Colorado Garden Dreaming

Reader Contribution by Bruce Mcelmurray
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Snow is on the ground and the garden boxes are filled up with that white fluffy stuff already. Each time I walk past the garden boxes, which is several times a day, I remember that there are spinach seeds planted in one box and in several months when this snow melts away they will sprout and find their way to the surface. Before the winter is over these boxes will be buried under five or six feet of snow. Following years of trial and error in gardening at high altitude I decided to make these garden boxes to keep out the various animals that we share space with. We have mice, voles, moles, ground squirrels, chipmunks and rabbits just to name a few. Then there are the larger species like deer and bear which both have an appetite for spinach, lettuce, kale, zucchini and carrots.

In order to preserve our garden produce for ourselves I came up with this garden box designed to keep the critters out. I first milled out assorted sizes of lumber from some dead trees we have on the property. Investing in a personal wood mill is being conservation-wise and provides a ready supply of assorted lumber. From the dead tree to the finished product, which in this case is a useful garden box, costs little to make. The only out-of-pocket cost was a roll of 36-inch hardware cloth and hinges. I made the base out of 2-inch-by-8-inch milled boards, then milled some 2-inch-by-2-inch pieces for the upright pieces which connect the top and bottom sections. I used 1-inch-by-4-inch pieces for the top and secured it all together with deck screws. I then made the hinged top out of 1-inch-by-4-inch material and covered it on all sides including the bottom with 1/2-inch hardware cloth so the little gluttons could no longer gain access to the inside.

Having the boxes made I then found a nice level place in the sun to position them and filled them with a mix of mushroom mulch and potting mix. Since the mushroom mulch was rather potent I let it all sit for a few weeks to settle down and I would re-mix the soil every few days to aerate it. This has worked out very well and now we can enjoy 100% of our gardening labors. The hardware cloth provides adequate sunlight penetration and also makes the plants easy to water. The hinged top makes human access easy but difficult for animals. When the seeds initially come up I place gardeners sun screen on the top of the box which filters the sun about 50 percent. Once the seedlings are up and established I can remove the sun screen as the plants then are less likely to be burned from the intense sun at an elevation of 9,780 feet.

I have used these boxes now for years and those animals who previously devoured our garden produce can only sit on the outside and look in. Not to say they haven’t tried to get in but they have not figured a way to do that yet. They are sturdy and easy to plant in each spring. They are sturdy enough that I witnessed a bear walk across the top of one without doing any damage other than bending the hardware cloth slightly. We also have a nice raspberry patch that is shared with the birds which we consider acceptable since we also get our fair share of the berries. We also have three rhubarb plants that provide at least 4-6 delicious pies for us. I have found that if I plant spinach seeds late in the fall just before the ground freezes the spinach seeds get an early start on the growing season in the spring. The timing is important as we do not want the seeds to sprout in the fall and therefore die while still in the tender stage of growth. That way we can enjoy a longer growing season for spinach and our harvest is greater so we can eat fresh salads almost all summer long and enjoy spinach crepes several times also.

Gardening at high elevation is tricky and years of trial and error have provided us some beneficial techniques that enable us to eat our produce rather than share with the various animals. I have attempted to grow grapes but the growing season is way too short and the vines did not survive. Fruit trees do not do well at our elevation nor did some blueberry bushes that I planted. Not only is our growing season very short our soil is very rocky which makes establishing a normal garden difficult.

So as I walk past the garden boxes I dream of fresh spinach next spring knowing that those seeds are in place and will pop to the surface as soon as it begins to warm up again. Until then we will be moving several thousand pounds of snow since we average around 264 inches per winter. Just knowing that those seeds are in place and ready to go is something we really look forward to. Spinach is a hearty vegetable to grow and often when the snow clears I find a nice healthy plant that has somehow thrived under all that snow/ice over the winter. Even when starting plants indoors our growing season is so short that many vegetables never reach maturity. We not only have a short growing season but a harsh climate which only allows some plants to survive or grow to maturity.

For more on Bruce and Carol McElmurray and their mountain living go see McElmurray’s Mountain Retreat.

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