There is nothing more satisfying than harvesting fresh vegetables from your own home garden. The sense of accomplishment can be even greater when the vegetables have been grown at high altitude, since gardening at high elevation requires dedication and innovation to overcome natural obstacles. Cold summer nights, unexpected frosts and short growing seasons are challenging for any gardener. But many hardy vegetable gardeners, especially those in areas like Colorado, have had great success by learning from their experience.
Choosing the right location for your high-altitude vegetable garden is critical to assuring success. According to Christy Hoyl, Master Gardener with the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension, the site must be fully exposed with all-day sunlight. On sloping land, pick a southern exposure to maximize the light and heat of the sun. On steep slopes you may need to consider terracing the ground to prevent water run-off.
Planting crops in raised beds is an excellent way to increase the warmth of the soil and keep weeding manageable. Remove the soil to a depth of about a foot and use lumber or landscape ties to make the frame. Build your frame about 18 inches high to make sure it is well above ground level. A raised bed that is 4 feet wide will allow you to easily reach the middle from either side. Consider lining the bottom with wire mesh to keep out moles and other burrowing animals.
At higher elevations the soil is often poorly developed and low in organic material. Adding compost and mulch is essential in these conditions. Raised bed gardening will give you much more control over soil quality. After constructing the bed you will have a pile of topsoil to use. Mix it well with compost, mulch and manure to create a healthy growing medium for your vegetables.
There are many vegetables that will not grow at high altitude due to the short growing season. Tomatoes, corn, peppers, eggplant, cucumbers, melons and squash are just some of the varieties that will not mature in time. There are plenty of others, however, that will thrive, including lettuce, broccoli, spinach, cabbage and most root vegetables. Herbs such as cilantro, chives and parsley can also be successfully grown.
Cold frames are another way to get a jump on spring planting. They are like windows built to cover the top of raised beds and they trap heat to keep seeds and young plants warm. They can be made using thick, clear plastic or glass, although the latter will be too heavy for large beds. Cold frames allow you to extend the growing season by getting plants started well before the last frost.