Gardening in the High Sierra

Amy Fagel and Katie Townsend-Merino in the Truckee Demonstration Garden.

“April showers bring May flowers,” is the saying. People in the Tahoe Sierra, however, know that the weather up here is a different. A lack of humidity, dry temperatures and random frosts can destroy plants — still, weather is not the only challenge. Critters, such as bunnies, bears and squirrels, love to dig up bulbs and munch on berries, apples and greens. So, is growing a garden in Tahoe possible?

“Anything in gardening is an experiment. If it works, we keep doing it; if it doesn’t work,
then we don’t do it again.”
– Katie Townsend-Merino

Yes, as long as you’re willing to experiment and be patient. At the Truckee Demonstration Garden, managed by Slow Food Lake Tahoe, open garden beds show rhubarb in full bloom, skinny asparagus shoots popping up and garlic sprouts growing happily. But this isn’t the case for all veggies. Unfortunately, Tahoe’s wildlife enjoys eating organically and a lot of the other plants have to be protected.

“Most of what we have has to be jailed,” says Truckee Demonstration Garden director Katie Townsend-Merino with a smile. “We’ve learned what can be covered and what doesn’t have to be.”

High Elevation Gardening
May 31, June 1, 4 & 11 | Tahoe City Field Station
Green Thumb Thursdays
Thursdays until Aug. 2| North Lake Tahoe Demonstration Garden, Sierra Nevada College
Community Dig-Ins
3rd Saturday | Truckee Demonstration Garden
South Shore classes
June 5 & 12 | South Lake locations
High Altitude Gardening
June 6, 13 & 20 | Truckee Demonstration Garden

Despite the critters, last year Truckee Demonstration Garden harvested more than 217 pounds of food including 73 pounds of greens, 34 pounds of roots and 48 pounds of alliums. The garden also harvested 19 pounds of herbs, 16 pounds of veggies and 25 pounds of tomatoes and rhubarb.

Some of the Juwel-covered garden boxes at the Truckee Demonstration Garden.

“Anything in gardening is an experiment. If it works, we keep doing it; if it doesn’t work, then we don’t do it again,” she says.

She’s also seen a few surprises. A few crops that were planted before Townsend-Merino started volunteering kept coming back year after year. She didn’t know what the cherry, pear and apple trees were before they started bearing fruit.

She adds that while fending off the critters and bad weather can be challenging, that’s part of the fun. To find out the intricacies of what grows well in the Sierra, Townsend-Merino admits that she’s not afraid to look things up on the Internet.

“I wondered why our asparagus was so skinny, so I looked it up. People always ask me, ‘How do you know everything?’ I Google it,’ ” she says.

Townsend-Merino also learns from fellow gardeners at the many classes, workshops and clinics held locally during the summer.

Throughout her years of gardening in the Sierra, Townsend-Moreno learned how to prepare crops for winter by layering garden beds with 2 inches of compost and spreading hay over it, which is removed in the spring. She places chicken wire below, around and above crops to keep squirrels out and installs Juwel Planters that look like mini-greenhouses. She also places a quilt or a blanket over the boxes and covers the other plants in frost cloth.

“Frost cloth is fairly inexpensive and lasts a long time. Snow doesn’t necessarily kill plants if they’re covered. Look at how many hours it stays cold — that can make a big difference,” she says.

Author Kayla Anderson’s gardening includes a tomato plant she started on Easter and has already had to repot. She keeps it outside during the day and brings it in at night during the cool spring weather.

In starting a garden from scratch, seeds should be planted in April and started indoors until the weather warms up. People should expect the growing season to last through mid-October. Lettuces are easy because they only take a month to grow; so, they can be planted as late as August. Alliums, such as garlic, onions, shallots, leeks and herbs can be planted in the fall to sprout in the following spring.

Along with trial and error, the best advice for starting a garden in the Sierra is to attend a gardening class or volunteer at Truckee Demonstration Garden. It hosts Community Dig-Ins on Saturdays for an hour or two so local gardeners can help rebuild garden beds, plant seedlings, harvest food for local seniors, distributed through Sierra Senior Services, and learn about how to grow a garden.

“I started as a volunteer. I learned a lot being hands-on and talking to fellow gardeners,” says Amy Fagel, who’s been with Slow Food Lake Tahoe for three seasons.

The University of California Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners of Lake Tahoe offers gardening classes in Tahoe City, Truckee, Incline Village and South Lake Tahoe. People who attend classes can receive free starter plants and participate in high-altitude gardening studies. All local gardening classes and work days are listed at TheTahoeWeekly.com in the Event Calendar. | ucanr.edu/sites/mglaketahoe