Your guide to an edible garden | VailDaily.com

Your guide to an edible garden

John O’Neill
Daily Correspondent
Mechelle Sewell waters her garden plot in Minturn. Many plots at community gardens across the valley are managed by repeat gardeners.
Nina Riggio | Special to the Daily |

Gardening in the Vail Valley

• Pay very close attention to the weather all summer.

• Keep frost cloth on hand, especially in the spring and fall.

• Be familiar with your area in particular.

• Amend the soil to break up clay density.

• Use a plant-based compost.

• Check sun location.

• Plant leafy veggies in the shade or pick them often.

On Elk Lane in Eagle-Vail, just off the 14th hole, Nathaniel Lowe tends to two 6-foot-by-8-foot raised garden beds in his backyard. He built the beds last summer. This is his first full summer with them.

“I got a little bit of a late start,” Lowe said during an interview last month. “I got tomatoes going. The cucumbers are finally doing something. I have kale, turnips and chard, which I’ll get a couple of rounds of because they grow so quickly.”

Despite the short growing season offered in the Vail Valley, many people like Lowe raise a good deal of their own food throughout the summer.

“I can pull bushels of kale and chard, almost every day,” Lowe said. “I’ll have plenty … going until the beginning of September.”

In addition to the leafy green kale and chard crops, a number of vegetables grow well up here, said Susan Emenaker of the Colorado Alpines and Wildflower Farm in Edwards.

“Lettuce, spinaches, arugula, kale, chard and other greens do well,” Emenaker said. “Root vegetables, like beets, radishes, carrots and peas, can grow well. They are … more cold weather resistant. Other cooler season crops, like broccoli, do well here.”

Tomatoes are also possible, but aren’t as easy as, say, radishes, which Emenaker said are the easiest to grow and usually pop up within 28 days. When looking at tomato varieties, she said it is best to pick a type that will produce fruit more quickly, something like cherry tomatoes or “Early Girl” tomatoes since the growing season is short.

Some herbs, like the above vegetables, can grow quickly and are therefore possible to grow during the season. Herbs such as chives, fennel, oregano, parsley, rosemary, sage, basil and thyme can be grown outside.

The season

Lowe and other serious mountain gardeners started paying attention to the weather around mid May, looking for nighttime temperatures consistently over 40 degrees before considering planting.

They started plants that take longer to fruit, such as tomatoes or peppers, inside. Gardeners wrap up their season when the temperatures at night start dipping under 40 degrees, usually in late September or mid October.

“Gardeners are serious weather nerds,” Emenaker said. “You have to be prepared for anything and everything, and even then it doesn’t always go so well.”

Emenaker, who has been gardening in the mountains in the Vail Valley and the Roaring Fork Valley for a combined 30 years, said that she has lost plants in every month of the year to an unexpected freeze.

Another variable is the exact location of your garden. Those with plots at the West Vail Community Garden will have a very different growing schedule than those in Eagle-Vail, Edwards or farther west (and at lower elevation) in Eagle and Gypsum.

“Every bit of elevation and every bit of snow and temperature makes a difference,” Emenaker said. “The seasons can be very different even though all the communities are so close.”

Emenaker recommends gardeners keep something called “frost-cloth” at the ready for rogue cold nights. The polyester spun fabric can be placed over plants, increasing the plants’ surrounding ambient temperature while still transmitting light. The cloth can protect plants on one-off cold nights, as well as extend the season a few weeks on either end of the season.

The Soil

What is planted and when it is planted is just as important as what it is planted in. Like the seasons, the soils differ up and down the valley, but generally the dirt here will need some work before a garden will flourish.

Local soil tends to have very little organic matter. It also tends to have a high concentration of clay, which makes the ground dense and prevents water from draining well, Emenaker said.

“It is a best practice to amend the ground by working compost in,” Emenaker said. “A good, chunky compost, maybe something with wood product in it, will help loosen the soil and allow the water to drain appropriately.”

A quick tip from Emenaker involves using compost that is plant-based. Animal-based composts can be OK at first, but they are high in salt concentration and using them year after year in a clay-dense soil will contaminate the ground and the plants can become salt damaged.

For something like the locally elusive tomato, using a compost mix and keeping the plant in a pot is not a bad idea. Local ground is cold and tomatoes, such as peppers, like “warm feet” and it is easier to keep soil warm in a pot that you can move inside or that the sun shines on directly outside.

The Location

Specific to gardening at higher altitudes, the location of where you plant a garden and where you put various plants within that garden is important due to the strength of the sun.

Because the sun in the mountains is so intense, all day sun is not recommended. Instead, pick a garden location that receives direct sunlight on either end of the day — from sunrise until about 2 p.m. or from 1 p.m. until sunset, Emenaker suggests.

Consider planting leafy crops in the shadow of other, taller crops. Because the portion of the crop that you eat is exposed, too much sunlight can bake the leaf making it tough and unpleasant to eat. Planting in the shade helps keep these greens tender for as long as possible.

While Lowe has his system figured out in Eagle-Vail, those interested in gardening should pay attention to their area — sunlight, temperature, soil — and what they are planting to successfully navigate the curious local growing environment.

“It isn’t always easy up here. It is a challenge. But it can be done,” Emenaker said. “To me, gardening is the greatest experiment ever. You have to figure out what works and how to make it work.”