Finally in the Mountains, Full-Time
I am a physician working in the Vail Valley, Colorado with 2 little boys and an ex-ski patroller for a husband. When Spence and I married, we split our time between the mountains and the front range of Denver living in two houses, with two different climates and lifestyles until finally, in 2013, we moved from our home in Denver Colorado up to the mountains full-time. It was our dreams, come true. I had grown up skiing and fly-fishing on the weekends. Now, we were raising our own kids to love skiing, camping, and fly-fishing – truly all in our own back yard. We bought an ex- Bed and Breakfast in a cozy, small town right on the Eagle river, between Vail and Beaver Creek ski mountains. Life was good. But….gardening was not.
Gardening at Altitude is Tricky
Here, in the Vail Valley, we live at about 8000′ above sea level. The air is thin, and the days are short due to the sunlight getting tucked behind the mountains as early as 3pm in the winter. The temps are always about ten degrees colder than they are in Denver, just 3000 ‘ lower. So, the snow can be several feet deep from November through late May. Excellent ski conditions, but not the best if you want to grow anything!
The first year, we learned just how big a difference this would be. My dahlias (started indoors to cheat the climate) were just getting tall and strong, and the buds were just ready to bloom, when – bam! – along came the first and lasting frost in late September. We never even saw what color their petals would have been. They turned black and boggy, and died in a single night. Same thing with the tomatoes. We started them in the kitchen in January. They sat by the warm kitchen windows clear until March. They were so tall and big that the kids could hardly get through this tomato jungle to their dinner seats. We waited, and waited, and WAITED, till we knew the last frost was past, well into June. Finally, after a quick few months in the ground, growing and storing sunlight, they started making fruits and we were dreaming of BLT sandwiches and giving away bushels to the neighbors. But then again – bam! – summer was over in an instant one night in early October. Winter, with black fruits, frozen vines, and swollen stems hit suddenly and unrelentingly. It was too late. Blueberries, peas, zucchinis, all suffered the same fate. The only thing we could grow were the fast-cycled plants that grew and flowered like lightening. Lettuce, radishes, peonies and carrots kept me coming back to work in our backyard garden.
More and more light and resources went into my pre-season, indoor prepping of seeds and plantlings. I was trying to find a way around this super-short season, high-altitude gardening dilemma. Because our house had been a former Bed and Breakfast, we had more bathrooms than we knew what to do with. This worked out well for me, because the next thing I knew, I had taken over an entire spare bathroom for all my little plant start-ups.
Somewhere along the way, I received a copy of Floret Farm’s Cut Flower Garden and the scales tipped. I became truly obsessed. All I wanted was to grow amazing cut flowers for my own bouquets. I emailed the founder, Erin Benzakein, after reading the entire book cover-to-cover twice. I was determined to recreate the climate she had in Washington and asked her if she knew if anyone was doing what she was doing…but indoors. Looking back, that was sort of a crazy thing to ask her. But, kindly, Erin emailed me back. She said that she had little experience with it herself, but she knew of a lady writing a book in Texas (where it was often too hot to garden) named Leslie Halleck. Her book was called Gardening Under Lights. It was going to address this whole “growing indoors” subject and was coming out soon. I eagerly anticipated her book, learning lessons on my own while I waited.
Moving the Garden Inside
As you may imagine, living in a ski town in Colorado (where marijuana is legal), it seems there might be a lot of people growing various “medicinal” plants, tucked away in closets and cupboards. Either way, I found our local hardware store was surprisingly well stocked with grow lights, growing medium and fertilizer – even during the dead of winter. How helpful!
Armed with these convenient supplies, I committed to try to garden completely indoors. For the first few years, I grew nothing but flowers. My husband rigged up an ingenious irrigation system pulled off of the toilet plumbing (the clean side). I had nothing but hardware store LED lights and there were cords and tubes everywhere. The whole thing was a bit dirty and gross but endless fun for me. The kids would help me plant seeds, pick flowers, make arrangements, bring flowers to their teachers and even sweep up. We loved our indoor flower farm. A babysitter once remarked, “Where on earth did you get fresh marigolds in winter?” and I was beaming. Nothing ever grew particularly big or particularly well, but some plants really thrived. We had all kinds of problems the first few years and learned a lot. We learned about water (too much and too little), light (red and blue, how long?), pests (indoors!) and mostly about how to make it all more civil. It was after all, an indoor garden. And I wanted it to feel like the great indoors. I wanted it to be just another room that was clean and lovely and a pleasure to be in.
Switching from Flowers to Vegetables
At the same time, as a family we were becoming more aware of our carbon footprint, as everyone else was. We ventured into vegetarianism and we regretted that whenever we bought a head of lettuce or a box of strawberries, we were also buying a pile of plastic boxes and wrappers. We wanted to grow and eat our own food, knowing exactly where it had been, what had been applied to it, and skip the whole packaging process. I thought, let’s not just eat locally, but hyper-locally. Like, food literally grown in our own house.
From farm to table? We were going to do one better. It was going to be from tub to table for my family.
So, we scrapped the whole cut flower garden after three years of ever-improving results. I carted it all out, cleaned the entire room, spackled the holes in the walls and even put down a rug. My husband re-addressed the plumbing and built me an irrigation system made from indoor-grade plumbing, like any sink or tub. We spruced the room up, got rid of the endless cords and tubes, and started growing a civilized indoor vegetable garden in earnest. And the results have been spectacular.
We have never gotten to the point where we can skip trips to the store for fresh fruits and vegetables altogether, but we have been slowly and steadily finding out how and what will grow here, and then how and what my family will eat from our little bathroom garden. Most of all, it has been endless hours of fun. I hope you enjoy following along with us on this weird experiment!