High-altitude gardening in Lake Tahoe
Gardening in the Lake Tahoe basin during a very short and very cool growing season can present challenges to home growers looking to put fresh fruit, vegetables, herbs and flowers on their tables.
The UC Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center in partnership with the University of Nevada, Reno and area master gardeners are working alongside home gardeners to determine which plant species thrive around Lake Tahoe.
“It’s very hard to describe [gardening in Tahoe]. It’s frustrating and rewarding at the same time,” said Alison Toy, program coordinator for UC Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center, who is a master gardener, herself.
“You feel like you work so hard to produce flowers and fruit and vegetables but you only produce say, five tomatoes … but knowing how tough it is to produce a single tomato, you feel really proud. You show off your tomatoes! I show off my tomatoes around the office and then enjoy one delicious salad.”
Toy is part of a team of gardening experts who are hosting seminars on plants that they are specifically studying to see which varieties have shown to be successful in this type of location.
“We test the plants by having people take home seedlings to grow after they participate in lectures,” Toy said.
“We discuss ways of dealing with potential pests, how to properly harvest, the plant’s entomology, historical and cultural uses as well as discussing the environment and Tahoe-specific talks on these specific crops,” Toy said.
The High-Altitude Gardening series will be held throughout the month of May in locations spanning Truckee, Tahoe City and South Lake Tahoe, all taught by master gardener David Long.
As a home gardener, Long said his interest is in growing things he can pick and eat or pick and put on the table for a display.
“I was more into flowers and food than native species,” he said. “So I decided my project [as a master gardener] would be on the great interest in growing food.”
Long said he enjoys gardening as a fun, stress-relieving activity that the entire family can be part of, not to mention earning bragging rights.
“You can have friends over for lunch or dinner and pull up some fresh potatoes or tomatoes, or yank some onions out of the garden, even if they’re small onions or even garlic you can smile and say, ‘let’s cook something!’”
Long also enjoys discussing the history behind plant species to understand how and where they grow best.
“Depending on the plants you’re growing, especially here, it can be difficult,” he said. “An example: potatoes which do very well in the Tahoe area. They were originally from the high elevation Andes Mountains in South America – they like cool nights and days with bright sun, but not necessarily the heat.”
Long said potatoes were one of the first crops reported as being grown in the Tahoe basin near Glenbrook and were reportedly as good or better than those grown in the famed Sacramento valley.
Working with demonstration gardens who already have infrastructure in place allows Toy, Long and their students to create a very hands-on experience, elevated more as the students are given seedlings to plant in their home gardens.
“Plant phenology is fascinating,” Toy added. “You’re looking at the important phases of a plant’s life – flowering, first leaves the first fruit – then we look to find any correlation to the climate and growing phases of these plants.”
Toy’s overall goal is to foster interest in science among locals. She appreciates educating on good gardening techniques to produce delicious vegetables, but says the real importance lies in understanding and protecting the land.
“It’s about being part of this community,” Toy said. “Being an active member who wants to learn and contribute to keeping these resources available is what it’s all about. All you need to have is an enthusiasm to learn and a positive attitude. I want everyone to take pride in learning about this area and become environmental stewards to protect it.”
Instructor Long echoed Toy’s sentiments of protecting the land and says his goal is to discuss topics dealing with food production in the Tahoe basin. He supports being stewards of the natural world and stressed that one way to protect the natural order of things is to ensure you’re growing calories for you, rather than the surrounding wildlife.
“I stress the importance of taking care of your plants so you’re making calories for you and not for bears or chipmunks or raccoons,” Long said.
“New gardeners say ‘What’s the problem if a chipmunk eats a few of my fruit or vegetables?’ – the problem is that they won’t eat just a few. Suddenly you’re ranching chipmunks and squirrels rather than gardening to put food on the table.”
Habituating native wildlife to your home garden area increases the carrying capacity of the land, Long explained. More carrying capacity translates to more calories going to you or to the wildlife. The wildlife will become dependent on a home garden and will slowly disrupt the natural cycle in Tahoe leading to more chipmunks, squirrels, even coyotes and bears.
Another hot topic in gardening in the Tahoe basin is water runoff or erosion.
“In growing food in Lake Tahoe we want to do it in a matter that does not contribute to any further degradation of the natural environment,” Long said. “We use as little fertilizer as possible, we don’t want any runoff from our gardening activities affecting surrounding properties or environments.”
Home gardeners around the lake can participate in the seminars to learn and bring up their own home crops. They will be part of the scientific movement shining light on their findings for seasons of gardening to come in the Tahoe basin.
Cassandra Walker is a features and entertainment reporter for the Sierra Sun. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, 530-550-2654 or @snow1cass.