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Tom Ross: Season shorter than you think

Editor’s Note: Tom Ross is on vacation. This column originally appeared May 29, 2006.

If you want to grow vegetables in Steamboat Springs, build a greenhouse. But if you really want to grow vegetables in Routt County, move to Hayden.

Discounting lettuce and some varieties of strawberries, the only vegetables I can grow dependably in Steamboat are Chinese pea pods-the kind that don’t actually produce peas.



I inherited many qualities from my parents for which I’m grateful – I’m perfectly pleased to stand 6 feet 2 inches tall. However, one of the noticeable traits missing from my double helix is my father’s green thumb. Every Memorial Day weekend, I put little plants, many of which I’ve nourished indoors from seed, into the ground just to watch them struggle through the summer. And on those rare occasions when I actually get a perennially blooming flower to take off, some rodent eats its tender roots under the snowpack of the following February.

After 17 years of attempting to garden in Steamboat Springs, I’ve finally found a second flower that even florally-challenged people such as myself can coax into full bloom. I’ve always been able to grow lupine – they can shrug off a heavy frost like few other flowers. Collect the seeds after the blossoms have fallen off and the pods have dried, and you can broadcast them into other flowerbeds. I have lupine popping up in my lawn this spring. Heck, I’m even growing lupine in my neighbor’s lawn.



Now, I’ve figured out that California poppies are just as idiot proof as lupine. And after losing my coreopsis and chocolate flowers during the winter to vermin that made their burros in my flowerbeds, I’m letting poppies grow wherever the wind has taken their seeds.

But vegetables? Fuggedaboutit. We have a bushy oregano plant in a sunny location, and cilantro grows like a weed in the same spot. But I gave up on vegetables a long time ago.

My parents’ garden, planted in the rich soils left behind by glaciers in Southern Wisconsin, always produced an embarrassment of riches. I had to peddle sweet corn in our neighborhood for 50 cents a dozen just to get rid of the stuff. We produced bushels of zucchini and green beans. At one time, my father grew more than 30 varieties of hot peppers. We even had a bountiful patch of cantaloupe. My nemesis was the tomato crop my parents were so fond of – I had a childhood distaste for fresh tomatoes and gag on them to this day.

There’s a reason why vegetables are easier to grow in Dane County, Wis., than in Steamboat, and it’s the same reason they are easier to grow in Hayden.

The growing season in Steamboat Springs is ridiculously short. Gunnison, which regularly posts the coldest wintertime high temperatures in the state, and Leadville, situated above 10,000 feet, both have longer growing seasons than Steamboat does at 6,770 feet in elevation.

Leadville and Gunnison average 78 frost-free days. Even Aspen boasts 73 frost-free days. Gardeners in Meeker luxuriate in a banana belt where there are 91 frost-free days in which to coax vegetables to maturity. A mere 42 miles west of Steamboat, the good people of Craig have 77 days to make their gardens grow.

Here in Steamboat, the average frost-free growing season is a mere 49 days, the same as in Crested Butte.

How can Steamboat have a shorter growing season than higher elevation communities such as Leadville and Aspen? Scientists at Colorado State University say the answer has a lot to do with the patterns of cold air flowing down drainages from the mountain peaks. In Steamboat, the cold air drainage patterns lead straight to every garden in town.

How about our neighbors in Hayden? CSU climate researchers say there is a 90 percent chance that the growing season will be at least 79 days and a 50 percent chance the days between the last frost of the spring and the first frost of the autumn will be 104 days.

That means gardeners in Hayden who are willing to gamble with a 10 percent risk already have their summer squash, beans and cucumbers in the ground. By the middle of June, they’ll be watering their tomato vines, green peppers and eggplants.

June is the month when gardeners in Steamboat check the thermometer right after the 10 o’clock news, grab a flashlight and trudge out to their flowerbeds to spread old beach towels over their plants.

It’s no wonder there are so many new residential subdivisions in Hayden. All of the serious gardeners are migrating down valley.

Tom Ross is a longtime Steamboat resident. His column is published every Monday in the Steamboat Today.


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