Wednesday, May 29, 2013

High altitude gardening and a great squash soup

Whether it’s veggie gardening, flower gardening, or any other form, at this elevation gardening is a challenge and as the climate changes, the challenges become even more pronounced.
We begin our gardening tasks in late March in the orchard since the apple and cherry trees must be pruned while they are still dormant. In April Don pulls the mulch back from the trees and adds more aged compost. Early May will find Don starting the various natural sprays which are based on the development of the year’s growth. The early spray, just as the trees start leafing out, includes liquid fish, neem oil, kelp, and horsetail.  The horsetail which we collect along the stream and dry the previous year adds silicates that help strengthen the cell walls to resist freezing temperatures. A second application occurs just as the tiny flower buds appear in their pink stage. The apple and cherry trees are now in full bloom and the only spray Don uses is bee scent to attract the pollinators. Even though it is the end of May, several mid-30s evenings are predicted so our fingers are crossed. 

In early April I start tomatoes, peppers and squash indoors and mixed greens outdoors in tanks with covers (more about this shortly). Once they are up and it is starting to warm outside, I take the seedlings out to the greenhouse for the day. This year April and early May were quite cold and wet so the seedlings spent more time inside than out. By mid-May, the plants were able to spend nearly every day outside and late last week I planted them in their final locations. Because the summer squash plants get tropical in size and take up too much space in our small greenhouse, I plant them in old stock tanks with covers. The covers are created by using fence wire hoops covered with bubble wrap and secured with a strap clamp. I can adjust the covers depending on the day’s weather to vent one or both ends or remove them completely. Once we stay above 50 degrees at night, I take the covers off for good. 

I planted onion sets in late April and seed potatoes in mid-May. The onions are up about 4 – 5” and I’m still waiting for any sign of the potatoes. In the old days, this Valley was a major producer of potatoes so I expect a nice crop from my small plot (in another stock tank). The garlic I planted last fall is over a foot tall and should mature in late July or early August.

It’s taken ten years to realize (apparently I am a slow learner) that our soils are very poor consisting mainly of ground up Rocky Mountains. While full of minerals, they are very weak in organic matter and support neither growth nor hold water. Every year I supplement the soils with compost and other organic materials only to discover by the end of the season that I am gardening in ground up rocks again. Raised beds were useless because the main problem still existed – my added nutrients were disappearing down into the soils below the summer crop root line, moved there by earthworms and leaching.  Then it dawned on me that if I could prevent the constant loss of nutrients, I might have better luck and all those old stock tanks we were no longer using for horses might just be the answer. Three years into the experiment and I am convinced that having a bottom to my garden beds is the ticket. Now the added organic matter stays put which feeds the plants and holds the water. Plus I can garden standing up which my aging knees appreciate and I can add covers as necessary (like with the early greens and the squash). Since I have the same soil problem in our greenhouse, last fall I added some tanks to one side to see if this will improve production in there. If it works as well as I expect, I’ll add tanks to the other side this fall. I’ll keep you posted.

And now for the great summer squash recipe. Since there is no way you can eat your way through all the summer squash during the growing season, I roast and freeze a lot of the crop. I cut the squash into ½ to ¾ inch cubes, roast it on the grill and freeze it in quart bags. Then, as we did last night, we take out a bag, cook it with onions, garlic, seasonings and a quart of stock (either veggie or chicken), run it through the VitaMix blender and have a great squash soup. With a couple of slices of toast made from Don’s whole wheat bread, we have a wonderful dinner and reminder of last summer’s bounty.