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Rocky Mountain Gardening: Tips and Tricks for Success

Editor’s note: This article is the second piece in our series on gardening for your specific location. Check back every day this week for a new featured area of the country!

If you live and garden in the Rocky Mountains, you are likely gardening in some of the most inhospitable terrain in the country. Short growing seasons, limited water, and alkaline soils require some extra gardening care. Of course, there’s always a silver lining, and in this case, it’s the dry, cold climate, which reduces your problems with fungal diseases and even insects.

The Rocky Mountain region takes in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, and parts of Idaho and New Mexico. The topography and climate of this region varies considerably. Most of Utah and southern Idaho fall in zones USDA Plant Hardiness zones 5 and 6, while Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana range from zone 5 to zone 3. High altitude regions, of course, are colder than lower regions. Urban areas, such as the Salt Lake and Denver areas are protected by mountain ranges and enjoy reasonably mild weather, except on the outer plains.

Vegetable Gardening Tips for the Rocky Mountains

To garden successfully in the Rocky Mountains, your first task is to improve the soil. Soils here range from heavy clay to sand. Northern and central Utah gardeners, as well as gardeners in southern Idaho, are blessed with some of the best soil in the region. Most soils have a pH ranging between 6.5 and 8.0. Regardless of your soil type, amend the soil with at least six inches of compost or manure before you begin gardening. Dig an additional two inches of compost into the soil annually. Regular soil amendments improve drainage and fertility, ensuring a more productive harvest.

Your next strategy will be determining when to plant crops. Check with an experienced gardener or your county extension office for the average last date of frost in your area, which can range considerably in the region. In the Denver metro area, gardeners never plant tomatoes before Mother’s Day. Memorial Day is usually a safer bet. Idaho, New Mexico, and Utah have similar planting dates. In parts of Wyoming and Montana, you’re better off waiting until mid-June to plant tender annual vegetables, such as tomatoes, although greens can be planted by late April or early May.

If you live at high altitude or have a particularly short growing season, such as in Wyoming and Montana, consider using cloches, row covers, and hoop tunnels to lengthen the growing season. Wall-o-Waters are particularly helpful for growing tomatoes, cucumbers, and melons. These plastic cloches have water-filled tunnels that collect the heat during the day and act as mini-greenhouses. With these products, you can plant tomatoes and other vegetables up to three weeks early for an earlier harvest. In fact, cloches protect tomatoes from all but the fiercest frost. Keep an eye on the cloches though because heavy snows and animals can flatten them, smothering the plants underneath. Remove the cloches when daytime temperatures rise above 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Otherwise, you risk scorching the plants. Raised beds are another useful strategy for the Rocky Mountain gardener. Raised beds warm up more quickly in the spring, and you can easily improve poor soil.

Fertilize your garden with an all-purpose fertilizer after tomatoes and other blooming plants develop flowers. Fertilize every four to six weeks through the growing season. If you live in a rural area, you probably have access to free manure, which can be used instead of commercial fertilizer. Use only well-rotted and composted chicken or cow manure. Avoid horse manure, which often contains weed seeds.

Disease and pest problems are rare, especially if you follow good gardening culture. Use soaker hoses and drip lines to keep plants dry and opt for disease-resistant tomato varieties if you’ve had problems in the past. Flea beetles may occasionally infest broccoli and other greens. Thwart them by laying floating row covers over the soil immediately after planting.

Water shortages are common here. In Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Montana, water is scarce, and you’ll pay plenty for it unless you have a private well. However, Mormon pioneers in Utah and southern Idaho built canals to deliver irrigation water from nearby lakes and reservoirs. These canals are still used by farmers and gardeners so water is relatively abundant and inexpensive

Drip irrigation and soaker hoses conserve water by delivering it right to the plants’ roots. Water early in the morning before the heat of the day and spread untreated grass clippings over your garden as a mulch. Never apply more than one inch of clippings at a time though, or you’ll end up with a sticky, smelly mess.

Varieties

Greens. Plant lettuce, broccoli, kale, collards, and spinach in late spring or early fall. These plants thrive in cool weather and may not grow well if you have long, warm falls. Greens need plenty of moisture or they become bitter.

Peas. Peas grow very well in Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming because they appreciate mild, cool weather. In Colorado, springs tend to be unpredictable, with days of heavy snow followed by unseasonably warm weather. Peas tend to grow slowly here and then bolt when hot weather arrives.

Tomatoes. Rocky Mountain gardeners can grow almost any type of tomato, including heirloom varieties that are less disease resistant. Use cloches to start them early and opt for sturdy, compact nursery plants or start your own at home. Eggplant, peppers, and tomatillos grow well too.

Corn. Corn grows throughout the Rocky Mountain region. Choose a fast-maturing variety if you live in a cold region. Some gardeners have problems with corn smut, for which there is no cure. Rotate your crops to minimize the risk of this disease.

Melons and pumpkins. Most Rocky Mountain gardeners can grow pumpkins, cucumbers, zucchini, and cantaloupe. If you’d like to try watermelon, choose a fast-maturing variety, such as Crimson Sweet or Sugar Baby. Try laying black plastic over the ground two to three weeks before the last frost. The black plastic warms up the soil so you can plant melons earlier. Lay soaker hoses underneath the plastic and leave it in place all season. It will thwart weed growth and conserve moisture.

Strawberries. In mild regions, like Utah and southern Idaho, you can grow June-bearing strawberry varieties, such as Seneca, Jewel, or Allstar. In regions prone to late spring frosts, such as Wyoming and Colorado, you’re better off with an ever-bearing type. These strawberries produce a crop in early summer followed by another crop in late summer, so if the early crop is nipped by frost, you’ll still get a crop later. Varieties to try include Fort Laramie and Ogallala.

Raspberries. Raspberries grow prolifically in many gardens in Utah and Idaho due to the milder springs and more abundant water. In these areas, you can grow June-bearing types, such as Nova, Boyne, and Latham. In the fall, cut down the old canes, leaving new canes to bear fruit the following year. In colder climates, try fall-bearing varieties, such as Jaclyn, Autumn Britten, or Fall Red. These raspberries produce fruit on new canes rather than one-year old canes, which are often damaged by frost. Mow the entire patch down in winter for easy maintenance.

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