I love the high country! I spent 13 years of my life living full-time above the snow line in the Sierras, and never tire of the mountains. I do have to admit that this year's record-breaking snows in our region are daunting, and make daily life a lot more complicated. Such weather also reduces life down to essentials.
Many believe that it is impossible to deal with the short growing season, intense sun, and other challenges of living at higher elevations. Here in the Sierras, those elevations range from 4,000 to 10,000 feet above sea levell, and the frost-free season can be less than 90 days. It takes careful thought about what to grow and careful planning. Good season extenders are important tools too.
First, I want to share a video clip, taken by one of DES's (that's Dear Eldest Son's) friends, of the extensive balcony gardens he created in Kings Beach (North Lake Tahoe - 6200 ft. elevation) last summer.
There are several important things that Keith is doing right here; you will notice that all of his plants are in containers, and are watered by a drip irrigation system. His 'garden' wraps around the extensive decking of his house, even though bare ground is visible below. Actually, his home is located under the dense shade of 100 foot + evergreens, dappled shade, really, but that soil is a very thin layer of decomposed granite with very little nutritional value to the annuals we grow as food plants. He wisely sought out good growing soil and used substantial containers (lots are one or two gallon) for his tomatoes and peppers. Besides the better nutrition, that soil in pots warmed up far more rapidly than the soil in the surrounding ground, and gave his heat-loving plants a big growing boost.
Drip irrigation is a boon too, not only conserving water but also making it easy to get the right amount to each plant. The atmosphere is thinner at high elevations, increasing the UV and other rays available, so his light shade actually works to keep his plants from frying! He could add straw as mulch to help retain water, but otherwise managed to produce an incredible amount of food in a very small space.
Many of you flatlanders think of the mountains as wide, open spaces, but Keith's yard faces the same challenges as many urban homesteaders are facing in trying to grow some of their own foods in small spaces in large cities, such as lack of space, soil and light. Lake Tahoe has a narrow rim of densely populated areas all around the lake, where the people who help you visit live, and this is a great example of one household being able to supplement their food budget by growing greens, peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, and other food plants along with beautiful flowers.
The Sierras are not the only part of the US with high elevation challenges.... the Rockies and parts of the Southwest, along with other northerly areas also face similar threats to successful gardening. One of my techniques is to make sure I wait impatiently until the last frost date, which can be learned from your local cooperative extension service. Some season extenders such as floating row covers and Wall O' Water can add a level of protection, though I once had a Wall O' Water collapse and smash a tomato plant during a late spring snowstorm. Greenhouses and hoop houses can also help you get a jump start on your season. However, picking the proper varieties to plant may be your best bet. Plants will take off and grow rapidly once the conditions are optimal, even catching up and surpassing your transplants.
I already mentioned mulching and drip irrigation; both bear repeating. That thinner elevation leads to more water transpiration in your plants, which can quickly dry up and wither away. Mulching can be very thick in those areas exposed to long days of direct sun. You may also be able to take advantage of micro-climates under trees to grow greens and other plants that need more shade. Get to know your site!
Here are a few special resources online for high elevation gardeners:
High Elevation Gardening Web Log "Blog" - Coconino County Master Gardeners of Northern Arizona
Growing Food in the Southwest Mountains, Lisa Rayner (1996, 2002) - Lisa is a permaculture and solar cooking expert who has worked with the challenges of the Southwest growing environment for two decades.
Native Seed/SEARCH - seed preservers and promoters of many heirloom varietals grown for centuries in the high mountain deserts of the Southwest, even as hig ast 10,000 ft. I grew a successful Three Sisters garden at 5,000 ft elevation one year using crops they recommend, though free-range cattle got to eat my corn instead of me!
High Country Gardens - Another excellent resource for plants that will thrive in the challenging high elevation climates.