Winter 2018-19 brought many benefits to Southwest Colorado.
It dumped enough moisture to lift the region from the most threatening drought in the country. It brought snow and cool temperatures that set records at Purgatory Resort. And now the above-average snowpack is melting and filling area waterways to the brim.
But a late freeze and snowstorms in May also stunted the growth of some local summer produce – including tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squash and beans – forcing growers to get creative to meet demand.
Lucky for Jordan Meyers, a grower at Summit Roots Farm in Dolores, he was prepared.
About two years ago, Meyers said he bought what he called “caterpillar tunnels” to protect his plants from unpredictable weather. The tunnels are easy to install and cost about a quarter of what a typical greenhouse may cost.
Each tunnel, made of a translucent greenhouse plastic designed to capture energy from the sun to keep plants warm in cooler temperatures, fits over rows of plants.
“I get to have food early and extend the season,” he said.
Sheila Payne, who grows with her son, Jesse, at Mockingcrow Farm near the bottom of Bondad Hill, uses something called a hoop house to help her summer produce thrive. A hoop house is something like a greenhouse, she said, but there’s no climate control. It’s a single layer of plastic that fits around a hoop that covers and protects the plants within.
The space inside her hoop house is about one-third the area of her field space, so many of the crops she couldn’t fit under the hoop house – like squash, beans and sunflowers – didn’t fare so well during the freeze.
“The trick around here is season protection,” she said.
The winter wasn’t a total bust for food producers, Payne said. Her spring crops – including mustard greens, collard greens, lettuce and the like – did well. It didn’t get too hot too fast, and the moisture helped, she said.
Perennial plants may have benefited from heavy snowpack, too, Payne said. Perennial plants persist through growing seasons, often regrowing each spring from the same root system. Most flowers are perennial. The benefit came when snow insulated the ground during the coldest part of the winter, protecting the root systems from damagingly low temperatures.
And for subsistence farmers – people with home gardens – “this year fit the profile,” said Clint Kearns, a certified master gardener. A normal growing season in La Plata County is around 110 days, he said. That can dip to around 90 days in a bad year and about 120 days in a good year – a relatively narrow range, he said.
“I always tell people, ‘Don’t plant anything before May 31,’” Kearns said. “It froze at my house (between Durango and Bayfield) on May 28 – it was 28 degrees for five hours.”
Although spring frost is not uncommon – freezing temperatures have been recorded as late as the second week of June – the National Weather Service is predicting a low of no cooler than 47 degrees for at least a week. Kearns said he’s telling everyone to plan on a 90- to 110-day growing season, and the clock is ticking.