High-Altitude Gardening in the Rocky Mountains

A guide to high altitude gardening, vegetable planting, cultivating and harvesting in the Rocky Mountains.

| May/June 1975

  • Bundled onions vegetable gardening
    Land that tilts like a roller coaster, a growing season of indeterminate length that may well include frost or snow, the absence of suitable directions on seed packets.

  • Bundled onions vegetable gardening

Land that tilts like a roller coaster, a growing season of indeterminate length that may well include frost or snow, the absence of suitable directions on seed packets . . . those are some of the challenges that confront you when you plant a garden at an altitude of 8,000 or 9,000 feet. Even the back issues of that reliable old friend Organic Gardening seem to forsake you up where the air is thin and often chilly, and the prospects for high-altitude gardening success at first seem slim.

Still, if your green thumb really itches, bumper crops of splendid turnips, potatoes, cabbages, onions, garlic, and herbs can be yours without any real difficulty as high up as the timberline if you know how to grow them. And when you succeed, you get superb food along with the satisfaction of mastering the fine-tuning of one of the world's more exotic natural environments.

High-Altitude Gardening in the Rocky Mountains

I live in a small cabin on a mining claim in a national forest in Colorado, high on the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains. And I find that my greatest pleasure in living here is learning the glories and subtleties of nature . . . and the ways of plants. I am surrounded by a wildness still intact enough to be an overwhelming force in my life, a wildness that makes me, as a gardener, want to learn what vegetables grow here best and most naturally, with the least amount of care and manipulation of the environment. The following approach to gardening has brought me a wealth of food and has helped me preserve the wildness a little longer. And it may tell other high-country gardeners how to do the same.

First, if you garden in that fascinating zone between 3,000 feet above sea level and the Alpine tundra where even trees don't grow, you must realize that the sunshine, moisture, temperatures, and soils all vary greatly over relatively small areas and short periods of time. This is because the land rises and dips steeply except for broad, high meadows that taper off into narrow gulches choked with willow and alder. Thus, every slope and its plants has its own relationship to the sun. Slopes facing north receive the least sunlight, and are cool and refreshing in late summer, when land tilted south is parched and dry. And slopes facing east get the morning sun, while those directed west are warmed even more by late afternoon rays.

A good example of this variability, and the adaptability it brings, can be seen in a healthy fruit tree that may grow in a sunny, protected crease of a hillside . . . but wouldn't have a chance of survival if it were planted ten to twenty feet away from that warm pocket.

My mountain garden is on a strip of meadow in a gulch, and is protected from high winds. It is wetter, and its soil richer, than surrounding hillsides, yet it is cooler at night and more subject to frosts . . . the cold air of evening rolls downhill like a river and into such gulches. So I have learned to plant only frost-resistant vegetables. And most of these vegetables outlast the neighboring meadow grasses in the fall to glow startlingly green in the midst of a dull gray and tan mountain landscape.

4/24/2014 10:52:31 PM

Yikes! Sorry about that folks. All my new paragraphs and extra spaces were deleted in that comment. Very odd and kind of frustrating.

4/24/2014 10:50:43 PM

I’m surprised you didn’t include Painted Mountain Corn in your article, or it’s sister sweet corn. It produces reliably in marginal soils at 5,000+ feet within 80-90 day growing seasons and is tough enough to shrug off the typical Rocky Mountain summer storms. My family and I have been growing Painted Mountain Corn seed for a few years now, always encouraging our customers to save their own seed and develop it for the their micro-climate and share with family and community. But I think this summer may be the most important growing season of our lives, and whatever we grow, we’re going to keep to feed the family. We like Painted Mountain Corn for it’s nutrition and calorie content, but Painted Mountain Corn is truly the most beautiful thing I have ever grown. My family and I have been growing Painted Mountain Corn and every year for harvest we try to get as many new people and kids involved as possible. Opening the shucks is like revealing a purse full of jewels. I never tire of the looks of amazement and joy on the faces of both children and parents as they discover the joy of growing this crop. I’m a 25 year old farmer, entrepreneur, physicist and writer born and raised among the snow-capped mountains of Montana. I grew up on an off-the-grid homestead with my brother, raised by my dad–a scientist, historian, entrepreneur, farmer, author, alternative energy expert and passive solar pioneer (he’s never one to brag, so I’ll do it for him). My brother and I went off on scholarships, first to the east coast then to the south for college, but we have since returned to our wild mountains to build our lives and prepare to not only survive, but thrive and pass the torch of civilization to those who will follow us. I know a lot of people only think of sweet corn when corn is mentioned–but sweet corn is a summer vegetable. You can’t sustain your family through the winter on summer veggies, no matter how vitamin-rich and tasty they are. My family has been working towards total food independence for years and with my dad we have the cumulative experience of decades of trying to grow food in extreme climates. Out of necessity we’ve always grown food for sustenance. When you are forced to rely on what you grow for your food year round, the bottom line is calories. Farming your food takes a tremendous amount of energy and anything you can do to reduce energy input and increase calorie output MUST be your top priority. “Forget those romantic notions of a nineteenth century life illumined by the cozy glow of the family circle around the fireplace at night. Been there – done that. It’s OK for a time and a season but I don’t want to repeat it unnecessarily as long as I have a choice. You don’t have to spend all your time and energy scrambling in bare subsistence. In that state, you have no time or energy for anything else…” –New Ordnance “The Secret Weapon” (RockyMountainCorn dot com) For my family the bottom line is grain, legumes, potatoes and winter squash. Add in carrots and turnips and onions for some variety. We’ve tried many different grains, legumes, winter squashes and numerous varieties of root vegetables. YOU MUST GROW VARIETIES ADAPTED FOR YOUR REGION AND CLIMATE. Plants that work well for organic farmers and seed growers in Maine are not the best varieties for a high mountain micro-climate in the northern Rocky Mountains. It seems obvious, but we’ve learned the hard way. Buy seed grown in your region or you are courting disaster. The tried and true garden for my family at 5,000 feet in Montana is (1) Painted Mountain Corn for our grain (Fukushima-free, Non-GMO, non-hybrid, open pollinated, high protein, micro-nutrient, soft starch – go to our website RockyMountainCorn dot com for more info), (2) Progress #9, Early Frosty, and Dakota shell peas & Black Coco, Golden Rocky Bush Wax, and King of the Early dry beans for our legumes, (3) our own local cross between Squisito spaghetti squash and Eight Ball Zucchini that turns out to be a decent tasting winter squash that keeps well and produces incredibly fast and heavy in a short, harsh summer, and (4) Purple Viking potatoes that produce reliably in spite of late and early frosts and poor, gravely soil and constant high wind. Augmenting this garden with deer, elk and trout, we are able to have a balanced diet with enough calories to sustain a high level of activity. For folks who need a little more info on Painted Mountain Corn, what it is, how to grow it, etc. check out RockyMountainCorndotcom 12 Tips for Planting and Crop Reports. From the Rocky Mountain Corn family: “We’re a small family operation in Montana who love to grow things. The climate is challenging, but over the years we’ve settled on a few varieties of vegetables and grains that produce reliably. We discovered Painted Mountain Corn a few years ago and were amazed at its ability to mature in 90 days and produce bountifully where so many other corns have failed. We loved its colors, nutritional value, hardiness and ability to thrive in rocky, marginal soils at higher elevations (we grow at 5,000+ feet). “After 2 years of growing Painted Mountain Corn, we realized it was the perfect grain for small farmers and homesteaders in the Rocky Mountain West and decided to start spreading the seed to help our neighbors become more self-sufficient. When we realized that the supply of Painted Mountain Corn available through most online retailers was only sporadically available, we decided to help increase the availability of this spectacular corn. After growing Painted Mountain Corn, we hope you will be as impressed with it as we have and help spread the word about this magnificent grain. “What is Painted Mountain Corn? Simply put, it’s a corn that grows where no other corn survives. Bred to withstand the harsh climate and short growing season of southwestern Montana, we’ve found that it’s the only corn that will grow and reliably produce at elevations above 5,000 feet in the northern Rocky Mountains. Bred from a variety of semi-extinct western Indian corns, Painted Mountain Corn represents a gene pool with 1,000 years of selection for reliable production in the arid and nutrient-poor soils of the western United States. “Developed as the life’s work of Dave Christensen in Big Timber, Montana, Painted Mountain Corn has been successfully grown in marginal climates and depleted soils around the world (North Korea, Siberia, South Africa), largely through the efforts of the Seed We Need Project*. With a proven record in climates with marginal growing seasons around the world, Dave Christensen has created a super-corn that thrives where even barley and other cereal grains have difficulty. “Having tried a number of hybrid fast-maturing corn varieties over the years without success, we were a little skeptical when we first planted Painted Mountain corn several years ago. Living at an elevation of 5,000 ft. on a wind-swept hillside with dusty alkaline soil that routinely saw 30 mph winds and less than 11 inches of rainfall per year, our expectations were low. To our surprise, the corn came up early June, shrugged off hail storms, cold night temperatures and hot daytime winds to produce on average 2 beautiful ears of corn per plant in late August/early September. We had done our best to prepare the soil beforehand, water once a day and weed when the corn was small–efforts that paid off when we were rewarded with a bounty of rainbow-colored ears. Somehow, Painted Mountain Corn had succeeded where all other corns had failed. “Bred for its soft starches, high protein content (comparable to hard red winter wheat) and anti-oxident pigmentation (anthocyanins etc.), Painted Mountain Corn offers more than just calories–it offers easily digestible nutrition unavailable in other corn varieties. What’s more, being Fukushima Free, non-GMO, heirloom, and open pollinated means that seed-saving for Painted Mountain Corn is a reliable way to propagate from year-to-year. “In our experience, Painted Mountain Corn is fun to grow, harvest and eat, and is also a reliable way to efficiently produce a high-calorie grain with limited space and no mechanized equipment. The ears snap off easily when they’re dry, and can be easily husked and shelled with minimal equipment (a hand-held aluminum popcorn sheller from Lehman’s does the trick nicely), then ground into flour with a hand-crank grain mill (or even a blender!). What’s more, livestock enjoy the sugary leaves and the low-cellulose stems, making the feed-to-meat conversion more efficient compared to other varieties of corn. “We hope that you’ll give Painted Mountain Corn a try and let us know how it does for you. Our seed is organically grown in southwestern Montana at elevations above 5,000 feet, and is free from cross-pollination by other varieties. It is GMO-free and Fukushima-free. “Check out our website: RockyMountainCorndotcom “If you would like to learn more about the development of Painted Mountain Corn and its implementation around the world, please visit the Dave Christensen* web site at SeedWeNeeddotcom “*While we love and grow Painted Mountain Corn, we have no affiliation or endorsement from Dave Christensen or the Seed We Need project. Please consider making a donation to support his corn breeding work and the Seed We Need Project”

2/7/2009 9:26:21 PM

I too live in the high mountains of colorado and am learning to garden in a gulch with lots of wind and have not done too well. I am at a altitude of 9200 feet. How high are you?

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