The Crestone Eagle, July 2002:

Crestone Gardening—High and Dry
by Matie Belle Lakish

Crestone called to me eight and a half years ago, and while I lived in awe of the incredible vistas outside my windows, I began wondering how I would garden in this high elevation desert. Several seasons later I can share some techniques I have found for working with this majestic but harsh environment.

In this high altitude, the thin atmosphere provides little insulation from the heat and cold. This makes for warm days, cold nights, and a short growing season—our frost free season is sometimes only 80 days. Cold nights retard growth, inhibit fruit set, and delay ripening, especially in heat loving plants like tomatoes, pepper, cucumbers, and squash. That same thin atmosphere lets in lots of rays in the daytime—a blessing to plants, and a bane to skin. The landscape and soil also present challenges. In the Chalets, a flat, sunny space is rare, while in Casita Park and the Grants the sand and alkali are problematic. Soils vary with location, but are generally mineral rich and humus poor.

Then there is water—or the lack of it. Getting the right amount at the right time, and retaining it in porous soil long enough for plants to use it is a major challenge. And finally—critters. Our higher altitude means fewer bugs on the plants and more on us. Mosquitoes and deer flies love it here, along with the deer that they love.

I have three fenced gardens, each relatively small, that are oriented to capture sunlight between the trees. The fences are 6 foot fences, but to further discourage our high-flying deer, I strung a line about one foot above the fence and hung streamers to catch the wind and add movement. One inch poultry netting also discourages rabbits.

Each of my gardens has areas that are “sunlight-challenged”, so I plan the placement of plants to maximize sunlight. Tomatoes, beans, and squash get the all-day sun; broccoli, cauliflower, chard, and beets get several hours; and lettuce and spinach get the least. On the other hand, in a garden with no shady areas, the sun can be too intense for early season crops like lettuce and spinach, so they can be planted next to tall crops like pole beans or peas, sunflowers, or fruit trees. My favorite flowers are placed among the vegetables, based on their sunlight needs. Crop rotation within such a tight system is challenging. Fortunately, the cold, dry climate inhibits many soil-borne diseases.

My gardens make use of slightly raised beds. In a dry climate, raised beds tend to lose moisture, but they catch sunlight and warm faster in the spring—a very significant factor in the mountains. I try to compensate for moisture loss by increasing humus in the soil and mulching the beds in summer.

Soil fertility requires a lot of humus and major nutrients. Every year I add more compost to each bed, as fertility is fleeting in this climate. I add friendly soil bacteria and earthworms periodically to compensate for die-off in cold winters.

Like most mountain soils, ours are mineral rich, but not in ideal proportions. Valley soil tends to be more alkaline than most plants like. Some gardeners have found it helpful to add a little sulfur, which reacts with water to form a weak sulfuric acid. The sulfur also helps liberate the iron in the soil. Many residents have used mushroom compost from the Rahkra Mushroom Farm, and it seems to have enough sulfur to acidify the soil. Aged manures, forest mulch, and compost added to the soil over time eventually bring the ph into a normal range, as well as improving humus and adding major nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Green manure crops are helpful for increasing humus.

After planning my garden and improving my soil, I installed the water system. I prefer a drip irrigation system. Compared to sprinklers, drip systems use much less water, put the water just where you need it, and water more deeply and more uniformly. Weeds are discouraged because they do not receive the water they need to thrive. Having used overhead watering in the past, I can assure you that the time saved holding a hose and the money saved on water bills will compensate for the extra cost of the soaker hose. Plants are healthier and more vigorous as well.

I currently use the porous hoses for sale in local stores. Since they do not turn corners well, I use a series of loops within each bed, and plant within three inches on either side of the hose. I have four or five hoses strung together for each garden. For better distribution, I added another female hose-end and feed water into both ends of the hose with a Y fitting.

If using overhead sprinklers, watering in the evening will give your plants a chance to absorb the water before the sun and wind dry the soil again. However, it will cool the soil more, which can slow hot weather crops like tomatoes.

Whichever method you choose, water deeply. Shallow watering encourages plants roots to grow along the top of the ground where they dry out and die very quickly. Watering less frequently and more deeply, soaking the soil at least six inches at each watering, and then waiting two or three days before watering again, encourages strong root systems.

A good mulch conserves scarce moisture and evens temperatures at the root zone. I let the sun warm the soil until about mid June, then I apply straw on top of the hoses. Hay, leaves, and grass clippings from non-sprayed yards are also good mulches. Black plastic mulch helps warm the soil and prevents weed growth, but adds no humus. Cardboard laid flat between plants retains moisture and resists weeds. After applying a straw mulch, I water deeply about twice a week.

Many new gardeners resist thinning crowded plants. Some plants, such as peas and beans, which make their own nitrogen, can tolerate crowding, but most plants need space, water, sun and adequate nutrients to grow optimally. If they are too close, they will feel stressed, and, when stressed, most plants react by “bolting”, or making seeds prematurely.

I have become a thermometer watcher, and a low reading will send me scurrying for sheets and blankets. Frequently, our first frost around September 1 will be followed by a few weeks of nice weather, so by keeping covers handy I can often extend the growing season. Floating cover, sometimes doubled, will protect hardy greens into December. Eventually, though, I relax and enjoy the beautiful snowy mountains of the Earth at rest.