Ask Eartha: Mountain gardening tips for beginners
Dear Eartha, I would love to grow my own vegetable garden, but I don’t know much about gardening in the mountains. How do you suggest I get started?
Growing vegetables in our mountain climate is possible as long as you grow the appropriate varieties. Even if it’s only a portion of your daily food intake, eating locally grown food is an important way to improve your understanding of where food comes from. Additionally, gardening is a wonderful way to support your body and mind and to get involved with the community.
Before I get into details, I want to point you to an incredible resource: Go to HighCountryConservation.org, select Sustainable Food and Community Gardens from the drop-down menu, and then scroll to High Altitude Gardening Tips and click on the button for Local Planting Dates.
To get started, it’s important to know the kinds of vegetables that will thrive in our climate. Most packages of seeds will be labeled as either warm- or cool-season vegetables.
In Summit County, choose only the cool-season varieties. Warm-season vegetables like cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers don’t like to get below 50 degrees at night. Even in our warmest summer months, our nighttime temperatures drop below 50. Advanced gardening methods such as greenhouses and cold frames make it possible to grow some of these warm-season vegetables, but a beginner gardener is better off keeping it simple.
What are cool-season vegetables? Leafy greens — think lettuce, spinach, arugula, Swiss chard, collard greens, bok choy and kale — love our cool temperatures. Root vegetables will thrive, too, so plan on including radishes, carrots, beets, parsnips and turnips. My favorite cool-season veggies are snow peas and sugar snap peas, which do so well in a mountain garden. You will need a trellis to support their growth, so be sure to plan that into your garden design.
Direct seed or direct sow are the terms used when a seed is planted directly into the soil of your garden. You can plant by direct seed once the soil temperatures are warm enough. Find information about this in the local planting dates resource I mentioned earlier. (Tip: Get a soil thermometer or chef’s thermometer so you’re not guessing.)
Transplant is the term used when a seed is planted inside your home or in a greenhouse before being relocated outside. Starting a transplant gives the seed some time to grow in a friendly, warm, cozy environment before relocating outside to fend for itself. Indoor seed starting is a slightly more advanced gardening technique. It involves some extra equipment, lots of sunny space and extra effort. Typically, I advise a new gardener to stick with direct-seed planting for their first growing season, but if you are feeling brave, go for it!
A couple of my favorite veggies to grow as transplants are kale and Swiss chard. You won’t want to grow transplants of radishes or carrots because their roots are too delicate to be moved.
If you plan to build your own raised garden beds at home, keep in mind that compost is available from the Summit County Resource Allocation Park near Keystone. Local food scraps are combined with biosolids and wood chips to create a rich, nutrient-dense compost that your veggie garden will love.
Finally, if you don’t have a spot for a garden, there are still openings at the Breckenridge Community Garden next to Colorado Mountain College. For $100, you will have your own 12-by-6-foot plot for the summer to plant anything you like. Gardening in a community garden is a delightful opportunity to learn from other gardeners and be around kindred spirits.
Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at email@example.com.
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