(800) 289-6656 Mon-Fri: 10-7 EST M-F: 10-7 EST

High Altitude Gardening

How to get amazing results from a short growing season.

Cucumber TrellisGardening at elevations of 5,000 feet and higher in America’s mountainous west presents unique challenges. The high country gardener must pay careful attention to the weather and its effect on growth to be successful. A little knowledge regarding climate and growing seasons, soil conditions, moisture and pest control — knowledge that all gardeners should posses no matter where they garden — will result in minimal failures and maximum success.

My own high altitude gardening knowledge came hard. Back when all of us wannabe hippies soured on the urban commune and decided it was time to get back to nature we, of course, struck out for the hills. The high, mountainous country of the American West, as it had for generations of Americans, represented freedom, a fresh start and a return to nature. Live off the land! Grow your own vegetables! Become self-sufficient!

Our desire for a life in concert with the land was superseded only by our ignorance. Even those of us who’d had farm experience in the Midwest and had raised vegetables with our parents and grandparents had no idea of the growing challenges at high altitude. We soon found out.

Grow on a strong foundation. We stock everything you need: plant supports for securing stems and vines, watering equipment to keep your garden from going thirsty, hand tools and pruners that make short work of big jobs and frost protection to extend the season.

What was different from our warm, humid and lengthy summers in farm country? Plenty. The growing season was measured in weeks, rather than months, and infrequently interrupted by July hail storms and August frosts. Complications included scarce rainfall, searing sunlight, rocky alkaline soils, or forest-shaded acidic soils and, depending on our location, hoards of marauding deer, raccoons and rabbits.

Over the years, with plenty of trial-and-error experience and savvy advice from old hands, we eventually produced bumper crops of delicate greens despite the frosts, delicious, organic broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cabbages despite the waves of August insects, and straight-and-true root vegetables despite the poor soil. Keeping it all from the deer and raccoons? That’s another story.

Growing Season

Altitude affects every facet of climate; temperature, humidity and precipitation are all affected by changes of elevation. Sunlight-suffocating cloud cover can be common on one slope, absent, along with rain, on its opposite side.

The high-altitude gardener’s main concern is the length of the growing season. Attempting to raise a winter squash that requires 90 or 100 days to mature in a zone that provides only 70 to 80 frost-free days (or less) is a recipe for disappointment. Yet with wise planning, preparation and attention the high altitude gardener can grow such squash as well as a myriad of other vegetables, including tomatoes, eggplant, beans and peppers. Choosing the right vegetables to grow for your conditions, starting seeds indoors, protecting plants at the beginning and end of the growing season as well as doing everything possible to encourage quick, healthy growth will reward the high altitude gardener with results to rival his flatland counterparts.

Start by finding your area’s climate zone. Climate zone and plant hardiness maps will give you a general idea of your area’s growing season and which plants will thrive there. But zone designations can only help so much and may not be detailed enough to show variations between locations only a few miles apart. In Colorado, frost-free days range from over 150 in places including Boulder and Grand Junction but less than 50 in mountain towns including Steamboat Springs and Crested Butte. (Fraser, CO, elevation 8,560 feet, has an average yearly growing season of just 10 days). Entering my home zip code from Santa Fe, New Mexico (elevation 7,200 feet) into the zone finder yields a 5a result. But my growing conditions a few hundred feet above the city center on a west-facing slope are actually closer to zone 4 conditions. Recording incidence of frost and minimum night-time temperatures in a gardening journal will yield useful information for the years to come. And remember that the zone designations consider only days without frost and minimum low temperatures, They overlook other important growing factors. Consider that cloudy, wet, sea-level Seattle, WA with its acid soils shares a zone 8 designation with high, dry and sunny Tucson, AZ with its alkaline soils.

Enjoy your garden longer! Frost Fabric (N-Sulate®) is a medium weight, permeable, UV treated cloth designed to protect plants from frost, cold and freezing temperatures. Protects tender plants by raising the temperature beneath the fabric by 6-8°F.

High-country gardeners must take into account the slope of their land and its exposure to the sun. Is it sloping to the east, getting morning sun only, a quick warm up followed by an early, cool evening? Is it sloping to the west which means it’s slow to heat up in the mornings but blessed by warm afternoon temperatures that carry into the evening? Do you have south-facing property, rich in sunlight all day long? Or is it north facing, shaded all day and basically unsuitable for most vegetables?

There are other growing-season factors to consider in mountain country. Your garden’s unique microclimate — how much shade it receives, if it’s in a gulch or a pocket that holds heat and cold and protects it from winds, if there’s sunlight reflection from nearby structures, the amount of rain it receives and your soil’s ability to hold moisture — all these factors will affect your plants. Heat is slower to build and quicker to dissipate at elevation (the thinner air means more distance between molecules, making it easier for heat to rise). With so many variables to consider, only experience with your property will reveal exactly what kind of conditions you’ll face. Again, a yearly journal that records weather conditions and gardening results can become an invaluable tool.

The Right Choice

FREE SHIPPING!

Seeds

Garden Seeds

All heirloom seeds offered by Planet Natural are non-treated and non-GMO.

View all
Generally, you’ll choose vegetable seeds with the shortest “days-to-maturity” numbers for your garden. Leafy greens and root vegetables — carrots, turnips, parsnips, radishes and beets — are the best choices for high-altitude, short-season gardens. Beets and turnips are also a good source for tasty, early season greens. Though susceptible to frost damage, potatoes are a good, high-elevation crop if well mulched and covered during early, over-night freezes. Spinach, leaf lettuce, arugula, chicory, chard, most varieties of Asian greens (pak choi) and mustards (Osaka) can be sown right in the garden. Vegetables that require a growth stage before producing seeds and fruits (tomatoes, squash, peppers, green beans) require more time and therefore are more risky. Most of these vegetables can be given a jump by starting seeds indoors and planting them in the garden after all danger of frost has passed. (Though I’ve been able to transplant green beans started indoors using biodegradable cups, they seldom do better than those planted directly in the garden.) They can also be transplanted outside early with protection from a cold frame or in covered raised beds. Vegetables that need warm conditions to flourish — eggplant, peppers, tomatoes — may need to be sheltered during the entire growing season.

All heirloom garden seeds available at Planet Natural are non-treated, non-GMO and NOT purchased from Monsanto-owned Seminis. Planting instructions are included with each packet and shipping is FREE!

“Days-to-harvest” ratings should be considered when choosing among vegetable strains. A 58-day Blue Lake bush bean will be more likely to succeed in zone 4 than a 65-day Blue Lake pole bean. But remember that other factors will also influence days-to-harvest. Maturity ratings are relative to ideal conditions; it may take your 45-day crookneck squash a full two months or more to bear fruit in the cool mountain air. We tried a number of short-season, 60-plus day sweet corns when living in the foothills of Washington’s Olympic Mountains (not so high in elevation, but an extremely damp, sunlight-challenged environment) without success. Then a local gardener introduced us to an heirloom corn that germinated and grew well in cool, damp soils and suddenly… sweet corn, which made our raccoon neighbors especially happy. (Sorry, after several subsequent moves I’ve forgotten the name of that corn, proving how important a garden journal can be. The 68-day Precocious is one sweet corn that works well in cool soil temperatures.) Take advantage of local information sources to find which variety of seed from different vegetables works best in your area. Your county extension office, community gardening club and your gardening neighbors are valuable resources that can save you the frustration.

Don’t be afraid to try uncommon vegetables, such as sorrel, that grow well in cool climates. And don’t forget herbs. Starting basil, parsley, mint and cilantro indoors, in their own pots or for transplant, will spice up your kitchen as well as your garden. Chives over-winter well down to zone 4 in containers that are mulched or covered as will tarragon, lavender and thyme (mulch these heavily and be prepared for disappointment). Some perennial herbs including creeping and mountain thyme will return year after year as long as they are well-protected during winter’s coldest months.

Jump Start the Season

The best way to get a jump start on the growing season is to start your seed indoors well ahead of last frost. The chart here (PDF, scroll down) tells how far in advance of your last expected frost to plant. Vegetables that are easy to start indoors and transplant include broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, lettuce and tomatoes. Vegetables suitable for starting indoors but with slower root development include cauliflower, onion, celery, peppers and onions (these last two will probably require additional protection once set outdoors). Cucumbers, pumpkins, squash, muskmelons and watermelons, even if they’re to be placed in covered raised beds, often won’t survive transplanting. To avoid disturbing their fragile root systems, start them in biodegradable containers, such as peat pots, that can be transplanted directly into the garden soil. Or you can make your own from recycled newspaper.

Garden indoors all year long with Compact Fluorescent (CFL) Grow Lights. Low profile design provides more concentrated light than standard shop tubes. NO heat means that the lamp can be placed closer to your plants for more light energy and improved productivity. Easy to use… just plug it in!

When you set plants out can be a gamble. Statistics give us planting schedules for zone 3 and 4 based on averages (see Organic Gardening Based on Location). But mountain climates seldom follow averages. Be alert to weather changes and prepared to cover plants and emerging seedling from extremely late, unexpected frosts and other weather events like hail.

To avoid shocking your precious seedlings, be sure to harden off seedlings before transplanting to your garden. This can mean taking the pots outside for a few hours each day, preferably in a shady, protected spot, for a period of two weeks before putting them in the ground. Remember that the higher the elevation, the harsher the sunlight and the faster your plant’s soil will dry out. Putting seedlings in a vented cold frame is an ideal way to help them adjust.

You can give seeds that go directly in the garden a jump start by planting them under mulch. I’ve had success using this method with lettuce, peas, arugula, Asian greens, leafy cabbages, beets and turnips. Use only an inch or so of mulch and don’t plant more than two or three weeks ahead of the last frost date. The mulch should be enough to protect your seedlings from all but the hardest of frosts. Before germination, cover the mulch with black plastic to help heat the soil. Remove it when seeds begin to sprout. The mulch method works less well in very moist conditions.

You can also spread black plastic alone on top of your garden soil to help it warm ahead of sowing seeds. If your soil is particularly damp, plastic covers will slow the drying process. After germination and transplanting, using black plastic ground cover on either side of row crops raises soil temperature. (I prefer using natural, organic mulch over plastic.) But plastic or organic, the use of ground cover can give you a day or even a week’s edge over a short growing season. When summer conditions arrive in the high country — and they arrive suddenly, often skipping spring altogether — your seedlings will be ready to take full advantage. This may mean all the difference between a few sweet peas and a bountiful harvest.

Small efforts matter. Planting seed in troughs or depressions will help contain heat and keep your plants warmer during the short growing season. Making ridges between row crops protects them from drying winds and also helps hold heat.

If frost should hit your uncovered plants in early season, try watering them before the sun hits them. Don’t sprinkle leaves, of course, if temperatures remain below freezing. But a watering at the plant’s base may prevent otherwise fatal damage.

Gimme Shelter

Many vegetables just won’t make it in zones 5, 4 and below without protective intervention. These measures can range from simple cloches, some filled with water to full-scale greenhouses (though be careful with these in the high country… I once saw a homestead tomato house blown away overnight by fierce mountain winds). Cold frames may be the simplest form of protection for your vegetables. Not only will they give you a head start with germination, but will encourage fast growth during the early days of the season. Most cold frames are fixed, but if built simply, they can be removed as plants mature and day-time temperatures rise. And they can be replaced on low-growing crops like lettuce and spinach when the first frost threatens. But be careful. The intense sunlight at high elevations means temperatures in your cold frame can quickly exceed what your plants can tolerate. Be sure to vent cold frames sufficiently during daylight hours to prevent wilting.

An individual greenhouse for every plant! Original Hotkaps have been used for decades by commercial growers and farmers to protect plants from harsh weather conditions early in the planting season. Extends your growing season by 2 to 4 weeks! Available in TWO sizes.

Fixed, raised beds have the advantage of warming up ahead of the ground, especially if PVC hoops are installed to support plastic. The plastic covering can easily be removed as temperatures rise during the summer or reapplied if temperatures fall. The hoops also provide support for netting which can keep out marauding birds and other unwanted garden visitors. There are as many ways to make covered raises beds as there are gardens. Get ideas here and here.

The “hoop house” idea can be adapted to cover entire rows of your garden. We’ve used this method to give all kinds of vegetables, including beans and tomatoes, a big advantage. Once we (carefully) transplanted cantaloupe vines we’d started indoors in a hoop-covered row and produced a few small melons, the first, according to our local gardening expert, ever grown in our particular mountain valley (that made them taste even better). You can build these hoop-row shelters wide enough to cover two or three rows. Work the soil where they will be used and plant seed before erecting the structure and covering. We’ve heard of gardeners who place a black 55-gallon barrel of water every 30 or so feet under their row house to collect heat and radiate it during the evening. This seemed to us to be too much work for our modest garden, crossing the line between intensive gardening practice and just plain crazy.

Soil

High country soil conditions demand soil testing. Colorado State Extension Service warns new gardeners that their soil may look fine, but have a pH of 8.5 and higher, too high for most plants. Mountain valleys may be too sandy and lacking in nutrients, east-facing slopes may be heavy with clay that will suffocate plant roots. And certain ground may give up more rocks than potatoes. Your soil may display characteristics of ample iron (the red color of dirt so common in parts of the West) but your plants may be iron deficient because of the high carbonate levels that prohibit plants from utilizing the mineral.

All the riches of the earth! Black Gold® Compost provides organic matter and natural nutrients for beautiful blooms and healthy vegetables — improves soil texture and structure. Mix into the soil prior to planting as an amendment or use as an above-ground mulch. Available in 1.0 cu ft bags.

In almost every case, adding organic material to your ground will improve conditions, including adjusting soil pH. Extremely alkaline soils need careful application of sulfur and lots of organic material, preferably more acidic materials like wood chips, pine needles and leaves. Contacting your extension service for testing and remedial solutions is highly encouraged. Correcting high alkaline soils, including the removal of salts, can be an intensive process with results coming slowly. Adding agricultural gypsum to “break-up” clay soils is a mistake where soils are highly alkaline. Gypsum will only serve to increase already high pH readings. Again, adding organic material in the form of finished compost will allow clay soils to un-pack, making room for water drainage and root structure.

Pests

In the high country, insects, like the plants that feed them, come on strong and all at once. They also contend with the short growing season. Somehow, this doesn’t deter them. A grasshopper’s life cycle is about 90 days, the same as a butternut squash. Yet, grasshoppers manage to be more prolific than squash, even in places where harsh winters should kill their soil-buried eggs (grasshoppers benefit from mulch, too). Organic gardeners facing infestations can use Semaspore, a natural occurring pathogen carried by wheat bran that affects only grasshoppers, in and around their gardens.

High country gardeners must also deal with cabbageworm (hand pick from plants when in the caterpillar stage and release parasitic wasps into the garden) root maggots (put protective discs around each plant to prevent the maggot from burrowing down to the root; plastic row covers will also keep the flies from the plants), cut worms and aphids (use beneficial insects such as ladybugs and lacewings to control them). Your best defense against insect pests is to keep a clean garden, especially at the end of the growing season when insects will look for places to survive the winter in the remains of your plants. Organic means of pest control, including neem powders, garlic oil, horticultural oils and soaps can be used when needed.

Larger pests are a different story. Almost every organic gardening book I’ve seen recommends fences to keep out deer. But I’ve never seen a fence, even if eight feet high and electrified, to be completely effective. (I know of one gardener who had success attaching poles to the top of his deer fence and stringing crepe paper streamers between them.) Deer repellent is good for keeping deer from browsing your shrubbery during winter but not usually suitable (or effective) protecting vegetables.

At Planet Natural we offer a large selection of natural and organic pest control solutions that are guaranteed SAFE and effective. From barriers & repellents to botanical sprays, we only carry the best. Also, visit our Pest Problem Solver for pest pictures, descriptions and a complete list of earth-friendly remedies.

Raccoons are even more persistent at penetrating fences, even electric ones, and will wipe out several rows of corn in a single night. Having an outdoor dog is a good deterrent but training one to maintain vigilance while not destroying the garden with relentless pacing (and keeping you awake with barking) is a challenge even the most accomplished dog whisperer would find frustrating. A friend used Havahart live traps and relocation to reduce his raccoon population, a great idea until he came out one morning and found a skunk in one of his traps.

The least frustrating approach might just be co-existence. Resign yourself to the fact that, despite your best efforts, the varmints will make off with some of your food. This technique usually involves planting more than you think you might need, thus covering your losses, and planting the edge of your garden with plants, like lettuce and herbs that will keep rabbits and others busy at the edges or discourage them altogether. You may even find their presence beneficial. Last summer, I had a rabbit who made itself at home in a patch of mixed lettuce. It stayed concealed there during the day, nibbling away and thinning out the mesclun, allowing room for other plants to mature. At night it moved out into the yard. Yes, I lost some lettuce. But I gained a gardening friend.

In a sense, my relationship with the rabbit stands as a symbol for high-country gardening. One must be ready for compromise and disappointment. You may not be able to grow the biggest Beefsteak tomato. But those Manitoba and Early Girl hybrids or Northern Light and Siletz heirlooms will be every bit as tasty; more so since you grew them yourself. There will be years when unexpected frost will wipe out your precious seedlings and you’ll be forced to plant again, years in which punishing hail storms claim all your lettuce, broccoli and zucchini plants, years with springs so cool and wet that you’ll get little more than peas and greens from your garden. But then will come a season with just enough rain, plenty of sunshine and frosts that wait well into September before getting serious. And my, how your garden will grow.

Additional Resources:

Growing Tomatoes in Cool, Short-Season Locations (PDF)
Gardening Strategies For Short-Season, High-Altitude Zones (PDF)
Gardening in the Colorado Rocky Mountains

Recommended Product Categories

Hobby Kits

Greenhouses

Once considered a luxury, greenhouses are now available for the home gardener.

View all
Seed Starting

Seed Starting Supplies

It’s all about germination! Find pots, heat mats, trays, starter mixes and more here.

View all
Trellis & Twine

Trellis & Twine

Our plant supports, netting, twine and ties will help you take control of your crops.

View all
Cold Frames

Cold Frames

Extend your growing season by a month or more with these easy to assemble cold frames.

View all
Plant Protection

Plant Protection

Protect your plants from frost, pesky insects, deer, rabbits, and other nuisances.

View all

11 Responses to “High Altitude Gardening”

  1. rivrfox on May 24th, 2013 at 1:24 am #

    Row cover really allowed me to plant early and not get wiped out by hail, snow, etc. I did put a tarp out one night for heavy, persistent snow. Plastic or tarps can help heat up the soil by up to 10 degrees for early quicker germination. I’ve been eating Mizuna mustard greens for over a week or more and this is my first season doing my own garden just shy of 8,000 ft.

    Great article!

    My question for you is do you have any experience rooting a golden willow or something similar? I was thinking of soaking in aloe water over night & then planting it and watering with barley seed tea. Any thoughts?

    Happy spring,
    rf

    • Anonymous on August 17th, 2016 at 8:12 am #

      I used cut willow for bean stakes and the willow has sprouted! All I did is water the beans.

  2. Thom Foote on March 30th, 2014 at 11:00 am #

    At altitude hugelkultur with plastic season extender low hoops can be very beneficial. Hugel beds tend to maintain a decent internal temp (45F in my case) and adding plastic will heat up the soil and the air quickly and keep that temp. Look at Sep Holzer’s experience in the Austrian Alps growing fruit!

  3. Chief on April 24th, 2014 at 8:46 pm #

    I’m surprised you didn’t include Painted Mountain Corn in your article, or its sister sweet corn. It produces reliably in marginal soils at 5,000+ feet within 80-90 day growing seasons and is tough enough to shrug off the typical Rocky Mountain summer storms.

    My family and I have been growing Painted Mountain Corn seed for a few years now, always encouraging our customers to save their own seed and develop it for the their micro-climate and share with family and community. But I think this summer may be the most important growing season of our lives, and whatever we grow, we’re going to keep to feed the family.

    We like Painted Mountain Corn for its nutrition and calorie content, but Painted Mountain Corn is truly the most beautiful thing I have ever grown. My family and I have been growing Painted Mountain Corn and every year for harvest we try to get as many new people and kids involved as possible. Opening the shucks is like revealing a purse full of jewels. I never tire of the looks of amazement and joy on the faces of both children and parents as they discover the joy of growing this crop.

    I’m a 25 year old farmer, entrepreneur, physicist and writer born and raised among the snow-capped mountains of Montana. I grew up on an off-the-grid homestead with my brother, raised by my dad–a scientist, historian, entrepreneur, farmer, author, alternative energy expert and passive solar pioneer (he’s never one to brag, so I’ll do it for him). My brother and I went off on scholarships, first to the east coast then to the south for college, but we have since returned to our wild mountains to build our lives and prepare to not only survive, but thrive and pass the torch of civilization to those who will follow us.

    I know a lot of people only think of sweet corn when corn is mentioned–but sweet corn is a summer vegetable. You can’t sustain your family through the winter on summer veggies, no matter how vitamin-rich and tasty they are.

    My family has been working towards total food independence for years and with my dad we have the cumulative experience of decades of trying to grow food in extreme climates. Out of necessity we’ve always grown food for sustenance. When you are forced to rely on what you grow for your food year round, the bottom line is calories. Farming your food takes a tremendous amount of energy and anything you can do to reduce energy input and increase calorie output MUST be your top priority.

    “Forget those romantic notions of a nineteenth century life illumined by the cozy glow of the family circle around the fireplace at night. Been there – done that. It’s OK for a time and a season but I don’t want to repeat it unnecessarily as long as I have a choice. You don’t have to spend all your time and energy scrambling in bare subsistence. In that state, you have no time or energy for anything else…” –New Ordnance “The Secret Weapon” (RockyMountainCorn dot com)

    For my family the bottom line is grain, legumes, potatoes and winter squash. Add in carrots and turnips and onions for some variety. We’ve tried many different grains, legumes, winter squashes and numerous varieties of root vegetables. YOU MUST GROW VARIETIES ADAPTED FOR YOUR REGION AND CLIMATE. Plants that work well for organic farmers and seed growers in Maine are not the best varieties for a high mountain micro-climate in the northern Rocky Mountains. It seems obvious, but we’ve learned the hard way. Buy seed grown in your region or you are courting disaster.

    The tried and true garden for my family at 5,000 feet in Montana is (1) Painted Mountain Corn for our grain (Fukushima-free, Non-GMO, non-hybrid, open pollinated, high protein, micro-nutrient, soft starch – go to our website RockyMountainCorn dot com for more info), (2) Progress #9, Early Frosty, and Dakota shell peas & Black Coco, Golden Rocky Bush Wax, and King of the Early dry beans for our legumes, (3) our own local cross between Squisito spaghetti squash and Eight Ball Zucchini that turns out to be a decent tasting winter squash that keeps well and produces incredibly fast and heavy in a short, harsh summer, and (4) Purple Viking potatoes that produce reliably in spite of late and early frosts and poor, gravely soil and constant high wind.

    Augmenting this garden with deer, elk and trout, we are able to have a balanced diet with enough calories to sustain a high level of activity.

    For folks who need a little more info on Painted Mountain Corn, what it is, how to grow it, etc. check out RockyMountainCorndotcom 12 Tips for Planting and Crop Reports.

  4. Lorraine Davidoff on August 9th, 2015 at 11:46 am #

    Don’t forget all the native edibles like NM sunflowers that have an edible root and just need a start to grow prolifically without effort on my part. Prickly pear have delicious fruit and edible pads. Living in the mountains I baby a few things like tomatoes and peppers but only use the cherry varieties which bear much earlier. I have chili peppers in my south window bearing serranos. Native Amaranth give greens all summer and are prolific seed bearers. In the winter add sprouts to your diet.

  5. Lorraine Davidoff on August 9th, 2015 at 11:55 am #

    Those pesky lawn weeds…native violets… are my favorite greens. Super nutritious too. Transplant a few that have not been poison ed into a mister shady spot and clip leaves at will. I under plant shrubs with these delicious greens. Beautiful flowers in late winter too and they are candied for deserts. No trouble at all. I have one big pot I brought inside for winter nibbles. Evergreen in warmer parts of the country. Forget grass! Grow violets… low, evergreen, edible.

  6. Jeanine VanEtten on March 7th, 2016 at 9:45 pm #

    3/7/16. I live at 7200 ft. above Boulder, CO. And have a great problem with
    chipmunks and ground squirrels eating all my perennials! Do you have any remedies?
    Thanks, Jeanine

  7. ggdiva on June 11th, 2016 at 6:03 pm #

    6/11/2016 I have been gardening at 7600 ft here in the central mountains of New Mexico for 13 years now and prior to that in the Roaring Fork Valley of the Western Slope of Colorado for 27 years before that.. It has been both a struggle and a great learning experience and I worked for the CSU Extension Service so I had all the pertinent information for growing at altitude at my finger tips.

    Last season I planned well ahead and started everything I could inside and supplemented with transplants from the local nursery. I planted all the seeds for peas, lettuce and radish according to the package directions for my zone. Nothing. I mean nothing. I replanted – nothing. I noticed I had quite an infestation of rolly pollies that were eating everything in sight. My soil temperature remained too cool for germination into early June and the bugs wiped them all out. I was really discouraged. I have had some success but for the most part the results of all of my efforts and expense have been lack luster and a great disappointment.

    Three years previous I had read about straw bale gardening and, being sufficiently intrigued, downloaded the small brochure written by Joel Karsten and purchased several bales, brought them home, placed them, and there they sat for two years. Then last summer while I was standing in the checkout line in Lowes one day I discovered the soft cover book Straw Bale Gardens also written by Joel Karsten. I bought the book read it from cover to cover that night and determined to start the next day. So it was with more than a bit of trepidation and disgust at the direction my raised bed garden was taking that I embarked on a my great experiment.

    I reckoned I already had bales that had not been used still intact and in good condition although two years old. I relocated four of the well aged bales to a better location, closer to a water source and up against a terrace wall with shelter from harsh winds and excellent sun exposure until late afternoon. Even though they were two years old I still conditioned them as instructed for 12 days. I started yet another round of beans, lettuce, squash seeds and even a cantaloupe in my little portable 4′ x 4′ greenhouse. I figured what would i have to lose. If it worked with the tired old bales it would be a gift. So on June 15th, late by most garden standards, i laid out a drip hose and dropped all my new seedlings and four tomatoes in to my last minute straw bale garden experiment. i covered it all with a black shade cloth to keep the rabbits, squirrels, and bugs away as well as provide protection from hail. Fingers crossed I set the timer to water every other day for 15 minutes two times per day and watched and waited.

    The results were immediate. The growth rate of the seedlings was remarkable achieving a full 10′ growth in just two weeks. The tomatoes that were 12″ at planting were equally impressive. I was very pleased but still skeptical. If the garden could survive the blistering sun, scorching heat, vicious hot winds, explosive downpours of rain and hail that often blow through and cool mountain nights THEN I would be impressed.

    Well, I was won over. Somethings did better than others, but I had expected that and knew it was more due to the manner they were planted than the medium they were planted into. The beans and tomatoes kicked ass. Seriously. I had a bumper crop of tomatoes well into mid-October and could have gone all the way into November if I had the appropriate protection from frost. But not wanting to take a chance, I pulled all the fruit off the vine and packed the green ones in newspaper in a cool place. My family and I enjoyed them all the way to Christmas! The row of beans fed us as well has having plenty to freeze for the winter. I BECAME A BELIEVER. It’s the heat generated by the consistently composting straw bales that make the difference and is the ultimate solution for those of us who struggle to grow in the harsh conditions and inadequate soils at altitude.

    This year I covered my raised beds with new straw bales and set up a square in my front yard that will have flowers growing in them. In my 13 years of experience I realize trying to hustle to get things into the ground by Memorial Day was an exercise in futility. I started late again this year due to an extremely wet and cold spring most of which was spent in clouds of fog, freezing rain and snow with temperatures rarely reaching even 50 degrees. So, I’m in the process of conditioning the bales and will be planting seeds and transplants next weekend. I have every reason to believe, with the proper attention, i can expect similar results as last year and with row covers plan to extend my crops for as long as I can. One of the other benefits of this method is the height of the beds which make it so much easier to tend. No back breaking weeding.

    In preparation for next year, I will be getting fall straw bales and place them where i want them and let them winter over in preparation for next growing season which I can start a bit earlier with proper preparation. The price of bales here in my area is $6.99, not cheap, but considering I can get two or three seasons out of them, it’s not such a bad hit. When you consider time, back breaking effort and the expense of the elements you put into a dirt garden it really isn’t that much of a difference. The amount of water used may be a bit heavy during the 12 day conditioning process, once planted the garden takes very, very little water. Some people use the water collected from window A/C units only to water their bales. What’s left over when the bales have run their course is beautiful rich compost that can be applied to the other areas of your garden. It really is a win/win.

    Look up straw bale gardening online there is a plethora of information available today that was not available just three years ago. IT WORKS and it works well. The options for locations are only limited by your imagination. Driveways, balconies, patios… with proper preparation you can grow a straw bale garden anywhere. it’s a great idea for community gardens and for kids projects.

    Now you CAN grow a lovely garden even at our altitudes. STRAW BALES.

  8. Sam on August 24th, 2016 at 6:47 am #

    Should talk about the strength of the sun being an issue. I have to hang partial shade (I use burlap), to prevent tomatoes from becoming sunburned. Have had zuchinni be burned by the sun along with other plants.

    I’ve had leaves on well watered plants get burned by the sun in July.
    Another option that works really well for a Garden is the back to Eden method. Really helps conserve water.

    This year, between the temps in the 90’s and the harsh sunlight, everything came to a halt from the 2nd week of July to the first week of August. Raspberries stopped growing. Tomatoes and squash stalled. Cucumbers struggled but made it through. Lot’s of blooms and no produce. Chard was dying until I built a burlap sunshade and left it in place permanently. Now that things are cooling off, everything is going nuts like it’s trying to make up for lost time.

    The sun can be brutal at altitude when coupled with hot temperatures.

    • Sam on August 24th, 2016 at 6:50 am #

      Forgot to mention, I live in Castle Rock, CO. Altitude at my house is ~ 6400 ft.

Leave Your Response

Planet Natural Newsletter

Get the latest organic news plus expert gardening advice, new products and occasional discounts