High altitude gardens: patience is key to success
When I talk to fellow gardeners who are themselves “transplants” to the area, I often hear the lament, “but it grew so well back home.” I hear stories of folks putting mammoth effort into outsmarting the natural growing conditions at high altitude, only to meet with failure. However, when we work with Summit County’s unique environment, instead of trying to get around it, the results are surprising, enlightening, and more than satisfying. Patience, along with a good dose of optimism, will carry any gardener through the challenges of long winters, sudden temperature changes, high winds, and unusual soil conditions. When we patiently observe the environment around us, mountain gardening becomes a joyous, rather than frustrating, experience.We garden in a place where the land rolls up and down, creating pockets of warmth in the low sites and exposed, cooler areas in the higher ones. One of the first steps to successful high altitude gardens is observing what grows naturally in those spots. This gives clues to the types of domestic plants you chose for your garden. A local nursery or garden center has lists of proven plants that you can select from. Before you go shopping, know the lay of the land. If your garden site has low and high spots, choose plants appropriate for each.The length of winter in the mountains varies to the extreme. Just when we think spring is here, another frost or snowstorm hits. Luckily, there are many varieties of frost tolerant plants that you can grow successfully in your garden. As you choose, keep in mind that low spots in the garden will be protected from harsh winds and will be warmer, while high spots will be exposed. There are many plants that thrive in extreme conditions, and because they are so hardy, their flowers and fruits are all the more rewarding. Pacing the plantings according to the weather conditions helps to ensure success.Tracking where the sun shines and how many hours of sunlight your garden receives is the another key. Winter sun is very different from summer sun, so charting sunshine now won’t yield proper results. Here’s where patience comes in. For this growth season, begin by selecting a few known hardy-growers. Over the growing months, keep a close eye on where the sun hits and for how long. This way, next year, you’ll be able confidently to select a larger variety of plants appropriate to your specific site. Soil structure varies from site to site around the county, often in the same yard. In some areas, the soil has broken down from granite, which makes it higher in acid. In mountain meadows and aspen groves, the soil is less acidic. Testing the soil for your garden site is easy and inexpensive. Of course, you’ll have to wait until the snow melts, but the type of soil in your garden dictates the types of plants that you choose. Soil test kits are widely available, but you’ll get more accurate results, along with recommendations for soil improvement, from the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension. All gardens benefit from soil amendment, which means adding organic material. A nursery will have seed/weed free amendments that add nutrients and improves drainage in your garden soil.At high altitude, the atmosphere is thinner, which makes water evaporate more quickly. Planning your irrigation system on paper now can save you lots of expense and energy later. For now, you’ll want to take measurements and decide on the type of system you’ll want in place. Most landscape experts recommend a drip system for our area. Rapid evaporation is compounded by high winds. Those high winds blow water from sprinklers to areas other than your plants, wasting precious moisture. Additionally, mulching slows water loss and improves poor soils. Different plants, trees, and shrubs need different types of mulch. You can measure and plan now so that you’re armed and ready to get what you need when spring rolls around. Gardening in the mountains can be a challenge, but the rewards far outweigh the effort. Patience and observation give you the keys to an awesome, high altitude garden. You’ll find joy in growing plants that you’ve never tried before, and the novelty of working with the natural environment instead of trying to change it will keep you coming back for more. For more information about this or any gardening/landscaping questions, please e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (970) 468-0340.
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