The Colorado Master Gardener Program: Planting Gardens, Growing People
The Colorado Master Gardener Program in Gilpin County
High and Dry Demonstration Garden
At an elevation around 9,000 feet, Gilpin County gardeners contend with a short (average 2.5 to 3-month) growing season, an arid and windy climate, and rocky soil. Another fact of life is that Colorado’s water regulations prohibit outside watering from most wells drilled after 1972 on less than 35 acres, and rainwater harvesting is prohibited.
These issues make the faint-of-heart give up on gardening altogether, but our group of hardy Master Gardeners set out to prove that it is possible to overcome all of these challenges. During the years 2006-2008 we created a series of no-water experimental gardens that are open to the public, and accompanied them with a series of classes.
Our “High and Dry” Landscape Demonstration Garden is made up of native and non-native forb and woody plant species known or reputed to be xeric and hardy at our altitude. We planted these plants during the rainy season, and other than an initial watering-in, plants received no water beyond natural precipitation.
A few more moisture-loving plants were placed beneath the building eaves where precipitation would drip or slough off. The native soil was amended with compost.
We had excellent results with the establishment of plants in the high and dry gardens – approximately 80% of the plants established very well (and the ones that did not establish generally were killed by pocket gophers rather than lack of water).
Well over two hundred brochures are given out on the high and dry garden over the course of the summer as people stroll through the garden and make their own plans.
In the fall of 2006, we added native plant seed to the same garden so as to take advantage of the winter stratification and spring moisture. We turned this into a hands-on class for the public to correct the misperception that spring is the best time to sow seeds. The seeding of native species during fall was successful, and 85% of the participants indicated that they learned new skills and would make the change to sow seeds in the fall.
High Elevation Vegetable Garden Trials
Beginning in the fall of 2007, at a time of rising energy costs, increasing interest in sustainability, and food safety concerns, we focused on edible gardening experiments via a no-water vegetable garden and an indoor vegetable garden under a light stand. Without alternatives, people tend to break the water laws, jeopardizing the ground water supply for all, so we felt it necessary to see if it was possible to create a vegetable garden that required no water.
In the fall of 2007, we dug a 6-foot-long x 6-foot-wide x 2-foot-deep pit, located under the drip-line of the Extension building. The pit was lined with plastic that had drainage holes poked through it. We back-filled with native soil amended with compost, rotted manure and alfalfa pellets (for water retention). Over the ensuing winter, snow sloughed from the building roof, charging the pit with moisture.
We started transplants of cold-set tomatoes, swiss chard, zucchini, and red mustard indoors, and planted them out in June 2008. Cold-set tomato starts were protected from low temperatures by walls-of-water-type devices, and flexible fence was erected to deter rabbits, deer and elk.
By mid-August, we harvested beans, swiss chard, red mustard, zucchini, and ripe tomatoes. Ripe tomatoes are a huge feat at this elevation, but none of the 5 different varieties produced enough crop to make them worth planting again (except perhaps for bragging rights.)
Because we did not finish the garden preparation until mid June, the seeds that we sowed of the lettuce, carrots, and beets did not germinate due to the lack of moisture at that time. Next year, we will sow the cold-tolerant seeds much earlier (mid-May), and--based on the excellent growth of the Swiss chard and red mustard starts we set out--we anticipate that this will succeed.
This garden has received a lot of interest from the public. We had to restock the handouts for this garden more than any other. We plan to teach a class on this technique next year.
CSU Extension, Gilpin County Office
230 Norton Drive
Black Hawk, CO 80422
- Irene Shonle, PhD, County Director/Agent