Why Gardening at High Elevation Is Challenging

Reader Contribution by Bruce Mcelmurray
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Growing vegetables at 9,750-foot elevation can not only be difficult but an annual challenge. Our average snowfall is 264 inches a year and when it finally melts and is only in small patches as depicted in the photo we try to get our seeds planted. Sometimes we then receive spring storms that in other locals would be rain storms but here they are snow events. Just such a storm occurred recently dropping 17 inches of heavy wet snow on us. This year I was not caught by surprise so I only had one garden box planted.

Hearty Vegetables

Spinach is a very hardy plant and I had planted the seeds last fall so they would come up this spring. They were earlier buried under 5-6 feet of snow and ice throughout the winter but when it finally melted the seeds germinated and were up about half-an-inch above the soil when this storm occurred. We watch the weather forecast carefully and when we knew this one was going to impact our area I put 50-percent sun screen over the box to protect the tender plants. While we had 17 inches of wet heavy snow piled onto the garden box it now only serves to act as a slow water drip for the plants and the seedlings survived and now have a source of water for the next several days. Other vegetables like carrots, lettuce, zucchini and radishes do not handle the cold nights as well so they have not been planted yet.

Mammal Threats

Also under all this recent snow are three rhubarb plants that had already come up and when the snow melts they should be just fine as they too are hearty. They have already survived an attack by a fat non-discriminating vole who apparently did not realize that eating rhubarb would be hazardous to its health. I found it near one of the plants all curled up apparently with a severe belly ache and dying. Voles, mice, moles, rabbits, chipmunks and squirrels are just some of the varmints we contend with here in the mountains. That is why I grow our vegetables in garden boxes with hinged lids and surrounded on all sides and top and bottom with ½” hardware cloth.

Insect/Weather Threats

The 50-percent sun screen is installed to protect the early plants from the intense sun at this elevation. When the plants get established I will remove the sun screen but until then it will remain in place. Insects are not much of a problem as we have abundant birds that keep them in check. When insects do become a problem we use diatomaceous earth on them that does not harm plants or anything but the insects. The biggest challenge we usually face is the weather and planting at the appropriate time. Our nights are cool and our days seasonable. We have observed over the years that our hot days are generally limited to less than two weeks a year where the temperature may get as high as the low 80s. Our nights are cool and because of the low humidity we have to be attentive to keeping our vegetables watered or they will grow so slowly they do not produce.

Our challenges are not more difficult than other gardeners in other locations face but they are just different and require constant adjustments. Carrots, beets and turnips at our location often just barely produce depending on when they are planted in the spring. The snow in the photo reflects that planting early can be a mistake and planting too late with our short growing season doesn’t give the plants a chance to mature. Peas can be planted now as they are hearty and the cool days and nights don’t seem to affect them in the least. Living where we do timing is probably the most important part of having a successful garden. The planting guide that comes in seed catalogs and the Farmers Almanac are geared to a general geographic area but do not take into account high elevation so we have found those of little use. Our best method is years of experience, guess work, and mostly just plain luck.

Having a garden at a higher elevation is possible but it helps to be flexible and persistent. Mostly with careful planning and determination it will workout but the method is somewhat different than at lower elevations. As the photos depict growing a garden at high elevation requires some flexibility. Timberline in Colorado is between 11,000 and 12,000 feet and we are close enough to that elevation that while vegetables will grow, the elevation is a factor to keep in mind when planting. Winds are strong, the sun intense, the nights cool and the rain sparse. Native plants have adapted to these conditions but vegetables do not adapt having come from other areas and require constant care and dedication. Having a garden is not impossible at high elevation but it is a different challenge. We personally enjoy fresh vegetables straight from the garden so we do our best to adapt to the challenges presented by high elevation.

For more on Bruce and Carol McElmurray and high elevation living go to:www.brucecarolcabin.blogspot.com

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