Rocky Mountain Winter Gardening

Monte Vista, CO(Zone 4a)

I hope members will share how they cope, as gardeners, over winter in the Rockies. Do you continue to garden indoors or use winter time to plan next year's garden? How does the gardener in you survive winter in the Rockies?

To start, I awoke to 12 degrees outside this morning, went and checked the hoophouse, and it was 40 in there. I know, now, I need to add another heater to supplement the little milk house heater and oscillating fan. I have a Sunheat brand electric heater that I will put out there, today. The condensation on the plastic this morning was frozen but the plants were okay. Whew!

Picture is a squash plant that was hit with frost. I removed the blackened leaves, transplanted it into a pot, and it's bearing now, in the hoophouse. I put a bottle of sugar/yeast/water out there yesterday to start fermenting to add some Co2 for the plants.

Thumbnail by Solace
Pueblo, CO(Zone 5b)

I do my best gardening in December, sitting in my easy chair making plans! There is never any weeds or problems in my garden visions. On a more practical note, I've been eying my houseplants that were neglected over the summer. I set up a pretty nice light table to start seeds beginning in February. I was thinking about using it now to start cuttings of some of my better but overgrown houseplants - then I could put them in a charity fundraiser next spring. I moved my little Lemon tree inside, and decided to try and winter over two large geraniums, too. I haven't washed and sprayed them yet - but I probably should have. I usually have problems with pests piggy-backing in with outside plants.
I haven't done my fall yard cleanup yet - but I often end up doing it in January. We usually have some dry snow-free days in January. I leave some dead flowers "for winter interest" - but often decide mid-winter that they aren't that interesting, and I dig out the mower and mow them down. Between my plant table and my belated yard cleanup, I stay sane.

Fort Garland, CO(Zone 4b)

Hi Solace. Kudos to you for saving your squash. Most of my garden took the big hit with that 12 degree night. Actually, most of it bit the dust with the mid 20s late September cold front. But we do have some tomatoes in large pots, and are still getting fresh 'Roma's' and cherry tomatoes, besides basil, mint, thyme, chives, and a few more jalapenos in the little passive solar greenhouse attached to the south side of the house. The last few weeks have been filled with pre-winter chores like cutting/splitting firewood, finishing windows on the barn and shop that I built this summer, and tidying up the garden. I'm hoping to get a couple of loads of rotted goat manure to dig into the garden from the people we bought our dairy goats from. I'm thinking it will be better if it's part of the soil by spring. I just posted a question to other gardeners up here about their greenhouses, and their experience (successes and failures) in our extreme winter environment. I'm in the planning stage, and am going to build a greenhouse in the spring. You mentioned 'hoophouse'. Are you able to grow all winter? I'd love to hear what you are doing across the valley, and maybe we can visit each other's gardens and greenhouses soon. Happy winter gardening, and stay warm. Steve

Pueblo, CO(Zone 5b)

Don't know about hobby greenhouses - but I knew a contractor that made a living taking sunrooms OFF residential and commercial buildings in the Denver area. He said that in Colorado, they got too hot - the cooling was the problem, not the heating, overall. Pueblo is usually Zone 5, but February 2011 we dropped down to Zone 4. I went to a Landscape symposium during that time, and the commercial growers seemed stressed by babysitting greenhouses through temperatures that were lower than usual. I know with passive solar, it helps to have something to absorb heat during the day and release it at night - and the more mass the better. I have a portable temporary cold frame, and I am planning to use jugs of water sitting around the perimeter if I have to get it through unusually cold weather. I have only used it one spring so far, and I didn't need the water jugs - but I thought I better have a plan.

Monte Vista, CO(Zone 4a)

Pollengarden, sounds like you stay involved even in winter, one way or another. Regarding the water jugs for the cold frame, that should help with a lot of sunshine. For about $20, too, you could get a black barrel (thirty gallon, I think- not as big as the 55 gal. drums) and fill it with water to absorb heat. I six of the 55 gallon ones in the greenhouse. They haven't gotten hot, yet, but they do hold the temperature pretty steady in there. I run a little milk house heater at night, along with an oscillating fan. You could also use 5 gallon buckets with lids for your cold frame. I saw a comparison of materials that held heat best, and water was at the top of the list.

Steve (Petset), we've had a low of 23 degrees, but it didn't get below 40 in the hoophouse. I'll probably have to add another heater after it gets down to 0 degrees or below. May even have to rig some kind of cover for nighttime. I'm not worried about daytime, because by about 10:30 in the morning, with the sun shining, it's already around 72 degrees. I want to keep the nighttime temps around 50 though. When I get some lights in there, it should help a little with nighttime temps, as they'll probably stay on sunset to midnight to give the plants 14 to 16 hours of light per day. I hope everything survives the winter. I have squash almost ready to pick growing now, and tomatoes coming on, too. All of them need longer day of light, though, I know. Especially the corn and watermelons. The green beans are bearing and blossoming still and the corn is about four feet tall, now. I started another batch, "Smoke Signals", which is an heirloom Indian popcorn. I grew some in a straw bale this summer, but frost got it just as it was tasseling. This greenhouse is on cement block piers that are 4' tall with 2x12s running between them all along the sides, upon which rest the cattle panels. Center of the hoop is eight feet high. We're using just 4 mil plastic that we got at Big R, but I wish it was the 6 mil uv resistant kind. Unfortunately, the shipping on it is very pricey, to order it online, but eventually I probably will. There may be a place that carries it in Pueblo, but I don't think Green Spot has that. Hard to find the right dimensions to cover all the panels without having to patch it together.

1. 55 gallon drums are host to "Smoke Signals" corn seedlings, and some developing sweet potato slips, with Bantam corn in a raised bed with Cosmos in the foreground. Left are some of the tomatoes I transplanted from outside after frost hit them.

Thumbnail by Solace
Monte Vista, CO(Zone 4a)

hmmm..I take that back, the low has been around 15 degrees, so far, and everything is still alive. The biggest avocado is not looking real happy in there, though, but it might be getting too much sun - will have to make a decision on that soon.
2. Moon & Stars watermelon, green beans, Thyme, Sage, Arugula, and tomatoes on the east end.
3. Cosmos getting friendly with the okra in the raised bed.
4. Tomatoes I'm looking forward to seeing in shades of red
5. Behind the tomatoes and basil is the new compost bin, just started. I'm now getting 13 eggs per day from the fifteen hens, so though the eggs are great, the manure really helps the compost pile, along with shredded leaves, coffee grounds, etc. . I don't expect it to do much 'cooking' though until I get it two or three feet high and wide. I will probably plant the garlic on top of the straw bales that I had planted this summer, adding about 6" of compost/soil in a sort of raised bed on top of them, then more straw to mulch over winter. (So much to do...sigh)

That would be delightful, too, Steve, to see each others' gardens. You and your wife are most welcome. Perhaps we can arrange a time to do that. I hope we have the end wall and door in before you visit, otherwise you'll have to duck to get in, like we do, lol.

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Pueblo, CO(Zone 5b)

Another trick I've seen used small scale is to have hoop-type frost-blanket row covers with outdoor Christmas lights run down the rows. Daytime you slide the covers up the hoops & tie them to let more light in and extra heat out. I presume this is a season extender for frost tender plants, rather than intended for all winter - but cool-season might make it all winter. I found out when I lived in North Dakota (long summer days) and Sicily Italy (short winter days) that day length really affects the Brassica/Crucifer family. They grow very slowly - almost dormant - with short days, even if they are warm enough. Then they go nuts and super-size in the summer at Northern latitudes with the extra light.

Monte Vista, CO(Zone 4a)

That's a great idea, the lights, Pollengarden! I was wondering, if I use the little cattle panel hoop unheated, how the brassicas, etc. would fare without heat. Thank you! Knowing retailers these days, they probably already have the Christmas lights out, too.

Monte Vista, CO(Zone 4a)

It's supposed to get down to 2 degrees Sun. night. Time to batten down the greenhouse hatches. Will put some more mulch on the ground in there, and maybe add a little sunland heater to help the milkhouse heater and fan. I hope the snow load's not bad, if it does snow.
1. Forecast
2. Cosmos, tomatoes, and cantaloupe starts
3. Strawberries about to bloom
4. Lettuce

This weekend will be the biggest test, yet, for the greenhouse.

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Glenwood Springs, CO(Zone 5b)

Heat? Where is the "free ride?"

When we used to use 35 gallon chlorine barrels in water & wastewater treatment plants I gave a bunch of them to friends with greenhouses.
What is the temperature in your septic tank? I will bet you can get 60 degrees F out of the second chamber of your septic tank. This would be a near constant throughout Winter and would require a small recirculating pump and a little work. You will have to check out your situation though, and you will want to make sure that you are not introducing to much cold liquid into your septic system through the heat exchanger.


the Mountains, CO(Zone 4a)

Ah, you guys are so lucky.
I work with a little 'green room', that holds the heat fairly well during the winter.
I wish I had a greenhouse. I'm making plans for it, but am trying to find the most
cost effective way to do it.

Monte Vista, CO(Zone 4a)

Temperatures are forecasted to be in the mid 20s this week, and we're getting snow here, today. It's all dreary. The wind began taking the plastic off the hoop house yesterday afternoon, so just removed all of it to prevent the 70+ mph winds from lifting the whole hoop off. The lilac bushes were swaying sideways and the wind was ferocious! One of the worst windstorms I've seen here, but the big elms, Russian olives, and crabapple trees took it in style, no loss of big limbs. One year a huge limb fell and just brushed the house. That was a scary one, too. I haven't had the heart to go look at my new fruit trees set out last fall, but I hope the Lord protected them. I think we will dismantle the top of the hoop house and make a lower one, on the ground that will be 6' tall in a more sheltered area, and the beds I have in the greenhouse (current hoop house) now I'll use as outside beds with perhaps low tunnels. The plastic film is still on the walls, 4' high, so that should help new seedlings with the wind. I saw a little whirlwind out the front window as the first plastic ripped off the hoop house. I want a more substantial greenhouse, built of wood and glass. Don't know if I will be able to rustle up that much money, but where there's a will, there's a way, and there are ways to find used windows to use, too. Just have to wait and see.
I'm sure glad I didn't transplant the seedlings out there, like I was thinking of doing before all this happened. I've been holding off, telling myself to wait until the last of April. Glad I did. Those winds must have gusted up to 100 last night. You could see it rolling in off the San Juans and kicking dirt way up in the air. I knew we were in for it. Thank the Lord for sparing us of worse stuff. I heard no sirens, either, so no fires, thank God.

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