Gardening at High Elevation

Reader Contribution by Bruce Mcelmurray
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Having and maintaining a garden at high elevation can be exasperating and very much a challenge. Our growing season is short and the best way to have a decent harvest is to start the seeds inside. In the 18 years we have lived at this higher elevation we have tried various methods of growing a garden and it has been 18 continuous years of trial and error. Mostly error but strides forward have been a slow progression for us by learning from our numerous errors. For example we have started seeds inside so that when the snow finally melts away and the ground thaws they can be transplanted outdoors in our entirely enclosed garden boxes. Those garden boxes are fully enclosed in 1/2-inch hardware screen to keep the rodents out and then they are also covered with a 50-percent sun screen to protect tender plants from the intense sunlight at this elevation (9,750 feet). In one garden box I plant spinach seeds in late fall and when the soil thaws out in the spring they will sprout and provide us a two week head start on our leaf vegetables. As I sit here and write that particular box is currently under 5 feet of snow so it will be a while this year before they begin to sprout.

Enclosing the garden boxes with hardware cloth on all six sides became necessary to keep rodents out of the interior area. We have voles, moles, mice, rabbits, ground squirrels and chipmunks – all of which have an uncanny ability to find their way into gardening containers at just the right time to consume our harvest. The boxes allow sunlight and rain to enter in order to nourish the plants but now keep rodents out. Once the plants are established we sometimes take the 50-percent sun screen off the hinged top portion to allow for more direct sunlight. Our optimum growing season is usually 60 days leaving the rest of the gardening season with cool nights and short days slowing growth. The garden boxes are varying heights and sizes to accommodate both small and large plants. Insects are not much of a problem at this altitude so by growing in a fully enclosed container the only real hazard is when we have an occasional hail storm. Hail has ruined vegetables a few times over the years which always presents the question as to whether risk a hail storm and remove the 50-percent sun screen or not. The sun screen protects against hail but limits the growth of the plants in our short growing season by limiting the sunlight.

A few times during the last 18 years we have had very mild winters and I was able to get plants safely transplanted into the garden boxes around the first week of April. Those are cherished years as it gives us a longer growing season which is very unusual for us. Up until two weeks ago I wrongly assumed that this was appearing to be one of those extended growing seasons and I could have a great harvest. The garden boxes were clearly visible from the snow which had been very moderate to date. I made the terrible mistake of thinking it would only be 4-6 weeks until I could start to work in the garden outside. I got my seed starter boxes out and filled them with sprouting soil and planted the seeds inside. As can be seen in the photo they are doing well and could be planted outside in the next few weeks. I seriously miscalculated because when I made this decision we were having days in the 50s but in the past two weeks we have had snow almost each day for a total accumulation during that period of 90 inches and very cold temperatures.

Fortunately I can save the seedlings this year by planting them in earth boxes and keeping them in the basement with a grow light. It is going to take several weeks for our current snow to melt away and hence planting the seedlings outside is no longer possible. Proper timing when attempting a garden at high elevation is always iffy at best but to make a serious mistake like this year can sometimes mean starting totally over again. Fortunately I did not plant more seeds than my earth boxes can accommodate. Even our earth boxes needed modification due to our rodents to keep vegetables out of their reach. Even though we keep the boxes on our deck which is elevated 10’ from the ground the ground squirrels climb onto the deck to get at them. To solve that problem I drilled holes in the edge of the earth boxes and fashioned wire loops over the boxes and covered the boxes in netting. Thus far that has worked.

We have tried solar boxes to start plants outside early but when left closed during the day they become too hot for tender seedlings and when we would prop them open in the daytime the ground squirrels and chipmunks, looking for food after coming out of hibernation, would devastate them before they got a good start. Prior to declaring full out war against rodents and just before digging a moat or laying a mine field around our garden I arrived at the idea of enclosed garden boxes which seems to have resolved the problem for now. I am glad that I chose to build the garden boxes strong because on one occasion we observed a bear standing on one box. The bear could not figure out how the hinged top lifted up so instead stood on the box which held up nicely. Swinging the lid up while you are standing on it is next to impossible which stymied the bear completely and it finally just gave up and left.

Having and maintaining a garden at high elevation is possible if you are persistent and adaptable. With a short growing season, rodents, harsh weather and the intense sun during the summer makes it necessary to sometimes grow a garden outside the more conventional method. Through trial and error we have found a way to grow and harvest vegetables but we still have to be flexible for changes like this year being fooled by mother nature and the influx of snow. For us it just boils down to old Irish stubbornness and persistence.

For more on Bruce and Carol McElmurray and their high altitude living check out theMcElmurray’s Mountain Retreat.

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