There’s been a lot of change in our lives as of late, but there are some things that will never change. One of those things is that spring is here and it’s almost time to plant your gardens! For those of you who are spending more time at home than you ever have, this is the perfect year to start a garden or upgrade your current garden! Gardening is a great way to produce your own food at home, save some money, and enjoy some time outdoors.

Before you begin planning your garden, you need to ask yourself some important questions. When is the last frost of the spring? When is the first frost in the fall? Am I looking at the right spot in my yard for a garden?

The average date of last frost in Conrad is May 27, with the average first frost being Sept. 11. This means we have about 106 frost-free days a year. This number is important in determining what plants you can grow in your garden.

Some plants have shorter growing seasons than others, and some are more cold-hardy than others. For example, spinach takes 40-60 days to reach maturity after seeding and is a cold hardy plant, making it suited to gardens in north central Montana. Eggplants, however, take 100-120 days to reach maturity and have no frost tolerance, meaning north central Montana is not the optimal place to grow them.

That being said, you can grow just about anything if you’re smart about it. Starting seeds inside is a great way to get them growing before that last frost in May. Once warm weather is here to stay, you can transfer the seedlings to your garden outside or you can keep them as an indoor plant! The MontGuide “Can I Grow That Here?” has a great chart with the days to maturity, transplant size guidelines, frost tolerance, and optimal soil temperature for germination for all sorts of vegetables you may want to grow in your garden.

If you’re starting a new garden, make sure the spot you pick will meet the needs of your plants. The perfect garden spot will have good soil, lots of sunlight, and a good water supply. A good soil for gardens is loose, level, fertile, and well-drained.

Soils that are high in clay content, like the soil we have here in Conrad, can be tough on garden plants. If you have soil that is very clayey, adding organic matter will help improve the fertility and drainage of the soil. Organic matter can be compost that you produced yourself or composted manure that you purchase.

You can also purchase gardening soil that is high in organic matter to mix in with your soil. Whatever you decide to mix into the soil to amend it, make sure it is well tilled in to thoroughly incorporate it.

Sunlight is important for plants to produce their own energy for food. An ideal location for a garden is one that receives sunlight at least six hours a day. Some vegetables, like carrots and lettuce, can handle partial shade if a sunny spot isn’t an option for you. Vegetables that can handle the shade can be found in the “Can I Grow That Here?” MontGuide.

While some plants can handle partial shade, remember that plants need lots of light to produce food so the sunnier the spot the better! A bright sunny spot is great for energy production for the plants, but they also need a lot of water. Sunnier, hotter areas cause plants to respirate more, so a good water supply is important.

Since we don’t get a lot of rain here, you’ll need to make sure your garden gets plenty of water regularly. Having a good water source nearby will help you in making sure your garden is well watered.

Another thing to keep in mind is to keep your garden away from trees and shrubs, if possible. Trees and shrubs can shade the garden as well as compete for water and soil nutrients. These trees and shrubs also provide some wind protection, however, so make sure they’re not too far away.

Gardening is a great option to keep you busy during this time of social distancing as well as provide some healthy food for you throughout the summer. If you are interested in starting a garden but have more questions, feel free to check out the “Can I Grow That Here?” MontGuide or any other gardening MontGuides at https://store.msuextension.org/publications/YardandGarden.

You can also email me at adriane.good@montana.edu or give me a call 406-505-0593 with any questions you may have.

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