Curious Nature: Gearing up for top altitude, low water gardening

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The growing season in the valley is very short. Most of the region has our last frost in late May and our first frost not long after in late August.
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Did you jump on the garden cart last year? Our arid, high altitude environment is not the easiest gardening chore, but when you succeed the rewards are incredible. Here are some tips to ensure your garden is plentiful this year.

Know your zone

Our growing season in the valley is very short. Most of the region has our last frost in late May and our first frost shortly after in late August. When planning your garden, it is helpful to know your USDA hardiness zone.

A plant’s winter hardiness relates to how tolerant it is to low temperatures. In Eagle County, our zones are between 4a and 5b, which means our minimum annual temperatures are between -30 and -10 Fahrenheit. Picking plants that are classified as hardy in your zone is especially important for perennials that need to survive the winter, but it can also help you plant your annual seeds at an appropriate time of year.

Plan your plants

When choosing your vegetables for the season, look for information about the days until ripeness or whether the plant is frost tolerant. The days to maturity indicated on the seed package will help you find out if this plant is ready for harvest before the first frost.

Products harvested from the Brush Creek Elementary Greenhouse by the Walking Mountains Science Center Sowing Seeds staff in Summer 2020.
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For example, if a tomato is planted on June 1st and it takes 73 days to ripen, you can expect your first harvest to be around August 13th. This would leave a very short tomato season before the first frost. If you find yourself in such a situation, consider starting the seeds indoors, picking a different variety of the same plant, or using seasonal extension tools such as a row cover. It’s always best to plan well at the start of the season so you don’t end up with frozen plants almost ready for harvest.

Our Colorado-native plants have adapted to lower water needs, and you can mimic nature by planting vegetables that use less water. Some good vegetables include beans, cucumber, peppers, and some tomatoes. Be careful, these plants are also susceptible to frost.

Water wise

Once you’ve planted your plants, probably the biggest hurdle to tackle for the rest of the season will be if you water them well. If you’re hand watering or using an irrigation system, the best time to water is early in the morning.

Your plants will soak up the water before the sun has fully risen and are ready for a day in the strong Colorado sun. Whatever you do, don’t pour in the heat of the day. This can cause the leaves of your plants to scorch and you to waste water due to increased evaporation rates.

You can also plan your garden so that sun-hungry plans shade plants like lettuce that want a little less sun every day. Planting larger heat-loving plants at the southern end of the garden will provide shade for the plants to the north of them.

Another proven way to prevent evaporation is to use mulch. Any type of plant-based mulch, such as wood chips, straw, or cardboard, will help keep evaporation low and your plants will benefit from the water you provide. Mulch also helps prevent weeds in your garden.

start now

If you patiently wait for the snow to melt before you start, grow now. Seed companies are selling out fast this year due to the regained popularity of home gardens. You can also plant seeds to transplant later, or plan to buy local live plants later in the spring. Whatever you do, don’t wait.

Have fun gardening.

Erin Baumann is the seed coordinator at the Walking Mountains Science Center. When she’s not gardening, she can swim, kayak, hike, or play in the snow.