by Matie Belle Lakish
“High and Dry.” “300 days of sunny skies.” The best ways to describe the San Luis Valley also describe our challenges and assets when it comes to growing our own food. If you are new to gardening at 8000 feet, here are ten steps to making your first year a success.
1. Choose a sunny site: A southern exposure is best, but east or west can be used. A site on the north side of your house, or with trees close to the east or west sides will limit the sunlight the plants receive, but you may still be able to grow some crops. A site with shade all day is not suitable.
2. Fence your garden: Deer are a threat to gardens in the Crestone area. Smaller critters like rabbits also love your plants, so fencing your garden area is almost essential to success. Fences should be five to six feet high for deer and the mesh no more than two inches wide at the bottom to keep out rabbits.
3. Decide how you will water: Our natural precipitation is too low to sustain food growing, although, for an aesthetic landscape, xeriscaping may be successful. Even drought-tolerant plants will require water until they are established. You may choose to hand water holding a hose or watering can. In most cases, the best choice is a drip irrigation system, of which there are a number of types. Check with a hardware or garden center for options.
4. Clear and till your site or install raised beds: Most of us will do this by hand, probably digging out rocks from beds to allow a soil depth of at least six inches, or building up the sides of beds and filling the boxes in with soil. Some will combine a slightly raised bed with digging a few inches of the original soil.
5. Add soil amendments: Our sandy soil on the eastern side of the valley has some good minerals that have broken down from the mountain rock over the eons, but it needs help to provide nutrients to plants. A soil test is helpful, but not essential the first year, as most of our soils are similar. They tend to be alkaline and lack nitrogen, phosphorus, calcium, potassium and humus. Select natural minerals to make the soil neutral and add missing nutrients, and a source of natural nitrogen and humus, such as compost. Garden stores or experienced gardeners can help with this.
6. Select and acquire mulch: A mulch helps hold in precious moisture and keep weeds from competing with your plants. There are many good choices, and most gardeners combine them. Straw is easily available in the valley. Leaves from Cottonwood and Aspen trees work well. Avoid Juniper, as it has a growth inhibitor. Pine needles work for berries. Placing non-colored newspaper or cardboard under the mulch helps keep weeds down, but only if you have a drip irrigation system under the paper. Overhead watering will not usually soak through the cardboard.
7. Select short-season seeds and cold-tolerant plants: If planting perennials, that is, plants that come back year after year, look for plants that grow in zones 3 and 4. Several fruiting trees and shrubs will grow in our area and make good landscape plants. Local nurseries and other gardeners can help with selection. Select vegetables with short maturity days listed. Crestone has about 90 guaranteed frost-free days between June 1 and August 30.
8. Water deeply, less often: Plants that depend on humans to water them will adapt to the human’s behavior. If watered often and shallowly, their roots will be shallow and more susceptible to drying out. Watering gardens six to eight inches deep twice a week is a better strategy for strong root systems. Young trees and shrubs need deep watering once a week.
9. Watch for pests: High, cold ecosystems discourage many insects, but some invariably show up. Grasshoppers are rampant in summer. Aphids were a problem last year. Rock Squirrels (large grey squirrels with a snowy mane) will devour tender vegetation. Each requires special treatment, but please use organics. Consult with experienced gardeners or garden centers for their recommendations.
10. Enjoy your harvest: This, of course, is the best part. We all love eating the first green peas or picking a colorful bouquet. Sharing with friends makes this part even more enjoyable. Get together with fellow gardeners to learn more and share successes. For more information on gardening in Zones 3 and 4, check our local library, which has several volumes to help you.