Is vegetable gardening in the Rocky Mountains possible?

– Posted in: FAQ, Mailbag

Readers, I’d like your help in answering this email:

I live at 8800 ft. in the Rocky Mountains ( yes, we have had snow recently also) and want to garden. I did not get 1 tomato last summer because nights are cold.–although my flowers and herb pots did well. This year I have cut out 2 areas to do about a 300sqr.ft. garden.

Where can I get a comprehensive list of vegetables that thrive in the colder climate? At least then all I’d have to worry about is beating off the elk! 😉

I certainly have not gardened at such a high altitude and I wonder if tomatoes and other hot weather crops are even possible at such a height without some sort of “helper” structure: wall o waters, cold frame, etc.

If you have experience to offer please do so in the comments. Also if you know of websites, books, and/or mail-order merchants that provide the information this gardener needs, let us all know.

And, of course, if you know a thing or two about dealing with elk, share that as well. Thanks in advance.

About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.

~Albert Camus in Albert Camus quotations

Comments on this entry are closed.

DANIEL GOODE December 17, 2014, 8:53 pm


Ken Wolff March 26, 2013, 12:57 pm

I have gardened at high altitude for many years… I raise my tomatoes in a hot house because the night time temps are around 45 degrees many summer nights and they wont grow… Same with squash and other nightime warmth lovers… I grow potatoes, chard, spinach, carrots, and peas successfully.. I cover them with hoops and cloth to keep the squirrels, rabbits and deer away… I raise my tomatoes from seed to get the cold climate types…

Dan "Dirty Hands" Jensen February 16, 2013, 10:14 am

I’ve not gardened at altitude but I would suggest taking your evening temps and using them as a guide to calculate your USDA zone equivalent. Then pick varieties based on that.

For tomatoes specifically try a quick growing cherry tomatoes and try and plant it near your house facing south. Up against the wall if you can. Cherry Toms tend to be easier to grow.

Other than that Go for Leafy veg, most of it is cold tolerant.

Finally one trick you can try is using old tires filled with dirt they hold the heat from the days sun and give it off during the night. If you can provide an area with protection from wind, this could work well.

Joe December 15, 2010, 6:30 pm

I have some property at 12000 ft in the CO Rockies. Been thinking about testing out some high altitude vegetable gardening. Any advice on vegetables i should start experimenting with?

sue May 16, 2009, 10:11 am

I live at 8250 and do extensive vegetable gardening relatively succesfully. It’s definately a challange and a work in progress! I have all sorts of little tricks I have developed over the years and I keep learning. I think that’s why I like it so much- I get to make it up as I go along. As far as the elk (we call them hooved locusts) I have always had dogs to keep them at bay. Last season the elk started moving back in (my best dog just got too old and his sidekick died, and her young replacement just didn’t have it in her) so I purchased an Akbash (a Turkish Livestock Guardinan Dog) that is shaping up into a pretty amazing garden guardian dog! I also have cats to keep the small critters away. Of course with the dogs and cats having free rein that brings up the issue of them trampling (or using for a litter box) the beds, but I make it work.
oh, I do grow my tomatoes in a adapted green house and start every thing by seed in order to get suitable varieties.

Kathy Purdy May 16, 2009, 10:40 am

Thanks for visiting and giving us your tips. I’m always interested in hearing from gardeners in even more challenging conditions than my own.

Richard June 4, 2008, 10:58 pm

Greetings Kathy, Re: English name for Perper, I seem to remember my sister refering to it as ” Parslane”. It comes up late in the season so it has to be protected from crowding. Richard

Richard June 4, 2008, 10:11 pm

Greetings, I garden at 6700 ft in the Sierra Range. Some things grow well, like rubarb, mints, dandylions, mustard, perper, cumatch. The last two I don’t know the English names. Tomatos I grow in my small green house I plan to make a larger one. When I was in Armenia for a few months I found and returned with many things that grew well at the elevation I live at, it wasn’t until I returned I realzed the Caucasian Mountains are closer to the equator than we are here. Best to you Richard

GivenTrees January 1, 2008, 9:51 pm

Not only do I grow a serious vegetable garden at high alltitude I teach it! No, not trying to impress or show off, I just dig dirt no matter where I am, and so happens I believe we are neighbors, just down a scosh bit from Evergreen. Yes, I finally fence the bloody elk out of my yard, not as expensive as we all ready had a short fence. Cold crops are key, but I’ve been at this for 25 years at 7,ooo feet. Perhaps I can help. Yes, I grew sweet corn in my front yard, and yes, this year we had a good crop, albeit a terrible water hog. Organic all the way, except that I haven’t paid the USDA for that certification. Instead I say, “Grown with Conscience” I guess the proof is in my freezor, only haveing to buy greens in the winter, and I am looking at serious remedies for that as well. Would love to chat, Tina

KC August 23, 2009, 2:22 pm

Tina, I live at 7100 feet in southwest montana and would love to know what type of corn you have been successful at. Just completed a 20×40 greenhouse as well, last one was way too small! KC

Oldroses April 24, 2007, 6:35 pm

Any Master Gardener will tell you to call your local extension office. They will be more than happy to tell you/send you a list of vegetables that grow in your specific area. I received a call just like this yesterday when I was working on the Helpline. The list, along with other helpful growing info, is in the mail to the caller. All free of charge, of course.

Kathy Purdy April 24, 2007, 6:17 pm

Seeds Trust I knew but had forgotten it was high altitude. I reviewed Coleman’s book and some others about extending the season here. There are also cold climate books in my Amazon store. I think the tomatoes in a hanging basket is a most excellent idea. And I had never heard of the waru waru system. Thank you one and all for your responses. My correspondent was Anne from Evergreen, and at this point I haven’t heard back from her.

DWPittelli April 23, 2007, 10:08 pm

What you need is a moat and some ancient wisdom. Really. In the Andes at up to 13,000 feet near Machu Picchu, since ancient times farmers have prevented frost damage by digging a grid of canals or trenches amongst and around their fields of raised beds. These water-filled trenches are warmed by the sun, and give off a warming fog on cold nights, protecting against several degrees of frost. This is known as the waru waru system, among other names. Of course, to work in a given site you need a more or less flat field, a reliable source of water, and a fair amount of shovel or backhoe work.

Jane April 23, 2007, 11:21 am

I don’t garden at such an altitude, but it can be cold where I am too, so I echo Craig’s advice. Start with short season crops and those that can handle the cold. Peas, spinach, chard, cress, radishes, etc. would be my first choices.

If you’re desperate to grow your own tomatoes (and who isn’t? 🙂 ), consider putting them in hanging baskets (Tumbler is a good cherry variety) so you can bring them in easily if necessary.

Good luck and have fun with it.

Craig Levy April 23, 2007, 6:05 am

To the High Altitude Gardener:

The high-altitude gardener is challenged with many problems: a short growing season, frost at any time, and a lack of heat, especially at night. Instead of fighting to try growing plants that won’t do well there, concentrate on those that will thrive. A mental adjustment is needed to change your thinking and not try for the impossible. Accept what is possible and let the rest go.

My growing season is short and cooler than surrounding areas. I can never harvest a melon and watermelons or okra are just dreams. I don’t get mad or weepy over it, I say to myself, “ok, let’s see what will work instead.” Over time I have discovered what does like to grow here and concentrate on them. New plants are added as experiments and new varieties and seed companies are sought that carry a lot of early maturing varieties.

Scale back your garden size and also your expectations. Start small, build on your successes, and learn from your failures. Ask neighbors and county agriculture agents for advice and help.

Heat lovers with a need for a long growing season are out. Without an investment in a greenhouse or a hoop house with the option for heat, you will be in for a lot of heartache trying to achieve and failing. Devise a method of protecting plants as frost can come at any time. I see you investing in a lot of floating row cover. Thick wire can be made into wicket-like hoops and inserted into the soil to support the row cover. I like to use lengths of rebar to hold the edges of the row cover down; it makes a tight seal to the ground to prevent cold air from seeping under and is easily removed when the cover isn’t needed.

There is a lot of information out there, especially from Canadian growers. Eliot Coleman is in Maine and I recommend his “Four Season Harvest” and urge you to read the entire book. You will need to adapt the practices to your locale and situation but it is an excellent starting point.

Fencing is the best option for dealing with unwanted wildlife and a dog or other guard animal is second. Other control methods are available but they are not as reliably effective.

Good luck, keep searching, and never give up.

Patrick April 23, 2007, 4:16 am

Seeds Trust is at 6000ft. They sell mostly heirloom and native plants. They have a number of tomatoes suited for colder climates and higher altitudes.

Carol April 22, 2007, 9:37 pm

I wish I had some advice to offer, but I don’t. I do admire someone who would attempt to have a vegetable garden in that sort of climate. One can never underestimate the WILL to garden.