Experience has shown that high altitude gardening is unique and challenging, yet, similar to gardening at lower elevations. The following concepts apply at most elevations and can help ensure the high altitude gardener an enjoyable and positive experience.
The first step is to create a base plan and a proposed plan. You can either draw these up yourself or have it done professionally by a Landscape Architect. The base plan should include measurements of the garden, soil conditions, drainage patterns, snow and snow removal impacts, utilities, and existing plants. From this base map, you can start sketching out ideas for your new garden. Do not settle for the first design you create. Make revisions until you are completely satisfied with the entire garden.
Once you have the final plan, use it as a reference during the construction of the garden. At this point, start a folder or notebook to keep the plan, plant information, pictures, tips, and other gardening information together and organized.
High altitude climates of low humidity, drying winds, fluctuating temperature, untimely freezes and snows, and generally poor soil conditions can cause gardeners to consider throwing in the trowel. As frustrating as it may seem at times for high altitude gardeners, positive rewards will come to those who are patient, understand their garden’s microclimate, and follow proper plant selection. The information that you gather during your design and planning step can be very crucial in plant selection. While the plant selection seems very limiting upon first review, high altitude gardeners have found many plants to fulfill their needs and functions in most situations.
The high altitude tree list is very short compared with lower elevation tree lists. However, the types of shrubs, perennials and annuals that can be used make up for the limited tree palette. With the extreme solar intensity of our warm, blue-sky days along with the cool, crisp nights, high altitude gardeners grow some of the brightest and most brilliantly colored flowers in the country.
The use of native trees and shrubs is necessary to provide a hardy skeleton to the garden and provide positive results on which to build. From there, the addition of hardy perennials such as Columbines, Gentians, Penstemons, Dianthus, Rock Cress, Sedums, and Lewisa can provide a colorful grouping that can be added to over time.
We suggest that first time high altitude gardeners avoid planting marginally hardy plants and those plants that "grow where I used to live." This can result in the loss of time and money for the new gardener and diminish their desire to continue gardening. Select proven winners and hardy plants for your microclimate, be patient, and then broaden your plant selection the following seasons. High altitude gardeners usually find poor soil when beginning their garden. Many gardeners create rock gardens because of the abundance of rocks in the soils, where they appear to keep popping up and growing over the years.
In general, the soil lacks organic matter and moisture-holding components. Most successful gardeners have incorporated soil amendments to improve the growing conditions for the new plantings.
Most of the moisture in the high country comes in the form of snow. During the summer, low humidity, drying winds, and lack of moisture keep the ground dry. To counteract this condition, supplemental watering is needed in these dry summer months to help establish high altitude gardens. This watering can be accomplished in many ways. The most efficient way is an automatic drip system. The drip system will apply low amounts of water around the base of the plants where it is really needed. There will be less water used and less water lost to wind and evaporation.
Over time, depending on the type of garden and its needs, you may be able to begin reducing the supplemental watering as the garden becomes established. The use of mulch can also help retain moisture around your plants. We caution first time gardeners to consider the maintenance and care their garden will require to ensure that gardening is an enjoyable and healthy experience and not a burden.
By planning and understanding your garden's microclimate, and having patience, you can reap the rewards of your high altitude garden for many seasons.