Freshly harvested vegetables, radiant from the sun and fragrant from the earth, are becoming essential ingredients of a quality modern life-style. Gardening in the mountains can seem impossible at first to gardeners from warmer climates. An unexpected frost in June, July or even August can discourage mountain gardeners from ever growing normally indestructible favorites such as zucchini or green beans. Desert dwellers (high desert) as well can experience unexpected hale storms during monsoon season compromising the peak growing season in hotter climates. High Altitude Gardens has always seen its role as one of educating new mountain gardeners. The following information from customer correspondence and our own trials and testing over the past 20 years is offered to help mountain gardeners achieve spectacular successes year after year. If you are a gardener at lower elevations you can also benefit greatly from the following information
The first distinction gardeners should make is between what Sandra Perin (author of Organic Gardening in Cold Climates) calls "cold season" and "warm season" vegetables.
Cold Season Vegetables. Cold season vegetables are vegetables that will survive unexpected snow, frost and cold weather during a normal summer growing season. We encourage gardeners new to the mountains to grow exclusively, cold season vegetables. Arugula, asparagus, fava bean, beet, broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage, carrot, cauliflower, Chinese celery, chicory, corn salad, kale, leek, lettuce, oriental mustard, onion, bok choi, parsnip, pea, radish, spinach, Swiss chard and turnip are all examples of cold season vegetables. Some are indestructible in all forms of frost and snow while others such as broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower need some protection when very young. Generally all will allow a gardener to ignore mid-summer frost danger.
Warm Season Vegetables. Warm season vegetables such as green bean, corn, cucumber, pepper, squash and tomato are native to warmer climates. They require protection from all frosts and will not tolerate long-term exposure to cold weather if any reasonable harvest is expected. In the past, the production of warm season vegetables required constant vigilance. This requirement has been relaxed somewhat with the advent of new technologies. Spun fiber row covers, Wall O’ Waters, and automatically opening cold frames offer freedom from having to stay close enough to a garden to prepare for unexpected frosts. (See site selection and frost protection below.)
It is common knowledge that healthy soil is the foundation for all successful gardens. At high altitudes, soils reach their extremes and are inherently more fragile, more alkaline or more acidic and more deprived of organic matter than soil in more moderate climes. Top soil is often non-existent or subject to rapid degradation by being exposed to severe wind and intense sun. We encourage gardeners to build up and care for soil by:
Adding organic matter. We continually obtain the best yields in our gardens after focusing upon feeding first our soil and secondly the plants growing in it. Feed soil with copious amounts of fully decomposed compost. Be aware that overly fresh manure and other undigested organic matter may take too long in cold, spring soil to decompose, aggravating already acidic pH levels and lowering nitrogen levels. If necessary, add overly fresh manure as early in the fall as possible.
Adding nutrients. The optimum method for building a supply of available nutrients in garden soil is to add organic soil aids each spring. Organic soil aids decompose slowly over the years thereby preventing overdose damage. The necessary macro and micronutrients are assured. Testing and fine-tuning for specific nutrients becomes unnecessary. Balance between nitrogen and phosphorous is preserved when both are added at the same time at recommended amounts.
Add mycorrhizal and bacterial inoculants. Seeds Trust offers Soil Aids to stimulate plant growth and to fix atmospheric nitrogen into plant available nutrients. The mycorrhizal inoculants will help plant roots absorb water and scavenge for nutrients.
Testing soil pH. An unbalanced soil pH can bind nutrients into garden soil and prevent them from being made available to plants. A test for soil pH (acidity or alkalinity) is fast, simple, accurate and inexpensive. We test our garden beds each spring with the Lamotte pH test kit.
Minimizing tillage. Proper tillage increases the biological activity in the soil. We double dig our beds once each spring. We try to minimize a turning or mixing of the different levels of soil. Over-tilling leads to rapid breakdown of organic matter in soil. For a complete discussion of proper soil care, we suggest How to Grow More Vegetables by John Jeavons.
Keeping garden soil covered. In between crops or after harvest, plant a cover crop such as Austrian winter pea or rye to minimize erosion and to add organic matter.
Rotating crops. Occasionally allow one or more seasons for a nitrogen-fixing crop such as alfalfa or clover to replenish the soil.
We believe weeds should be "managed" rather than "eradicated". Weeds can help prevent erosion and help keep soil moist. Certain weeds provide habitat for beneficial insects. Pulled and left on the ground or moved to a compost pile, they become an important source of organic matter.
Extend the growing seasons of cold mountain gardens by creating small, warm mini-climates. Choose or create well-protected, south-facing sites. Even a small angle of slope to the south can dramatically increase soil warmth. Surround warm season crops with large rocks or concrete walls that collect the sun's heat during the day and protect from frost at night. Tall-growing crops or permanent hedges will protect larger gardens and fields. It is worthy to note an old Chinese saying: "Select proper site for garden and half the work is done."
New technology has provided a number of new devices that protect warm season crops from frost damage. New fabrics such as Reemay® or Typar® completely cover beds or rows while Wall o' Waters provide protection for individual plants. Reemay Garden Blanket® is the best selling cover on the market today and is backed by years of research at 22 different state colleges. The spun bonded polyester provides 2-7°F. protection depending on the wind and is light enough to rest on top of fragile crops without support. Water and sunshine can penetrate the cover allowing it to remain on crops for 4-6 weeks or more. When installed correctly, no insects can penetrate. Our test tomatoes have survived an extra month in the fall under Reemay®. With proper storage Reemay® will last two or more seasons.
Typar® is a heavy-duty, multi-year blanket that is extremely durable yet porous enough for water and sunlight to penetrate. Made from spun bonded polypropylene, Typar® provides the most protection for a product of this type when used on top of newly planted crops in the spring, mature crops in the fall or as a winter mulch.
Wall o' Water's heavy vinyl, sectioned, cylindrical tubes filled with water hold warmth from the sun to warm plants at night allowing a garden to be started outside, 6-8 weeks early. If water freezes, heat still will be released as water gives off heat when it cools. Perfect for peppers, squashes, tomatoes and other warm season crops. Protects small plants down to 16°F. Each self-standing Wall o' Water is 18" x 18" and holds 3 gallons of water.
Soil temperature that is a few degrees too cold can delay germination for days, even weeks. We advise gardeners in high altitudes to take careful soil temperature readings before planting. Waiting until the soil warms to the right temperature not only speeds germination, but also helps prevent seed rot. After years of searching, we finally found a versatile, pocket-sized thermometer that lets cold-climate gardener's monitor soil temperatures indoors in propagation flats or outdoors in the garden.
Cold Season Vegetables
Generally, cold season vegetables will survive sudden summer frosts, snows and cold. We recommend cold season vegetables for beginning mountain gardeners. Refer to the introduction summary for each variety in the catalogue for specific instructions and cautions.
Warm Season Vegetables
Warm season vegetables must be protected from frost and cold weather if any harvest is expected. Refer to the introduction summary for each variety in the catalogue for specific instructions and cautions.