Can you grow a vegetable garden in the mountains? Absolutely the answer is an emphatic YES!
Here Bill gives the complete guide to growing your own vegetable garden in the mountains at your cabin or mountain retreat.
The satisfaction of growing your own produce in a quality home garden cannot be matched by commercial edibles in nearly all flavor and nutrition tests. The mountain valleys of North America present a different growing standard than those of coastal or low-land minimal freezing climates.
I have grown and eaten green peas, carrots, tomatoes, potatoes, melons and salad treats from my 40 foot X 40 foot garden that make my salivary glands burst with just the mention of these yummy veggies.
Many other delicious produce items can be added to this list such as: asparagus, raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, corn, currants, lettuce, radishes, cabbage, turnips, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, zucchini, winter squash, cauliflower, and most cold hearty plants.
Challenge of a Mountain Valley Garden
The challenge of growing a mountain valley garden begins with safe season planting temperatures. In my case, the valley I speak of is in Southern Utah with an elevation just over 6,000 feet. Freezing temperatures usually end around May lst.
You will absolutely need to know the window of time that you have to grow in your area. You can usually get this information from the locals, or your extension service. Here is a good article on the extension services in the United States.
The 100 day growing season usually concludes as August days slip away. Most garden “yummies” have a growing season around 100 days, so I will use that for a standard. And of course, some vegetables can tolerate a little frost. Many cannot.
Such produce as leafy greens to include, lettuce, arugula, kale, spinach, swiss chard, collards, cabbage, radishes, turnip greens, beet greens, garden cress and endive must be planted when all danger of frost is past.
The leafy greens command a regular and plentiful water supply and grow best when not competing with weeds. These “greens” are incredibly nutritious and when planted in rich and fertile soil have the potential to grow fast and flavorful during summer months.
Your soil should be tested for nutrient content, but that is not a necessity. Most mountain valley soils are rich and have not been depleted. We have a great article on soil here.
High elevation soil contains enough potassium, phosphorus, and nitrogen to grow a wonderful and productive garden, but a good mix of either organic or non-organic fertilizer will guarantee maximum results.
Fertilizing your Mountain Garden
Organic fertilizer consists of manure, bone meal, cottonseed or other natural occurring materials. Inorganic fertilizers are man-made, and in my opinion should be secondary to organic fertilizer, even though when properly used, commercial fertilizer can be incredibly effective in growth size and produce development.
The down-side of commercial fertilizer is that if it is not used or mixed and applied properly, it can burn/kill produce. A universal “rule of thumb” guide for commercial fertilizer is to get a 10-20-10 mixture for proper soil application the first year. After a few years of use, I would recommend the commercial fertilizer mixture of 12-24-12 for most gardens.
Let the Soil Rest every 6-7 Years
I also believe it is good to leave a garden alone with no produce for one season every 6-7 years to let the soil regenerate its natural nutrients, including “no weed control.”
The crop rotation cycle of not planting the same plants in the exact same place in a garden for more than two years in a row is also good advice and results in better production.
Favorite Mountain Garden Crops
Root and bush/pole vegetables when grown in a mountain valley are my favorites. Carrots, radishes, potatoes, beets, sweet corn, most squash varieties, peas, some varieties of tomatoes, kohlrabi, rutabaga, turnips, melons, many varieties of beans, pumpkins, and other favorites can be grown with great success in most high mountain valleys.
If you are interested in growing herbs, I suggest you try horse-radish, mint, chives, sage (herbal sage), thyme, oregano, rosemary, bay laurel and tarragon. These herbal “regulars” must also be planted when all danger of frost is gone, and as mentioned above, thrive better when not competing with weeds.
If plants are not growing well, and fertilizer does not seem to be working, you may have another soil problem that can best be ascertained with a soil test. These tests can be done by most “soil specialists” who usually work with agricultural resource offices in every state and are very willing to help remedy soil nutrient concerns for all residents with a simple test.
The eradication of weeds, the old nemesis of all gardeners, will maximize plant and produce growth. I strongly suggest weeds be cultivated out or hand pulled. The negative effects of chemically generated commercial weed-killers bring health risk factors into play that may be detrimental to plant growth and personal safety.
Some flower varieties repel animals and insects if planted between rows or on garden margins and can be a good deterrent to predation. One example is marigolds, which will even repel deer.
The beauty of a mountain valley, along with the cool climate and accompanying breezes of higher elevations are conducive to the success of most mountain gardens. A good supply of water is essential and most gardens need their watering supply every two to three days. Regular irrigation cycles can best be maintained by you … as you observe plant growth and productivity.
I will also recommend the eradication of large rocks for garden plots that are planned where rocks occur. Soil preparation for a mountain valley garden plot means trying to get out as many (fist sized or larger) rocks as possible. And I don’t quite know the geology of this phenomena, but rocky soil seems to grow more rocks and as tilling and soil prep occurs, you will find more rocks seem to surface every year. Just keep the larger ones out of the soil as much as possible.
Creatures of opportunity can also ruin a wonderful garden. Deer, raccoons, skunks, squirrels and other animals love your gardens as much as you do. They are under the impression that you are growing the delicious vegetables for them. I have always felt it much better to get rid of the “opportunity” than try to get rid of the “marauders.”
I suggest you fence your garden with chicken wire or high-density wire fencing that must go at least 4-5 inches into the ground perimeter of your garden plot. I also strongly suggest you consider a solar powered electric fence.
I have watched raccoons and squirrels climb a fence and consume a sweet corn crop of nearly a half-acre in one night. Deer can jump fences up to seven feet tall and will do so if your “deer fence” is any lower. Go at least seven feet high.
Do you remember the old movie called “The Yearling?” Jody Baxter’s pet whitetail deer jumped a six-foot fence with ease and ate two acres of produce in a few hours!
The work associated with gardening is substantial. The rewards of delicious and nutritious mountain valley garden produce far outweighs the back-aches, and sore muscles of planting, weeding, and harvesting the bounties of a well-maintained and highly productive vegetable garden.
With the Covid-19 Pandemic that has swept the world, the value of a good garden can negate store visits, food shortages, and supply nutritional needs for anyone with a good pair of gloves, a piece of ground (any size) some reliable seeds and a water supply.
A mountain valley garden that can sustain or supplement the nutritional needs of a family with quality produce is an irreplaceable blessing.