High-Altitude Cold-Climate Gardening: Overcoming Soil Challenges

This is the third post in our High-Altitude Cold-Climate Gardening series.  You can read the other two by clicking the links below:

Introduction

Overcoming the Terrain

Now we will discuss overcoming our soil challenges.  Living on a rocky mountainside leaves us with soil that is decomposed granite.  It doesn’t retain moisture, or heat, and it is low in nutrients.  We also have a lot of pine needles constantly falling from the Ponderosa Pine trees that add too much acidity to the soil.  The natural forest around us consists of plenty of pine trees, with rocky outcroppings scattered around as well as some large piles of huge rocks, some shrubby bushes, and a carpeting of pine needles on the ground.  There are few plants and grasses that happily grow in the carpet of needles and the rocky soil.

Even though this is a winter photo, you can still see what terrain I am describing.  Trees, lots of big rocks, and the scrubby bushes.

In this closer view you can see the small patches of brown grass and the carpet of dried brown pine needles.  In the summer the difference is that the bushes are green with little leaves, and there are small amounts of light green grasses and small plants here and there.  But it would never be considered a lush green and growing area due to several factors, especially the soil.  Here is one more photo, again taken in winter, but you can see the thin brown grasses, many of which are brown or light green in the summer and still very sparse, and the pine needle carpet, and in the background you can see the trees and rocks.  One last thing I would like to point out in this photo is the shade.  See how much shade there is?  The abundance of pine trees causes that, and it is also not helpful for growing plants.

Overall, terrible soil for growing plants.

As I discussed in the last post, about overcoming the terrain, we terraced our garden area and built raised beds.

As you can see in the background of this photo, there were 3 big pine trees right along the edge of the garden.  There are no pine trees anywhere else around the garden, even behind where I am standing to take the photo.  But those 3 trees dropped tons of pine needles into the garden soil (acid) and caused too much shade.  So they were eventually removed and we have since then planted a couple of apple trees in that area to provide small amounts of shade and no acidic needles in the soil.  Some shade is important for a high-altitude garden because the sun is more intense at high altitude.

The terracing and raised beds were done because of the steep terrain, but it was also done because none of the existing soil is something we want in our garden beds.  We needed to completely bring in garden soil.

When we were very first starting our garden we didn’t have very much compost of our own from the barnyard compost pile, so we had to buy compost and soil and bring it in to fill the boxes.  We started by putting out a layer of straw to help fill the area a bit since we were in need of SO much soil, and then over the years it would break down and add to the soil.

We decided to do a mixture of 1/2 topsoil and 1/2 compost.  And we decided to save money and not buy the 40 lb bags, instead buy from the bulk pile.  We figured that would also save us having to throw away all the plastic bags since we needed A LOT of soil.  Boy was that a disaster!  The compost we got was FULL of trash, mostly little scraps of plastic and glass.  I have no idea why it was in there, but we ended up spending a ton of time picking it all out over the next year as we worked in the garden and I was very concerned that one of the children would get cut by a piece of glass while working in the garden.

Thankfully, the next year, when we were ready to add a bunch more soil to the garden because of settling, we had our own compost to add.  Each year since then we add an inch or so of new compost on top of the beds and stir it in before we plant in the spring.  We have also used all of our own compost to fill the boxes as we built them deeper when we realized that they were too shallow (I discussed that in the previous post).

The soil has gotten better and better over the years.  It improves with age and proper care.  I have started 3 gardens in 3 different locations over the years as we moved from house to house, and I have learned that it definitely takes time and patience to get the soil just right.  The first year is always the worst.  Last garden season was our 6th year growing in this garden and it was the best ever.  And as I look back over those six year I can see a consistent upward tilt in how well the garden did, improving each year.  Some of that is learning curve of this particular garden plot, but a lot has to do with the soil improving.

So, how do we make our compost?  The basic explanation is that we use a mixed livestock barnyard living situation, and we put the compost pile in the barnyard with the animals to allow the chickens to turn the pile for us.  Our compost heap consists of kitchen and garden scraps, as well as manure from whatever livestock we have that year (a mix of cattle, goats, sheep, chicken, and rabbits), and the straw, pine shavings, and hay that are used as bedding for the stalls and coops.  We clean all the stalls, cages, and coops out onto the compost heap, as well as adding the garden scraps/waste and the kitchen scraps.  The livestock will eat a lot of the garden and kitchen scraps we throw on there, but some of them get mixed in.

Because we have so much available to compost we generally have 2-3 piles in the barnyard because one pile would be way too huge.  At the higher end of the barnyard is the least composted pile, where we add all the new stuff.  The one farther down is more composted and the lowest is what we haul to the garden in the spring.  As it breaks down we move it down the hill to the next pile.  If the upper pile hasn’t had much stall/cage/coop cleaning out onto in awhile and is starting to break down pretty well we move it down right before we do a major clean out so that all the new material is in its own pile to start decomposing.  The movement of the piles 3 times a year or so also gives them a big full turn over.  And it gets small stirring and turning daily as the chickens scratch through it and then we rake it back into piles every few weeks.

I explain how we make our compost in more detail in a post called Putting Your Chickens to Work Making Compost.

The soil in the high-altitude Rockies is generally not at all useful for gardening.  But using raised beds and adding good top-soil and compost can over time give a very good base for growing plenty of produce.  And removing troublesome pine trees that drop pine needles into the garden soil will help as well.

Overcoming Soil Challenges in High-Altitude Cold-Climate Gardens:

  • Build raised beds so you can provide all your own garden soil and avoid the decomposed granite soil that is natural to the area.
  • Remove any pine trees around the garden area to prevent needles dropping into the soil and to prevent too much shade.
  • Start with a mix of 1/2 topsoil and 1/2 compost – if you have to buy the compost from the store give it a good examination before buying to avoid trash and glass in it.
  • Add an inch or so of compost each year and stir it in before planting in the spring.
  • Be patient, great soil takes a few years of perfecting and aging.

High-Altitude Cold-Climate Gardening: Overcoming the Terrain

When gardening on steep, rocky mountainsides the terrain presents quite a challenge.  Finding a flat space to build a garden is nearly impossible, and the few naturally flat places that exist are often a risky area because the runoff water from the mountain runs right to that area.  And even if an area is flat, it is still often on rocky ground which can’t be plowed up for a garden.  Our property is a rocky mountainside ponderosa pine forest.

The most successful option we have found is to terrace the garden area and plant in raised beds.  Yes, terracing and building the raised beds is expensive, but when you are dealing with a rocky mountainside it is really the only option because there is nowhere to just plow some rows and have a mostly flat spot with reasonable soil.  The investment in the beginning has definitely paid off for us in the long run with a super-productive garden.

Thankfully, Mtn Man spent his teenage summers working at a local campground building nice, flat campsites on rocky mountainsides, so he is very skilled at terracing.  That made our work so much easier.

Here is the spot we chose for our main vegetable garden.  The rise in elevation from the lower part of the garden to the upper part is about 6 feet over a 20 foot distance, and then about 3 feet rise over a 40 foot distance going the other direction.  That gave quite a rise diagonally across the garden from the lowest corner to the highest corner and made the build tricky.  And the bedrock is just below the surface of the dirt leaving very little dig-ability – so we had quite a challenge ahead of us.

We picked the location of our garden based on the ease of access for us, as well as ease of access to water, and the micro-climate.  The dark painted wall of the garage reflects the heat of the morning sun thus warming the garden faster in the morning, gives shade from the intense high-altitude late-afternoon sun, and it is a good windbreak as the majority of our wind comes from that direction.

We started by measuring it out and drawing the full outline on graph paper.  Then we drew in the beds where we wanted them, with the walkways in between.  We drew several different layout options, trying to give ourselves the most plant-able space and the least walkway space.  We wanted to be sure we were using the space efficiently.  I don’t have that original layout drawings, but below you can see this year’s graph paper drawing that I use to decide what I am planting and where I am putting it.  That is the layout of our garden beds and walkways. Once we had the layout drawn on the graph paper, it was time to start making it a reality.

We built our main garden beds 4-feet wide and as long as they can be in our garden space.  Around the edges of the garden we build them 2-feet wide along the fences (not included in this picture).  The 4 and 2 feet wide beds work well for many reasons.  An average person’s reach is about 2 feet.  So with the 4-foot beds you can easily reach in from either side and get to the middle.  And the 2-foot wide ones along the fence means you can easily reach all the way to the fence.  Also, the size makes it easily compatible with the various hoop tents and trellises that we use, which will be discussed in a future post.

Our paths are about 18-inches wide to give us the most plant-able space possible, but late in the season, when the garden is jungle-like, I do wish the walkways were wider.  We put down weed fabric covered by pea gravel in the walkways.  The weed fabric was easy to put in because we were able to staple it to the raised beds, holding it in place all along the walkway.  The fabric and gravel help a lot in that we don’t have to worry about weeding the walkways.  The garden has enough work and weeding of its own, why waste time weeding walkways?

We lined the bottom of the raised beds with straw, and then put compost from the barnyard over top of that.  We will discuss soil and compost more in a future post.

Originally, the garden beds were built to be about 9-inches deep, depending on the area of the garden and how we did the terracing with the bedrock under it.  But over the years we have found that they grow much better when they are deeper, so we have been expanding each raised bed section to be about 13-18 inches deep and that has helped a LOT.

So we started with this:

And we now have this:

 

In addition to the main veggie garden, we have a few other garden areas around the property.  They use many of the same concepts of using raised beds to deal with the steep rocky terrain, but with some creative changes to how we built them.

The Garlic and Onion Patch raised bed was built with some old railroad timbers we found on our property.

The Strawberry Patch was pretty flat and had pretty good soil in that area to begin with, so we just used some edging bricks to build that bed and added a few inches of compost to that area.

 

The Apple Garden, which is our medicinal herb garden with our apple trees in it, was built with a 4-foot high retaining wall right next to our driveway.  That’s a RAISED bed.  😉

And our herb garden is made with various fun containers for planting in.

We have used a water trough and an old clawfoot tub as “raised beds” too.

There are so many creative options for how to build raised beds and planting areas.

 

With a little planning, and a lot of effort, you can overcome the steep rocky terrain of the high-altitude Rockies.

Overcoming steep, rocky terrain:

  • Choose a good location based on ease of access, terrace-ability, and microclimate
  • Terrace the garden area
  • Plan the garden area to have as much plant-able space as possible, minimizing walkways and maximizing planting beds.
  • Build raised beds that are about 15+ inches deep, 4-feet wide (2-feet wide along fence) and the length of the garden area.
  • Build 18-inch wide gravel paths (or wider for comfort and ease of use) lined with weed cloth.

 

High-Altitude Cold-Climate Gardening

As the snow flies outside my mind begins to go to gardening.  Even though our last frost isn’t until early June, we actually start gardening in March with indoor seed starting, so January and February are usually my garden planning months.

While it looks like this outside:

I am dreaming about and planning this:

We face many challenges gardening in the high-altitude (above 7,500 feet) Rocky Mountains including:

  • steep, rocky terrain
  • rocky soil – decomposed granite that wont retain moisture, is low in nutrients, and doesn’t hold heat, plus ample amounts of pine needles constantly falling, adding too much acidity to the soil
  • wildlife – especially deer and elk, bears, rabbits, gophers, raccoons, chipmunks, voles, and other rodents
  • very short growing season (about 77 days frost to frost)
  • cold, windy, dry climate – summer days average 70sF and summer nights drop into 40sF with low humidity

But over the many years we have been gardening here we have learned a lot of tricks to make our garden successful.  Last year our garden boasted over 490 lbs of produce harvested from about 500 square feet of plantable garden space.

So as we plan our garden for this spring I would like to share a series with you on how we have made our garden so successful in the high-altitude Rocky Mountains.