It is there, the elusive garden, in its shallow grave, two feet under a blanket of snow. Perhaps only a branch, like a frozen limb, from last summers harvest, barely exposed, yet enough to remind me that the garden is there, if I dig deep enough.
This is my garden, with its raised beds built from old timbers that in a previous life were a bridge down river that was scrapped out several years ago; and fenced in like a fortress, to try to deter the horses, the deer, the elk…
Gardening at nearly 10,000 feet is not easy, but it is possible. And very rewarding. The best part of it is that you rarely have to weed. Weeds do not grow very well here. Nor, of course, does anything else. However… it can be done! Do not despair!
I just read an editorial about raising cattle on grass only, as opposed to the feed-lot route. The author, who is quite active in the beef industry, said he loves to hear the phrase “It won’t work here.” Why? Guess! I love his answer – Because that challenges him to show them they are wrong!
Yes, gardening can be done here. But without throwing away a ton of money just for the sheer pleasure and pride of growing, there are limitations. Last year I tried tomatoes again. Talk about trying to hold onto your old ways and fighting nature, rather than accept where you are and enjoy it for what it has to offer. In addition to the lack of main summer sun due to the high mountain afternoon monsoons, this elevation does not have to offer a long growing season. Last year, we had four weeks without frost. The last frost of the season was July 8th, and then the first frost of the next season was July 19th. Two week growing season?
For several years, I did the gardens for a children’s camp on the west coast. I was spoiled. By this time of year, my seeds were already ordered and in, I was starting my summer crops in the greenhouse or under florescent lights in my house, and awaiting the first of the garlic or greens to pop up through the raised beds (well, maybe another month away before we’d see fresh green). Lettuce would grow there until Thanksgiving, and kale would grow all year. Even in December and January, I could dig up carrots and Jerusalem artichokes. The easy life!
Here we are limited in what we grow, but there is still plenty to feed our family: Chard, potatoes, carrots, lettuce, kale, spinach, beets… these all do fine from direct seed. Tomatoes, squash, peppers, zucchini, corn… these are treats we enjoy when our friends and neighbors from lower elevation come visit and share.
A greenhouse is an option, and when finances allow, a serious consideration. But I want to be careful with my greenhouse, and conservative. I do not want a greenhouse that costs more to run than buying fancy organic produce at the supermarket. I’m all about efficient. I have seen greenhouses that are attached to the house, thereby needing minimal if any back up heat source, and in turn, help to heat the house. And with proper bearing, shading and ventilation, require no fans for cooling.
In the meanwhile, I’m happy with what I can grow here, and have fun growing indoors as well. Yes, indoors. In one big pot over by my south window, there’s a nice crop of chard that we pick at regularly for cooked greens in our dinner. And in another big pot over by the west window is the lettuce crop. There you have it – our winter greens! And as many herbs as my window sills and counter space will allow. Usually I grow a pot of grass. Yes, grass. Lawn grass. For our cats and dogs. You know how dogs and cats go out to chew on grass when their stomach is upset? Well, here, for 5-6 months of the year, they can’t find any grass. So for the past few years, we’ve provided them with a little indoor lawn to chew on when the need arises. I learned this the hard way – one of my old dogs ate my Christmas cactus. He was trying to tell me something, and I finally got the message.
Here’s a cute story about my indoor growing: being conservative as I am with our resources, I usually dump the water bowl from the bird cage (yes, I have “pet” doves, too – another story…) onto my plants every morning and get the birds fresh water. Well, in one pot here by my kitchen table, I’ve got a bunch of herbs growing that I had dug out sections of from both my garden and my mother’s garden (yet another story – she’s lives in downtown Denver and has a wonderful community garden). So, alongside the chives, thyme, oregano and sage, a giant sunflower and a cherry tomato plant are growing happily and healthily! The sunflower must have come from the bird cage water, and the tomato seed from my mother’s garden (obviously not mine!). What have I said about my respect and appreciation for volunteers?!?
As for my outdoor garden, it’s there, snoozing away under the snow, I imagine. This time of year, I have to dig down a couple feet through the snow each time I dump my compost to get even close to the manure pile. No surprise, but the pile does not get hot up here, even in the summer. We have two large manure piles that we add egg shells and coffee grounds to (the chickens get all the table scraps), and last year we finally dug into one and felt heat. Well, one thing I have learned up here is that you can not burn your garden bed. You’d be standing around whistling for a very long time if you were going to wait for your compost pile to do its thing here, so in the spring and fall, I put the fresh stuff right into the beds.
Although I’ve noticed many gardeners are usually glad to share their knowledge and experience, for better or for worse, no one shares any gardening wisdom with me here. Since we’re the first crazy family to live up here (it’s supposed to just be a summer/vacation area), no one has gardened here before. (Where are those mentors when you need them? ) So, once again, I learn by mistakes. Lots of them.
But you know, most of us gardeners enjoy just being out there and getting our hands in the dirt. It’s not about how many pounds of this, or how many bushels of that. It’s about being out there and just doing it. So even if one year my carrots only get to be two inches long, or the deer and elk finish off my lettuce before I do, I still enjoy the process of doing the garden.
I’ll keep trying, and keep enjoying. And keep making mistakes.
This coming year will be the first year I can harvest my asparagus. I’ve watched them come up and grow for the past three years. They don’t come up until July here. In October when they are turning into golden, lacy ferns and before they are covered for the winter with a two foot or so blanket of snow, I cover them with manure, compost, straw and ash. This year, we cleaned out the chicken coop and unloaded the wheel barrow directly onto the asparagus beds. Should give them a good dose of whatever it is that makes things grow, and also protect the ground a little more from the sub zero temps we get for many months at a time. Should be a good year!