Mountain gardens can produce bountiful vegetables
Local gardening guru Lori Russell thinks its time to say bye-bye to those prima donna flower gardens. Instead, she would like to see people plant nutritious vegetables in their gardens. If you’re going to do the work, and more importantly, use the water, Russell says, you might as well eat the “veggies” of your labor.
Russell, who studied ecology at University of Michigan and grew up in a family of hobby farmers, teaches organic gardening at Colorado Mountain College in Edwards. Vegetable gardening in the High Country isn’t as easy as it is in Michigan, but once you understand the mountains’ unique challenges and the most important aspects of gardening — soil, water, sun and knowing your plants — high altitude gardens can produce bountiful vegetables in varieties that you would never find at a grocery store. Have you ever tasted Watermelon Radishes, Candy-striped Beets or Armenian cucumbers? These are all crops that do well in mountain gardens and could end up on your plate.
“The biggest challenges at high altitude are cool nights, scorching hot sun during the day, dry air and heavy winds,” Russell says. “But at least we don’t get a lot of bugs or fungus.”
Garden from the ground up
With the challenges in the back of your mind, the first step to any successful garden is soil – good soil. It’s the most important feature of a garden. Russell says most of the soil in the mountains is not so good. It’s highly alkaline. So you must add amendments, like compost and peat moss, to neutralize it and nurture it.
“Good soil is a deep coffee color, and it should be crumbly in texture, but still should hold together. It shouldn’t stick together, however, if it’s too sticky, there’s too much clay, if there’s too much sand, it doesn’t stick together at all,” Russell says.
If you are unsure of your soil’s quality, Russell suggests buying bagged topsoil from a garden supplier, or better yet, truck it in from a local ranch. Then she recommends a two-to-one ratio of compost to dirt. So with six inches of dirt, you would mix in three inches of compost, plus some peat moss. To find out exactly what your soil needs, have it tested for a small fee at the Colorado State University (CSU) Extension office in Eagle.
Be cool for success
If you have visions of growing those huge bright red beefsteak tomatoes your grandmother grew in the South, CSU Extension Agent Laurel Potts says, “think again.”
“We have to change our perception a little bit here in the mountains. Be here now,” Potts says.
Potts is an expert in all things garden. At the CSU Extension, she runs the Master Gardener Program and is an agent in horticulture, native plants, small acreage management and small farming. She also heads up the CSU Demo and Trial Gardens in Eagle, where she experiments with different flower and vegetable varieties to see which ones are most productive for our climate.
For beginners, or for someone who really wants a productive garden, Potts recommends planting cool season crops, like spinach, lettuces, mustard greens, Swiss chard, kale, beets, carrots, peas and radishes, as well as vegetables from the brassica family, like bok choy, brussel sprouts, broccoli and cabbage.
“The first thing I do is look at the back of theseed packet and read the days to maturity,” Potts says. “If it’s 55-60 days, I know I’m going to get that.”
Russell reminds mountain gardeners to use this basic rule of thumb: “Use June 1 as your planting date, and you should be mostly safe from frost,” she says with a smile. As we all know snow can fall in July, too.
Living at altitude doesn’t mean we can’t grow warm season vegetables, those big, fluffy, fun-to-eat fruiting plants like tomatoes, zucchini, cucumber, eggplant and peppers. Unlike the cool season crops, of which most can be sowed directly from seed in the ground (there are some exceptions), mountain gardeners must buy warm season plants that are already started and transplant them to the ground. These vegetables require longer days to mature and need a jumpstart.
“Warm season crops, like cucumber, peppers and watermelons, need some kind of season extender or protection from our cool nights, too,” Potts says.
Tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant, peppers, with the exception of zucchini that can do quite well in the mountain with little pampering, like it 60 degrees or warmer. So gardeners must cover the crops with hoops of plastic at night or use a “Wall O’ Water” around a single plant. Wall O’ Water is a protector with little plastic columns or envelopes you fill with water to protect cold sensitive plants.
Seed origin makes a difference
Where you buy your seeds and plant starters makes a huge difference in the success of your garden, Potts says. You need to buy seeds from companies that specialize in cold-hearty varieties, and your plant starters should be grown in a greenhouse close to home or on a local farm so they are acclimated to our climate. Otherwise, you might have a very sensitive plant on your hands.
“It’s really about willing to reform the way we buy seeds, not just run to Costco or Home Depot and buy seeds off the rack,” Potts says.
The problem with many of these larger big box stores is their seeds and plant starters are usually from Grand Junction or even the South, regions with entirely different growing conditions. Potts likes Johnny Selected Seeds (www.johnnyseeds.com), a company in Maine that specializes in cold, short-season varieties that do well in our area. Russell also likes Johnny’s, and she uses BestCoolSeeds.com, the online store for Denali – as in Alaska — Seed Company. It’s at these specialty seed companies you’ll find varieties like Siberian tomatoes or Early Tanana, tomatoes that will tolerate nights in the mid 40s.
“When you’re deciding what to plant, ask yourself, ‘What do I like to eat?’ Plant that and then experiment with something different. I walked by collard greens all of my life at the grocery store, but having grown them, now I know how to cook them,” Potts says.
Vegetables like containers, too
For those of you with a sunny deck or terrace, but no actual land to speak of, fear not: Vegetables like containers, too. Herbs do very well in a planter on your deck, Russell says, same with lettuces and greens, like arugula, and you can trim as they grow to use in salads. Even carrots and beets will grow well on a deck if the pot is at least 12 inches deep.
The only trick with containers is there’s not a lot of soil, Potts says, so you have to be more alert to the plant’s watering needs.
“You can’t do feast or famine,” she says. “Set up a drip system or at least make sure you water it every day regularly.”
And for those of you just can’t live without those primadonna flowerbeds, this summer, try making little pockets among the flowers for a head of kale, a cabbage or even a pepper plant. It will literally give you a taste of how good it is to grow your own food.