Diary of a Mountain Gardener
When I first moved to the mountains of Datil, I applied what I knew of gardening from what I did while spending 20 years in Oklahoma and another 20 plus in Ohio. I knew about hot weather and I knew about cold. Life teaches us much, even when we do not ask for its lessons. However, I never lived on a mountain and it had its own lessons to teach.
My first lesson learned was the soil. Before you do anything to the soil, you must dig it up and remove the rock. That is hard work. Then, you must nurture the soil with manure (cow or horse), sand, and peat moss. It may take years before you have soil worthy of your plants. That was my first lesson—the soil takes years to become rich in nutrients.
My second lesson was the local inhabitants. Ground squirrels, chipmunks, mice, and other vermin as well as the deer, elk, and rabbits. They love the new deli delights. I do not mind sharing. I do mind it when those cute chipmunks and squirrels only eat half a tomato and go on to the next. My second lesson— put up a fence to limit their access to your veggies. We put up a three-foot high barrier of something smooth so they cannot climb in.
From these two lessons, I put in raised garden beds and fenced them in. My husband built four 8x4 foot plywood boxes. Each is water proofed on the inside and outside. They do not have bottoms. Rather, we placed wire screen in the bottom so nothing can dig up into the boxes. Then we got in the truck and gathered rocks from the side of the road. We put them into those big white and black plastic five-gallon buckets to make it easier on us to fill and later to unload. Once home, we put the rocks into the bottom of each of the raised beds about six inches deep. After that, we put down a length of garden fabric followed by six inches of sand. Another layer of garden fabric and we topped it off with a mix of potting and garden soil.
Next, we put up the fence. My husband dug holes for the fence posts and then set them in concrete. We used all metal posts. After a few days, it was time to put up the sixfoot tall cattle fence. A few friends helped string it. We have a metal fence door with a hinge that goes up and down to open and close it. Since we had leftover greenhouse film, we wired it to the fence to keep the ground squirrels and chipmunks from climbing in and helping themselves to our future crops. We were ready to plant!
I also learned not to rush planting just because the weather is warm and sunny. It can turn on you in a heartbeat. One of the things my husband and I did last fall was to build cold frames for each of the raised beds. I found a video on YouTube that was very helpful at: youtube.com/ watch?v=YMAcsuPTC4. You can get the materials at any hardware store. Rather than take the frames down and tear them apart, Robert secured each joint with screws. To prevent sun rot, he painted all the pvc black. We tried two different coverings—one expensive and the other not. The Lesson: Cheap is the way to go. The thicker millimeter plastic tore in strong winds while the lighter-weight plastic did not. Of course, the cold frames have to be attached on one of the long sides to the wood of the raised beds to prevent the winds from carrying them off. He used Cclamps to anchor them.
At the end of March and first part of April, I planted cold crops such as lettuce and spinach. I also planted onions. Be sure you water them a few times a week. I use a sprinkling can to just wet the top layer of soil. You don’t want the seeds to rot from too much wet dirt.
The first week of May, we put our tomato plants outdoors into the remaining raised beds. I learned they should be planted on the south side of the beds. By doing so, their shadows will not deprive other plants of sun. That is a good lesson—put taller plants to the nouth side of your beds.
Once we put the plants in, we set the raised bed covers over the plants to keep them warm until all threat of frost was gone. Be patient. I wasn’t last year and lost everything I started in the greenhouse and had to replant. Another lesson learned. We do have a short growing season, but it becomes even shorter if you have to restart your plants.
If you really want to get a jump on outdoor gardening, build some cold frames. This will take care of your need to get things growing. The frames don’t have to cost a fortune to build, just build smart. It is a fun pastime and I encourage all of you to try it.
There are more lessons I’ve learned. I hope to share them with you in other articles. I am still learning and probably always will. My point in doing this is to share my gardening wisdom with newbies as well as seasoned mountain gardeners. Maybe my lessons learned will save you from having to learn them too.