5 Garden Tips I’ve Learned while Living in the Mountains

The title should say, “5 Garden Tips I’ve learned while Living in the Rock and Clay, with Ravenous Deer Everywhere!”

If you don’t live in the mountains, this article is still for you. After you read it, you should be so happy about your soil. When was the last time you were happy about your soil?

Really these tips will be helpful to any beginning gardener, which I didn’t think I was until I moved here!

Gardening comes naturally to me, or so I thought…

I’ve always loved gardening since I was a little kid. My mom cherished her flowers, and fruit trees, but I wanted a vegetable garden. I grew up in south Texas and the dirt was black and rich, with just enough sand. Plant it and it will grow!

Tomato seedlings in small pots

I was gaining in confidence with my gardening skills with each success. I even chilled (forced) Tulip bulbs in my refrigerator one winter and had a mass of blooms in the spring. The neighbors were very impressed, thinking I was magical, I’m sure. In case you’re wondering, there are NO Tulips to be found in sub-tropical south Texas, where I grew up.

Fast forward to when my husband and I bought our first house. We lived in a more northern location. Again, the soil was black and crumbly in our tiny, “urbanish” backyard.

We had a glorious perennial flower garden, with some veggies, and raspberries tucked in. We were hipster before it was a thing. Again, winning the adoration of our little garden from friends and neighbors.

Pink flowering bushes

Then…we move to the mountains. It’s a beautiful, wooded setting. Our lot is over an acre and a half. When we moved here fifteen years ago, I pictured sprawling outdoor rooms with veggies, flowers, bushes, and fruit trees of every kind! The type of landscaping that would cause P. Allen Smith to gasp and spontaneously begin clapping.

No problem my husband and I thought. We’ve had beautiful gardens before and we set to work.

Then the reality of just what we had to work with happened. It’s a steep learning curve for a casual, cottage gardener.

But I think I’m finally learning my lessons about gardening in a more challenging location. I hope you find this list helpful, or at least you can use this as fair warning, should you move to a location like ours!

1. If you want to plant in the ground, bring your pick ax and soil amendments.                                                                                                            

I was not familiar with a pick ax. After all, I hadn’t worked in a mine or on the railroad, which are the only places I imagined them being used. We never even owned one!

But even with a pick ax, planting is a real chore. When you first raise that bad boy over your head and swing it down, you will hit a rock. You will feel it reverberate through your bones like you’re trying to break up a concrete sidewalk. You will ask your husband to help you. At least, I will.

I need help planting a hydrangea bush? What am I, 106?

Hydrangea bushes with bird bath
Hydrangea bushes are beginning to be at home in our shady backyard.

Anyway, after you get a deep enough hole (three glasses of lemonade later), you’ve pulled out most of the rock chunks and you’re left with… clay!

I had dabbled in soil amendments before. A bag of peat moss here, some compost there. But I’ve learned it’s serious business in the mountains. No dabbling here. It’s do or die!

So upping our game in the compost making department has become a priority. Ok, behind all of the other house remodel priorities!

2. Plant more of what’s growing, duh!

Ok, so it has taken me a little while to figure this out. I like to watch garden tours on youtube, and peruse through garden books and magazines. Of course I imagine myself a garden designer at that point.

Striped cat sitting next to catnip growing in garden
Our kitty “Shushu” just loves the Catnip patch that thrives and comes back every year!

I get the idea to plant things that just aren’t hardy here. I’m not talking about in our weather zone. But in our rock, clay, and deer situation we have gong on.

I have friends a town over that have amazing soil and can grow just about anything. I have one inch of topsoil to work with!

So I’ve discovered that herbs love this environment. I’ve always had quite a few growing in sunny spots. But it’s time to get more of them established in other locations. The deer hate them and that’s a big bonus.

Herbs planted in galvanized containers
For the love of herbs. Some of these will be hung to dry for winter use.

Grasses, boxwood, and our favorite latest find, Texas Red Yucca are all thriving.

Adirondack chairs on lawn under shade tree
Great place for morning coffee. Still working on curb appeal for our fixer-upper!

Thornless blackberries, and blueberries are producing this year, since we have them behind a fence. Let’s have more of those!

Bowl of blackberries
Thornless blackberry plant is thriving in a semi-sunny location.
Blueberry bushes growing with Rosemary
The Blueberry bushes are happy planted with Rosemary and Sage.

3. Fruit Trees are High Maintenance

When I think of all the money and time we’ve spent on fruit trees that died, it makes me cringe. The deer love to chew all of the leaves off. Rubbing the trunk with their antlers until they’re uprooted is another favorite (rein)deer game.

Plum tree and wooded background

We only have a few fruit trees left. At this point, it’s survival of the fittest! We did get a lot of sour cherries this year so maybe there is hope. I’m going to give some TLC to the survivors and see how it goes. However, I have given up the small orchard dream!

4. Raised beds and containers are amazing in this setting

Once we accepted our fate and started adding larger containers, I went from a garden loser to a winner!

We have most of our vegetables planted in big galvanized water troughs. We have plans to DIY some concrete, hypertufa planters soon. You can be sure I’ll post it here when we make them.

Tomato plants in water trough containers

Containers do take more watering and if they’re large, a lot of soil in the beginning. We added some small logs and branches in the bottom third of our containers to cut down on the volume of dirt needed.  They’ll decompose over time and add to the soil.

Plants growing in old painted wheelbarrow

Adding in a soaker hose on a timer will cut down on the need to hand water. I haven’t done this yet. But I think people that have are really cool.

5. Take time to enjoy what is working

A garden is about enjoyment, right? At least that’s why we do it. We love to see all the growth, different stages, and productivity of the landscape. But a property this size keeps us really busy with mowing, weeding, watering, and don’t forget those soil amendments! It can just become drudgery if we don’t take the time to enjoy it.

White chicken pecking in grass
Our little flock of hens help with insect control. But they can also eat plants, so we have to keep a close watch.

Since the weather has been nice, we take every opportunity to have our morning coffee outside. We listen to all of the birds and admire all of the progress that’s been made over time, and with perseverance. When our grandkids come over they have lots of room to run. My son recently bought a bocce set that we play on the front lawn.

Huge mound of mint growing in yard
The mint patch that has taken over a portion of our side yard. A lot of mint tea and lemonade this summer!

I gather fresh herbs, berries, and veggies for the kitchen. It’s beginning to feel like the garden that I dreamed of when we first moved in, so many years ago.

There may still be Mole holes and some weeds here and there. But it doesn’t stop us from enjoying time in our mountain, cottage garden.

I hope you’re enjoying some green today. Whether you have a single potted succulent or a large garden, plants can add so much to life!

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Pin this for later when you need some inspiration. The next time you work in your garden, you can think of me outside with a pick ax, trying to avoid my foot!

Greenhouse with 5 Garden Tips wording



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