High-Altitude Gardening in the Rocky Mountains

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FOTOLIA/SQUIRLGIRL
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.

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.

Another special factor for mountain gardeners to consider
is the thinness of the atmosphere at high altitudes. This
causes water to evaporate faster from the ground. You could
say that the air itself provides less insulation for
conserving water, so it is important to provide your own
insulation for a garden in the form of a thick but
lightweight mulch of dry grasses or straw. This mulch will
keep the garden soil soft. Otherwise, unnaturally exposed
by the digging up of mountain grasses as you spade the
dirt, it would quickly become dry and hard. Old bedding
from horse corrals is a good mulch for some purposes, and
both nourishes and insulates. And such is the
protectiveness of this covering, that in the bleakness of
spring, the earliest green things you find will be safely
hidden under the natural mulch of last year’s grasses and
wildflowers.

Next you must realize that Rocky Mountain soils lack the
range of nutrients needed for many garden vegetables, so
you have to dig in plenty of aged manure when you first
clear a garden plot. For this purpose I recycle weeds,
kitchen waste, and the refuse from the spring cleaning of
my chicken coop . . . sometimes digging the manure and
wastes directly into the garden soil, or composting it for
a year. For additional nutrients I use the weeds I have
pulled as mulch at the end of each summer.

Mountain soils, by the way, are often acidic at higher
elevations, because they were created from granite rather
than the alkaline sandstones and limestones of lower
elevations, and because of the acid content of decomposing
pine needles. Very acidic soils can be moderated by the
addition of wood ashes. But if you heat with wood, these
are easy to come by. The soils of meadows and aspen groves
are richer, however, and less likely to be acidic than
those near coniferous forests.

The first year I lived high in the Rockies I gardened
without irrigation. The next year I used a 300-foot hose to
take additional water from the spring to the garden when it
was needed. But there is more rain at higher elevations in
the Rockies than at lower elevations, so with careful
observation and practice you will learn to plant a garden
which is wholly sympathetic to natural conditions and that
may not need irrigation. Hopi Indians, in fact, have farmed
with great success for centuries without irrigation . . .
in what at first glance appears to be barren desert.

At the start of the season you must anticipate the green of
summer, which is a little hard to do after six or seven
months of snow. That is when you learn that to garden
successfully in the Rockies what you perhaps need most is
optimism. Winter holds tight in March . . . while spring is
only vaguely hinted at by the wetness of the month’s
snowfalls. Then in April the softening of the ground and
the appearance of the purple Easter-egg-like pasque flower
in the pine forests become more obvious signals of spring.
Still, the landscape seems desolate compared with the
brilliant green fuzz beginning to show at lower altitudes.

The actual length of winter, alas, is as variable as other
conditions in the Rockies, so it is good to buy seeds,
sets, and roots early. Then you’ll have them when the first
opportunities for planting come, and not find nurseries
sold out.

Then come days in late April when the warmth of the air and
soil surprise you like a miracle. Looking under the natural
mulch of the meadow, or that of last year’s garden, you
find the soil has thawed and tiny green leaves are
sprouting. That’s when the gardener’s heart within you
begins to quicken. One native you may want to start with is
the Umbelliferae family, which appears early and
vigorously. Late April is the time to plant the domestic
relatives in this family: parsley, carrots, and parsnips.
Domestic varieties take all summer to mature, though
carrots can be thinned and enjoyed the latter half of the
summer. Fennel, similar in appearance to the wild whisk
broom parsley, also takes all summer to mature and should
be planted as early as possible. It is a licorice-like herb
which flowers in June, and its leaves are great for salad
and vegetable seasoning. You might say that its stalks and
bases are a sort of Rocky Mountain celery.

Next there are leaf lettuce, spinach, turnips, and
radishes, all of which will grow vigorously under a mulch
through the snows and frosts of May and early June.
Everything but the turnips will be going to seed by
mid-July, so plan to make a second planting.

Leaf lettuce and endive are related to many edible wild
species of thistles and dandelions that flourish in high,
gassy meadows and along roadsides of the Rockies.
Lamb’s-quarters, a wild herb, is similar to spinach and
springs up in disturbed soil at high altitudes. I weed it
sparingly from my garden since it is delicious steamed or
in salads.

Onion and garlic sets are also best started very early,
while onion plants, like cabbage and broccoli (which must
be started indoors and set out as plants to mature in the
short growing season), are better set out when the possible
wintry days of May have passed. That is also when you plant
beet seeds . . . after the soil has warmed up a bit.

Sweet peas and edible pod peas have natural equivalents in
many wild species (none too edible, some poisonous).
Planted with the other early starters, they come up quickly
and are rapidly climbing trellises by June. They need to be
watered in middle and late summer to keep bearing after the
first pods have formed, since they would provide an
unpredictable harvest without irrigation.

In mid-May spring still seems far away to the casual
observer from lower altitudes. The willow-like catkins of
still-leafless aspen trees mature, hang loose on the trees,
and fill the air with a white fuzz like gentle snow. But an
old, lifelong gardener in our neighborhood assures me that
this is the best time to plant potatoes.

Potatoes are not frost resistant, but they are an almost
carefree crop with abundant yields even when frost touches
down on a mid-August night, leaving behind wilted, dying
plants.

A few tips on growing this crop: Buy genuine seed potatoes
for stock . . . regular store potatoes have been treated to
retard sprouting and will never mature properly. The larger
the portion cut for starting, the more potatoes will be
produced per plant. Plant the pieces about five inches deep
and cover your rows with six inches of straw. In two or
three weeks fat shoots of fuzzy leaves push up through the
sod, but they must be protected from early June frosts.

Another valuable tuber for high-altitude gardens is the
Jerusalem artichoke . . . like a potato, it can be boiled,
baked, or fried, and it stores well. It is a close relative
of the tall, ragged sunflower that comes up in abundance
along mountain roads and ditches, forming thick, yellow
borders when it flowers in August. And the Jerusalem
artichoke grows almost as naturally, once it is introduced.

You may want to plant a corner of your garden with beds of
perennial strawberries, chives, and garlic. Domestic straw
berry plants adapt easily to mountain conditions, and wilt;
strawberries can also be transplanted, and bear more
heavily it cultivated. Rhubarb has been introduced by
settlers and miners in moist gulches in our neighborhood,
and it thrives untended like a weed. I have also established
some spearmint plants along the damp runoff from the
spring.

Keep your eye on what grows naturally around you. The
native flora of the Rocky Mountains is also a good food
source, and gives you clues as to what domestic vegetables
will adapt best to high-altitude conditions. It also,
incidentally, provides natural insect repellents. Once you
learn the appearance of these plants in early spring, you
can have them in your garden simply by weeding judiciously.
Two common herbs that I allow to grow to repel garden
insects are chamomile and sage. These can also be useful
for tea as well as seasoning.

I have even experimented with a “greenhouse” for growing,
vegetables that need more warmth than high altitudes and a
gulch location provide. The greenhouse is an A-frame built
with used 2 x 4’s and covered with plastic. I have grown
tomatoes, cucumbers, and zucchini in it as well as
tremendous heads of lettuce and two-week crops of radishes.

Except for vegetables which thrive well outside, such as
lettuce, the others have not done well . . . zucchini will
not bear heavily inside the greenhouse because of the high
humidity and the lack of pollinating insects. Perhaps a
more favorable location than mine, one that is on a high,
protected west-facing slope, may be better for growing
these warm-weather vegetables at unusually high altitudes.

I am also satisfied with crops that grow here like weeds
and in abundance. I have sweet lettuce and spinach to share
with from the lowlands when it has grown too hot down there
for these leafy greens. And the cool nights of the Rock
Mountains give the same sweetness found in greens to the
peas beets, turnips, cabbage, and other vegetables grown
here . . . which, like fresh spring water, refreshes more
than the most exotic produce brought in from elsewhere.

The final satisfaction of Rocky Mountain gardening comes in
the tawny days of fall, when you dig potatoes, harvest the
last of the root crops, and store what remains in cardboard
boxes of sawdust or straw, to be stowed under the beds it
unheated backrooms. Then you dry the herbs, and put chives
and parsley in pots for your neighbors’ kitchen
windowsills. Finally, you cover the garden with dry grasses
and dead weeds to rest protected till next spring.

As winter then approaches, you may linger outside to
observe individual plants and their growth patterns . . .
there is always more to be learned about the workings of
nature that will be useful to your gardening efforts next
year.

The real challenge of Rocky Mountain gardening, you will
find, is not so much that of outfoxing nature and the
difficult conditions she imposes. Mostly, it lies in
harmonizing your efforts with hers for a healthy, abundant,
deeply satisfying harvest.