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Crestone Eagle, July 2002:
Crestone Gardening—High and Dry
by Matie Belle Lakish
Crestone called to me eight and a half years
ago, and while I lived in awe of the incredible vistas outside
my windows, I began wondering how I would garden in this high
elevation desert. Several seasons later I can share some techniques
I have found for working with this majestic but harsh environment.
In this high altitude, the thin atmosphere provides little
insulation from the heat and cold. This makes for warm days,
cold nights, and a short growing season—our frost free
season is sometimes only 80 days. Cold nights retard growth,
inhibit fruit set, and delay ripening, especially in heat
loving plants like tomatoes, pepper, cucumbers, and squash.
That same thin atmosphere lets in lots of rays in the daytime—a
blessing to plants, and a bane to skin. The landscape and
soil also present challenges. In the Chalets, a flat, sunny
space is rare, while in Casita Park and the Grants the sand
and alkali are problematic. Soils vary with location, but
are generally mineral rich and humus poor.
Then there is water—or the lack of it. Getting the
right amount at the right time, and retaining it in porous
soil long enough for plants to use it is a major challenge.
And finally—critters. Our higher altitude means fewer
bugs on the plants and more on us. Mosquitoes and deer flies
love it here, along with the deer that they love.
I have three fenced gardens, each relatively small, that
are oriented to capture sunlight between the trees. The fences
are 6 foot fences, but to further discourage our high-flying
deer, I strung a line about one foot above the fence and hung
streamers to catch the wind and add movement. One inch poultry
netting also discourages rabbits.
Each of my gardens has areas that are "sunlight-challenged",
so I plan the placement of plants to maximize sunlight. Tomatoes,
beans, and squash get the all-day sun; broccoli, cauliflower,
chard, and beets get several hours; and lettuce and spinach
get the least. On the other hand, in a garden with no shady
areas, the sun can be too intense for early season crops like
lettuce and spinach, so they can be planted next to tall crops
like pole beans or peas, sunflowers, or fruit trees. My favorite
flowers are placed among the vegetables, based on their sunlight
needs. Crop rotation within such a tight system is challenging.
Fortunately, the cold, dry climate inhibits many soil-borne
My gardens make use of slightly raised beds. In a dry climate,
raised beds tend to lose moisture, but they catch sunlight
and warm faster in the spring—a very significant factor
in the mountains. I try to compensate for moisture loss by
increasing humus in the soil and mulching the beds in summer.
Soil fertility requires a lot of humus and major nutrients.
Every year I add more compost to each bed, as fertility is
fleeting in this climate. I add friendly soil bacteria and
earthworms periodically to compensate for die-off in cold
Like most mountain soils, ours are mineral rich, but not
in ideal proportions. Valley soil tends to be more alkaline
than most plants like. Some gardeners have found it helpful
to add a little sulfur, which reacts with water to form a
weak sulfuric acid. The sulfur also helps liberate the iron
in the soil. Many residents have used mushroom compost from
the Rahkra Mushroom Farm, and it seems to have enough sulfur
to acidify the soil. Aged manures, forest mulch, and compost
added to the soil over time eventually bring the ph into a
normal range, as well as improving humus and adding major
nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Green
manure crops are helpful for increasing humus.
After planning my garden and improving my soil, I installed
the water system. I prefer a drip irrigation system. Compared
to sprinklers, drip systems use much less water, put the water
just where you need it, and water more deeply and more uniformly.
Weeds are discouraged because they do not receive the water
they need to thrive. Having used overhead watering in the
past, I can assure you that the time saved holding a hose
and the money saved on water bills will compensate for the
extra cost of the soaker hose. Plants are healthier and more
vigorous as well.
I currently use the porous hoses for sale in local stores.
Since they do not turn corners well, I use a series of loops
within each bed, and plant within three inches on either side
of the hose. I have four or five hoses strung together for
each garden. For better distribution, I added another female
hose-end and feed water into both ends of the hose with a
If using overhead sprinklers, watering in the evening will
give your plants a chance to absorb the water before the sun
and wind dry the soil again. However, it will cool the soil
more, which can slow hot weather crops like tomatoes.
Whichever method you choose, water deeply. Shallow watering
encourages plants roots to grow along the top of the ground
where they dry out and die very quickly. Watering less frequently
and more deeply, soaking the soil at least six inches at each
watering, and then waiting two or three days before watering
again, encourages strong root systems.
A good mulch conserves scarce moisture and evens temperatures
at the root zone. I let the sun warm the soil until about
mid June, then I apply straw on top of the hoses. Hay, leaves,
and grass clippings from non-sprayed yards are also good mulches.
Black plastic mulch helps warm the soil and prevents weed
growth, but adds no humus. Cardboard laid flat between plants
retains moisture and resists weeds. After applying a straw
mulch, I water deeply about twice a week.
Many new gardeners resist thinning crowded plants. Some plants,
such as peas and beans, which make their own nitrogen, can
tolerate crowding, but most plants need space, water, sun
and adequate nutrients to grow optimally. If they are too
close, they will feel stressed, and, when stressed, most plants
react by "bolting", or making seeds prematurely.
I have become a thermometer watcher, and a low reading will
send me scurrying for sheets and blankets. Frequently, our
first frost around September 1 will be followed by a few weeks
of nice weather, so by keeping covers handy I can often extend
the growing season. Floating cover, sometimes doubled, will
protect hardy greens into December. Eventually, though, I
relax and enjoy the beautiful snowy mountains of the Earth
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