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Veggie garden/Permaculture/Hugelkultur in challenging Colorado High Plains?  RSS feed

 
Posts: 16
Location: Colorado High Plains (Zone 6)
books food preservation greening the desert
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Hi all!

I hope this post isn't too broad, but I'm wondering if anyone has much experience growing food gardens without a greenhouse in the Colorado high plains east of Colorado Springs (approx 6500 ft, zone 6) or similar areas. I'm new both to this area and to vegetable gardening, so I have a lot to learn and research, but I'm on 40 acres and would love to do something with it that will help both myself and the ecosystem over time. I've tried finding posts that give info/advice in my area, but I'm having a hard time finding helpful information online about the challenges I'll be facing and practical ways to go about what will inevitably be a trial and error process. I'm especially wondering if anyone has tried creating hugels or general permaculture gardens in this area.

I still need to get my very sandy soil tested, but, apart from that, obvious obstacles include a short growing season, zero trees/shade, high (sometimes brutal) winds, relentless sun, lots of grasshoppers, cold winters, and little rain. Tons of vegetation in this area, but it's mostly things like yuccas, annual sunflowers, small, hardy shrubs, and various grasses. All brown now that it's winter. Beautiful, but a little daunting when it comes to wanting to grow food.

I've done some research on how hugels might be made to work out here by digging them down a foot or so to help with water retention and wind, but, long-term, I'd really like a perma setup that works well with the land that's here rather than constantly trying to "conquer" this place. There aren't any trees out here, but neighbors have successfully brought in and planted some (minus the new ones I've observed down the road that are now growing at a 45 degree angle because of the wind), so that's definitely an option eventually. I don't want to totally "reforest" an area that never was meant to be a forest, but there must be fruit trees that would be great in dealing with wind and sun. And drought. And cold winter. Yikes.

In short, if you've gardened/homesteaded in this area, or areas like this, I'd really appreciate knowing a little about your story--mistakes you learned from, specific problems I haven't mentioned, success stories, etc. What did you grow? What wouldn't grow no matter how hard you tried? Were you able to amend your soil, or did you have to bring in all new? When did you start plants indoors for June transplanting? Any good book recommendations for areas like these? I'm in the middle of The Garden Primer by Barbara Damrosch, which is awesome so far, but I would love recommendations that are more specific to the challenges I'm facing rather than general gardening guides. Again, I'd prefer to go without a greenhouse because of my long-term permaculture goals. I do plan to visit the local Extension and have already researched local nurseries, but would really value any input from you all.

Thanks so much ahead of time, folks. Hope your planning is going well!
 
steward
Posts: 4374
Location: Zones 2-4 Wyoming and 4-5 Colorado
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Howdy Emily so glad to have you here at permies ! It might take some time to find them but there are lots of threads around here about all of the things that you can do in our area, So take some time this winter and dig in !

In the mean time lets talk about wind, water and soil. So are you relatively close to the black forest area? To me , when I see those pine forests out that way, I have hope. There was a pretty good fire that went through that area a while back, and a big one in the mountains just west of you . Lots of folks have been thinning out the forest and there are places where there are many standing dead , burnt , trees. Maybe you could get some of those for hugels?

Do you get any snow drifts?  Capturing snow is one of the first things to think about. So windbreaks are a must. Anything that will slow the wind will help pile up snow. They do not have to be anything expensive, you can use pallets or old deck wood. Craigslist is great for finding materials like this. Once you get a good drift, watch as it melts in the spring. Notice that you now have wet ground for a time. Hardy trees can be planted in this area. The snow fence could help keep the new trees shaded and out of the wind too. The soil conservation service has annual tree sales where you can get hundreds of small trees cheap, that are grown for our area.

The other thing to work on is finding sources of organic materials. Any neighbors have piles of horse manure that they will give you? Get some of the local tree service and lawn care businesses to dump wood chips at your place. Hay and straw bales that you find cheap or free are also good. Again craigslist has adds for these folks once in a while.

Put this organic material behind your snow fences to help mulch your new trees and start building soil.

Place your veggie garden in a relatively sheltered place, maybe downwind of the house or barn. Again building soil is a must. The same strategy as above applies! Cover crops are also handy. Weeds are our friends, even though they have been given a bad name. Look around to see what already grows naturally and see if you can use those weeds to help build soil. Do you have animals? Especially chickens? Chickens will help get a garden ready for you!

Hope this helps? You can do it but it might take a few years to get everything up and running. Take your time, observe your new home, and learn from nature.

 
gardener
Posts: 422
Location: Sierra Nevadas, CA 6400'
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I've been (slowly!) working on a property in the High Sierras in California. I can't claim any success yet, but I can offer some failures and some things to think about.

- In the Arid West, I think irrigation needs to be part of your plans if you are looking to have a productive garden in the next decade, even if only to establish it. Specifically, surface irrigation. Getting any kind of broadcasted seed to germinate is almost impossible without some kind of surface irrigation. The winds and sun sap the moisture out of the top couple of inches and the poor seedlings die before they get a chance. Also: windbreaks!

- Trees, bulbs, and root cuttings are much easier to get established than seeds. Fall planting similarly works great.

- My hugel bed has been a source of frustration for me. I built a hugel pit (not raised) last year and I'm curious to see how it works out this spring.

- Deer pressure has been a huge source of frustration. Fencing is a big deal.
 
Emily Lerner
Posts: 16
Location: Colorado High Plains (Zone 6)
books food preservation greening the desert
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Thank you, Miles! I'm really happy to be here. I did find a couple of threads after some light digging, but looks like there's more for me to look into, which is awesome and exciting.

I live maybe 45 mins from Black Forest, actually. Seems that folks out there are pretty protective of their trees, but maybe I can find a way to see if I could go get some of the burnt stuff that's still out there. Finding wood for hugels will be a challenge, for sure. I see free stuff like that sometimes on Craigslist, but haven't thought to look in Black Forest specifically. I will do that. Thank you.

It's hard to tell if I get snow drifts, as this is my first winter here and we haven't had much of the snow we are supposed to get. I certainly have enough scrap wood lying around for small messy windbreaks, so I'll see what I can do before the snow hopefully hits. Would you say it's better to try and catch snow coming from the north, or the west? The wind changes direction every day. I'm lucky enough to be near a large wind farm, though, which helps me track where the wind is coming from. Coldest winds blow from the north, so maybe that's the best plan...

I really appreciate the suggestions for finding organic materials. I haven't even thought to ask neighbors about what they do with their manure. My newbie is showing. I'm going to get chickens this spring/summer, so hopefully that'll help a lot, too. Your response is very, very helpful. Thank you so much for taking the time.

And Kyle, thank you for your insights from your experiences. Though it's a different area, sounds like you have similar issues to mine. I think you're right about surface irrigation for sure. Over the summer, I experimented with the soil here and tried to get some herbs to grow in just the plain soil (some did!), but I had to water them at least twice a day because of how hot that sun gets, not to mention the wind. Fencing is a must near me, too, because of all the jackrabbits and other little critters. Deer, too, though that's not as big of an issue here.

Maybe it's smart to just start with trees and such. Get the protection my garden will certainly need. I'll probably still experiment with some easy veggies this spring and summer, just to see how it goes and what I need to do the next year. Patience is a virtue I'm always eager to work on. Thank you guys so much for taking a few minutes to respond.
 
Posts: 62
Location: NW KS/NE CO State Line
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Howdy, Neighbor...
I'm not far, east up HWY 24 to the State Line.  
I can tell you that my pathetic attempts at Hugelkultur did suprisingly well considering how badly it was built.  It was only knee high, but both the sweet potatoes and the pumpkins I planted in it got quite out of hand (10' away from the mound the pumpkin vines/leaves were waist high.)

Sourcing wood for hugelkultur shouldn't be as difficult as you seem to think.  There's a lot of people who make a decent living clearing up deadfalls for firewood.  As much forest land as is along the Front Range, there has to be a certain percentage of the trees that are dying, in need of pruning, etc.  If you're willing to drive an hour or so, you're in better luck, because the species of trees that are preferential for mounds are those that belong to the Poplar family, which includes Cottonwood and Aspen. There are a lot of old growth Cottonwood that are diseased or dying along every creek and wet spot once you get away from the hills.  My in-laws live between Rocky & La Junta and I can't begin to guess at the number of half dead cottonwoods we see just between Lamar & Rocky.  

Other options I can see working would include the process of digging out 1' radius holes down to about 6" (can't remember the official permie term), backfilling it with a high organic content soil mix, and using the displaced soil in a swale.  You've likely got more slope than I do (I'm reclaiming a dirt parking lot,) so even straw bale swales might do some good, since IIRC most of the soil up against the Front Range is enroute down Fountain Creek to the Arkansas because the erosion is so bad.  


 
Emily Lerner
Posts: 16
Location: Colorado High Plains (Zone 6)
books food preservation greening the desert
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Hiya, Chris! Great to hear from a neighbor. Thank you for taking the time to respond to this post.

That's great your hugels worked out! That gives me a lot of hope.

I have to drive almost an hour to get to the heart of Colorado Springs, so I don't mind the drive to go get things. I'm sure I could find a truck to borrow and just take a couple of days to go get as much as I can find. Thanks for the tip on Cottonwood and Aspen. Would diseased Cottonwood have a negative effect on the soil? I'll have to look into that. I'm sure it would be fine depending on what happened to it. If it was beetles, it's definitely fine, I'm sure. There are actually a couple of people out here who somehow got Aspens to grow, which I find really interesting and heartening. Using them for hugels would probably be a lot easier than keeping them upright long enough to get the roots set in. Haha

I did plan on digging out an area about a foot down and creating a deeper level of organic material, since it's impossible to see the difference between the topsoil and subsoil, and making swales is a great idea for the excess sandy stuff I'll undoubtedly end up with. And there's someone way down the road (right on HWY 24, actually) selling straw bales, so I might pick up a few of those when I can. I do have some slopes on the land here that are relatively close to the house, surprisingly, so I'll see what I can do.

It is really nice hearing from you. Thank you so much. Your response is really helpful. Reclaiming a dirt parking lot sounds like quite the challenge, but it seems like it's going well! I hope it continues to do so.
 
Chris Palmberg
Posts: 62
Location: NW KS/NE CO State Line
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I'm of the opinion that there is no topsoil, except maybe on the hilltops, within 40 miles of the Springs.  It's the nature of erosion when man disturbs native grasses.  

I saw the trailer full of bales sitting on the side of HWY 24 on our way to take my grandson back home to Pueblo this past weekend.  Bear in mind that there is a difference between straw and hay bales.  The former is post-harvest, and largely seed-free.  Hay, on the other hand, is whole plant, and therefore you'll end up with lots of grass seeds washed down as the bales decompose.  Depending upon the nature of the hay, that may or may not be a bad thing from a Permaculture standpoint...a lot of folks out here let oats, rye, or other cereal grains mature, then swathe and bale it.  On the flip side, prairie hay would do a great job of auto-seeding down-slope areas with native or adapted grasses.

Once you get things going well, you'll start seeing some microclimates form, particularly on southern exposures, where a good biomass will retain heat well enough in early spring and late fall will allow for growing of coles, greens, and root veggies despite those random snowfalls where you walk into a store and come out an hour later to find 2' everywhere in mid-May.  

Don't discount the potential for building temporary high/low tunnels. I noticed this summer that a white tarp does nothing to diminish light inside but handles moderate to high winds if your underlying structure is well-built.  

The other thing, obviously, is varietal.  It may take some scouring, but you'll find there are some cultivars which are viable with the season you have to work with.  It can be a very delicate balance (there's about a 5-7 day window here to get Sweet Potatoes planted to ensure a sufficient growing season before our frost date.  

 
Emily Lerner
Posts: 16
Location: Colorado High Plains (Zone 6)
books food preservation greening the desert
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Yeah, I think you're probably right about the topsoil. Explains why all the dirt is the same texture after digging down about two feet. Despite the soil problems, though, the natural plants that grow around here are so beautiful and abundant. I hope to not damage this place with my experiments more than it already has been.

I did know that there's a difference between straw and hay (though I can't tell by looking at it from afar yet), but did not know the different effects certain types of hay cause when used on the land that way. I have a lot to learn, obviously, so thank you for pointing that out in such detail. I'll have to just pull over next time I see the truck out there and ask them exactly what they have. I do all my shopping in Falcon because it's the closest bigger town, so I go by there relatively often.

Being from the Midwest, I feel woefully unprepared to deal with 2" of snow in mid-may, so any tips are welcome. I feel the same about the hail, which I experienced the hard way back in August/September while driving (It hailed so much one day, it looked like it had snowed!). Maybe temporary tunnels would help with both problems, though I'm not sure how they'd deal with hail. With all the info you've given me, I think I may have found a good spot to start trying things out. Sort of a v-shaped slope that runs diagonally from northwest to southeast, though it's not protected by the house. I've seen lots of big ol' jackrabbits in that area, so I'll have to figure out how to work with that. They like the yuccas for now, but would probably be all over a garden.
 
Miles Flansburg
steward
Posts: 4374
Location: Zones 2-4 Wyoming and 4-5 Colorado
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I have a nephew that lives out near falcon! There is a large horse boarding place near him where you might be able to get some compost? I did a quick search for horse boarding in falcon Colorado and it looks like there are a few out there. I think that any pine wood that you could find would be great for hugels .
 
Emily Lerner
Posts: 16
Location: Colorado High Plains (Zone 6)
books food preservation greening the desert
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What a coincidence! I bet he loves that area. Not nearly as busy as the Springs, but enough of a population to merit quite a few useful businesses. Falcon is about half an hour west of me, but I'm grateful that it's there. I think I might know the horse boarding place you're talking about. There's a horse riding business a couple miles west of Falcon. That might be it. I have a "next door" neighbor that has a few horses and goats, and another neighbor who raises alpacas, so I'll probably try and see if they're willing to give up some of that gold. Don't know any of them very well yet because they are pretty far away. Time to make some friends!

Also, pine would be pretty easy to come by, surely. I'll have to see what's out there and research which kinds that are available would be good for hugels.
 
Miles Flansburg
steward
Posts: 4374
Location: Zones 2-4 Wyoming and 4-5 Colorado
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HERE  is an old thread that talked about good and bad wood for hugels. There are probably others.

And a really old one HERE
 
Emily Lerner
Posts: 16
Location: Colorado High Plains (Zone 6)
books food preservation greening the desert
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Ah, thank you so much. Saves me a little digging. I appreciate that.
 
Posts: 3
Location: Wray, Colorado
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Hello Emily,

I am new as well to Colorado (originally from Pennsylvania). 2 years ago I moved to the state and was overwhelmed with the drastic difference in growing conditions. I lived in the Denver metro area for about a year and then moved to the high plains of Eastern Colorado in Wray. I can share with you some basic's I have gathered.

-A good book that provided me some basic knowledge of what I was getting myself into before moving here is The Colorado Gardener's Companion by Jodi Torpey. Although it focuses on gardening more than permaculture, it is a valuable resource in identifying things such as: growing challenges, pests, soil info, native plants, demonstration garden locations to visit, extension service office locations etc.

- Last year I learned the hard way that irrigation is essential for seed germination. As a previous post mentioned, the hot sun combined with the dry winds is enough to keep from having a good stand.

-I take pride in my tomato plants. They love Colorado. In the east I had issues with getting my tomato plants through a full season before blight would take over. However, in the high plains climate, these plants thrive!

-Figure out fencing or else rabbits and other critters will steal your young seedlings when you're not looking.

-When transplanting my vegetables into the ground I create rows that are concave in order to trap rain/irrigation water where I want it to go.

-For hail protection, you can look into a hoop house type design that has netting on it instead of plastic. Unfortunately, my garden is too big to do this to every plant but I can zero in on certain ones that I think need the most protection.

- A cool windbreak idea could be using pole beans and their trellis to create a green wall.

- I have been growing all my plants closer together to shade the soil in order to preserve moisture and keeping better control over weed control.

Like I said earlier, I am still new to the state. But these are some of my early observations. I liked the idea someone posted about creating snow drifts to collect water and will be incorporating this strategy. I look forward to reading further responses in this thread!
 
Emily Lerner
Posts: 16
Location: Colorado High Plains (Zone 6)
books food preservation greening the desert
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Hi Matt! Thanks for responding. I'm from Illinois, but moved here from Arkansas. So not quite as far as Pennsylvania, but it's nice to hear from another recent transplant! You're not too terribly far from me. About three hours. I'm down near the Calhan area.

What a great list of info there. Thank you so much. I've been trying to find a good book, but I always hesitate to buy books unless I've heard it's great or I've had a chance to skim through, so I will definitely be grabbing a copy of that.

I'm really excited about that pole bean idea. I am definitely going to try that while the new trees acclimate and get their roots in for a few years. I was thinking some sort of shrub (I want raspberries, but not sure if they can handle it out here, though I've seen some in the Springs), but I like the pole bean idea much better. Also, the concavity for the seeds is really clever. I probably wouldn't have thought of that on my own. I'm also excited about tomatoes! After reading more about the stuff tomatoes like, I've been eager to give it a shot because it does seem they'd be perfect around here with the hot, hot sun in summer. I'm only worried about the short season, but I'm already looking for short-season seeds.

I also appreciate the suggestion about the hoop house. Lots of folks out here have stuff like that, but the white plastic on all of them is pretty much torn to shreds, which I'm sure is a combo of the wind and hail. Maybe I could get my hands on some netting and pair it with the plastic so that, if it does get destroyed by ice bullets, there will at least be some protection still from the netting.

Your post is so helpful. All of these have been enormously helpful. Gonna take advantage of the 50-60 degree weather this week and get started on building some stuff, I think. I'm glad you were able to get a new idea out of this thread, too!
 
Posts: 104
Location: Northern Colorado
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There is a blog out there somewhere that talks about successful gardening in the Colorado mountains somewhere. I can't find it right now though. it's a good one!

This one might help though:
http://coloradomountaingardener.blogspot.com/


I do not live/garden in the mountains so you will face more challenges than me, but we share some. I'm on the frontrange.

The biggest challenge is moisture and intense sunlight. The dry air wicks away moisture and the intense sunlight with high UV is dangerous to weak veggies bred for other climates.

My advice is to try and select seeds from nearby states or climates or similar regions. Good plant genetics is one key to success, though as some say it can be done without it, just harder.

Rabbits don't bother my garden here because of the massive amount of bindweed, but they could eat your garden in the mountains.

Tomatoes do terrible for me in my soil and garden. I think it's a combination of poor soil and dry area. Though i'm working on it. I am currently using some wild tomatoes that have drought tolerance to breed a better tomato. But as for a commercial tomato variety i like, the one i got from Harlaquins Gardens in Boulder called 'Anasazi' is my absolute favorite for growing here. It not only grows fairly well when other tomatoes here die miserable deaths or have stunted growth, but they taste really good compared to most tomatoes as well. 'Anassazi' is a "black" or "purple" variety with complex flavor and also has the green-shoulders-when-ripe gene which is needed for good flavor!
 
Andrew Barney
Posts: 104
Location: Northern Colorado
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raspberries should do fine for you. Just up the valley here at higher elevation than me they have a large pick-your-own raspberry farm. Love it!

Raspberries in my experience prefer partial shade and plenty of moisture. I think the shade helps with that. The ones in full sun eventually die.

EDIT: just realized you are NOT in the mountains. haha. must have read your post wrong. lol oops.
 
Emily Lerner
Posts: 16
Location: Colorado High Plains (Zone 6)
books food preservation greening the desert
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Hi Andrew!

That's alright haha. I wish I was in the mountains! I can see them, which is nice, but am a good hour away from the closest one. Most of the growie stuff I find is for the mountains, which is why I felt the need to start this thread.

I think if I can get some tree shade, or stick some in shaded fence corners, raspberries will eventually be a possibility. The ones that grow in town are really tasty! I bet the ones in the mountains are even better.
 
Emily Lerner
Posts: 16
Location: Colorado High Plains (Zone 6)
books food preservation greening the desert
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Whoops, didn't see that you posted twice. I love Anasazi tomatoes! I've got a couple of seed catalogs in mind, but will for sure be looking for things that come from/are known to do well in this area! I'll have to try those Anasazi seeds out. Thanks!!

I'll definitely be checking that blog out, too. Thanks for pasting it! Even if it is in the mountains, I might find useful info in there all the same.
 
Whatever you say buddy! And I believe this tiny ad too:
Self-Sufficiency in MO -- 10 acres of Eden, looking for a renter who can utilize and appreciate it.
https://permies.com/t/95939/Sufficiency-MO-acres-Eden-renter
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