Gardening in the Wet Mountain Valley -- By Mattie Burtt
Yes, you can garden successfully in Custer County Colorado! Gardening at High Altitude (a minimum elevation of 8,000 – 10,000 feet above sea level) takes some special considerations. A gardener here in Westcliffe uses the same basic gardening principles as anywhere in the country, however there are a “few additional musts”. If these “few additional musts” are not applied, your gardening experience here will not be a great success. Besides sun, water and good soil (our soil here is mostly alkaline so add lots of compost or aged manure) you must have a plan for WIND, ANIMALS, HAIL and a SHORT GROWING SEASON.
WindYes, Westcliffe has wind. Wind will wipe out tender young plants in a heartbeat, even newly planted 5-gallon container shrubs! Wind protection can increase temperatures behind the wall by 30 degrees! So, if you are in a windy area (probably 85% of the valley!) then block that wind some way. Some inexpensive ways are the use of plastic or stacking up straw bales or individual plants surrounded by old tires 3 or 4 high (this is really ugly but it works in an out of the way vegetable patch). Or plan to wall in your garden with a fencing of solid boards, concrete blocks or a stucco wall. At the minimum place your garden on the side of your house that is away from the wind. Also, remember the wind when hardening off the plants you have grown indoors before planting them outside. You need good quality strong plants for this high altitude growing environment.
AnimalsThe only sure way to protect against animals is fencing. You can try all kinds of remedies for keeping deer away i.e. hot pepper spray, coyote urine or other predators’ urine (available from mail order sources – believe it or not!) human hair etc. However, if the deer get hungry they will try to get at your garden. Fencing for deer must be high (seven feet or more) or wide. Supposedly deer can jump high but not wide at the same time. Specific deer fencing is available from many mail order sources. For a small garden area you can literally enclose a whole area with chicken wire fencing and take it over the top as well. Remember to bury the fencing 6 – 12 inches below ground level to keep out the little varmints like ground squirrels and chipmunks. In addition, deer will not jump over a fence that they cannot see through to the other side. Wood fencing would furnish this barrier and do double duty for blocking the wind!
HailHailstorms in the summer will happen. I am mainly referring here to vegetable gardens. For flower gardens there are many plants and shrubs that will come back after a hailstorm and continue to flourish. However, if you are doing a vegetable garden, and particularly growing tomatoes and warm season crops, then a protection of hardware cloth (screen door screen) placed over plants will help protect from a total wipe out. Build covers of hardware cloth around the warm season crops such as tomatoes and peppers and leave them all summer since you never know when a hailstorm will hit. The hardware cloth will let in water and sun but protect against most hail. This works fine if you have an out of the way garden plot. Since my vegetables have to be mixed in with my flowerbeds, I have tried a new theory this year. I have planted many tomato plants (sixteen to be exact for two people!) at various locations around the house with no protection for hail. This way when a hailstorm comes maybe some plants will survive and I can still have some of those wonderful home-grown tomatoes.
Short SeasonWestcliffe Colorado has approximately 100 days of growing or frost free days from June 1 to September 10 however, no guarantees! Allow for the short growing season by planting specific short season varieties of vegetables. Many of these varieties will set fruit at much lower temperatures. The Siberian strains of tomatoes for example will set fruit below 50 degrees (some even as low as 38 degrees!). Growing your own seeds is the best way to get the varieties you will need. I look for varieties that mature in 65 days or less. Example: some romaine lettuces take 90 days to mature while there are some varieties that take up to 65 days.
Buying local grown plants (or that grown in similar climate) is necessary to insure success. Local grown plants weather vegetables or perennials are already acclimated to this elevation and have a jump start over plants brought in from lower elevations. Placing boulders and stones around your beds will add warmth to a planting bed and may help induce earlier bloom.
On a more positive note, in Colorado we do not have the bugs and pests that plague so many gardeners elsewhere in the country. Our dry climate, even though short, is not as conducive to bugs and many plant diseases.
Many of the Cole (cool season vegetables) love this growing climate such as spinach, peas, carrots, potatoes, radishes, lettuces, beets and Swiss chard to name a few. Many of these can be seeded directly in the garden as early as April since they can withstand some frosts. You can plant out tomatoes and peppers a month earlier (May 1) with the use of wall o waters. Be sure the soil is warmed up first by using plastic over the soil or set the wall o waters out for a week or two before setting out the plant. Leave the wall o waters on all season to allow steady growth with the warm soil. Raised beds are also great since they warm up sooner in the spring than the flat ground by as much as 15 degrees. The soil should be warmed to 55-60 degrees before planting out tomatoes. These kinds of season extenders will be needed for tomatoes and peppers. You can also use tunnels, hot caps or anything that will give a more protected growing environment. Even if you do not want to go to all the trouble to grow tomatoes, you can still have some wonderful homegrown produce with the cool season vegetables.
We have some absolutely beautiful flower gardens here in the Wet Mountain Valley! There are many flowers both annuals and perennials that grow very well here and vegetables are grown all around the valley even at 9000 feet elevation. It is just a different growing environment than many places around the country and we have to learn that environment. Besides the elevation and the intensity of the sun we do not have the rainfall that many of us are used to elsewhere in the country. Using drought hardy plants and learning about Xeriscape is a good idea. It’s also a good idea to join our local garden club – the High Altitude Garden Club – the name says it all!