Gardening at High Elevation

Reader Contribution by Bruce Mcelmurray
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Growing vegetables at a high elevation can be very challenging. Over the years we have had to be flexible and creative in order to manage a small garden. We grow enough for our needs but not enough to put any vegetables up for future use.

This blog post outlines some of the challenges we have faced and how we overcame them.

Rodent Control Using Garden Boxes

One major factor that had to be overcome was dealing with rodents. We live in an area where there are chipmunks, ground squirrels, voles, mice, and moles. Just about the time our garden would reach maturity they would devastate it. By locating it adjacent to our home we wrongfully assumed that it would be less likely to be consumed by rodents.

We couldn’t have been more wrong. These little varmints have  absolutely no problem coming close to the house to get a free meal. We went to earth boxes and put them on the front deck, but again, they had no problem coming up onto our elevated deck to feast on our vegetables.

The solution was to build garden boxes that kept them out. Our soil is very rocky and we have limited space to grow vegetables to begin with. These boxes are portable and protect the vegetables from unwanted pests. As the photo depicts, they are made from wood and ½-inch hardware screen. They can be made to fit whatever area you have available and for the last 10 years have kept the rodents out.

We made them of untreated lumber that we milled ourselves. That means that they will rot or decay in time, but there are no chemicals transferred to the vegetables, and we do not use any sealer on them.

The hardware cloth covers top, bottom and all sides. We hinged the top for easy access, and it also allows us to water the vegetables without having to raise the top. We also get frequent hail storms with pea-sized or smaller hail, and the hardware screen tends to diffuse the hail and protect the plants.

Another technique we have used is to grow plants that we don’t use ourselves on the perimeter of our garden area. They intercept the rodents before they can get to the vegetable boxes and keep them occupied so they don’t chew through the lumber. We planted currant and gooseberry bushes and these continue to produce long enough that the rodents stay occupied with them and not other things like our raspberry plants — however, the birds feast on those to a limited extent.

Vegetables for a Limited Growing Season

Our growing season is very limited at 9,800 feet, so we have to choose vegetables that grow quickly. We tried many vegetables but through the process of elimination discovered that many would not grow to maturity.

Our most successful crops are peas, kale, spinach, lettuce, radishes, rhubarb, raspberries and carrots. Occasionally, we will reap a few zucchini, but those are our most successful crops. I do keep a potato bin that will provide us a few small potatoes as well.

This year, we planted seeds in early April, because it appeared we were going to have an early spring. Then, we received another 5 feet of snow and freezing weather which destroyed the seedlings. We planted again at the end of April, assuming that it was safe, because the aspen trees were starting to leaf out. Again, we were wrong, and we received more snow and freezing temperatures that destroyed the seedlings. Our final planting in mid-May was successful, as the above photo reflects.

We try to plant in intervals so we will have vegetables all summer. We, therefore, harvest one box and replant in that box vegetables like spinach, lettuce, and kale that are quick to produce. Our sunlight, even during summer, is limited as the sun sets on the other side of our mountain, so vegetables only get morning and mid-day sun and, coupled with the short growing season, we are limited in what we can grow.

Consistent vegetables are those that are named above. Rhubarb plants actually start growing under the snow and produce enough rhubarb for several pies throughout the summer with enough to freeze and have later in the year.

Our small raspberry patch is pretty much devastated by voles throughout the winter when we have 5 to 6 feet of snow and ice on the ground. They are able to tunnel to the base of the raspberry plants where they feast on the base of the plants. Hence the raspberry bushes have to start afresh each year from the roots.

With regard to our rodents and weather conditions, we have found they each vary year-to-year and some years the predators like owls, hawks, and weasels keep the rodent population to a minimum, but when they move on, the rodents repopulate quickly. Also, some years we may actually have 4 to 5 months of growing season, but that is always iffy and doesn’t occur often.


Living at higher elevation presents its own unique challenges for growing vegetables, and in order to have any harvest whatsoever, it is necessary to be flexible, creative and persistent. It can successfully be done but it requires more effort than having a garden at a lower elevation where growing conditions are more ideal. Our semi-arid environment also means more watering is required. We have not had any significant problem with insects, but when we do, we use diatomaceous earth to remedy that problem.

Bruce McElummary lives remotely with his wife, Carol, in an 880-square-foot cabin along with their three dogs. They implemented many of the things they learned from MOTHER since its inception as a magazine. For more on Bruce and Carol McElmurray and their lifestyle go to Read all of Bruce’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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