Successful sustainable gardens can cause some head scratching for any gardener; however, producing a high-yielding, sustainable garden within a high-altitude (7,500 feet or higher) climate is truly a unique challenge. Harsh conditions create a variety of extraordinary factors. Innovation, creativity, and resourcefulness will be your guide in navigating gardening in alpine environments. If you have always wanted to try your green thumb out at this one-of-a-kind gardening practice, here are a few tips to get you started.

1. Timing is everything.

Always know and plan for your growing season. Altitude has a major impact on every aspect of your climate, from temperature to precipitation and access to sunlight (referred to as a microclimate element). These factors determine the start and length of your growing season, which will determine what type of food your garden will have the ability to produce. For instance, vegetables like cauliflower that have a long grow period may not be best suited for your elevated climate garden. Your first step should be accessing a climate zone map to properly plan your season based on where you live and plant hardiness. Start a weather journal that will help you track and record your area’s special climate and environmental variations. This will help you make improvements on your garden every year.

2. Choose your plants wisely.

You’ve taken your first successful step by planning your growth season – now comes the critical choice in choosing plants that will provide a hardy crop to share with your loved ones. Due to the altitude and unfavorable weather conditions that can compound some of your challenges, you want to choose vegetables that are hardy and mature quickly to withstand harsh conditions. Yes, folks, even the spring and summer can be especially cruel to our plant friends in these higher elevations. Remember that soil warms faster towards the end of spring and beginning of summer, which allows for seedlings to sprout faster. Cool season vegetables will be the easiest for you to start with and will produce the most effective results. When choosing plants for your area it is always wise to choose from those who have a growth span of 90 days or less. Radishes, lettuce, beets, peas, pole beans, spinach are all hardy, short-growing vegetables. Review each seed packet before making your selection to ensure it has the most desirable characteristics for your garden: cold weather reliability, lower growth span, sunlight (based on your area).

high altitude gardening - Beaver Ponds Environmental Education Center
A planting bed in a high-altitude garden. in Fairplay, Colorado. Photo courtesy of Beaver Ponds Environmental Education Center.

3. Soil turmoil.

Anyone who has attempted gardening knows that regardless of your conditions, soil can cause turmoil and defeat your garden before it begins. It is key to remember that you are really not growing plants as much as you are growing amazing soil to support your plants. Part of sustainability is enabling your garden to successfully ‘sustain’ itself without the need for a large amount of additional resources. This begins in the ground. The majority of mountain soil needs amendments. Amendments offer your soil a variety of benefits like water and nutrient retention. Soil amendments complete the gardening job when properly mixed with your existing soil – do not just lay the amendment on top! Many people confuse amendments with mulch. A mulch is left on your soil’s surface after the amendment has been combined with your existing soil. To achieve a truly sustainable, organic garden, choose organic amendments (coming from something that was living) over non-organic amendments (man-made). Composting is also your ally – not only do you reduce waste, you add much needed nutrients back into your garden’s soil.

4. Let the plants rest.

Everyone enjoys a good night’s rest and one of the crucial pieces to this is the beds we sleep on. This is the same for our plant friends. Just like lower-level, conventional gardens, higher elevation gardens work best with raised beds, especially if you cannot amend the soil enough to produce delicious plants. Raised beds offers you an area to garden if your mountainous region is too rocky and enables your plants to warm up quicker in the valuable mountain sun. Raised beds can also improve accessibility and harmony between your high-altitude plants, while improving soil drainage and aeriation. Underground critters will find themselves disappointed without direct access to ‘their’ new garden. Whether you choose an in-ground or raised bed keep in mind just like humans plants need to hydrate – moisture moisture moisture!

5. Beware of pests.

Not only does the high country offer an abundance of beauty, it also offers an abundance of pests that will happily partake in the fruits of your labor. There are several organic pesticides that can be made and administered helping to protect your garden such as Neem juice, Citrus Oil and Cayenne Pepper, and Eucalyptus Oil. It is also extremely important to keep your garden clean, especially at the end of your growing season when these little pests will be looking for shelter in the winter months ahead. Our furry friends can sometimes be the worst enemy for our gardens as well. Rabbits and deer, for instance, don’t mind making a full course meal out of your beautiful garden. The best way to combat this is fences, but animals can be cunning and it is not 100% furry-friend proof. Raccoons love to come and steal veggies at night. There are some natural deterrent sprays you can use, but accepting co-existence with our animal neighbors is part of the process. Plan for some of your veggies becoming food for our forest neighbors and plant extra.

The best tools you can use when planning and executing your high-country garden is planning, patience, compromise, and love. With these main ingredients combined with your perseverance you will be experiencing the joy of high-altitude, sustainable garden in no time.

Beaver Ponds Environmental Education Center in Fairplay, CO specializes in high-altitude gardening programs and offers workshops that range from proper planting to the most effective storage methods for preserving your food. Beaver Ponds grows plants year-round in our uniquely constructed, passive solar greenhouse that is home to several heirloom variety plants supplemented by our compost created onsite.

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