I got tricked into gardening five years ago, when the guys at my homebrew shop convinced me that homegrown fresh hops would give my pale ale a blast of hoppy rocket fuel. So I stuck a few bigpots in the back corner of my small urban Denver lot and started a few hops plants. I also tucked in a couple tomato plants for good measure. (If I was going to be watering daily, I might aswell grow some healthy produce.) I'm not alone: Last year, more than 43 million Americans planted a vegetable garden in an act of defiance against the Great Recession and the international food conglomerates.
My hops never really took off that first year, but the tomatoes thrived. I started carrying a saltshaker out into the yard so I could devour the harvest. I was hooked. And every year since, my garden has grown. As do, unfortunately, my difficulties. Growing any type of plant—let alone vegetables or fruits—at altitude or in the mountains is hard. The environment borders on brutal. Frosts in late spring and early fall, a scorching summer sun, random summer hailstorms, a lack of regular rainfall, lousy soil, and an all-around short growing season are just some of the challenges. "The higher you go, the harder it becomes," says David Salman, the founder and owner of High Country Gardens in Santa Fe, which specializes in high-elevation plants. "Vegetable and fruit tree cultivation is much more challenging at high elevations because of a very short growing season. There's no one growing okra up in Vail." That doesn't mean that you can't grow plants—it's just going to take a bit more planning and work.
Learn your area's growing season. Before you do anything, count the average number of days between the last spring frost and the first autumn one. This is your sweet spot for growing sun-loving vegetables like tomatoes and melons. The number can differ wildly, even from one town to another, so check with your local extension agent. (Google your state's name and "extension.") "In Montana, we vary wildly in the length of growing season," says Toby Day, Montana State University's Extension Horticulture Specialist. "Miles City has a 120-day growing season, while Wisdom has only 30 days." Your growing season determines your garden: All seed packets or starter plants should contain a number for the plant's "days to maturity." Make sure your growing season is long enough for the plant to mature, or your fruit will die on the vine with the first autumn frost.
Figure out your soil. Many mountainous environments have plant-unfriendly alkaline soils, because rain and melting snow wash away the good salts needed for growing. Your state's extension program can test it for you, but here's what they'll say: Add organic matter, like compost, sphagnum moss, and mulch to your soil to improve it. And if you're going to be a gardener, you must start a compost pile; dead plant matter and kitchen scraps can be turned into beautiful soil. "Cultivating and improving your soil organically is critical to healthy living soil," Salman says. "It's an underground ecology of organisms."
Pick your plot. You'll need sun, and lots of it, if you're looking to grow chile peppers or heirloom tomatoes. A southern-facing—or at least, east- or west-facing—garden is essential. And the closer to the house, the better. Lugging a garden hose or watering can out to the edge of your property will get old quickly. "The best thing to do is put a big garden up in close, on the south side of your house," says Bill McDorman, the owner of Seeds Trust, in Cornville, Arizona, and a specialist in cold-tolerant plants. "The sun shines on the house and the house radiates that heat back into the garden. It can extend your growing season a month." Finally, don't overlook the option of a container garden—pots warm up easily in the sun and you won't need to fuss as much over the soil. "One of the best ideas I've heard is the red wagon technique," McDorman says. "You put two big pots in a red wagon on the porch, and when it gets cold at night you bring it inside."
Choose regionally suitable plants. Vegetables suited to sunny California or the wet Northeast don't work well in the erratic climates of the mountains. Find plants that will tolerate both heat and cold: greens such as spinach, lettuce, or kale, and root plants like carrots, potatoes, and onions, will all thrive. For warm-season vegetables, pick varieties with shorter growing seasons. At this point, there are plenty on the market, in thanks to people like McDorman, who brought cold-tolerant tomatoes back from Siberia in the 1980s. Talk to everyone, from the woman down the street, to the folks manning the garden center, to your local extension agent, about varieties that grow best in your area.
Water. If your zone gets blasted with summer sun, you'll probably need to water daily; sometimes, even twice a day. Stick your finger in the soil. Feel dry? Get out the watering can.
Extend your season. Frost is enemy number one in a mountain garden, so you'll spend most of your time scheming ways to extend your season on both the front and back ends, in order to give your plants more time to grow. "Start a lot of your vegetables indoors, before the season starts," Day says, which will help them reach maturity. "We want to avoid the killing frosts." Getting a late start? Buy small starter plants at the nursery, which will give you a jump on the season. Crop covers, which will protect your plants from the cold, are also highly recommended: You can buy floating row covers from a garden center (which look like a long, low-domed tent), build a cold-frame (a mini greenhouse for your vegetables), or fashion milk-jug "cloches" to protect small plants. Finally, don't forget a fence, so you don't share your bumper crop with the wildlife.
Chill out and enjoy. Many of your plants will die. This is okay. All your successful crops will taste that much better.
From the Spring 2011 issue