated bottle and dilute with water and spread using a backpack sprayer or large watering can. If you’re seeing curly leaves on your tomatoes, they will love this stuff!

On the bottom level of the funnel, the smallest section, you have your trace minerals like copper, iron, zinc, sulfur and cobalt which help increase stem strength. I like to use “soil mender mineral boost” to ensure my vegetables and flowers are getting enough of each of these minerals.

Q: Should I add fertilizer, what type, and how much?

Gina: I recommend Happy Frog slow release organic fertilizer. You can get it at Echters, Maleras or other garden stores in the area. This garden amendment can be mixed with your compost at the start of the season and sprinkled on your vegetables throughout the season for increased growth. Happy Frog’s fertilizer contains 6%Nitrogen, 4% Phosphorus, and 5% Potassium but there are other percentage concentrations for specific vegetables.

Q: How should I prepare my soil?

Gina: If your soil is hard it might be full of clay, and you can break it up by adding peat moss or coco core also available at Echters and local garden stores. Peat moss also helps keep in moisture and increases pore space. It’s also important to remember soil is like the skin of the earth: it must be covered so it doesn’t lose too much moisture. I recommend using straw, as it doesn’t take up much nitrogen. I don’t recommend using bark on vegetable gardens as it adds way too much carbon, which ties up nitrogen.

Q: How should I lay my garden plot out?

Gina: Everyone has their own preferences, but I like to do wide raised rows of 3 ft wide beds with 18 inch pathways in between. This layout makes it easy to maximize your grow area, add irrigation, and easily access your garden for weeding and harvesting. I like to use drip irrigation and use a produce called "drip tape" along the beds so I'm only watering my plants and in the walkways you can put weed cloth, cardboard or hay to keep back the weeds. I would also recommend rotating your crops each season as different vegetables use different components in the soil.

Q: How should I set up a drip system and why?

Gina: You can set up one main drip line and 3 to 4 drip lines in a typical Rose Roots 15 x 15 ft plot. For drip systems I like “Dripworks” you can find their systems online. Using a drip system saves water, helps avoid spreading disease, which is a risk with overhead watering, and it allows consistent slow watering so your water doesn’t just pool on top and evaporate when you’re flooding your plot with overhead watering.

At the start of the season, when your garden is just getting started, you have to think of your seedlings like babies. Think how often a baby has to eat. Your seedlings should be watered every day and twice daily on hot days when they are getting established.

Q: When and what should I plant in Colorado?

Gina: We do have distinct planting seasons. Often Mother’s Day is too early to plant seedlings as your plants will get frozen in late frosts and snows, so you may want to start your seedlings inside and plant closer to Memorial Day. Seeds planted outside will only germinate once they have temperatures they like. Along with vegetables, I would recommend adding flowers for pest control and to support and attract pollinators. Here are the general seasons and vegetable planting suggestions:

First Shoulder Season (March-April): onions, garlic, swiss chard, kale, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, spinach, cilantro, arugula, celery, etc.

Mid Season (May): Early May, you can get your root crops in, radishes, carrots, beets, rutabagas, turnips, potatoes. After the last frost, you can plant sweet peas. As it warms, you can get your lettuces in.

Summer (June-Aug): Tomatoes, peppers, beans, squash, pumpkins, herbs, strawberries, cucumbers, tomatillos, etc.

Second Shoulder Season (Sept-Oct): Replant lettuce, spinach, chard, beans, sweet peas, garlic, carrots, etc.

When I started gardening I would only plant at the start of the season and would harvest only at the end. Now I plant every few weeks throughout the season. In reality, you will be planting throughout as things like greens flower and you need to take them out because they will then taste sour and you can maximize your plot output by putting something else in.

Each season is a little different and another one of our founders, John Chism, who attended this workshop, suggested keeping a journal and tracking when you plant, advice you get from other gardeners, and information you find through research as well as outcomes each year to move up your learning curve.

Q: In addition to adding compost and fertilizers at the start and end of the season, are there other amendments or ways to prune to help my vegetables and flowers grow big and strong?

Gina: I really like the Fox Farm Brand which adds nitrogen and trace minerals to your soil. For tomatoes and flowers, I add the “Grow Big” mineral amendment at the start of the season to help the stems grow strong and I add the “Big Blooms” amendment throughout the season to help the vegetables grow healthy, big and strong. At the start of the season you can add these amendments weekly and every few weeks throughout the season. Other ways you can enrich your soil are adding coffee grounds and worm castings you can purchase or grow in a worm farm.

There are tips for each vegetable you learn over time, but for tomatoes I like to keep the main branch like a tree trunk, pruning a lot of side branches and keeping side branches a foot up from the ground. They do well with extra watering and tomato fertilizers, and I cut off the top of the stems if the tomatoes aren’t ripening. This practice is called "topping".

Joan, our rose garden guru, recommends removing extra blooms from each stem so the main flower can grow larger.

Q: How do I manage garden pests using organic approaches?

Gina: My favorite way to stop pests before they get started is to order what are called “beneficial nematodes” from Arbico Organics. I actually recommend Rose Roots order these at the start of the season, a spray backpack, and do this annually to control pests before they get started. I spray my plot in Spring and the nematodes eat the larvae of the bad bugs. I prefer this method over other pest management methods like sprinkling diatomaceous earth, because at that point the insects are already eating your veggies.

For aphids, who especially like veggies like broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and brussel sprouts (the “basilicas”), you can spray soapy water on your leaves. You can purchase ladybugs and praying mantis nests from Lowes and garden stores, and these will also eat the bad bugs. It’s also great to attract birds like swallows who will eat insects that would otherwise eat your veggies. You can also put shade cloth over your seedlings at the start of the season to help protect from sunburn, bunnies, birds, and bugs. As an organic garden we have to be creative and try different ways to manage individual types of pests.

Q: What do I do with diseased plants?

Gina: Just pull them out! If something isn’t working, don’t be afraid to just pull it out and start over, especially if it is diseased as you don’t want that to spread to other plants or plots. Be sure not to put diseased plants in your compost or the disease could spread the next season.

Q: As a new gardener, what should I aim to plant by seed and what should I buy in seedling form?

Gina: Think about the part of the plant that you are going to eat. For example, it takes longer for the fruit to grow as opposed to the leaf. It takes longer for the larger vegetables like tomatoes, peppers and onions to grow and ripen, so I would buy established seedlings of those and slowly “harden” them by putting them outside a few hours a day before putting them in the ground if they were grown in greenhouses. Most everything else I would try to plant by seed as it’s a much more affordable option.

Q: When and how should I water and harvest my vegetables?

Gina: It’s best to water your plants from below as overhead watering on the leaves, with tomatoes especially, can cause disease. White powdery mildew, a fungal disease, tends to grow on zucchini and squash leaves when they get too much water from overhead. It’s best to water in the cool mornings and evenings to retain water and keep your plants and soil from losing more water to evaporation.

You should harvest your vegetables also in the morning or evening as they will last longer and will taste better if you get them right into the fridge. Be sure to harvest your vegetables before they bolt, or flower, as they will taste better.

Q: How should I best prepare my garden in the Fall to put it to bed in anticipation of the next season?

Gina: I recommend putting leaves on your garden or some type of compost at the end of the season so it can break down and enrich your soil. I like to plant a cover crop in Fall like beans or peas to amend the soil and add nitrogen. Other cover crops include red clover, winter rye, and field oats which, if planted in November, will suppress weeds and add organic matter and thus nutrients, however, its important to cut these back before they go to seed in Spring so they don’t spread. More and more farming techniques include composting in place and no-till methods to enrich and preserve the structure of soils, which support important bacteria and fungi that maintain pore spaces and increase the soil’s ability to absorb and retain water.

Workshop Wrap-up: Gina took our group around the garden and noted successful practices and others that could be improved. She offered to come again for monthly “Tips and Tricks Walk-throughs” throughout the season so don’t miss her next workshop. These will help new gardeners get light years ahead, and offered seasoned gardeners new suggestions for recurring garden challenges!

Thank you Gina for sharing all your wonderful insights!

If you have questions you can contact Gina at or see her out at the garden (she still maintains the plot with the lavender varieties).

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