Gardening and Growing Plants at High Altitude

Some things grow with difficulty. Some things grow better… for a while. Some things don’t grow at all.

We grew a garden one year. We live at 6000 ft, which is technically too high for traditional gardening. Even so, some things still grow amazingly well.

We have an apple tree in our back yard. It grows very small apples, that ripen in September. They are less than 2″ around, and not really usable for much other than novelty. The tree only produces about 30 of them a year, so there is never enough of the tiny things to make more than one small pot of applesauce.

Some people here grow very good crab apples, and turn them into very good jelly. Chokecherries also grow well here, as do a particular strain of wild raspberry. Currents survive and thrive also. Many fruit bearing trees and bushes which SHOULD survive here, do not.

We found that in our garden, certain things grew very well – Tomatoes never really got going well, but potatoes did quite well. A surprise since they had done poorly in the previous states we had lived in. In fact, all of the root crops we planted grew and produced well, as did the Peas, and lettuce. Spinach did not do so well.

Some people grow gardens here in a greenhouse. And people who have greenhouses have big ones – they put them into old house foundations and build a greenhouse roof over that. The problems with growing things seem to be more a matter of soil and growing season than of altitude in particular.

Many areas that are high altitude have poor soil. It may be sandy clay, alkaline, or hard clay. Improving the soil can help, but is not the total solution.

The growing season is very short. You cannot really put anything out until mid-June. And by mid-September, the garden is pretty well finished. You can start a lot of plants indoors, but some do not do well when hardened off and transplanted, so it is not a solution for everything.

Many plants simply grow smaller at higher altitudes. If you take a Texan Prickly Pear Cactus and transplant it to Wyoming, it will grow. But it will grow much smaller. It tends to have the same number of spines, but just grows small, like a little wrestler built cactus. Many things are like that.

Since higher altitude areas are often desert, you really have to water your garden. The problem with that is, in most deserts, there are a tremendously high number of dormant seeds in the soil, just waiting for their chance to grow at the least amount of water. Those plants are genetically designed to grow rapidly whenever water is present. A tumbleweed plant that may grow no more than 2 ft tall in the wild will grow 8 to 10 feet tall in a garden. And they grow VERY fast. One day you’ll go out and find a solid carpet of tumbleweed sprouts, so small you cannot yet even grab them to weed properly. Two days later they’ll be big enough to grab, but there are so many of them that getting them all is nearly impossible. They grow a long taproot, which is very tough to pull within just a short time, and the stalk goes woody pretty fast also. Even a small garden plot can be very difficult to weed. And clearing it one year won’t help, because through the fall and winter, new seeds blow in, and you start all over the next year.

The last factor at higher altitudes is wind. It can be very difficult to grow certain types of plants in high wind, especially those that would need trellising. Trees need staked early on, and still end up growing straight only as long as you stake them. The lower trunk will end up straight, and the tops will have a nice graceful curve away from the wind!

Wind can interfere with pollination for certain types of trees, shrubs, and flowers also. Because the wind blows so hard, if the blossoms are delicate, such as apple blossoms, they can be blown off before they are pollinated. We got a pretty good crop from our crab apple tree, though the fruits were always small.

In spite of all that, gardening CAN be done. Many people in the town I live in grow lovely irises, crocuses, and tulips in the spring (ok, summer!), and there are some nice wildflowers which can be transplanted in also. Others persistently plant a few hardy crops and get a decent garden, earwigs and all. You really have to be determined though, to grow anything that produces enough to be worth the effort.