High Altitude Gardening

Sunflower with blue sunglasses in a field of sunflowers, on a sunny summer day. Happy summer vacation background. Sunny summer. Yellow summer flower.

By Amanda Blazzard

My life has been a high mountain adventure growing up along the banks of the Provo River. As a child, I lived next door to my paternal grandparents. Grandma was a Heber girl through and through, and Grandpa was a country bumpkin from a farm at the mouth of Daniel’s Canyon. From the day I was born until the day she died, Grandma waged war, blasting the local woodpeckers. Keeping them away from her beloved weeping birch tree was a constant battle. Under her vigilance, the tree grew to a mature age; however, when Grandma passed on, her treasured tree succumbed to mother nature’s critters. I learned later that the pesky peckers, whom Grandma deemed public enemy number one, may have been second in rank to the insects boring into the trunk of her favorite non-native tree.

KNOW YOUR ZONES

Mountain living has extremes. High altitudes, temperatures, and lack of water just to name a few. These extremes are only a small sampling of examples of why it is so important to know your hardiness zone. The USDA created zones based on minimum temperatures across all 50 states to help growers determine the likeliness of plant success. That being said, those zones are a ballpark range.

Knowing the lay of your land is also imperative for success. Are you on a western slope of the valley that sees the sun early for a quick warm-up, but has short days because you lose the sun first? Maybe you’re on the east side of the valley where it is slow to get the morning sun but has lengthy afternoon and evening rays. A southern exposure has sun all day where a northern exposure will gift you all-day shade, making it virtually impossible to grow a variety of desirable vegetation.

Just because you see beautiful plantings in the middle of town doesn’t mean those same plants will thrive a few miles away in the foothills of the valley. Altitude is a big deal. Your log cabin in the woods is a far cry from Main Street Heber. Consider the elevation of Timberlakes at over 7,700’ in comparison to Heber’s 5,600’! That’s more than a 2,000’ difference! Check plant labels for zones, water and sunlight needs, religiously. It pays off.

DO YOU HAVE A LITTLE HAVANA OR MAYBE A VAST TUNDRA?

Each piece of property is different, and within each parcel of land, there exist microclimates. Get down and dirty if you have to — but make sure you’ve honed into the general temperatures of your location then look a little closer. Are there pockets of prime real estate for plants within your property where they will be protected from wind and snow? Does the position of your home or slope of the land offer protection or unique landscaping opportunities? Are there mature trees whose shade affects an area for better or worse? You will find areas that are exposed to more sunlight, snow, wind, and even animals. Get to know the microclimates in your yard. Play off of their characteristics to maximize your landscape and have fun with the variety they offer.

TAKE NOTES FROM NATURE

Have you been for a drive to admire the wildflowers only to return home to discover your exotic plantings from the big box store wilting in your flower bed? Earth to Marge! You weren’t admiring Bird of Paradise on the mountainside, and you won’t be admiring them at home either. Our neighboring peaks are home to plants like yarrow, larkspur, lupine, penstemon, and even wild roses. Planting cultivars of species native to your area is an excellent place to start. Ask our community’s nurseries for help. They depend on local sales and are wise to our climate. They won’t lead you astray to make a quick buck. They will only bring in what will thrive in our area. Believe what they say. Ask their advice. They are a priceless resource.

ANNUALS ARE BEAUTIFUL, BUT WINTER IS HARSH

Structural plantings are needed to maintain landscapes through early winters and teasing springs. It’s one thing to fill your view with the bright bursts of color annuals provide, but remember they are fleeting. When Jack Frost sneaks out this September, don’t let it be the demise of your greens. Anchor your flower beds with shrubbery and evergreens that will defy the frost and transition your surroundings from a flowering kaleidoscope to a gentle winter wonderland. Although we might not be seeing the snow again for a while, now is the time to prepare for those long blustery months.

Ornamental grasses continue to add interest all year. Bare branches with rich colors, like dogwoods and willows, evoke a new feeling to your beds and unexpected pop of color long after all the leaves have fallen. Perennials are a gift that gives year after year. Each spring, they peek up from the bare dirt to fill a garden with lush foliage and color. Don’t be afraid to plant a few flowers that birds love. Hummingbirds love to visit Indian Paintbrush, Columbine, and Delphinium. The substantial sunny faces of Sunflowers welcome a variety of birds to snack on their seeds. Meshing flora and fauna can provide hours of bird watching on your very own property. Just watch out for those woodpeckers!

WILDLIFE AND GARDNERS — A PRECARIOUS FRIENDSHIP

What gardener doesn’t relate to the ongoing battles between Donald Duck and his nemesis’ the chipmunks? Or sympathize with Elmer Fud as he and Bugs Bunny go head to head? Warner Brothers and Disney didn’t bring Bambi to share the set with Donald and Elmer for a prime reason; the shows would no longer be family-friendly. The language evoked when deer arrive, cropping everything to the ground is just too explicit. Neighborhood deer have been the ruin of many high altitude gardens. One wise man shared his secret to spooking deer from the premises as simple as stringing fishing line around the perimeters of flower beds. Deer’s eyesight is stellar at a distance, but close up is similar to that of a 60-year-old attempting to read the newspaper. When they brush the fishing line, it sets off their flight response to flee the undetected predator. Another ploy is draping fine-meshed netting over deer-tempting shrubbery. Similar to the fishing line, they get spooked by the unfamiliar sensation of the netting touching their face. As destructive as animals may be, remember we are the foreigners and trespassers on what was once their realm. We need to be mindful as we build, create, and move forward intelligently. Co-habitating with our native flora and fauna while maintaining landscape masterpieces, prized gardens, and treasured trees may take some extra work. Using tips for local gardening can’t help but give a favorable advantage. Take it from my high-altitude garden warrior grandma — the beautiful and bountiful rewards are well worth the battles.

Top Flowering Perennials:

  • Yarrow
  • Icelandic Poppies
  • Delphinium
  • Bleeding Heart,
  • Larkspur
  • Lamb’s Ear
  • Echinacea
  • Lupine
  • Salvia
  • Russian Sage
  • Phlox
  • Penstemon

Top Flowering Shrubs:

  • Elderberry
  • Dogwood
  • Lilacs
  • Nanking Cherry
  • Forsythia
  • Mock Orange
  • Spirea
  • Snowball Viburnum
  • Service Berry