USDA, Soil Survey Division - "Soil Moisture Regimes of the Contiguous United States"
Gardening in the Mountain West - An Introduction
Sometimes a picture can say it all. Look at this map. In your mind, think "green is for gardening," (with the exception of the green in the Rocky Mountains, which is green only because it is so high and gets adequate rainfall in the form of snow). This is why garden books are designed toward growers in the East. All these other colors, except for the blue, indicate soils that are not for gardening because they don't get enough rainfall. All this land has to be irrigated. Now, even just looking at this map, that's roughly half the country--the half that concerns these pages--the neglected half. I don't expect you to be able to read this map key (I have the map on another page) but there are some terms that also say volumes. The green part of this map is "udic" soil (think useful). The other colors are "ustic", meaning "burned", "aridic" meaning "dry", and "xeric" meaning "desert". So take your pick folks: burned, dry or desert!
USDA, "Zone Hardiness Map"
Here is the second reason why gardening books work for the East. This map has since been divided into sub grouping of "a" and "b" for each number, but that doesn't matter for this illustration. Look at the East. See how the bands correspond to latitude? Cold in the north, hot in the south. Not so much in the West. Zones correspond to altitude and proximity to the Pacific as well as to latitude. This gets incredible complex in maps of the individual western states, like Colorado here:
There are many gardening books on individual regions, even on gardening in the Rockies. However, most of them talk about landscapes, not food. Most of them focus on the big problems: trees, deer, and hardiness. The recent craze in xeriscaping has opened up a long taboo subject: drought resistant plants. Before, you just watered, and watered, and watered. Many towns of the West are full of Eastern trees. All watered by hand. Without man, all those trees will die.
See that purple dot? Move a little bit right. See the lavender dot inside the blue dot? My sister lives there. That's Vail ski resort. It's at 9,500 feet at the base. My sister's yard is a solid chunk of gray clay that is about as hostile as it gets. Wind, no water and cold enough to freeze your beard for about 9 months. Recently, they're getting snow, but five years back all their resevoirs were dry. And I mean dry. My sister's husband is an avid gardener; they love home-grown veggies. Do they garden? No way. It's just too hard. However, next door in Breckenridge are some of the most beautiful summer gardens on the planet. As pretty as English cottage gardens with draping nasturtiums and brillant marigolds all summer. See that green area on the left? That's where the famous Colorado peaches come from. It's considered to be paradise.
My point is this: it's possible. Yet if you look again at that soil map, you can use another rule: green is a no-brainer. All the other colors require ingenuity. All the other colors require a knowledge that pushes the barriers of what is possible to do on this planet. If you feel discouraged, go ahead and pout. Growing anything out of the green zone is hard, really hard. It doesn't have to be that hard. It is my intention to show you how to garden the Western way, a way that will keep you in food and not cost you your savings. A way that requires you to be creative and knowlegeable, but doesn't have to break your back or break your spirit. The idea is not to control nature, but to coax nature. Westerns learn early that nature cannot be controlled. It is an illusion. The West is a land of flash floods and mudslides, of summer snows and hail, of fire, frost and wind. It is a land where the sun kills and you cannot wait for rain. If the rain comes, the land spits it back up and canyons turn into rivers within minutes. During the flood of the Big Thompson River, the water was pushing boulders the size of cars down the canyon. This is a land where you may run out of gas before you get to the next town. Tumbleweeds and lightning, it is God's land, requiring the best of man merely to survive. Yet, it is a breathtaking land of beauty that will make your soul cry out. That is why we live here, arid and cold, dessicated and hot, sunburned and wind-gnawed.