Short Seasons Long Harvests

High-altitude gardeners race against winter, never knowing how early it may come nor how long it may last. At high altitudes, growing seasons are inevitably shorter, which can be an uphill battle for the gardener because some herbs never get big enough to produce enough to make the effort worthwhile. We recently visited a working herb garden that’s 8200 feet above sea level, and we discovered an innovative solution embedded there that may help other people who garden under similar conditions.

Fox Acres Country Club in Red Feather Lakes, Colorado, is set in one of the most dramatic landscapes imaginable: 460 acres carved from the Rocky Mountains. It is a private alpine community of vacation homes tucked amid lakes and streams, massive boulders and rock outcrops, wildflower meadows, and huge stands of ponderosa pine and gnarled juniper. Fox Acres owes much of its beauty and peaceful isolation to the altitude (and to the security gates that open only to members and invited guests).

Despite its splendor, the mountain setting was a disadvantage in the clubhouse dining rooms, where chefs serve 60 to 70 meals a day during the season. Executive chef David Daggett’s menus rely heavily on fresh herbs, but the kitchen staff can’t just run down to the corner grocery store to pick up what they need (there isn’t one); even getting delivery trucks into the area can sometimes be a problem. About five years ago on a quest for fresh herbs, the chefs planted a garden, mainly in containers, but producing a significant harvest proved to be a challenge. Reliable herb-growing weather lasts barely three months, while the club’s season stretches through five, from before Memorial Day to after Labor Day.

Today, the herb garden just outside the back door of the kitchen at Fox Acres thrives for the club’s entire season, thanks to a technological trick: underground heating mats control the temperature of the soil. The mats, which were installed in 1992, give the chefs an extra month on each end of the growing season.

The high-volume, heavily harvested herb garden has been an excellent test of the heating system, and by now the chefs at Fox Acres can say it with confidence: the heating mats work. They have been very pleased with the garden’s early start and late finish, and have had no problems with the equipment.

The good news for the home gardener is that installing such a system isn’t as expensive as one might think. The heating pads below 225 square feet of garden at Fox Acres came to about $1000; electrical work and other materials added about $500 more. A serious gardener in a bleak far-northern climate might find such an investment well worth the initial expense.

Testing an idea

The soil-heating system was the brainchild of Marla Hawkins, a landscape construction technician in ­Liver­more, Colorado. When David ­presented his herb-growing problem to her, she thought of the heating mats ­designed for use in greenhouses that she’d seen advertised in catalogs. Thinking that they might be adapted for use outside, she contacted A. M. Leonard, Inc. (PO Box 816, Piqua, OH 45356, catalog $1), which custom-made the mats for Fox Acres.

The herb garden is built into a shelf of rock that climbs the mountainside behind the clubhouse. The garden is raised to about waist height and has steps along one side. Stepping stones throughout the garden make the herbs accessible from the side or the middle of the bed. The stonework frame, also designed by Marla, echoes the craggy landscape that surrounds it.

Before installing the mats, Marla laid French drains at the bottom of the bed to allow excess water to drain away; they consist of 4-inch perforated flexible pipes (3-inch pipe would also work fine, Marla says), covered by a few inches of 3/4-inch rock. A layer of landscaping fabric went down next, covered with a bed of sand for the mats to rest on. With the mats in place, an electrician wired them together and to a control box inside the kitchen. The mats were then covered with a heavy screen to protect them from damage by digging. The screen was covered with 12 to 16 inches of garden soil and a compost-topsoil mix. The compost was made from grass plugs taken out of the greens and fairways of Fox Acres’ stunning eighteen-hole golf course (whose construction at this altitude represents an engineering feat in itself).

A temperature sensor in the garden triggers the thermostat that controls the heat mats, and Marla, who handles maintenance of the herb bed, controls the thermostat. In late March or early April, she begins bringing the soil temperature up from its winter resting point of 0° to 10°F. She sets the temperature at 30° to 40°F for two weeks or so, then brings it gradually to 60°F by May 1. Then work begins in the garden, with Marla adding annuals and other new plants, dividing older plants, and rearranging them. The soil remains at that temperature through the rest of the growing season. In early October, she turns the thermostat back down, the chefs cut herbs for drying, and the garden shuts down for the winter. Although temperatures in Red Feather Lakes may drop as low as -30° or -40°F, the herb garden stays warm enough to permit overwintering herbs that wouldn’t otherwise survive.

High altitudes affect gardens in other ways besides lowering the temperature and shortening the season. Studies have shown that plants growing at higher altitudes use water less efficiently. Researchers in Montana determined that plants growing in mile-high Denver use about 20 percent more water to achieve the same level of growth as plants grown at sea level. Marla has addressed the problem of high water demand by using soil polymers in all the gardens at Fox Acres, including the herb garden. (See “Pot-Watering Polymers”, April/May 1994). She has found them very useful; where she used to water 3 days a week, now she can get by with watering 1 to 2 days a week.

The results

The Fox Acres herb bed is home to about twenty-five kinds of herbs, including an array of mints such as peppermint, apple mint, chocolate mint, and spearmint. The mints are used in desserts, sorbets, sauces, and marinades. The chefs grow sorrel, rocket, marjoram, thyme, oregano, bee balm, society garlic, nasturtiums, sage, rosemary, chives, summer savory, and lots of cilantro and parsley. They’ve tried tomatoes and peppers, but the vegetables struggle in this short-season garden. Most of the herbs thrive–“all except for basil,” David says regretfully. “We just can’t do basil up here. It’s too cold.”

The new herbs that are added each year are grown from purchased plants, which gives them a further jump on the season. The garden is fed in early spring with a 14-14-14 slow-release granular fertilizer (initial soil-testing determined the fertilizer formula). No pesticides are used on the herbs, and insects have not been much of a problem. Although there are lots of resident deer and other wildlife on Fox Acres land, indirect lighting (called “moonlighting”) in the trees around the clubhouse keeps them from becoming too bold during the season. There are many large stands of gooseberries, currants, and wild raspberries in the surrounding acreage to both feed the wildlife and supply fruit for the dining rooms.

Each spring, Marla takes stock of how much damage the wildlife has done, which of the more tender plants she needs to replace, and which have survived. Virtually all the biennials such as caraway and parsley are replanted each year, with the exception of angelica, which can sometimes make it through to spring. She has had the most success overwintering chives, the mints, winter savory, tarragon, and oregano, and she credits the heat mats for the steadily growing clumps.

The herb garden produces in enough abundance to encourage experimentation and creativity in the kitchen. The chefs harvest herbs every day, creating elegant menus that change daily. A sampling from last season’s dinner menus includes pan-roasted Colorado lamb loin with creamy polenta, grilled fennel, and leeks, served with tomato mint jam; grilled Colorado trout wrapped in ­banana leaves, stuffed with double-smoked bacon, fresh herbs, and lemon and served with an avocado and sweet pepper relish; Normandy-style braised chicken with apples, leeks, and spinach with a light rosemary cream; and herb-encrusted Angus New York strip steak with boiled new potatoes, roasted peppers, and olives, served with lemon caper butter.

In the Fox Acres kitchen, with its staff of about fifteen, all the cooking is done from scratch, including baking breads, making sausage, bottling herb-flavored oils and vinegars, and making pickles and jams. The chefs not only service the two dining rooms but also cater functions for Fox Acres members. And they teach: the staff includes several interns from various culinary schools. David looks on the herb garden as a good educational tool for the kitchen staff.

The garden guarantees freshness and allows the chefs to harvest just what they need for a given day rather than buying fresh herbs in predetermined quantities from a commercial source and letting the leftovers wilt in the ­refrigerator. Having a reliable herb garden is important to the flavor and quality of the dishes they serve at Fox Acres.

Kathleen Halloran, associate editor of The Herb Companion, has a view of the Rockies from her home in Laporte, Colorado.

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