Gardening at elevations of 5,000 feet and higher in the mountainous west presents unique challenges. The high country gardener must pay careful attention to the weather and its effect on growth to be successful. Although April is a spring month, the weather in the high country can vary dramatically. But there is still hope to get a head start on your garden!
The best way to get a jump start on the growing season is to start your seed indoors well ahead of last frost. Vegetables that are easy to start indoors and transplant include broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, lettuce and tomatoes. Vegetables suitable for starting indoors but with slower root development include cauliflower, onion, celery, peppers and onions (these last two will probably require additional protection once set outdoors). Cucumbers, pumpkins, squash, muskmelons and watermelons, even if they’re to be placed in covered raised beds, often won’t survive transplanting. To avoid disturbing their fragile root systems, start them in biodegradable containers, such as peat pots, that can be transplanted directly into the garden soil.
When will your last spring frost occur? Find out now!
When you set plants out it can be a gamble. Statistics give us planting schedules on averages, but mountain climates seldom follow averages. Be alert to weather changes and prepare to cover plants and emerging seedlings from extremely late, unexpected frosts and other weather events like hail.
To avoid shocking your precious seedlings, be sure to harden off seedlings before transplanting to your garden. This can mean taking the pots outside for a few hours each day, preferably in a shady, protected spot, for a period of two weeks before putting them in the ground. Remember that the higher the elevation, the harsher the sunlight and the faster your plant’s soil will dry out. Putting seedlings in a vented cold frame is an ideal way to help them adjust.
You can give seeds that go directly in the garden a jump start by planting them under mulch. Use only an inch or so of mulch and don’t plant more than two or three weeks ahead of the last frost date. The mulch should be enough to protect your seedlings from all but the hardest of frosts. Before germination, cover the mulch with black plastic to help heat the soil. Remove it when seeds begin to sprout. The mulch method works less well in very moist conditions.
Information by E. Vinje, Planet Natural Research Center