High Altitude Gardening in Colorado Springs

Tips on how to garden in higher elevations, courtesy of experts at Colorado State University.

On Thursday, April 28, 2011 - 10:38

Welcome to the Rocky Mountain region‚ where gardening is an adventure. Few regions on earth possess such diversity of climates and plant communities – from the higher elevations to the large expanses of the High Plains. Rugged‚ rocky slopes and snow-capped mountain peaks rise above vast basins‚ lakes and alpine meadows.

Colorado Springs boasts some of the most breathtaking scenery in the world. But the region is separated from large bodies of water by expanses of soaring mountains‚ foothills‚ plains‚ and even deserts, and is not uncommon for drought to occur anywhere in the region at almost any time of year. Gardening in the Rockies is different‚ but with proper planning and maintenance‚ cultivating a “green thumb” reaps rewarding and enjoyable results.

Here are a few facts and tips from the Colorado State University Extension Office to get you started:

  • To determine where to plant your garden, first evaluate your site. The best place to grow flowers is in a site that already supports some grass, wildflowers, or even weeds. This will usually be in a fairly sunny, open area. If the area has weeds, control them before planting something new. Aspen groves are an ideal environment for many plants, but other open areas also work well.


  • There are two major types of soil found in the mountains. Light-colored decomposed granite soils, are low in organic matter, dry out quickly, and do not absorb heat well. They are usually high in most nutrients except for nitrogen. Clay soils are also high in nutrients, but generally have poor drainage. In general, it is beneficial to add organic matter to any type of mountain soil, although in poorly drained soils it is best to add some each year, rather than all at once, in order to avoid salt buildup.


  • Raised beds can solve many problems for mountain gardeners. Raised beds can be created with good, weed free soil, and are especially beneficial if soils are poorly drained or are very rocky and hard to dig.


  • The successful mountain gardener learns to exploit or create microclimates. For example, gardens placed in full sun (southern exposures) will have a longer, warmer growing season than other exposures. These warm or hot microclimates are the places to experiment with plants that need more heat during the growing season to come into flower before frost.


  • Even though many mountain gardeners live in wooded areas, ‘woodland plants’ are seldom good choices – this term in catalogues usually refers to Eastern woodland conditions (moist, organic rich, acid soils, and humid air). We have few to none of those conditions in our mountain areas. In general, choose plants that are hardy to zones 2 to 4.


  • In mountain areas, the best time to plant flowers is either immediately after the last frost or during the rainy season. Planting in late summer or fall decreases the chance of survival, especially for borderline-hardy plants, and is less preferable.


  • Use organic mulches such as weed-free straw, bark chips, or shredded bark to protect plants from severe drying where snow cover does not persist during the winter, and to increase soil moisture and decrease weeds in the summer.