Growing A Garden At High Elevation

Reader Contribution by Bruce Mcelmurray
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Living in the mountains sounds ideal and in most ways it is pretty ideal.  We live in a fresh air, pure water environment that keeps us healthy by just performing our normal routine activities.  We have lived in major cities most of our lives so we have breathed the factory and vehicle smells along with all the other smells associated with city life.  I’m not qualified to say, but my guess is living where and how we do increases our life span.  As part of that lifestyle we like to grow our own vegetables when possible. 

Gardening in the mountains can be a formidable challenge.  Anyone who has ever visited, hiked or spent time in the mountains will recognize that there are lots of stones, rocks and boulders.  Some as big as a house or  even larger.   So growing a garden takes extensive work in just clearing an area for your garden. That small rock you start to dig out suddenly goes down forever and may weigh tons.  If you don’t plan  ahead you will start from behind and not be able catch up.  That means as soon as the soil is thawed you start to work it for planting.  As you can see in the attached photo that I have started seeds inside and you can just see the garden boxes starting to show in the snow out back. 

Then there are the abundant rodents that compete for what you grow.  Strangely enough we have not had a problem with deer and other browsing animals.  We once had a bear that walked across one of my garden boxes.  I did not design them to withstand 400-500 pounds of bear, but it held up pretty good none the less. 

Chipmunks, voles, field mice, squirrels (both ground and tree) and the birds can reek havoc on a garden in the mountains in short order.   They can invent more ways to invade your garden than you can design methods to keep them out.  Presently our garden boxes have them confounded.   Insects don’t present much of a  problem for us.  We use food grade DE when they rarely appear.   If your expectations are to mark off some land, turn the soil, and plant a garden you can forget it if you live in the mountains.  By the time you accomplish that the short growing season will be past and you will have to finish it next year.  We start seeds inside except for spinach, swiss chard and lettuce.  Timing is important.  The slower germinating  seeds start inside and those more hearty and faster growing are started outside.   Even when they are finally planted outside they can be burned by the sun or frost/freeze damaged.  We use a 50% sun screen to protect them from a harsh sun and light frost.  It also protects them from  hail and severe weather.

We grow our vegetables in home made garden boxes that are completely surrounded by hardware cloth.  We also grow in Earth Boxes on our deck.  Our yield is less by growing that way but we eat what we grow and therefore do not feed  the rodents.  We had a couple loads of mushroom mulch for fertile top soil from a local mushroom grower delivered.   That mulch need to be turned often the first year as it is strong enough to burn your seedlings.  After that it pretty well maintains it properties and is good for growing.   Growing season is short and instead of digging out all the rocks we only removed those that prevented  us from making a level place.  We then (thanks to the wood mill) used heavy lumber to tier the area, and then placed the garden boxes (4’X 5′) on the flat area.  We did not treat the lumber as we didn’t want any toxins near our garden.  We figured when the lumber rotted; which is a very slow process in the mountains, that we would just replace them. 

If you have a vision of growing vegetables to sustain yourself in the mountains it will require a lot of trial and error plus forethought.  Prior to the garden boxes being built I thought maybe I needed to dig a moat around my garden or lay down a mine field.  Fortunately the garden boxes prevented me from going that far.  They are just simple construction with a hinged top and abundant hardware cloth on all sides and top and bottom allowing no opening for a rodent to penetrate.   Due to the short growing season (late May to August) when we use a row of spinach we then plant more seeds so we can extend our harvest.  Growing vegetables in the mountains and at a high elevation does present more challenges than most other places but it can be done providing you plan well.  The rewards are always good when you can eat vegetables that you have grown yourself.  We are limited in the amount we can grow and what we can grow but the rewards are all the sweeter when we out smart a small rodent with a pea sized brain.  Over the years I’m just about to break even with them.  

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