This time of year, new gardeners or gardeners new to high country, often ask; So, what can people grow up here? High altitude gardening does present challenges, but you can indeed grow delicious and nutritious vegetables for your table. Many local gardeners profess that our produce is extra sweet because the cold night temps encourage the plant to concentrate the sugars, making the crop even more tasty than those grown at lower altitudes.
The key to success is select vegetables that are frost tolerant, will mature in our very short growing season, and are happy with cool mornings, intense midday sun and frosty nights. Temperature swings can easily be 40 to 50 degrees in the course of one day.
Topping the list of Best Bets are leafy greens with SPINACH leading the way. Lettuce, Kale, Swiss Chard, Collards, and Arugula are also winning selections among the leafy greens. There are many different varietals of each that will prove to make your salads and sides interesting, flavorful and colorful. Try some of the lettuce mixes many seed companies offer. Leafy greens generally are easy to grow directly from seed planted outside, but you can also purchase “starts”, plants further along in the growth cycle and ready to transplant if you find you are getting a late start.
When selecting any seeds to grow in our environment, read the packet carefully and choose items that have the fewest “days to maturity” Generally leafy greens will geminate, i.e. start to grow, when soil temperatures reach 40 degrees. Plant these crops as soon as the ground defrosts, and your soil is dry enough to work. Also keep in mind that our sun can be quite intense causing leafy greens to “bolt” or “go to flower”. When this happens, the plant will stop producing and taste strong or bitter. Looking for seeds that are “bolt’ resistant will help. You can also plan the layout of your garden so taller plants such as broccoli or peas provide some shade for leafy greens as the season warms. Draping shade cloth over your greens is another solution.
Unfortunately , not all seed packets will give complete information. Purchasing seeds via catalogues or online do give quite a lot of detail which can help you select for our environment. This year however, on-line sources are sold out or have limited selection due to increased demand. Don’t fret too much. You will still find success with what is available as long as you stick to high altitude Best Bets.
The ROOT VEGETABLE category includes a number of vegetables that also work very well at high altitudes. Think Radishes, Carrots, Beets, and Turnips. Excluding, radishes which can be ready in 3 weeks, these veggies may take a little longer than leafy greens to reach maturity but are still very successful in Grand County. Again, pay attention to the number of days the root crop you select needs to mature. If nothing else, most seed packets will give this information. Root crops as a rule do not transplant well though I have seen gardeners successfully transplant beets and carrots. The prevailing advice is to direct seed root crops in your garden bed when the soils warm.
POTATOES which are tubers, not roots, are also definite winners in high altitude gardens and require very little work after planting. There are many methods, of planting potatoes such as “no dig”, trenching, growing in bags all of which you can check out on YouTube. It is best to buy certified seed potatoes rather than those from the supermarket which are treated with chemicals to retard the eyes from sprouting. Given our short season, choose seed potato varieties which are described as “early” or “mid” season maturity. Plant them as soon as weather and soil conditions allow. That said we often do get hit with frost all through June which can wilt the leaves. Plants can recover if the frost damage is not too severe, but yields may be compromised. Watch the weather and cover the plants when you see that frost is likely. Note also that potatoes are heavy feeders and do much better in nice loose soil. It is a good idea to prepare your potato bed with plenty of compost.
PEAS are a big favorite of High Altitude gardeners. Snow pea, snap peas, shelling peas all work well in our climate. As with potatoes, they can be planted (and like to be planted) when the weather is still quite cool but the soil workable. Though not imperative, it is a good idea to soak your seeds in water for 5 or 6 hours before planting to soften the outer skin of the pea for easier germination. Pea plants are quite hardy so very well suited for high altitudes. One of the benefits of including peas in your garden is that they form nodules on their roots that help “fix” nitrogen in your soil serving to nourish whatever you want to plant next season.
BROCCOLI, which is part of the Brassica Family is tried and true for our climate. Others in the family that are Grand County “Go To’s” are Cauliflower, Brussels Sprouts, and Cabbage. Collard greens, kale, included in leafy greens, along with bok choy, and mustard greens are also brassica best bets. Given the time it takes for them to mature, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and brussels sprouts are much easier to buy as “starts” from our local greenhouses rather than to grow them from seed. These plants also take up a lot of space. If you are limited that way, check out broccolini which is much more compact. Brassicas do tend to attract aphids so covering your plants with a lightweight insect barrier sold at nurseries and online may well be worth the effort and minimal expense.
Not yet mentioned are hardy HERBS that thrive in our high altitude. Chives, mint, oregano, thyme, and tarragon are perennials which come back from year to year but cilantro, dill, parsley, rosemary, sage will most likely need to be replanted. It can depend on the location and microclimate of your particular garden location. Basil which is a favorite of many gardeners is very tender sadly does not flourish.
So….if you are hoping for tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and squash, they are all categorized as “tender” plants and do not work well in our environment. Keep it simple and stick with hardy crops mentioned here unless you want to build a greenhouse, cold frame, or pull pots in and out each night to simulate life in Ohio. Better yet…..you can relish the mountains, cool summer weather, and go with Best Bets.