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Gardening at High Altitude; Short Season; No Water

I was invited to Colorado to speak this past May and enjoyed my time there so much they get their own Question of the Week! They would deserve it just for the amazing hospitality I was shown (thank you City of Cortez!) but the talks I presented there were also like nothing I've given before, and I realized that they were packed with new information for the Gardens Alive audience and archive, so here we go with advice on conquering some of the most difficult conditions a gardener can face!

I wanted to try and be really aware of the issues gardeners faced at altitude, so I got there on Wednesday and tried to gather as much information on local conditions as I could before my talks that Saturday.

OK. And ride the steam train up to an old mining town, and visit Mesa Verde…

which is both a National Park and a World Heritage site—and where I was able to confirm that Native Americans who lived in the (amazing!) cliff dwellings there grew corn a thousand years ago using the kind of water harvesting techniques I was planning to talk about. (And which we'll get to in a moment.)

And I was staying on a ranch run by an avid gardener (hello Jessica!) who helped me understand the issues she faced growing tomatoes at six thousand feet; namely a very short frost-free season, a lack of deciduous leaves for compost making, alkaline soil and very little water—especially this year, when the winter snow pack failed to arrive.

Yes, I actually researched a talk! Wrote out notes and everything.

Anyway, I divided the talk into three sections: Growing tomatoes at altitude (or anywhere with a short season and/or burning hot days), making compost without a lot of leaves and harvesting water.

High altitude tomatoes:

Short season; my new friends in Cortez can get frost in June, and just plain cold nights almost anytime. So stick with varieties that are labeled as 'cold hardy' and that have a short "days to maturity" rating. Big heirlooms can take 90 or more days to ripen their fruits, but many small-to-medium sized slicing tomatoes can be picked 50 to 60 days after planting. (And all tomatoes—and peppers, and pumpkins, etc—should have a 'days to maturity' number displaced prominently on the catalog description, seed packet and/or plant tag.)

(If only we knew my 'days to maturity'. All we know is that I haven't reached it yet.)

Back to tomatoes. The plants will need protection on nights that drop below, say 45 degrees F. Most of the early-ripening varieties are smaller, well-behaved bush-style plants, so you can use medium-sized tomato cages to hold them upright and have frost-preventing row covers ready to drape over the cages. (Never drape row covers directly on top of plants.)

But summer days can get fiercely hot, so you'll also need beach umbrellas or shade cloth ready to protect the plants when temperatures rise much above 90 degrees F. And don't be shy about that shading; the sun's UV rays are 25% stronger at six to seven thousand feet, which increases the risk of sunscald on peppers and tomatoes. (And sun burn on humans!)


Lack of 'dry brown material' and water are the problems out in the Southwest. There are some deciduous trees in these areas and you should scavenge every leaf from them in the fall. And I saw a lot of dried up cattails and other big aquatic plants in irrigation ditches. They'll be tough to shred but worth the effort; plants that grow in water contain a lot of trace minerals and make great compost material when they're dry and brown. And the plants I saw were nice and big; they'll provide a lot of 'bulk' for compost making.

So; shred up all your possible 'browns'—things like corn and sunflower stalks too—mix in lots of wet coffee grounds to supply nitrogen and it should create great compost. (Don't compost any veggie waste outdoors in places like Colorado where bears roam freely. Get an indoor worm bin for your non-coffee-ground kitchen waste.)

Just be sure to place outdoor compost piles or bins in shady spots that you can haul water to in regions where the humidity levels are low and rainfall is historically scarce. This is a perfect situation for the 'sealed' black plastic bins with locking lids I often recommend, as the materials inside will stay moist MUCH longer than they would in an open pile.

…which of course leads us to what I called 'the elephant in the room'.

Water (or lack thereof):

I was told that they've only had about three inches of rain so far this year in Southwest Colorado, but I assured the gardeners that came to my talks that they actually had all the water they needed—as long as they took baths and showers and washed some of their dishes by hand.

"Greywater"; re-using your cleanest household wastewater. Such re-use would seem to be essential in such a dry clime, but in the past, some state and local governments have frowned upon or just plain forbidden it. So: is it legal there?

It seems to be. Oddly, several people in my audience told me that it was definitely illegal until recently to have a rain barrel or otherwise divert rain water on your property. (Water is a very touchy subject in areas with lots of cattle but little rain.)

Those 'rain barrel' rules have changed, which is great. But no matter where you live, you should always think about gravity before you start catching rainwater. Place your barrels or other containers up on supports or locate the gardens down at a lower level so you can passively release the water you capture without pumps.

But you shouldn't try and store greywater. The little bits of soap and food particles can quickly turn it into 'blackwater', so any greywater system should go directly into some kind of a filter and then into a dripline that releases the water into the soil immediately. If you can't re-plumb your tub or shower's drain to do this, get a submersible pump and use it to transfer the water. (These little pumps are cheap and widely available at home and hardware stores.)

Carry dishwater outside by hand and use it to water any plants close to the house. (It's said in folklore to be greatly beneficial to roses.) Put a pot under the sink when you wash your hands. Capture the rinse water from your washing machine. Be creative—you already paid for the water once, so use it twice. And always have a good organic mulch on the soil to retain that water.

Finally, I also talked about ancient techniques of 'water harvesting' that were practiced by indigenous peoples in places like Colorado and sub-Saharan Africa at essentially the same time centuries ago. The late Bob Rodale and I devoted an entire chapter to these techniques in our 1990 famine prevention book, "Save Three Lives". You can get used copies online for a couple of bucks. Here's a couple examples of the things we discuss in detail in the book:

• One-tenth of an inch of rain can produce one to two thousand gallons of water per acre if efficiently managed and harvested.

• You can use little water-diverting 'runways' that cover sixteen square yards to keep a fruit or fig tree or grape vine alive and thriving in areas with only three to ten inches of rain a year.

• 'Artificial springs'. Two women researchers spent a few hours one afternoon clearing a 120 square yard area using standard garden hoes to direct the next rainfall, which was a one-tenth of an inch shower. They collected 25 gallons in a barrel from that little spritz.

That's just a sample. Buy a used copy of the book or check it out of a library. Written in 1990, it holds up perfectly today. Maybe better.

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