Echter's Home

Gardening with an "Altitude"

The key to successful high altitude gardening is working with the elements (sun, wind, soil, and cold and accounting for the way the altitude affects your growing season.

Soil Prep- A High Priority
In most areas of our Rocky Mountains, soil is not soil at all, but mainly decomposed granite. To compensate for this, add Premier sphagnum peat moss to new beds and work it into existing beds as part of spring cleanup and planting. Start with 3 inches of sphagnum peat moss over an area and work it down as far as the rocks in the area permit  (hopefully 8-12 inches deep). Then as you actually plant add Nature's Yield Compost to the area in a ratio of 1/3 compost to 2/3 soil.  

The Elements Can Help
In many ways gardeners at higher elevations have an advantage over their metro-area counterparts. Snow is not always an enemy. Once snow arrives in the mountains, it generally stays until spring and acts as an insulator, protecting plants from an otherwise harsh environment. Cooler summer temperatures can be used to one's advantage. Mountain gardeners can enjoy snow peas and broccoli all summer long. Root plants like carrots, potatoes, or radishes do well in the vegetable garden. You may need to protect heat-loving plants like tomatoes with a protective enclosure.

Altitude Friendly Blooms
It is truly amazing how many types of plants can be utilized in mountain gardens and landscapes. For example, many varieties of perennials do well in mountain settings because they die back to the ground each fall and are not affected by the elements in winter. Mountain gardeners should select perennial varieties that bloom in early to mid-summer. Late bloomers, good at lower altitudes, will get caught by early fall mountain freezes. Brown-eyed Susans, painted daisy, yarrow, sunflowers, and columbine can be seeded or planted in gardens or natural areas.


Bearded iris and Siberian iris make showy beds of blooms. Tiger lilies, oriental poppies, pansies, sweet peas, hollyhock, gaillardia, and sweet William top the list for showy mountain blooms.

Don't overlook roses. Grafted roses may not be winter hardy over 6500' and should be treated as an annual in the mountains. Look for roses grown on their own roots including miniature roses and Rugosa roses. The Canadian, Parkland, and Explorer series also do well. It is important to follow instructions on winterizing your roses by protecting canes and roots from cold temperatures.

Shrubs that Shrug off the Cold
There are many shrubs that do well in a mountain landscape. The curlleaf mountain mahogany is a native evergreen and has a beautiful upright shape. It sports attractive seed heads in late summer. The tiny trumpet honeysuckle would make a nice addition to a mountain landscape. It offers showy, fragrant, reddish-pink trumpet-shaped flowers for many weeks in the summer.

One of our favorites is the serviceberry bush. It offers beautiful white flowers in the spring, followed by edible fruit (serviceberries) the service berry bush also provides fall color in shades of oranges and yellows. The red twig dogwood provides a showy red contrast against winter snow banks. It grows to a height of 3 feet with a spread of 3 feet.

The Apache plume is a native shrub with a white flowers similar to that of a rose. These are followed by feathery, rose colored seed tails. Planted against a dark background, the Apache plume's white stems are striking. Often overlooked and many times hard to find, the Russian hawthorn is a small tree (or large shrub). The Russian hawthorn sports yellow to orange fall color and provides food for the birds in the winter. The beautiful cinnamon bark of the native river birch
gives the tall shrub an interesting winter texture.

The lingonberry, an evergreen 4 to 8 inches high is rated to zone 2 and ideal for a part shade border. This shrub is self pollinating and its berries are great for jams, jellies, and sauces.

Wild Cranberry? Yes. This conversation piece grows to zone 3 and is evergreen. The wild cranberry has delicate foliage followed by edible berries in the fall.

Echter's can connect you to  professional landscape design services for a detailed landscape plan or on-site consultation in the Denver Area.

Betty Ford Alpine Gardens

Echter's Home