Tips for Vegetable Gardening in High Elevations
I have FIVE rules of gardening: 1. Grow plants you love. 2. Size your garden to fit your resources. 3. Give back to the soil. 4. Share what you receive (whether produce, knowledge, or etcetera). 5. Make it joyful.
I also have FIVE, main tips for successful gardens: 1. Know your soil. 2. Practice timing. 3. Utilize the proper microclimates. 4. Set up a watering system that works for you. 5. Pick the right varieties.
1. Know your soil (and build it up over the years)
Add Organic Matter: What is organic matter? Plant and animal detritus at various stages of decomposition and you can never have too much! My favorite way to maintain healthy soil is called double dug lasagna gardening.
Soil Composition: Soil is made up of both biotic (living or once-living things) and abiotic (inorganic things, like minerals, water, and air). When we want to know about the soil’s composition, we usually want to know percentages of sand, silt, and clay. Ideal growing soil is 40% sand, 40% silt (fine sediment), and 20% clay with a whole lot of organic material intermixed.
pH Scale: Most edible plants like a basic to neutral soil (5.5-7 on the pH scale) and luckily, most soils are fairly neutral. If you have acidic soil, you can add potash to make it more alkaline (or basic). For more alkaline soil, you can add a sustainably harvested peat moss.
Amendments: The cool thing is if you take care of your soil, you won’t have to fertilizer. If you do want a fertilizer, however, I would suggest an organic one with a balanced mix of N P K of 10-10-10. What is N P K? N = Nitrogen, P = Phosphorus, & K = Potassium. N is great for green up (leaf and stem growth); P is used for root, flower, and fruit; K is necessary for nutrient pathways.
To Till or Not to Till… that is the question? Studies have really found no difference in overall production short term but remember there are whole ecosystems in your soil that you want to assist you with healthy plants. Tilling those ecosystems up changes a lot.
2. Practice Timing
(Planting time depends entirely on where you live.)
Buying Plants: like picking a spouse—do a background check!
Starting Plants from Seed: That’s a whole hour-long lesson on its own, but I’ll just say read your seed packets and count backwards from when you want to put them in the ground to the suggested date to maturity.
Use season extension—also another hour-long lesson with much trial and error. Covering plants at night where we live until the average last frost date (June 10th) is a good idea. You can also watch the weather and only cover when there is a chance of freezing (temperatures below 32 degrees F).
3. Pick the Right Microclimates
USDA ZONES (Defined by average annual extreme minimum temperature of a climate within a geographic area. There has been a 1/2 zone shift in the last 20 years.) Ours is now 6a, but I only buy plants suited for Zones 4 (sometimes 5) and below because of our late spring frosts. You can buy plants to 6, but make sure they’re in a warm, protected place.
Substrates to warm/cool: Good warming helps can be frost cloths, stone, pebbles, cinders, brick, water jugs, hoop frames, black plastic, and south-facing walls. Good cooling substrates can be wood chips, straw, wood shavings, and most organic mulches.
4. Watering Systems
Think about watering methods well before you plant if you can. Rainwater is slightly acidic so plants love it. Think of all the ways you can conserve water and minimize evaporation. I use rainwater catchment, frost cloths, and buried drip tape. Finding less thirsty plants is always a good idea as well!
5. Select the Proper Varieties
COOL SEASON: Radishes, Carrots, Onions, Garlic, Kale, Broccoli, Leafy Greens, Peas, Potatoes, Microgreens
WARM SEASON: Beans, Corn, Squash, Tomatoes, Peppers, Eggplants, Melons
PERENNIAL VEGETABLES: Asparagus, Jerusalem Artichoke, Rhubarb