High Altitude Gardening: Time to start thinking about gardening
Ryan Summerlin March 16, 2014
I just love when my first seed catalogs arrive in the mail. Like the robins that herald the arrival of spring, my seed catalog’s arrival tells me spring is not far off, and I can start planning my garden. I like to purchase a lot of my seeds by mid-March, to be sure the seed companies don’t run out. Sometimes they do, because gardening is the most popular pass-time across the U.S. They usually don’t run out of the standard items, but if you have some specialties in mind, there may be limited supply. My favorite seed catalogs are J.W. Jung Seed, Botanical Interests, Johnny’s Seed and Burpees. Botanical Interest, from Denver, has the best prices; Jung and Burpees have the best selection.
If you’re not a regular gardener or are not sure what to plant for our cold, high altitude climate, here’s a quick primer:
First, I’m an advocate of removing those prima-donna flowers (or at least some), and planting vegetables. You’ll want to have some veggies to eat for all your effort. But in fact, the healthiest vegetable gardens are those with a mix of veggies and flowers to help encourage lots of insect visitors, which pollinate the plants, thereby produce more veggies. Some plants must have pollination by insects in order to get any fruits. And most vegetable plants can be rather attractive, creating a lovely, landscape mix.
Any flowers mix well with veggies, but I like lots of marigolds and flowering herbs such as dill for color and flavor. I like a wall of tall sunflowers across the back of the garden for cut flowers. And sunflowers are also excellent at attracting all kinds of insects and providing good seed food for birds in the fall. They also make great stalks for the peas and beans to climb. Most flowers do well in our climate when planted after the last frost, about June 1, whether using seed or nursery plants; or check the back of the package to see that the plant is tolerant to a zone 3 or 4. But seeds often don’t flower until late July when our summer is nearly over, so I like to put in a bunch of nursery pre-grown to get an earlier start.
For high-altitude vegetable gardens, there is a great deal of climate variation, depending on your specific neighborhood’s elevation and sun and wind exposure. (My gardening class covers more on this.) But most gardens up through East Vail will happily grow any of the green leafy vegetables such as lettuce, spinach, kale, chard, bok choy and snap peas. These can all be planted as soon as your soil thaws. That would be April 1 in Gypsum, but maybe May 1 (or later ) in East Vail. They don’t mind a few more nights of frost or a late spring snow storm.
For the rest of the vegetable kingdom, the selections and types are too numerous to name, and the cold tolerance can vary widely. This can be daunting if you don’t know where to start. Aside from the “cold-tolerant leafy greens” just named, the rest of the veggie list is referred to as “warm season plants.” The best rule to remember is that we have a frost-free season from June to August — a bit more in Gypsum, less in East Vail — and that is less than 90 days. So choose plant varieties that show on the package maturity time of 70 days or less to be safe. Most veggies will do fine up to 7,000 feet if the maturity time is less than that and if you have plenty of sun. Many beans and zucchini show maturity of 45 to 55 days. Most root vegetables such as carrots, beets and potatoes do well, and are cold tolerant. Choose the earlier varieties.
The most sensitive of the warm season plants are tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and eggplants. They do not like the cold and will probably not produce above 7,000 feet — the nights are just too cold. You may get success with some coddling (or green-housing) in Eagle or Gypsum. And then there are the long season plants such as winter squash, pumpkin, melon and corn — just give up trying to grow these. Most of these take over 100 days to mature, and we’re into snow by then.
Lori Russell is a local gardener and professional landscaper with All Seasons Service. She teaches a class at Colorado Mountain College on high altitude, organic gardening techniques. She lives and gardens in Eagle. Contact CMC for more information.