Planning and Design

4 Serious High-Altitude Gardening Mistakes and How You Can Avoid Them

By Soumita Moitra

Did you recently move to a mountain resort and are contemplating growing your own vegetables and fruits? Or have you been living in a mountain home all your life and want to give it a revamp?

In either case, you need know that high-altitude gardening isn’t necessarily a walk in the park. From identifying the right plants to enriching the soil and finding the right watering strategy—growing a mountain garden requires planning and foresight.

The Challenges of High-Altitude Gardening

If you’re just getting started, the idea of creating a high-altitude garden will seem daunting. How do you protect your plants from rain, sleet, hail, and snow? Is the soil in your area suitable for gardening? How long is the gardening season?

It’s simply a glimpse of the questions that’ll start popping in your head the moment you think about building a garden in the hills.

The biggest challenge with high-altitude gardening is the short growing season. For instance, if you live in the Lake Tahoe region, more than 62,000 ft (1,900 m) above sea level, you only get a short gardening window between May and August.

The harsh and freezing winter months, when mercury levels drop below 0°F (-18°C), could wreak havoc on your garden. Also, there are frequent spells of frost that can continue well into the beginning of spring.

Poor soil quality is another challenge you’ll need to overcome. The dry, rocky, and volcanic soil in high-altitude regions makes it difficult for plants to survive. Also, you need to watch out for pests and wildlife, particularly deer. 

Then there’s also the issue of water retention. If your garden is situated on an incline, the slope will cause most of the water to drain before it can be absorbed by your plants.

The combination of all these factors could make it difficult for you to build the mountain garden of your dreams. That’s why in this blog, we’ve outlined a few key mistakes you should avoid while getting started with high-altitude gardening. Let’s take a look.

Not Watching the Air Quality

It’s easy to presume that air pollution is only a problem in cities. But you’d be surprised to know that scenic locations, such as South Lake Tahoe and King’s Beach, reported unhealthy air quality due to the Caldor Fire in August 2021.

Needless to say, dust particles and other pollutants in the air could be catastrophic to your garden. While many plants are equipped to endure adverse environmental conditions, they often end up with discolored, speckled, or wilted leaves.

If you’re growing an edible garden, poor air quality could also affect the yield and growth of your plants. Worse still, it can take a toll on the root system of your plants. 

It emphasizes the importance of keeping an eye on the air quality index (AQI) in your area. A modern hyperlocal weather intelligence platform will give you a deeper insight into South Lake Tahoe air quality and its impact.

You even get a breakdown of the levels of different pollutants. Also, you can check how the AQI will change throughout the day. Having access to that kind of data will help you better protect your garden irrespective of your location.

Whenever you notice a deterioration in the AQI, it’s a good idea to move your plants indoors. If that isn’t possible, you should consider using a protective cover to safeguard the plants.

Ignoring Soil Quality

High-quality nutrient-dense soil is indispensable for every garden. It’s all the more important when you’re building a garden in the extreme conditions of high altitudes. The last thing you want to do is deprive your plants of essential nutrients while they’re already battling freezing temperatures.

Unfortunately, most high-altitude regions have low-quality soil. For instance, areas around Lake Tahoe are known for their shallow soil made of decomposed granite. Also, the acidic pH isn’t inherently equipped to support the growth of plants.

That emphasizes the importance of enriching the soil with compost and manure. It’s a good idea to use organic fertilizers to further improve soil quality.

Also, it’s important to protect the soil with a layer of mulch, such as pine needles, wood chips, or gravel. It enhances the soil by helping retain water. Also, it provides insulation and protects the roots from freezing.

Choosing the Wrong Plants

It’s the most obvious mistake you can make while growing a high-altitude garden. The last thing you want to do is try to grow a bird of paradise or aloe vera plant when temperatures will regularly dip below freezing outside. Similarly, you shouldn’t attempt to grow vegetables, such as cauliflower and melons, that require a long growing season.

You must select plants that are either native to your region or can adapt to it. It’s a good idea to check with a local nursery or extension service. Keep an eye out for plants that have a lower “days to maturity” number.

Typically, plants that do well in high altitudes include:

  • Snapdragons
  • Pansies
  • Violas
  • Dianthus
  • Blue woolly speedwell (Veronica pectinate)

Apart from colorful flowering plants, you can also grow cold-tolerant or fast-maturing vegetables, such as carrots, beets, leafy greens, snap peas and broccoli.

Misusing Greenhouses

A greenhouse helps you create a temperature-controlled environment for plants. So, it’s only natural that you’d be tempted to install a greenhouse at your property to build your mountain garden. It protects plants from inclement weather and even helps extend the growing season.

However, not knowing how to modulate the ambient temperature could cause more harm than good.

If you’re planning to build your garden in a greenhouse, make sure you install a space heater to maintain a temperature of 60°F (16° C) or more during winter. Similarly, it’s important to cover your structure with shade cloths in summer to protect them from intense sunlight.

Closing Thoughts

Creating a stunning garden in high altitudes could be easier than you think. Make sure you choose the right variety of plants that can endure the temperature. Also, keep an eye on the weather and air quality to prevent damage to your plants. Don’t forget to enrich the soil with organic fertilizers and compost as well.

Author Bio:

Soumita Moitra

An engineer and filmmaker by education, Soumita finds writing to be her preferred form of expression. She writes about a diverse array of niches, from fashion and beauty to travel and lifestyle. When not hammering her way through a keyboard, you’ll find her daydreaming about her holiday destination.

Garden writer and blogger, author of 65 gardening books, lecturer and communicator, the Laidback Gardener, Larry Hodgson, passed away in October 2022. Known for his great generosity, his thoroughness and his sense of humor, he reached several generations of amateur and professional gardeners over his 40-year career. Thanks to his son, Mathieu Hodgson, and a team of contributors, will continue its mission of demystifying gardening and making it more accessible to all.

4 comments on “4 Serious High-Altitude Gardening Mistakes and How You Can Avoid Them

  1. 62,000 feet above sea level with any garden would be a triumph!

  2. Some plant species that prefer high altitudes are not happy at low altitudes. I know of only one happy quaking aspen here. I really can not figure out why it is so happy while no others perform well. Although blue spruce does well here, and even seems to perform ‘somewhat’ well in Los Angeles (?!), it does not look as happy as it does within its native range. Edelweiss has never bloomed just once for us here.

  3. I have recently moved to the Lake Tahoe area and the last 2 summers have had terrible air quality. I noticed this summer of 2021 that my vegetable garden, grown in stock water tanks definitely declined when the AQI was high and ash was falling out of the sky. Once the weather cooled down and the AQI improved my vegetable plants improved. I had trouble growing squash and pumpkins this year. Also the temps were over 100 early in the summer and no rain only irrigation for water did not help. It is definitely a challenge here at 5600 ft. I agree the native soil here is very low in nutrients and many of the landscapers here do not believe in soil improvement, not sure if it because they do not know how make it better or the time it takes to do it. Also I found I need to keep in mind that the sun is more intense at altitude and that can affect the plants too. PS I am a horticulturist with 23 years of experience mostly in the midwest.

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