Short Seasons Long Harvests

In the stone raised bed of a Rocky Mountain herb garden, mint grows comfortably and forms a lush background for the rosemaries, which are grown as annuals in this climate.

| February/March 1995

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.

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