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Larry Stebbins

If you’ve ever talked about gardening with local treasure Larry Stebbins, you know how he loves to share his passion for growing vegetables. We thought it would be grand — now that our part of the planet is coming back to life with spring — if we treated all of you to some of his info-laden lessons on nurturing gardens here in the Pikes Peak region... a mixed salad of growing advice, his favorite vegetable varieties and lore, in no particular order.

Just starting out?

Remember the “Four Ss of Gardening”...

Sun: Locate a level spot in your yard that receives at least eight hours of direct sun each day.

Soil: Crumbly, rich, organic soil is a must. Add quality compost, composted cotton burr (my favorite), organic fertilizer, and minerals (Azomite is best).

Selecting varieties that grow best here: Short season tomatoes (80 days or less to maturity), summer squash, winter squash, root crops (carrots, beets, turnips), salad and other greens (lettuce mixes, kale, collards, spinach, Swiss chard), peppers, mid day onions (Candy, Red Candy Apple, Superstar White), broccoli, cabbage and hard neck garlic to name a few.

Seasonal protection: Small hoop tunnels for tomatoes, 1-gallon milk jugs (bottom cut out) to cover newly planted starts, anti-hail netting over hoops.

NOTE: Check your local garden center for these and other garden supplies.

Did you know?

Each handful of rich organic soil is home to over 1 million critters. Most are microscopic fungi, algae and protozoans. Others can be seen with the naked eye. They range from earthworms to roundworms (nematodes), mites, springtail insects, grubs, centipedes, millipedes, pill bugs and more. Soil moisture is important to the health of all those organisms.

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“The best fertilizer is the gardener’s shadow” — author unknown

Larry’s all-time favorite varieties: Renegade and Tyee Spinach, Flavorburst Sweet Pepper, French Breakfast Radish, Mokum and Sugarsnax Carrots, Corentine Cucumbers, Katarina Mini-cabbage, Packman Broccoli (now called Packman Pro), Big Beef Tomato, Sungold Tomato, Buttercrunch Lettuce, Raven Zucchini, Early Butternut Winter Squash, and Kwintus Pole Beans.

Growing lettuce all season long

Yes you can!

1. Full sun and rich, crumbly soil are essential.

2. Save garden space for multiple plantings during the season and plant a 2-foot row every two weeks.

3. Plant lettuce seeds 1 to 2 inches apart in a slight trench, cover seeds with only ¼ inch of soil and top with a strip of burlap.

4. Keep the burlap strip moist by watering gently and daily — or twice daily in hot weather.

5. Remove burlap when seeds germinate.

6. Mulch around lettuce plants with a 1-inch layer of straw or dried grass clippings (no herbicides used on grass).

7. Lettuce is best when harvested between 3 and 5 inches tall.

Did you know?

Lettuce, botanical name Lactuca, produces the substance lactucarium. This is derived from the Latin word lactus, for milk. Thousands of years ago lettuce was harvested from the wild. It was tough and had a lot of this milky bitter sap, lactucarium. It is not harmful but was many times served at the end of meals to relax and encourage sleep.

The Best Carrot You Will Ever Eat

You can’t buy it... you have to grow it!

So many of us love carrots, but let’s face it, they are sometimes disappointing. Too “piney” tasting, not sweet, and a hard-to-chew core are just a few of the downfalls of some carrots. Not anymore. The solution is the Mokum carrot. For years now we have grown this variety.

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It is an early carrot that develops a more balanced taste between the sugars and the terpene esters (the piney taste). It is so crispy-crunchy that it easily snaps apart when harvesting. Therefore farmers won’t grow this carrot. You will not be disappointed.

Did you know?

Carrots before the 17th century were red, purple, white or even black. Selective breeding in the Netherlands developed the orange carrots we see most frequently today. Most of a carrot is water — 87 percent. Carrots didn’t gain popularity in the United States until after World War I. The soldiers fighting in Europe tried them and the rest is history.

Why have community gardens? 

A short story by Larry Stebbins

In the mid-1990s I moved to Colorado Springs. Across the street, to my surprise, was the Old Farm Community Gardens. One day I went exploring with my wife, Anna. The gate to the gardens was open, and we entered. Soon we were greeted by Ernie, an elderly, tall man. He told us he had one plot available next to his and wondered if we were interested. Of course, we said yes (since gardeners can’t have too much garden space, now can we?). Over the years, Ernie and I met frequently over at the gardens.

We discovered that we both were born and raised in Detroit just about a mile from each other.

Many memories were shared: picnics on Belle Isle, the downtown 24-hour Coney Island on the river, the Boblo boat ride to Windsor, the Franklin Cider Mill with its fall fresh cider and greasy donuts, Vernors Ginger Ale, Sanders bittersweet fudge sauce and more.

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"Ernie"

We likely would have never met and developed our deep friendship if it were not for the Old Farm Community Gardens. You see, back then, in Detroit, Black people could not buy houses in the neighborhood I lived in.

We went to separate schools but we all shared in the wonderful things that made Detroit what it was. Ernie has since passed away and I am so grateful for the time we had together.

Hail no! No Worries!

Have you ever had that helpless feeling when hail starts to pummel your house and garden? Well I have nothing to save your house — but there are simple ways to protect your garden. In the last few years anti-hail netting has become more widely available. Many local garden centers carry it in long rolls; buy just what you need. For a 4-by-8-foot garden bed, I first buy six, 10-foot-long, ½-inch diameter schedule 40 white PVC pipes. Next I bend three of the pipes over my bed, one on each end and one in the middle. I secure them to my wooden garden beds with screws.

I next cut the remaining three 10-foot pipes to a length of 8 feet. I screw one on top of the hoops and the other two on the sides of the hoops. Now just drape a 16-by-8-foot piece of anti-hail netting over your hoops. Using small bungee cords, I hook the netting to the sides and ends to screws drilled into the sides of the beds.

Tomatoes, America’s favorite garden vegetable

• Tomatoes need good rich soil and warmth to grow well.

• Grow them under hoop tunnels or use alternate methods of protecting them from hail, strong winds and cool temperatures.

• Soil temperature needs to be over 60ºF before you plant outside.

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• Plant 4 feet apart (crowding reduces harvest).

• If you plant vining (indeterminate varieties) then when the plant is 3 feet tall, trim off the bottom leaves up 18 inches. This will allow more sun to hit the soil and keep the ground warm come late summer. Warmer late summer soil means a bigger harvest before fall frost.

Gourmet garlic — there’s a difference!

Store-bought or grow your own? Some folks that know about wine will describe a fine wine by its taste, its bouquet of flavors and layers of notes along with many other factors. Garlic is similar. Store-bought garlic is like going to a symphony with only violins. Not bad — but there is so much more. Homegrown garlic tastes like a complete orchestral arrangement. My favorites are Spanish Roja, Chesnok Red, Siberian, Inchelium Red, Chet’s Italian and Music. They’re easy to grow; just follow these steps: 

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• Add a 3- to 4-inch layer of composted cotton burr mulch to planting bed and work 6 to 8 inches deep. Add a good organic fertilizer (as per directions) and mix 6 to 8 inches deep.

• Plant the first week in October. Each bulb has 4 to 8 cloves. Separate the garlic bulbs into cloves and plant each clove 2 inches below soil level (pointed end up) and 6 inches apart.

• Fall-planted garlic should be mulched with crumbled leaves/dried grass/straw, 6 to 8 inches thick. Keep the mulch until harvest time next July. Water in winter if the soil is dry.

• Some garlic varieties are hard necks and send up a central flower (scape). Pick and use in cooked dishes like you would garlic cloves. In July dig up the garlic and “cure” or dry them, out of the sun, in a warm location. In two to three weeks they are ready to be trimmed and stored inside in a cool basement. Save some of the larger bulbs to plant in the fall. Soft necks, like Inchelium Red, store longer than hard necks, so use hard necks first. 

Onion sets or plants?

What is a day-neutral onion and why should I care? Sets are those little round onions that you buy in the store and plant in the spring. They usually come from a place like Texas that has shorter days in the summer than we do. They are labeled yellow, white or red. Not much information. Onion plants are purchased at your local garden center in bunches.

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There are many more varieties available and you know what you are getting. Some varieties are day-neutral (don’t care if the summer days are long or short) and are quite delicious. Try my favorite, Candy onion. They are sweet and crunchy. It will be the best thing you ever added to a sandwich or burger. 

Learn more about Larry Stebbins — botanist, author and educator — at thegardenfather.com.