High Mountain Gardening: Plant in the Fall for an Early Spring Harvest

Gardening in the mountains has a life of its own. The deep snow cover keeps the ground from freezing hard, allowing perennials from zone 5 to grow heartily, assuming it is only the roots that must survive the winter cold. Low temperatures allow root crops, greens and peas to preform marvelously well all season long. Summer squash and beans do well, as do many types of herbs.


The Grand Tetons, a view from Idaho.  (c) Christa Dovel, 2006
The Grand Tetons, a view from Idaho. (c) Christa Dovel, 2006

High Mountain Gardening

Living in the mountains is thought to be a simpler life, free of worries and stress.

However, gardening in the northern Rocky Mountains is not as simple as putting seeds in the ground and keeping them watered until harvest time. The little charts on the back of seed packages do not tell the whole story. The growing season is short, but it is not the only factor to consider.

  • The ground is made of alkaline clay and full of rocks.
  • Sixty frost free days, according to the county agricultural office, does not give a person much time to grow most garden goods.
  • Temperatures, that rarely reach 95* F, make it nearly impossible to grow tomatoes and peppers without creating a micro climate.
  • With snow, still occasionally falling in mid June, and light frosts as early as the second week of August, it is hard to know when to plant! Let alone what to plant.

Spinach, planted in October, was ready to harvest by June 1st.  (c) Christa Dovel, 2009
Spinach, planted in October, was ready to harvest by June 1st. (c) Christa Dovel, 2009

When to Plant

In gardening, there are three types of annual crops, based on when to plant:

  • Sow seeds when the weather is warm and all danger of frost is past.
  • Start seeds indoors ___ weeks before transplanting.
  • Sow seed as soon as the soil can be worked, while the weather is still cool.

High in the northern Rockies, that magical frost free date arrives around June 1st. Gardeners in my region often plant their entire garden the week before June 1st. They set out seedlings in late June. The first salad is ready to harvest by mid July.

Why Planting in the Fall Works

I began experimenting with fall planting several years ago, reasoning that the annual wild flowers were often done blooming by the time my garden had its first green leaves. I found that fall planting can extend the growing season by a month or more.

The deep snow, melting in early spring waters the seeds, causing them to germinate, while the ground is still too wet to work. Anything that says to plant while the weather is still cool will take to fall planting.

Peas planted in the fall begin to flower by mid June.  Those planted in the spring are 2" tall. (c) Christa Dovel, 2009
Peas planted in the fall begin to flower by mid June. Those planted in the spring are 2" tall. (c) Christa Dovel, 2009

What to Plant in the Fall

Carrots: For a spring crop of carrots, plant in early - mid August. This gives the carrots enough time to come up, but not develop. In the spring, as soon as the snow has melted off of them, they will be ready to harvest.

Greens: Spinach, mustard, turnips and some lettuces can be planted in mid August, allowing the plants to leaf out before it freezes hard, and will often hold over the winter, for picking in early May.

They can also be planted just before the snow begins to fall in late October. The seeds will lay dormant until early spring. When the snow begins to melt, and temperatures are just over 40* during the day, they will begin to grow.

Peas: Peas planted in late October will begin growing when the temperatures reach 50* F, during the day, and begin flowering by mid June. Imagine, fresh sugar snap peas for a Fourth of July picnic!

Radishes:  Radishes will be ready to harvest by mid June, if planted in October.

Winter Squash: Though the package says to wait until all danger of frost is past, it doesn't seem that the seeds are harmed be the cold.  Those that I have planted in late October are the only ones who have ever had a long enough growing season to produce a crop at all.

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Comments 12 comments

Jarn profile image

Jarn 7 years ago from Sebastian, Fl

Interesting. I didn't realize the growing season where you live is so short. In Florida we have just the opposite problem; the sunlight kills off all but the hardiest plants, meaning I usually have to start planting in December-January. Good hub.


Christa Dovel profile image

Christa Dovel 7 years ago from The Rocky Mountains, North America Author

That would take some getting use to. December and January are only good for skiing and ice fishing, around here!

Does planting in the shade work or is it just too hot in Florida?


ajm5050 profile image

ajm5050 7 years ago from NY

Same here, I had no idea that northern Rocky Mountain region had such a short growing season. This is a very interesting read even if you are not fan of gardening, another fine hub Christa.


Christa Dovel profile image

Christa Dovel 7 years ago from The Rocky Mountains, North America Author

Thank you, ajm5050.


Joy At Home profile image

Joy At Home 7 years ago from United States

We on the plains of Colorado have a bit longer growing season, and the weather almost never cooperates for fall planting...but if I ever move to the mountains, I will keep this advice in mind.

The last few times I tried planting fall crops, they either grew too much, got burned by the summer sun - then got froze, or grew nothing but tops (radishes). However, the carrots I overwintered were mammoth in the spring...except a few tops that stuck out of the ground and got frostbite.


BkCreative profile image

BkCreative 7 years ago from Brooklyn, New York City

Love your photo of the Grand Tetons. Thanks for the info and your great photography!


Christa Dovel profile image

Christa Dovel 7 years ago from The Rocky Mountains, North America Author

Joy at Home,

Having grown up on the plains, I know what you mean. I don't think it is steadily cold enough most places, to plant in the fall and have things wait until spring to grow, unless there is a good snow cover. I have heard of wintering over root crops under plastic sacks of leaves, in areas where there isn't much snow. It sounded like a great deal, because when something was wanted from the garden, a sack or two was picked up and the vegetables were harvested, and the bag replaced. Though, on the plains one would be more apt to find straw than leaves.

~Christa


Christa Dovel profile image

Christa Dovel 7 years ago from The Rocky Mountains, North America Author

BkCreative, glad you enjoyed the photos. Thanks for stopping by.


LiftedUp profile image

LiftedUp 7 years ago from Plains of Colorado

Christa--

Interesting information, and good sleuthing to find out what works in your region. It is good to see, too, that there are a number of books dedicated to mountain, or at least high altitude, gardening. Thanks for listing them, and thanks for this hub.


Christa Dovel profile image

Christa Dovel 7 years ago from The Rocky Mountains, North America Author

LiftedUp,  Thank you. Sometimes it seems to be all trial and err -- then something works!


2patricias profile image

2patricias 7 years ago from Sussex by the Sea

This is interestsing because it is so very different from our gardening conditions. We live by the English Channel and some years have no snow; most years only a few days below freezing. But lots of rain!

Wherever you live there are hazards the seed packets do not tell you about - here it is salt laden wind. Of course the seed companies have to cover all bases, so only give the most general information. So it is worth experimenting.

Thanks for an interesting hub.


Christa Dovel profile image

Christa Dovel 7 years ago from The Rocky Mountains, North America Author

2Patricias~ Thanks for the comment. How do you deal with the salty wind? Do you have to grow things in a protected area, or stick to plants that do well with the salt? I grew up in an area with sandy soil and deep freezes. Nothing wintered over, but the packet information was enough for home gardeners.

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