Curious Nature: Gearing up for high altitude, low water gardening
Walking Mountains Science Center
Did you jump on the home garden bandwagon last year? Our high altitude, dry environment isn’t the easiest to garden in, but if you’re successful, the reward is incredible. Here are some tips to make sure your garden is bountiful this year.
Know your zone
Our growing season is very short in the valley, with most of the region having our last frost in late May, and our first frost not long after in late August. When planning your garden, it’s helpful to know your USDA Hardiness Zone.
A plant’s hardiness refers to how tolerant it is to low temperatures. In Eagle county, our zones range from 4a to 5b meaning our annual minimum temperatures range from -30 to -10 Fahrenheit. Picking plants that are listed as hardy in your zone is particularly important for perennials that need to survive the winter, but can also help you plant your annual seeds at an appropriate time of year.
Plan your plants
When selecting your vegetables for the season, look for information about the days to maturity, or if the plant is frost tolerant. The days to maturity listed on the seed packet will help you figure out if this plant will be ready to harvest before the first frost.
For example, if a tomato is planted on June 1 and takes 73 days to mature, you can expect your first harvest to be around Aug. 13. That would leave a very short tomato season before the first frost. If you’re finding yourself in this situation, consider starting seeds indoors, picking a different variety of the same plant or using season extension tools, like a row cover. It’s always best to plan well at the beginning of the season so you don’t end up with frozen plants that are almost ready to harvest.
Our Colorado native plants have adapted to lower water requirements, and you can mimic nature by planting vegetables that need less water. Some good vegetables include beans, cucumbers, peppers and some tomatoes. Be careful though, these plants are also susceptible to frost.
Once you’ve planted your plants, keeping them well watered will likely be the main hurdle you have to face for the rest of the season. If you’re hand watering or using an irrigation system, the best time to water is in the early morning.
Your plants will absorb the water before the sun fully rises and they’ll be ready for a day in the strong Colorado sun. Whatever you do, don’t water in the heat of the day. This can cause the leaves of your plants to scorch, plus you’ll be wasting water because of increased evaporation rates.
You can also plan your garden to allow sun-loving plans to shade plants like lettuce that want a little less sun each day. Planting larger heat-loving plants on the southern end of the garden will help provide shade to the plants north of them.
Another good practice to prevent evaporation is utilizing mulch. Any type of plant-based mulch, like wood chips, straw or cardboard will help keep evaporation down and allow your plants to benefit from the water you are providing. Plus, mulch will help prevent weeds in your garden.
If you’re patiently waiting for the snow to melt before getting started, get growing now. Seed companies are selling out fast this year due to the regained popularity of home gardens. You can also plant seeds to transplant later, or plan to purchase live plants locally later in the spring. Whatever you do, don’t wait.
Erin Baumann is the sowing seeds Coordinator at Walking Mountains Science Center. When not gardening, she can be found swimming, kayaking, hiking or playing in the snow.