Greenhouse thrives on brain power

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n the gardener’s constant battle to outwit Mother Nature in Teller County, or at least come to terms with what Lee Willoughby calls “climate chaos,” the winner is one who adapts rather than surrenders.

“It’s not just the drought but the uneven temperatures,” said Lee Willoughby, project coordinator for The Harvest Center greenhouse at Aspen Valley Ranch.

With warm temperatures in April and weekly blizzards in May, gardening these days seems like a quest for power. Willoughby, however, comes armed with tricks such as soaker hoses, drip irrigation and mulch.

Recently, Willoughby raised the ante on working in conjunction with the drought, which, to lesser gardeners, threatens the entire season. However, by studying the ins and outs of plants, he’s generating a thriving garden.

“Plants are sort of like people; they’re mostly made out of water,” Willoughby said, adding that plants receive moisture through the roots. “When that process is interrupted it makes the plant more vulnerable to insect damage, disease and, in the extreme, of dying.”

As the drought impedes the growth cycle of plants and flowers, things go haywire in other areas. “You don’t see as many bees if there aren’t as many flowers,” Willoughby said.

While Teller County is not in dire straits yet, Willoughby offers advice, courtesy of the Harvest Center. “This year we are encouraging people to pay attention to the watering process,” he said.

For openers, Willoughby advises watering plants and flowers by hand, letting the water soak into the ground. “The worst thing you can do is have a hose and spray all the plants; it’s not good for water conservation and getting the plants wet like that tends to encourage disease,” he said.

In a drought, fertilizing is a no-no. “When you don’t depend on Mother Nature for most of the water, the last thing you want to do is encourage growth,” he said. “Just leave it alone as far as fertilizer goes.”

In a drought, weeds are the bad guys. “Weeds compete for water,” Willoughby said.

In somewhat wishful thinking, Willoughby recalls weather patterns of days gone by. “There’s something magic about rainfall,” he said. “When it rains a nice slow gentle rain, things seem to pop up.”

As the drought takes a stranglehold, Colorado State University extension office assumes a prominent role, particularly as an alert system for the next three months. “We’ve got a double whammy hitting us, high temperatures and low precipitation,” said Mark Platten, CSU Extension’s local director. “That combination is just a killer for us.”

Platten is not encouraged by the color-coded drought map of the west where brown, which denotes severe conditions, is gaining on Teller County. “With the high temperatures we’re getting we may be in the brown in the next few weeks,” he said. “The southern half of Teller is in extreme drought.”

As conditions worsen, the extension office hosts Master Gardener workshops for area homeowners.

With the lack of rainfall, the city of Woodland Park has initiated water restrictions, which, in turn, generate grumblings. But the Harvest Center looks on the bright side. “Restrictions force us to do things we’ve put off; in our case, drip irrigation,” Willoughby said. “As you get to understand what’s behind the policy, we’re primarily talking about convincing people not to use the overhead spray or sprinkle at the wrong times because some of it isn’t even hitting the ground, it’s going up in the air.”

In the eyes of an optimist, restrictions increase brain power. “It’s made us be a little more inventive,” Willoughby said.

A nonprofit organization, The Harvest Center donates the produce to the Community Cupboard.

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