May 31, 2017 10:52AM
● By John Lehndorff
Don’t think of yourself as too late (again), but rather too smart, like a fox. You watched as your neighbors filled beds and containers with fresh plants in the warmth of March only to sympathize in May as they surveyed (and dug up) their sad, hail-ridden garden.
You knew better. Maybe you remembered the old Colorado truism: Don’t put plants (and especially tomatoes) outside until Mother’s Day, past the dreaded “last average frost date.” Heck, spring lilacs are still blooming in the mountain towns. In June, it is finally hot enough to grow heat-craving tomatoes and peppers.
Most urban dwellers along Colorado’s Front Range have tiny backyards, if they have one at all. Many of us inhabit the rapidly multiplying units of apartments, condos, townhouses, and limited maintenance homes. You can still grow a practical potager—French for a kitchen garden—packed with ready-to-eat greens, herbs, and veggies, with flowers for aesthetics and aroma. One apartment advantage: No random rabbits gnawing at the crop.
Whether you plot a detailed container schematic or plan on simply plopping a few choice plants in a pot, the rewards are multiple. You’ll eat better because you can snip herbs and greens for a salad and they’ll grow back. In the fall, many of these plants can simply be moved inside, and they will keep producing into winter.
DO YOU HAVE ROOM FOR A POTAGER
Already you can hear the objections from folks who have never gardened or who killed innocent domestic greenery earlier in their lives. They say they don’t have enough room to grow. They must open their minds to the possibility of growth, both personal and vegetal.
If you have a patio, porch, or any other appropriate outdoor space, you have enough room for a few containers, hanging pots, and window boxes producing organic oregano, arugula, beefsteak tomatoes, and jalapeños. (Yes, you will get rid of the junk that’s stored on the patio. That’s precious real estate.)
The first question is: Where does your garden grow? If the patio or porch faces directly west, it probably has a tendency to get scorching. Your tomatoes, peppers, zukes, and cukes will love that, but your delicate greens and herbs might not. The solution is to install lightweight sun-screening for part of the area and leave full sun on the rest.
If your patio gets the morning sun, you’ll need to locate your pepper and tomato plants where they can get the maximum amount of direct sun every day.
HOW TO GROW THEM:
TUBS, DIRT, WATER
Herbs, greens, and vegetables can be grown in individual pots or larger containers made from terra-cotta clay, glazed pottery, or wood boxes. The truth is that you can use any random clean container or bucket, including yogurt cups.
The soil you choose makes a much bigger difference. Use organic potting soil because, after all, you are going to eat what you grow in it. Mix about one-quarter organic compost into the total amount of soil to help feed the vegetables and allow you to use less fertilizer. Keep adding compost to tomatoes and peppers as the season progresses.
Overwatering is the consistent mistake gardeners make. Watering every day is too much. Push your finger an inch into the soil to find out if it really is dry. When you do water, go all in. Water until moisture starts seeping out the bottom of the pot.
Also, different plants like more or less moisture. Rosemary and sage need to be dryer, where mint likes it wetter and cooler.
WHAT TO GROW:
You won’t be able to grow corn or iceberg lettuce, but most other vegetables, including onions, can flourish in containers. If you haven’t done a lot of gardening, the recommended goof-proof vegetables include beans (bush or vine), zucchini, small crispy pickling cucumbers, and radishes. There is even a compact eggplant variety named Patio. At this point in the summer, it’s best to start these (and tomatoes and peppers) with healthy organic plants from a nursery.
Tomatoes can range from varieties like the Abe Lincoln (grown since 1925) to more recent imports like the San Marzano, the tomato used most to make authentic Italian pizza sauce. You may be stunned by the range of chilies available to home gardeners, including painful Ghost or Kung Pao varieties with astronomically high Scoville heat units.
Some crops can still be started from seeds in June, including herbs, lettuces, and leafy greens like chard and kale. Get climate-appropriate seeds from local Colorado garden seed companies such as Lake Valley (lakevalleyseed.com), Bounty Beyond Belief (bbbseed.com), and Broomfield’s Botanical Interests (botanicalinterests.com). Botanical Interests makes it especially easy, with a lettuce seed mix called Chef’s Medley as well as organic vegetable and flower seeds embedded in paper that simply need to be covered with dirt and watered.
Don’t space out: Be aware as you plant your containers and leave enough room for plants such as tomatoes, which may eventually become as large as shrubbery.
What you want to enhance your day-to-day cooking is an array of herb plants you can snip, including chives, dill, oregano, mint, cilantro, broad leaf parsley, thyme, and tarragon. In fact, don’t be afraid to significantly pinch back and harvest herb plants. They will almost always regrow unless you let them flower. Everybody loves basil, but you will need an armada of basil plants if you want to think about making pesto. Consider also growing Thai basil for your summer stir-fries.
GETTING BACK TO THE GARDEN
If you watch serious gardeners, it often looks like they are meandering and circling plants or they sit and stare at them. In a garden, attention is as important as fertilizer. A garden makes your city-slicker abode less urban and artificial and more a chill place to become one with your favorite herb, whether sativa or indica, on warm summer nights.
In the end, there remains something terrifically powerful about watching as a seedling pushes its way through damp compost to the sky.
Some final green thumb advice: Plant some catnip or cat grass for Mr. Whiskers and some flowers for the precious pollinators. Grow a few gigantic sunflowers with blossoms as big as your head. Sunflowers are easy to grow, they love Colorado’s solar abundance, and they will make you smile.
COOKING FROM YOUR PATIO FARM
Honest Herb Butter
-1 cup (tightly packed) mixed fresh herbs (no stems)
-1 large peeled, trimmed garlic clove
-½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
-¼ teaspoon finely grated lemon or lime zest
-2 teaspoons fresh lemon or lime juice
-Kosher salt, freshly ground pepper to taste
Herbs can include flat-leaf parsley, chives, marjoram, and tarragon. Pulse herbs and garlic in a food processor until finely chopped or finely mince them with a knife. Add butter, lemon zest, and lemon juice and process until smooth; season with salt and pepper. Keep refrigerated but bring it up to room temperature before using. Butter can be made a few days ahead. Makes about ½ cup. Melt on grilled oysters, grilled steaks, and corn on the cob (or hunks of baguette).
Replace fresh garlic with six large roasted garlic cloves and add chopped Roquefort or bleu cheese.
Dressing or Marinade
-1 finely chopped green onion (or chopped fresh chives)
-1 tablespoon whole grain prepared mustard
-1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
-1 tablespoon cider or white wine vinegar
-½ teaspoon finely chopped fresh basil
-½ teaspoon finely chopped thyme
-½ teaspoon sea salt
-Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
-1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Whisk together green onion (or chives), mustard, lemon juice, vinegar, herbs, salt, and pepper. Gradually whisk in oil and adjust seasonings. (Hint: It’s hard to add too much basil.) Use on salad or as a marinade for chicken or seafood before grilling. Store covered in refrigerator.
Add a little sugar or honey to balance the acidity of the dressing.