How to improve your high-altitude gardening
August 11, 2016
High elevation gardening means working within a short growing season, but there are specific ways to make the most of it.
"We need plants that are going to be able to do their display in such a limited growing time, because when you're here at 8,500 to 10,000 feet, the growing season is so short," said Beverley Breakstone, tour chairperson for the Summit County Garden Club. "When it finally gets above 32 degrees at night you can finally start to see things growing."
Blooming season in the mountains really begins in mid-June, and as Breakstone described, in lower elevations it is suggested to wait until Mother's Day to plant flowers; in the mountains, mid-June, or Father's Day, is the recommended start date.
This leaves about two months for High Country gardeners to create and tend plots in their peak. Vegetable gardeners should take extra note of this time frame, as there are not a lot of veggies that can be grown in two and a half to three months.
"You need to be cognizant of a number of things so that you can have your plants work for you," said Breakstone.
Pick specific soil
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Success with growing all starts with soil. Make sure that your soil is going to be welcoming to plants, with plenty of compost and really high quality topsoil.
"With the short season, you need to have a hugely receptive soil base," explained Breakstone. "So that's the first thing — you have to work on that, and then your plants will be happy."
Make sure you get the right plants for the right light, so that you're not planting shade perennials in the sun, for instance.
"Shade gardens can be wonderful, but you don't want to have your sun-loving plants in your shade garden," Breakstone explained.
Certain flowers and plants thrive in the mountains when they are planted as perennials, including lupine, delphiniums, bee balms, peonies and lilies, to name a few. Visit a flower shop in Summit County to find plants that will do well at higher elevations, and take advantage of the green thumbs working there to learn about each type.
If you're researching on your own, look up Zone 3 perennials in an alpine climate to find what will grow well in the Colorado mountains.
"Some are going to like things a little drier, some maybe a little wetter, so if you just know some of those things, you won't over-water a plant, or under-water it," she said. "Or maybe part of your garden can be for the drier plants — so you can figure it out based on lighting, water needs, all of those kinds of things."
Protect your plants
Now that the summer is rolling, plants are alive and flowers are blooming everywhere, so they need to be protected when possible. Certain elements, like hail, can't really be avoided, but Colorado's Front Range has to deal with that more than the mountains.
"Hail is just one of those awful things that you just don't really have a whole lot of control over," Breakstone shared. "You've got an outdoor garden, and you have a hailstorm, it's a sad day."
In her 12 years of gardening in Summit County, Breakstone said she only recalls one hailstorm that beat up her plants.
While insect pests aren't really an issue in the mountains for flowers (they are for trees, however), Breakstone said the rodent pests, specifically voles, are destructive to outdoor mountain beds.
"They love it up here, and they will burrow under your garden, and proceed to eat roots and bulbs, and have tons of babies while they are in the tunnels," she said. "So then the babies eat more, and your garden could just go to heck, you know."
Breakstone said the Wildlife Wranglers out of Breckenridge can help with determining where the voles are coming from to help rid them from a garden.
Visit Summit County gardens
Get inspired with the 2016 Summit County Garden Tour, held in Breckenridge on Saturday, July 23 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tickets are $10 in advance, or $15 the day of the tour. Attendees must check in by 10:45 a.m. to take the tour. (Get more information and a sneak peek of one of the gardens on page 24).
"Every year this is just a fun day in the mountains," said Breakstone, "and you get to go see these private gardens. Some are professionally designed, some are designed by the gardener, but they are always fascinating. High Country flora and fauna is just so unique."
She explained how one garden on the tour surrounds a croquet course with a variety of unique plants, with additional features that include a beautiful pond and water feature.
"It's really a stunning, stunning garden," she shared. "There's just a lot of interesting gardens to see this year."
Take advantage of the High Country growing season while it's here, because there's no denying how fast it seems to pass.
"This is when to take advantage of the long days, but then again what happens is the season end so quickly, because, there you go — the days start to get shorter and the night temperatures get colder," Breakstone said.