Homesteading in Colorado can be a little challenging, thanks to the bipolar weather and high elevation. Nonetheless, the state is home to nearly 32 million acres of farmland, predominantly turning out cattle, dairy, wheat, hay, and corn. Colorado also ranks in the top ten for production of barley, millet, sorghum (animal feed), sheep, lambs, and peaches.
But what about us homesteaders? We are not looking to churn out massive amounts of product, just enough to get by. And we can’t really survive on millet and peaches (maybe we could, but I don’t want to try). So, what are our options?
Luckily, there are a few tried-and-true crops that homesteaders can grow on urban or rural farms. Hardy fruits and vegetables can be successfully planted even in the mountains, despite the high altitude, harsh weather, and poor soil.
First Things First: Prepare Your Soil
The soil at higher elevation is usually alkaline, and most crops prefer neutral or slightly acidic soil. It is also rocky and can have a lot of clay, which can make it difficult for plants to take root. It will be well worth your time to take a few extra steps to enrich and soften your soil before planting.
How to Amend Soil in Colorado
Determine What Soil Type You Have
There are generally three types of soil in the mountains: clay, sand, and rock. To determine which type you have, squeeze a handful of it. If it clumps together and feels sticky, it is clay soil. If it breaks apart and is crumbly, you have sandy soil. If there are small rocks present, you have rocky soil.
Add Organic Material
Add ⅓ of organic material like compost or manure* to ⅔ of the existing soil.
If you have sandy or clay soil, you will want to use a tiller or shovel to break up the soil and incorporate the organic matter. Till it at least 8 inches, but ideally 12.
If you have rocky soil, rake small rocks off the surface with a straight rake. Then, break up the soil, removing any large rocks as you go. You may need to use heavier equipment or break the soil up by hand, since the rocks can break the tines on your tiller.
*Use manure that is at least one year old to avoid adding too much salt to the soil.
Topsoil is a blend of soil and compost. Sprinkle an even layer over the top of your newly tilled soil and organic matter.
This will technically be done after you plant, but you will want to have mulch on hand to help retain moisture.
What to Plant in Colorado and When
With your soil now ready, you can look forward to planting your first seeds. The kind of seeds you plant and will depend on the weather. Some plants do better when planted in the cool, wet spring. Others are best planted when the weather is consistently warmer.
Early Springtime Planting
Colorado’s springtime tends to be cool, with persistent sleet and snow. Even after the last frost has passed, the weather remains relatively cool and damp. This climate is actually ideal for growing greens, like kale and spinach.
Cruciferous veggies, in general, do very well here when planted in the spring: chard, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower are all good choices and will give decent yields.
Onions, potatoes, leeks, and herbs like parsley, rosemary, and mint also do quite well when planted in spring.
Late Springtime/Early Summer Planting
SQUASH. Squash is not picky, and it does particularly well in Colorado’s dry climate. Pumpkins, zucchini, spaghetti squash, and pumpkins are all great options to plant when the warm season arrives.
Fruits to plant in the warm season: tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant, and melon.
Don’t Forget the Sunshine
You will, of course, need to ensure regular watering and plenty of sunlight for your plants to grow. Shady gardens, unfortunately, have additional challenges when growing food. If your garden is heavily shaded, you may want to opt for growing your plants in containers where they can be moved, as necessary, to ensure optimal light.
Luckily, most of the vegetables we mentioned can also be grown in containers, as well as many more since you will presumably be working with potting soil.
A Final Note
There is nothing more rewarding than growing your own food. You develop a deeper connection with and appreciation for what is going into your body when you have sweat and sworn over growing it. That appreciation extends even further when you have relied solely upon it for nourishment.
I encourage you to give growing your own fruit and vegetables a try, even if you’re not a homesteader. Please let me know about your experience in the comments!