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GROWING ZONE FRUSTRATION

I do as much research & investigation as I can before I plant the garden. I want to be successful, and to do so I know I need to plant fruits and vegetables that will grow in my climate, and I also want to choose the specific varieties that should do the best. In my unique environment, this is very difficult! Many of the books we have read about vegetable gardening are based on the author’s personal experience in their own location. They don’t seem to have a clue about what it’s like where I live. Many websites are written with lots of suggestions, but often don’t even mention where the authors are located. This is incredibly frustrating. Our short seasons, cold nights, & warm days, just don’t fit with most gardening plans and charts. The “local” nurseries and garden shops we go to don’t generally understand or carry varieties particularly suited for our location either, since they are all located at least 3,000 feet lower than my location. (They aren’t exactly “local”.)

 

USDA PLANT ZONES

Let’s start with the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map. You can enter your zip code on this page to find your growing zone, right? Wrong! I enter my zip code and it seems to think I am in Zone 5a. The map is not very precise. If I zoom in and look very closely on THIS MAP, I’m right on the border between 4b-5a. I realize that with various microclimates within a region, it’s still just a best guess. I’ve decided to plan my planting based on Zone 4b. That being said, to be on the safe side, I generally choose perennials that promise to be hardy enough for Zone 3.

 Unfortunately, knowing the USDA Zone is not helpful enough. Most seed & plant catalogs, web stores and informational materials seem to rely heavily on USDA Zones to provide information for gardeners as to whether a plant will survive or thrive. But the USDA Plant Hardiness system is lacking and does not consider many other factors. Winter temperatures are only one part of the dilemma. There are a lot of other factors to consider, such as:

  • Are summer daytimes hot or cool? Are the nights warm or cold?
  • How long is the season? First & Last frost dates don’t coincide with the USDA Zones.
  • What is the latitude, and how many hours of sunlight are there in each day?
  • What is the altitude, and what effect does it have on the climate?
  • Do summer UV rays affect the ability to grow plants successfully?

 

ZIP CODE MAPS & CHARTS

I’ve noticed that often there are maps & charts which attempt to determine your climate by zip code. These should be considered carefully! I am in a rural area, and climate charts that use zip code locations sometimes try to find the nearest city center to determine information. For me, they tend to default either to Colorado Springs (6100-6500 ft) or to Canon City (5300 ft). Colorado Springs is just about the same latitude as us, so that’s a bit helpful regarding daylength. The First/Last Frost Dates on almanac.com show me Canon City’s first & last dates, which are nothing like ours. If you’re in a rural area, finding information for suitable plants can be challenging.

 

NORTHERN CLIMATES & LATITUDE CONSIDERATIONS

I find many resources that refer to colder “northern” climates that are Zone 3 or 4 on the USDA charts. Often, seed & plant descriptions will indicate when a variety is good for northern climates. I used to think that things that would grow there would grow well here as well. After all, it’s cold there, right? Perhaps so in winter, but northern latitudes have longer summer seasons, warmer summer temperatures and more hours of sunlight than we do here. Both daytime and nighttime temperatures are often higher than ours.

I spot-checked a few cities in northern Zone 3 & 4 areas to determine some of their statistics. I wanted to know whether my assumptions above were valid. I wanted to see the differences between one Zone 4 and another, or between Zone 3 and my own location. I selected these locations:

Home: These are my own observations based on collecting data the past 4.5 years.
Guffey: Our nearest town.
Minot, ND & Bemidji, MN: Just a couple of northern cities with information easy to find.
Wolcott, VT: High Mowing Seeds is located here. I know they grow a lot of vegetables there and it is not far from Ed Smith, who wrote “The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible”. Many seed producers seem to be in VT, NH and ME.
Harborside, ME: This is where Eliot Coleman’s “Four Season Farm” is located. He has written several gardening books with lots of suggestions that work well for him.

  1. Home – Actual Observations. Last & First Frost Dates are the latest and earliest I have experienced so far.
  2. USDA Zone Map: https://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/PHZMWeb/InteractiveMap.aspx
  3. Last-First Frost Dates found here: https://davesgarden.com/guides/freeze-frost-dates/  Determined from 90% chance of 32° Spring & Fall. Note: The first/last frost dates found at almanac.com may be very wrong!
  4. Daylength Determined from: https://www.timeanddate.com/sun/
  5. Temperatures found on Wunderground
  6. UV Index Mean found here: https://www.cpc.ncep.noaa.gov/products/stratosphere/uv_index/uv_meanmax.shtml

Note that Bemidgi, in Zone 3, has about TWICE the season length and 1 more hour per day of sunshine. So, buying a plant that is hardy to Zone 3 may work well for them, but will it work well for me?

ALTITUDE

I have attempted to locate information for planting in high altitude, and I just can’t find much. I’ve checked out a few books from the library and have viewed whatever websites seem most appropriate for gardening in the Rocky Mountains. Most of these resources have a little bit of information about growing plants at high altitude, how to protect them from late and early frost and cold spells, and a lot of basic gardening information useful for any area. I haven’t found a good, informative resource yet to indicate what will or won’t grow at high elevation. There are a few relatively local people who do consultations, workshops & seminars, but they aren’t free and aren’t really in my neighborhood. There are local county and state extension offices, but their information hasn’t been very helpful either. Many of their articles are geared to farmers, not the home gardener, and many are not written in layman’s terms.

What difference does altitude make? In our experience, the major difference in addition to our short season is that our nights are very cool, while the days can be quite warm or even hot. Of course, “hot” for us means anything over 80°, which I suppose may not be considered hot at all for some people. We have daily temperature fluctuations that can span 50°. In mid-summer some days can be as low as 37° in the morning and 87° that same afternoon. I may like this just fine, but many plants don’t! Additionally, our high elevation contributes to a more intense UV Index. This can scorch the plants if not taken into consideration. All of this causes a lot of stress to the plants.

 

MATURITY DATES

Seed packets will indicate how many days it will take for plants to grow and/or bear fruit under ideal or average conditions. It’s up to the gardener to determine how long it will take in their own climate. Here, some things (cool-loving plants) mature fairly close to the dates listed, others may take another 50% or more time. Plants grown in the fall & winter in the greenhouse may be warm enough, but since our greenhouse is not given artificial light, everything takes a lot longer to mature.

 

WHAT DO I DO?

WHAT is my planting zone, really? I may be in USDA Zone 4 or 5 over the winter, but what is my summer zone? What I need to know is: how long of a season do perennial fruits need in order to grow and bear fruit? How warm does it need to be for the various annuals to grow successfully in the summer? Is it possible that some things will not grow here no matter how well I protect them?

GRRRRR! I would like to find a resource that indicates whether a blueberry, or raspberry, or strawberry plant will produce fruit in my area, in my length of summer season and # of hours of light per day.

It would really be nice to find a system or chart of some kind that takes all of these factors into account. Come on, USDA! Are you going to produce something useful, or continue to fool novice gardeners into believing your chart may actually be helpful?

And for seed & plant companies, one thing that may be helpful for plant descriptions, particularly for perennial fruits & vegetables, would be some kind of indication as to what length of summer season does it require? what summer temperatures would be best? how many hours of sunlight would it require? Many annual vegetables do answer these questions, I just don’t often find that kind of information for perennial plants and bare roots when purchasing.

For the most part, I’m doing the best I can by trial and error. If something doesn’t do well one year, I try something different the next. I’m passing along this information in case it may help others. Please refer to other pages explaining some of my experiences with various vegetables & fruits.

 

 

 

 

 

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WHAT GROWS HERE & WHAT DOES NOT

This will now be my 3rd year gardening at 9,000 feet. After some trial and error, I’ve chosen only to grow the things that will grow well in the outdoor garden, and use my limited greenhouse space in the summer for a few favorites while saving some room for early fall planting there. Some of the vegetables that grow very well have not been my favorites (kale, cabbage, kohlrabi, rutabagas) but since they do grow well here and are good for us I’m learning to like them more and cook them in new ways.

Our last frost date in spring to the first frost date in the fall is about 92 days. I carefully select only the varieties that boast the shortest maturity period. Nothing grows as fast as promised. If the seed packet indicates 60 days, in most cases it will be 80-100. For example, I planted Masai Hericots Verts bush beans with a maturity range of 58 days. I harvested them about 88 days after planting. Often, seed varieties boast that they are well-suited for northern climates. I’d thought that those would also work well in high altitudes, but no. We do not get as many sunshine hours in the day as do northern areas in the summer. I believe that this, in addition to our cool nights, slows down the growth of many plants. Here is a list of what grows well and what does not.

 

WHAT GROWS WELL OUTDOORS

  • broccoli, cabbage, kohlrabi, kale, bok choy & all brassicas
  • lettuce, spinach, chard and a variety of other greens to be eaten fresh or sauteed
  • root vegetables such as beets, rutabagas, turnips, radishes and carrots
  • potatoes
  • garlic
  • peas
  • herbs such as parsley, cilantro, thyme, sage, oregano, dill

WHAT GROWS SO-SO

(I do still grow these outdoors, but they’re not the best)

  • onions (they don’t get big and the season is too short & cool for them to bulb well, but after a successful experiment last year I’m giving them another try)
  • summer squash (they need covering early on when it’s cold, and help with pollination)
  • winter squash (So far I’ve had only one variety that actually produced squash, Gold Nugget, and it did not taste good. I’m determined to get some winter squash to grow based on the success of some other local gardeners, so I am trying two new varieties this year.)
  • bush beans (a smaller yield than in warmer climates, but they are suitable)
  • celery (got some thin celery last year, am trying one more time)

WHAT I PROBABLY WON’T ATTEMPT OUTDOORS AGAIN

  • tomatoes or peppers (they just began to ripen when the fall frosts began, even though they were faithfully covered each night)
  • corn (tried an Alaskan variety bred for short, cool seasons, but it did not produce)
  • dry beans (it froze before I had a chance to harvest these)
  • cauliflower (grew very spindly, did not make a good head)

WHAT I GROW IN THE SUMMER GREENHOUSE

  • tomatoes
  • peppers
  • cucumbers
  • basil
  • winter squash – still on trial one more time outdoors

 

 

ORGANIZATION, PLANNING & RECORD KEEPING

I’m kind of a nut when it comes to organization and planning, and it may border on overkill. Sometimes I think I may spend more time with this than I do in the garden. I do most of this organization work during the winter when I have the extra time on my hands. When garden time comes, all I need to do is minor updates & notes. My methods for organizing and planning are not specific to high-altitude gardening, but are extra helpful when planning a garden that only grows in a short season, or for making full use of limited space in the greenhouse year-round.

SEED SELECTION

When I begin the process of seed selection for the year, I begin an Excel spreadsheet. Mine looks something like this. I start this process in January, and get seeds ordered in February, before the varieties I’ve chosen are no longer available (which has happened before).

I begin by deciding what types of plants I plan to grow, and make a list. The first 3 columns show whether I will grow them in the greenhouse, the cold frame or the outside garden. Then I begin looking at various websites and books that I have, to determine what varieties I might like. I add notes about whether they are organic, how many days to harvest, the vendor, price and miscellaneous notes about the varieties. I start with a BIG list, then begin to delete those I decide not to order. Eventually my list looks something like the one above, which I can sort by vendor, then go to that website and use this as my order list. The varieties with blank spaces indicate seeds I already have on hand.

KEEPING NOTES

After this, I have plenty of time to add information about all these seeds to my notebooks, and to look up information regarding when to plant the seeds, whether to start them indoors or in the garden, etc.

For this process, I use Microsoft One Note. I prefer the Microsoft Office desktop version, but it is also available as a free app, available for Windows or Apple operating systems, or online with any browser. I use this extensively for all my garden planning and note-taking.

These are the main sections (Tabs) I use:

  • PLANNING: links to websites I refer to, companion planting information, seed companies, etc.
  • BEDS: information about what treatments have been given to each bed in my garden
  • GREENHOUSE: general planning information for the greenhouse
  • HI-ALTITUDE: various information about high-altitude gardening, my weather and frost date information, best types of vegetables for high-altitude, etc.
  • FUTURE: ideas to explore in the future
  • NATURE: I keep logs of when I view various birds, squirrels, deer, elk, antelope, various wildflowers, etc.
  • PESTS: pests I see, what I do about them, information about pest control
  • SOIL & AMENDMENTS: information about fertilizers, soil amendments, etc.
  • PLANTS: This is a group section with sub-sections including: Alliums, Beans, Beets, Brassicas, Carrots….you get the idea.
    • Each of these sections contain pages of what I’m planting, including all the varieties I’m planting, dates started, transplanted, harvested, days to harvest, notes about how they did, etc. I also include growing information here.

Here’s a look at my “Brassica” section (under the “PLANTS” group) as an example, showing the page of 2017 Greenhouse Brassicas:

This year I’ve made a separate One Note Notebook, I call “Guffey Veggies”. I used to keep all this information in one notebook, but it got too full of stuff and hard to organize. Now I’m using this “Guffey Veggies” notebook to keep notes on all the seeds I choose. Since I order most of my seeds online, it’s easy to copy and paste this information into the notebook for future reference. Those pages look something like this:

PLANNING & PLANTING

One more thing I did this year was to create a spreadsheet to help me know when to start each vegetable for the greenhouse, the cold frame and the outside garden. It looks like this:

Let me explain this!

  • WHERE: Greenhouse, Cold Frame, or Outside
  • SPECIES, VARIETY: vegetable to plant
  • DAYS: Days to maturity
  • HOW: whether I will start this inside in soil blocks, or direct-sow outside
  • START: the day I will start the seeds. This is automatically calculated from the columns that show when I plan to transplant out, and the number of weeks/days the plant will remain inside before planting.
  • WEEKS INSIDE, DAYS TO TRANSPLANT: weeks, days from sowing to transplanting out.
  • TRANSPLANT OR START OUTSIDE: gathered from growing information I’ve collected
  • OUT ETA: The date I plan to transplant or sow outside
  • HARVEST ETA: This is the date transplanted out + the number of days to harvest.
  • 2018 ACTUAL HARVEST: to be filled in as the summer progresses

This spreadsheet can be sorted as desired: by coldframe, greenhouse, outside, by start date, etc. Right now I’m finding it most handy to sort by start date, so I know what I need to be doing in the coming weeks. As you can see, I’m planning to plant outside in the coldframe sometime around May 15. This will depend on the weather—some things may go out sooner or later than the 15th.

Hopefully all of this is helpful to anyone reading. Everyone has their own way of doing things, and others may do just fine without all this time-consuming organization. If you just “wing it” you may be just as successful, but I find it helpful to do all of this and keep track of what I’m doing so I can go back the next year to determine what worked and what didn’t.

For instance, last year I started my fall plantings of beets, cabbages, broccoli and a few other things too late. They just didn’t have time to grow before fall. I also found that starting most things in the ground last year wasn’t successful. I am glad to have all of these dates & information written down from last year. This year I will start almost everything indoors and plan to transplant them out after they’ve sprouted and gained a little growth. (I will still start carrots & peas outside, but that’s about it.) I know that in my cool weather, the harvest dates for almost everything will be later than expected, but I used the published “Date to Harvest” anyway. I will compare this with my actual harvest dates.

kg23-growing-onions-01

ONIONS – 2017

Along with tomatoes, I love my onions. Onions for everything: soups & stews, sauces, salads, eggs & quiches, you name it. The onions I had grown in our previous garden all did well. I had no reason to believe they would not do well here at 9,000 feet. I’d read on a local county resource list that other gardeners had success with some of the same varieties I’d grown before, and I still had some seeds, so I tried those. I expected success in my high-altitude garden. Well…the leeks and scallions did well, but the bulb onions did not. I planted around 40-50 of them. Dang.

I always start my onions from seed, and have always had good success with this method. I started them all 10 weeks prior to the last frost date, and expected to be able to plant them outside at that time or a bit sooner. These were all started in soil blocks, and I ended up transplanting them outside at about 7 weeks after starting, I had intended to keep them inside under lights the full 10 weeks, but the weather had been so nice, I planted them out, kept them covered at night, and I thought they would do fine. No. Too cold? Too soon? They didn’t die, but did the colder weather stunt their growth? By the end of the season, a few of them had bulbs that were maybe 3″ across. The rest were smaller, some with no bulbs. The stalks never really fell over. I ended up bending them over myself. I kept them mulched well and in the garden until finally, in October, before it seriously froze (but after several nights below 32), I pulled them all out of the ground to cure on racks in the greenhouse. Very few of them cured as usual–the tops never dried up. The thick stalks remained green and some continued to grow. I was able to cook with them–since they were so small it didn’t take long to use them up before they spoiled. Unfortunately, I somehow lost a lot of photos taken near harvest time. The photo above was taken earlier in the season.

As I mentioned earlier, the leeks and scallions all did well. I was very glad to have them! I used the leeks until I was afraid they might go rotten, and before they did I froze the remainder. I still have those ready to make a soup or something. Most of the scallions I planted were “Evergreen Hardy”, a multiplier onion. I left most of them in the ground all season, and they really multiplied! I ended up with too many all at once. I’ve left some of those in the ground, well mulched, to see if they will survive the winter.

DAY LENGTH

Some thoughts about day length. This can be a bit confusing. The best “day length” here for onions is apparently “Intermediate Day.” We are at latitude 38.77. Some sources suggest that we can successfully grow either Intermediate-Day or Long-Day onions. Our former location in Wellington was latitude 40.73, where I grew both long-day and intermediate-day onions. According to Dixondale Farms, all of Colorado should be growing intermediate-day onions, and suggests that both daylength and temperature trigger the transfer of forming leaves to bulbing. Garden.org suggests that anywhere above latitude 35 degrees should grow long-day onions, and that “day neutral” or “intermediate day” onions are bred to be less sensitive to day length. Other sources suggest that anything north of either the 37th or 38th parallel should be “long day”. So, it’s a bit confusing, but for the most part, I’ll try to stick with “Intermediate Day” varieties.

I planted 35 of the variety, “Clear Dawn”, from Fedco Seeds. They indicate that these are a “Long Day” variety, for latitudes 37 degrees and north. These were a substitute for the “Copra” I’d previously had good success with but were hard to find this year. These were the most successful of the onions I did this year. The others I did were a few each of: Southport White Globe, Sedona F1, and Red Torpedo, along with some Zebrune shallots. Here are the results:

 

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TOMATOES – 2017

Who doesn’t love homegrown tomatoes? I think most of us do, and I’d say they are my favorite thing to grow. Every time I buy a tomato from the grocery store I tell myself it isn’t worth the bother and tell myself never do it again. But, there always comes a time I don’t have a garden, there’s red tomatoes at the store, and I cave in and buy them anyway. Even if they are organic and have a nice color, they’ll end up having no flavor. The first tomato I picked from the garden this year reminded me once again of the magnificent flavor of homegrown! It certainly is worth it to grow your own.

That said, I knew from the get-go that growing tomatoes at this elevation would be a challenge, and may not be productive. I’d heard that it is possible to grow tomatoes here with special care and extra warmth at night, so I planned ahead. They were planted in a bed that would be covered every night with plastic. On the coldest nights, frost cloth would also be laid over the tomatoes as a blanket for added warmth. Dark colored plastic bottles filled with water could soak up warmth from the sun during the day, to be released at night inside the plastic dome.

First tomato to ripen – August 28, 2017

June 15th (approximate last frost date, the day I planned to transplant) to September 15th (first frost date) is 92 days, so the tomatoes I chose were listed with 65 days or less to maturity, and considered cold-hardy. I thought those would work well for us. I started them indoors, under lights, 6 weeks prior to transplanting outside. In my former garden, 6 weeks was plenty of time for my starts, and I felt that pushing to 8 or more weeks just made the plants taller and leggier—there was no advantage to starting them any earlier than 6 weeks, which made a good, healthy plant.

So, all that being said, I was a bit surprised that the first tomato wasn’t ready to eat until a full 79 days after transplant. That was only one tomato, 24 days after the 55-day estimate. I was able to harvest quite a few tomatoes, but September 23, the night before our first expected frost, we harvested the majority of the tomatoes, which were green to yellowish-green at the time. I was able to ripen many of them indoors, but some of the greenest ones just weren’t that great. The indoor ripening made them mealy and with little flavor (kind of like the ones you get at the store).

2017 RESULTS:

All of these tasted good, I would plant any of them again. One odd thing: the Glacier tomato was supposed to be red, but two of these plants ended up being yellow tomatoes—that was a surprise! Somehow I’ve lost most of the photos I took of tomatoes, but what you see here is what I have.

MY THOUGHTS:

Tomatoes planted in the future will be grown in the greenhouse, even in the summer months. There, I will be able to start some earlier and others later, in succession, to keep a small supply on hand for several months. I won’t be planting large numbers of tomatoes for canning, but will only keep a few for eating fresh.

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We Have a Greenhouse!

In the planning stages of building our house here at 9,000 feet, we had always thought we would eventually build a greenhouse. At our former location in Wellington we had a small, non-heated greenhouse, which provided us with cold-tolerant things like spinach, kale, chard, lettuce and beet greens throughout most of the winter. It also provided a place to finish and harden the seedlings I had started under lights indoors. It was attached to the south side of our house, under our deck, so the north side of the greenhouse was protected by the house. (See photos of this one below.) It was a great addition to the garden there, so we planned to do it again.

We mulled over whether to attach it to the house or build a free-standing greenhouse. Here are some of the pros & cons:

Attached to the house:

  • Water and electricity readily available
  • North side protected by house
  • Easily accessible in winter

Free-Standing:

  • More available space for a larger greenhouse
  • More available light for the plants
  • Would be farther from the house; less accessible
  • Water and electricity would be more of a challenge
  • Would require insulation, particularly on the north wall

December 3, 2017

We chose to attach the greenhouse to the house, under our deck on the south faces. (I say “faces” because with a 14-sided house, we used two of the sections.) We also decided we would like some sort of heat source, to allow for more growing throughout the winter. While thinking through the options, Tim decided we could have radiant heat in the floor, with a solar collector to provide that heat as well as enough capacity to provide hot water for the house.

November 8, 2017

The greenhouse is now complete! It is full of beautiful, growing vegetables. Tim is now working to complete the solar collector and the system for heating. The solar collector is standing to the left of the greenhouse in the photo above. Inside the crawlspace, at the back of the greenhouse, is the mechanical room, which houses the water collection tank and controls. Tim is in the process of writing a detailed document of how the greenhouse was built, which will be included when complete.

Since the greenhouse is attached to the house, water and electricity are readily available. The glazing is 5-wall polycarbonate, about 5/8″ thick. It includes approximately 100 square feet of raised bed space 28″ deep, radiant in-floor heating, concrete floor to maintain thermal mass, a pond filled with about 200 gallons of water

Pond, filled with water for thermal storage

 (for thermal mass), a lighted grow-bench area for starting seedlings. Currently the pond (left) is topped with a shelf–eventually it will likely house water plants and fish.

Venting is provided by two large ceiling vents equipped with automatic openers, in addition to the door which may remain open as needed. In the future we may add fans and cooling, but we will wait until summer to determine how much cooling will be necessary.

Nighttime Insulation

 

Tim has devised a way to put down insulation over the glazing at night to keep the cold out and the warmth inside.

We are very happy with the result and plan to enjoy it for years to come.

 

Here are photos of our former greenhouse, which served us well, but our new greenhouse is 10x better!

Wellington, CO – 2011

Wellington, CO – 2011

2017 Garden In Review

The 2017 Garden Season has ended and winter is on its way in. 

The garden is in “hibernation” for the winter. Overall, we were very pleased with the garden in our first year of growing vegetables at this elevation. We were able to grow, eat and preserve many vegetables in this first year of gardening at this altitude. It was a lot of fun, a lot of hard work, and very satisfying. Some things did very well, others not so well, and everything we observed and learned will help us in planning for next year.

In general, almost everything took longer to reach maturity than expected. For instance, I picked the very first, 55-day tomato on day 74. I finally harvested the “100 day” onions, even though they could have had more growth, on about day 150 and later. Since the tops never really fell over on their own, they’re not curing properly, and they won’t last long in storage. Many other things took a lot longer than expected as well. I will detail those along with my observation of each vegetable family.

Most things were at least successful in that I at least had something to harvest. Cold-hardy things such as lettuces, spinach, and brassicas such as kale, mustard and cauliflower all did very well. Root vegetables did well (beets, daikon radish, carrots, rutabagas). Summer squash did well, although came later than expected. Bush beans did reasonably well, although all the blossoms did not produce beans. Peas did well. The leeks did well and I am still enjoying them. One of my new favorites is daikon radish, which grew extremely well and fast—I was able to ferment some and they are delicious. I was glad that I planted more kale, mustard and chard than I would eat—the ducks appreciated the greens and I was able to give them less of their expensive feed.

Other things I would not call successful. Knowing that it may not grow well, I had planted corn; Yukon Chief, a cold-hardy, short-season variety, as an experiment. This corn should have been ready for harvest at 55-70 days, per the packet. I did harvest some corn at about 95 days, but the ears were small and many of them had incomplete rows of kernels. Ten huge winter squash plants produced nothing, nada, no squash–just lots of leaves and lots of blossoms. The pepper plants had a few peppers, but they were far from ripe by the first freeze—I picked them but they did not ripen well inside. Tomatoes were somewhat successful in that I enjoyed some nice tomatoes, but not many, and most had to be ripened indoors as they were picked prior to a freezing night in September.

I have lots of notes and ideas about how I might do better next year. For instance:

  • I will try winter squash again, but will keep them covered overnight and on cool days. I will hand pollinate them, and will only plant varieties with shorter maturity dates. I will have them grow larger indoors before planting them outside.
  • I will start everything indoors under lights—the things that were started outside either did not germinate or didn’t germinate as quickly or as reliably (with the exception of daikon radish, which did VERY well).
  • I will grow more of the cold-tolerant things in the perimeter beds, which aren’t as easy to cover, and the vegetables which require more warmth on the interior beds of the garden (easier to keep covered). This may make crop rotation a little more challenging in the future, but I’ll do the best I can.
  • I will leave some beds unplanted at the beginning of summer to leave space for later plantings. I may put some quick-growing cover crops in these beds which can be turned in prior to planting fall crops.
  • I will start my fall crops earlier than I did this year.
  • I will try not to plant too many lettuces at the same time, but leave room for successive plantings! (I always mess up with this.)
  • I will start a spring cold frame a little earlier than last year, but with fewer plants, leaving room for more later on.
  • Now that we have the greenhouse, the plants that require more warmth will be planted there rather than outdoors, such as tomatoes & peppers.

I am pleased with our first year, and would call it a success. We’ve enjoyed lots of good eating, and had a lot of fun. We sure enjoy doing “good work”. Even though many days have produced sore feet and exhaustion, it’s a good thing, and keeps us busy. 

Every Year Is Different

Before we started our garden we had seen a roadside stand not far from here and stopped in. We chatted quite a bit with the owner/gardener. One of the things I remember her saying was that “every year is different” and you just have to go with what you get, appreciating what does well and not fretting about what didn’t. That’s true in any location, to be sure, but especially in our high altitude. This year was rainy and cool, unlike the past couple of summers we’ve experienced.

This photo was taken Sept. 21, the first day of autumn, and the same date the photo for the logo shot was taken in 2016. See the difference!

I know I can’t presume that next year’s results will be the same as this year, but I will try to adjust my methods to take advantage of whatever weather conditions there will be.

 

Late August Progress

It’s time to update the progress in the garden, which I have been putting off because:

  1. I’m too busy working in the garden to spend time writing, and choosing & editing photos.
  2. I’ve thought that what anyone wants to see is results. Results won’t fully be in until the end of the season.
  3. It’s a big project and somewhat overwhelming.

But, I have several observations to share near the end of our first season of high-altitude gardening. Some things have gone well, others have not. I realize that even when I am a “seasoned” high-altitude gardener, every year will be different and will bring different results.

 

WEATHER

This summer, after some very hot days the latter part of June and early July, we have since had an extraordinary amount of rain and generally cooler weather. And I mean “extra-ordinary”; it has rained almost daily. We had 25 days with rain the month of July, and all but 4 days so far in August have had rain. We’ve had a total of 10.6” during the months June-August, which is a lot for our location. Last year we had 1.8” during that same time period. Some days are sunny and quite warm in the morning, then cooler and cloudy/rainy in the afternoon. Some days we’ve had close to 1” of rain in a day, occasionally with small hail. Other days are just a few spits. Needless to say, I have not had to water the garden much. This photo was taken just after a thunderstorm, showing the typical dark sky and that lush green pasture we have this year.

 

SHADE CLOTH

The garden beds are almost always covered with shade cloth. The sun is so intense at 9,000 feet, we felt it was important to provide protection. Think “sunscreen” for plants. One concern about the shade cloth would be, “can the pollinators get in?” Yes, the ends of each bed are open, and they should be able to get in and out easily. The birds certainly have figured that out! No worries about the plants getting enough rain, either. The rain still gets through and the hail does not. Some of the hail will sit on top, and as it melts, it drips through to the beds. The shade cloth has been a great addition, and the plants are certainly not suffering from lack of sunshine.

 

UNIQUE HIGH ALTITUDE TIMING 

To some extent, I don’t know if we’re “on track” regarding timing. I think that most things are maturing much more slowly than they would in a warmer climate. I’m not yet sure if things will ripen before the temperatures dive in September. This is a photo of our tomatoes today. I just noticed that these had begun to turn orange yesterday. As an example of our timing here, this is a Glacier tomato, with days to maturity listed as 55. This is my first tomato with any color, shown 74 days after transplanting outside. I was already picking ripe tomatoes at this time where we used to live, although the bulk of them didn’t ripen until September. The only winter squashes I have on the vines are roughly the size of a golfball. At this point, I’m not thinking they will mature before the frosts begin in September. Just about everything is a month behind here, which makes sense, as our last frost date is also a month behind. For the most part I have chosen varieties that should mature as quickly as possible.

 

PESTS 

The only pests I have had any trouble with have been grubs, aphids, and a few cabbage worms. Not bad!

The grubs showed up in the soil in probably the thousands. As I was digging through one of the unplanted beds one day I began finding them. The more I dug the more I found. I counted as I removed them, and estimated 4-500 in the top 5-6” of just one bed. I threw them all in a bucket and fed them to the ducks a couple of handfuls at a time, and at least they liked them. Although I didn’t observe any obvious plant damage, I was concerned that all these grubs might become some kind of beetles that I wouldn’t want around (beetles that would lay eggs which would become more grubs next season and then more beetles). I wasn’t sure if they would eventually damage the veggies, or not. My best guess is that beetles laid their eggs in our pile of horse manure that had been aging for a couple of years—apparently they love that stuff, and I found that the remainder of that pile was also full of grubs. To get them under control I got some beneficial nematodes, and within a couple of weeks they were largely gone. There are still a few here and there, but they are no longer bothersome.

Bumble Flower Beetle

Just the other day I noticed a beetle buzzing by me, and remembered that during my grub research I had seen photos of a “Bumble Flower Beetle” that looked like this photo. I now think that the grubs may be these beetle larvae, and more beneficial than damaging. There were so many of the grubs, it’s probably just as well that they are under control, but it just may be that they never were that much of a threat.

Aphids have found us and have been eating lettuces, kale and spinach. Not too badly, but they are there and laying eggs. I have sprayed them intermittently with neem and insecticidal soap, which seem to help. I had some calendula planted in a couple of spots, which I removed because they had gotten too big for their locations. When I pulled them up, I discovered that they were covered with aphids, so they may have acted as a “trap” for them, keeping them away from the vegetables to some extent. Off to the compost pile.

The cabbage worms have been present, but not in too many numbers. The same spray has been helpful to keep them at bay. I found one on my corn the other day, but none over there since then.

 

GREENHOUSE PLANS

Our current project is building a greenhouse. I’ll add another post on that at a later date. Tim’s been working hard to plan and has begun to build our winter oasis. The greenhouse will be attached to the southern side of our house, under and out from the deck. It will have approximately 110 sq.ft. of bed space, and an area for starting seedlings. It will be heated with radiant heat in the concrete floor, and will have a pond inside for thermal storage and for fish–I’ll be able to use the fish’s water to water the plants. It should be enclosed (we think) in about 4-5 weeks, with the heating in the floor to come later . Therefore, I’m already starting some seedlings indoors that will be planted out as soon as I can. Wow! Can’t wait!

 

IT’S BEEN 74 DAYS: HOW ARE THE VEGETABLES DOING?

It is now 74 days after “last frost”, when most plants were planted outside, give or take a day or two.

The cold-hardy vegetables have all done very well up to this point (brassicas such as kale, cauliflower, mustard; lettuces, spinach, beets, radishes, onions). I’ve started a second batch of all of these to extend into the fall, with covered beds as needed.

Some other vegetables that I expected to do well haven’t met my expectations, such as peas & beans. The peas are there, but not in the numbers I had in our previous garden. The beans have lots of blossoms but very few beans.

The warm-season vegetables that I’m experimenting with are still questionable, such as corn, squashes, and tomatoes. Tomatoes have just begun to turn yellow and orange, the corn has ears that are small and don’t feel like they have much inside, the squashes are small and I doubt they will ripen in time.

Perennials in their first year of growth are (I think) slowly growing, as to be expected. These are asparagus, blueberries, raspberries and strawberries.

At the end of the summer I’ll post all my observations of everything I’ve planted, I’ll do a page for each vegetable or vegetable group to keep it a bit organized. Hopefully the information will help anyone interested.

April 2017 Garden Preparation

It’s springtime, and although there is certainly more snow to come, the garden process has begun! Tim is busy clearing the area where we will have our raised-bed fenced garden, and Laurie is busy planning and starting seedlings indoors, under grow lights. It’s a big, exciting year for us, and we look forward to planting, tending & harvesting!

 

FIRST THINGS FIRST

For the past couple of months, I (Laurie) have been planning what to grow, where to put it, and when to start each plant. For the past few years I have been using the Garden Planner found on GrowVeg.com, which has been a handy tool for planning where I will put each plant each year. After several revisions, our garden plot will look something like this. Some beds will remain empty until mid-summer when we will plant for fall. One of the beds will be filled with cover crop plants, some of which will go to the compost pile. We’re going to call this a “learning year” and try not to go overboard. 🙂

RAISED BEDS

The raised beds will be about 26-28” tall, . Because we need to fence out deer, rabbits, and other roaming critters, the garden will include an additional 4-6′ of fencing starting at the top edge of the perimeter bed and extending upward. Since the garden will be filled with the high, raised beds, we don’t feel we need a terribly tall fence, as the deer won’t want to jump over into a place with such unsure footing.

Richardson’s Ground Squirrel

Each bed will be lined at the bottom with a layer of rocks and gravel (which we have a lot of here in these “rocky” mountains). We believe that this will not only provide some good drainage under the soil, but should also keep these prolific ground squirrels from burrowing up into the beds. They are everywhere around here: digging, burrowing, running across the roads. Some folks call them “picket pens” or “pocket gophers”, we just call them squirrels. We have observed that the squirrels are absent from the area behind our house where there is a lot of this rocky/gravelly stuff, and our assumption is that it’s just too heavy and thick for them to get through. At least, we haven’t seen evidence of them burrowing through it. Our second line of defense against these guys will be a layer of stucco netting, which is a LOT cheaper than the hardware cloth which is often recommended as protection from ground squirrels. Any long roots should still be able to penetrate both the stucco netting and the rocky bottom. Additionally, just to the inside of the perimeter beds, there will be a layer of plastic lining the walkway, to keep both the weeds and the squirrels out.

GARDEN SITE PREP

This is a shot of the garden site, the morning of April 19, 2017. Although we have 40 acres, most of which is pretty flat with no trees, we are placing the garden here, in a protected spot from wind, and where plants may get a little shade in the afternoons. The area gets full sun from the E-SE all morning into early afternoon. We feel this site will be best, to protect them from the full effect of the intense sun at our elevation. It is also relatively close to the water hydrant. Tim has begun clearing the area and is building the raised beds. The garden itself will be 41 x 35 feet in size, a little over 1400 square feet. The actual planting bed space will be 740 square feet. There is some slope on this site, so it will be terraced a bit along that slope. The entrance to the garden will be wide enough for the tractor to fit through, which has been and will continue to be a big help. The beds will be filled with a soil combination of natural soil, well-aged horse manure, used duck bedding, some additional organic matter and compost.

LET THERE BE LIGHT

In addition to planning the physical garden, Tim has put together a potting bench area and grow lights under the house in our crawl space. It’s not real pretty down there, but functional. The sink and potting area are helpful for me to mix and prepare the soil blocks I use to start seedlings. Under these lights, I already have started several things; mostly greens for the cold frame section which will be planted mid-May, onions and a few other things which take a long time to get started. The lights can be raised as the plants grow. If necessary, we have more lights that can be placed on the lower side of this bench.  (See more about my soil block approach HERE. Soil blocking supplies can be found at GrowOrganic.com or JohnnySeeds.com.)

WEATHER CONSIDERATIONS

Our official “Last Frost Date” is about June 9. The closest listing is for an area about 500 feet lower and 20 miles away, as the birds fly. Our frost date may be a bit later. In the past couple of years our June lows ranged from 33°F (June 14th) to 50°F. Our USDA Plant Hardiness Zone is officially 5a, but I don’t believe it. Most locals say that we are at least in the Zone 4 range, and some suggest not planting anything that can’t survive Zone 3. I’m generally considering we are Zone 4, and that if I want to try warmer season plants, they will need considerable care and protection from the cold. Our highest low temperature the past couple of summers was 50 degrees, and only for a couple of days each summer. Yes, I will try to grow tomatoes! They will be covered EVERY NIGHT and will be surrounded with jugs of water to keep them cozy and bricks around the base for added soil warmth. Almost all the beds will have the ability to be covered, and anything that requires more warmth will be covered most nights. It also hails here, so I will be prepared to provide cover leafy plants from those icy pellets which are sure to descend.

VEGGIE VARIETIES

This year I will be planting several things, to see what will grow and what won’t. I’m even planning to try things that may not make it, just to see what happens. I’m sure that cool-season vegetables shouldn’t have a problem. It’s the warm season ones and those that need a longer season that are in question. By starting things indoors ahead of last frost and protecting them against the elements, I am hopeful for success!

Rhubarb Spring Growth

Here’s my list: alliums (a variety), beans (bush & pole), beets, brassicas (kale, mustard, cauliflower for now), carrots, herbs (annuals & perennials), corn (a cold-hardy short-season variety), greens (including arugula, lettuces, endive, radicchio, spinach, swiss chard), peas, peppers, rutabagas, squash, tomatoes, asparagus, raspberries, goji berries, and finally, rhubarb, which has been in the ground since late 2014 or early 2015. Later on I may provide a list of the specific varieties I’ve chosen.