Beautiful vegetables like these, harvested in August from a garden at 8,400 feet of elevation, could be yours for the price of just a little sweat and toil. (Courtesy photo)

Spring is in the air, and that means it’s time to get seeds in the soil. While gardening at high altitude is notorious for late spring frosts, early fall frosts, the occasional midsummer frost and other challenges of an alpine environment, there are some tricks and tips to help those new to home gardening succeed in harvesting the low hanging fruit, if you will.

Though it may be slightly discouraging, the first thing to remember is: mistakes are part of the game. You may kill some plants. Some of your beloved baby green things may wither and die. It’s okay.

“Just start! Start small!” encouraged Yvette Henson, director of horticulture for the Colorado State University extension program. “Once you start and have some success, you can plant more each year. But don’t be afraid of mistakes —  that is how we learn.”

In the interest of getting started, Henson suggests making a plan, which includes deciding where you’re going to grow your plants. Are you going to build a raised bed, plant directly in the soil, or grow plants in containers? Next, locating a good soil source is helpful, and something that a phone call to Henson or to your local garden shop can help with. Then comes the fun part: choosing your seeds. You can buy seeds, of course, but you can also receive five free packets of seeds at the San Miguel Basin Regional Seed Library, housed in the Lone Cone Library in Norwood.

According to the Regional Seed Library’s website, using and saving seeds from the local environment is helpful for both new and experienced gardeners alike, as the seeds are “better adapted to the local growing environment,” including environmental stressors like drought, short seasons and cold night temperatures. Gardeners who use seeds from the seed library are encouraged to then collect the seeds from the resulting plants at the end of the season and return the seeds to the library for circulation the following season.

Once you’ve located your garden space or containers, soil and seeds, it’s time to get planting. Henson noted that for higher elevations at the east end of San Miguel County including Telluride, potatoes, radishes, lettuce, turnips, rutabagas, cabbages, kale, chard, cilantro, parsley, chives and thyme grow well. In the West End, any of the above grow well if planted early, while beans, squash, tomatoes, basil and oregano make good options as well.

Some plants, however, have more fickle growing personalities: beware tomatoes, onions, beets, carrots and brussels sprouts.

“Those can be more difficult to grow so aren’t recommended for ‘starter’ crops,” Henson noted.

Though the ski season just ended and snow is sure to make another appearance this spring, it’s not too soon to get started, and new gardeners can mitigate the danger of future cold snaps to their seedlings. If planting in containers and pots, move the plants indoors before the temperatures drop below freezing. If the plants are in soil outdoors, cover them with a drop cloth, bed sheet or frost blanket and use stakes to minimize the cloth’s contact with the plant. A light frost may not hurt certain plants, but if temperatures drop enough to cause the water inside the plants to freeze, the resulting sharp crystals puncture the plant’s cellular membrane walls. When the frozen plant thaws, the water drains from the punctures, causing the plant to dehydrate and die. 

Like plants but still not sure you want to undertake the care of delicate living beings? CSU Extension is hosting several classes this spring and summer to teach native plant identification around the region. The classes run from 9 a.m. to 3 or 4 p.m. and are taught entirely outdoors for a cost of $35. 

There’s also a third option: grow a garden and learn to identify native plants! While growing a garden may be a bit daunting for the uninitiated, Henson encourages anyone with an interest to give it a try.

“I’ve always thought that everyone should grow something,” she said. “We don’t have to grow all of our food, but not only is it good for our bodies and spirits, it is one of the most impactful things we can do for our own and our community’s food security.”

For more local information on climate and what grows well in our area, contact CSU Extension at 970-327-4393 or, or visit our region’s CSU Extension website at