Early planning sets up gardeners for success

Hannah Grover
Various packages of seeds are displayed on Thursday at San Juan Nurseries in Farmington.

FARMINGTON — With snowy weather settling into the Four Corners, gardening seems like it should be the furthest thing from residents' minds, but local experts say now is actually the perfect time to begin planning your spring garden.

“If you wait until the growing season gets here, you might be behind the curve,” said Bonnie Hopkins, agricultural agent for the San Juan County Extension Office of New Mexico State University.

Hopkins recommends that people now start mapping their gardens and making lists of the fruits and vegetables their families would like to eat.

Sketching a map also helps ensure proper spacing for plants since various kinds of plants require different amounts of space. For instance, a pumpkin plant will need more room than a zucchini. But Hopkins actually recommends San Juan County residents refrain from growing squash, such as pumpkins or zucchini. She explained the county has a problem with squash bugs, and many farmers at local growers' markets offer good deals on squash.

To combat squash bugs, Donnie Pigford, owner of San Juan Nurseries and an avid gardener, practices something called companion planting, which means strategically pairing plants to prevent certain problems. So when Pigford plants his squash, he usually plants basil with it. He explained basil or flowers, such as marigolds and nasturtiums, naturally repel insects.

At the same time, he also likes planting borage in his garden. The flowering herb, which has leaves that taste similar to cucumbers, attracts beneficial insects to the garden.

San Juan Nurseries owner Donnie Pigford talks on Thursday at his store in Farmington.

Pigford has also been trying to educate his customers about the importance of pollinators, such as bees. Last year, he even added a beehive to the nursery located off of 20th Street in Farmington.

“People don’t realize how important the pollinators are to what we do,” he said.

Pigford has already started planning his garden for the spring. He said he always plans space for something he has never grown.

“Most people get into the habit of planting the same things year after year after year,” he said.

Last year, Pigford planted chocolate cherry tomatoes for the first time and said he was extremely pleased with the small, dark-colored heirloom fruit.

“The flavor is incredible,” he said.

Hopkins said that while planning gardens, people should also determine crop rotation.

“You shouldn’t plant things in the same space as you did last year,” she said, explaining if a gardener used one plot for tomatoes last year, he or she should grow a different plant, like peas, in that spot this year.

Winter is also a good time for gardeners to research the crops they plan to grow, Hopkins said.

“It breaks my heart when people call and they do not know why their garden was not successful,” she said.

She said San Juan County has a 100-day growing season, which means certain plant varieties won't fare well here. For example, she recommends people consider early-producing tomatoes, such as Early Girl or Fourth of July varieties. She explained certain tomato plants take 110 days to produce ripe fruit, which is why they would not do well in San Juan County.

Hopkins also pointed out that New Mexico State University has online publications to help people plan what to grow and when to plant.

Hannah Grover covers Aztec and Bloomfield, as well as general news, for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652.

A kale plant is on sale Thursday at San Juan Nurseries in Farmington.