TAHOE CITY Leslie Hyche learned quickly that gardening at high elevations means being prepared for just about anything.
Snow in June? Plan on it. Unexpected windstorm? Keep everything tied down. Deer with the munchies? Persuade them to move on to another outdoor buffet.
"At first, I thought that gardening up here was very unusual," she said. "It's nothing like Davis, where I went to school. But then I realized, most of the country deals with the same stuff we do. They get snow, too. That helped me look at gardening here in a different way."
Hyche is co-owner of Tahoe Tree Co. and McBride's Nursery, a Sierra fixture and go-to source for high-elevation gardening. Hyche also wrote the book "High Altitude Gardening," which is no longer in print.
"The biggest challenge is the weather," she said. "Not just snow, but the unpredictability."
At 6,200 feet elevation, the nursery which opens only in warmer months felt a hard freeze on Memorial Day weekend. After several days in the 80s, nighttime temperatures dipped to 32 degrees freezing again last week.
"We generally have three good gardening months June, July and August," she added. "But last year, we still had snow on the ground in mid-June."
That was after 20 feet of snow fell in the winter of 2010. This past winter was much drier.
"We had such a dry winter, lots of things died they needed that snow for moisture," Hyche said. "I'm hoping that they'll still come back."
No sign of snow or its effects could be seen during a recent June visit. Thousands of flowers greeted customers as they meandered through tables of perennials or relaxed in the rustic gazebo. The lush bluegrass lawn of the demonstration garden welcomed visitors to stroll in the shade, admire the columbines and bleeding hearts, or sniff peonies and lupines.
"It's very well organized," said Misty MacIsaac, who was shopping with her husband, Tim. "Everything is labeled and there's a lot of variety."
The MacIsaacs are in the process of landscaping their front yard in nearby Truckee.
"We want something that won't die," Tim MacIsaac said. "We'll have 2 to 3 feet of snow in our front yard all winter, and we live in a warmer neighborhood. It will melt in April, then it snows again. You've got to protect everything. You pretty much need a greenhouse to grow vegetables."
Said Misty MacIsaac, "Rabbits, deer, voles; they eat it all. We need something they don't like."
Tahoe Tree Co. and McBride's Nursery have become a destination for locals and visitors.
"People hear about it and want to stop by," said John Hyche, Leslie's husband. "We get a lot of people from the Bay Area and Sacramento, a lot of folks from Carson City. It's a nice place to walk around. It's real pleasant."
But he's ready for sudden changes in the weather.
"We've got all sorts of plant covers and frost blankets tucked around here for emergencies," he said. "We're always ready.
"Everything is so weather-driven anywhere in the garden industry," he added. "Having a high-altitude nursery has got to be one of the most challenging businesses you can try."
Dave McBride, Leslie's father, started the Tahoe Tree Co. in 1954 with a stand of Christmas trees. A former gymnastics coach, he had no trouble climbing, so McBride expanded into tree trimming and care.
Trees are big business
Tahoe Tree Co. still sells lots of trees. Long rows of pines and firs, their roots wrapped in burlap, awaited trucks for delivery.
Areas devastated by fire need to be replanted. Trees also are added to existing landscapes to make them look more natural.
"We have such a short season to get things done," Leslie said. "Landscapers only have a little window to work. They're very busy."
Today at age 90, McBride still works at the nursery every day.
"In winter, he's out there in snowshoes, tending his alders," said Leslie. "He loves his trees."
A hands-on nurseryman, McBride dressed for protection from the intense sun with a hat, long-sleeve shirt and gloves as he groomed dozens of young aspens.
"You put them in the ground and let God take care of them," McBride said. "You can kill them with too much water. That's why their roots grow sideways or up the hill never down to the water."
The hardest part of growing trees at higher elevations?
"Unforeseen weather problems," McBride said. "A couple of years ago, I planted 440 alder trees in cans. I had about a 90 percent loss that's a lot of money. You've got to keep their soil moist. If plants freeze dry, they die. You might have a ball of ice (after a hard freeze), but you may be able to rescue the plant."
One night, beavers attacked his saplings, destroying hundreds of trees.
"Dad thought someone was trying to put us out of business or something," Leslie recalled. "It was beavers."
Deer tend to bypass Tahoe City for Truckee, which is closer to their migration paths, she noted. But the nursery does deal regularly with coyotes, rabbits and squirrels.
"It's part of living with nature," she said.
McBride passed his green thumb along to his daughter. After graduating from UC Davis with a degree in landscape architecture and horticulture, Leslie became partners in her father's nursery.
That was 25 years ago. She later added the family name to the nursery. On its current 10-acre site, the Hyches built the gigantic log cabin that doubles as headquarters and gift shop. A catering company recently added a large industrial kitchen to serve special events.
The Tahoe Tree Co. hosts weddings throughout the summer, usually two a week. A terrace behind the log cabin doubles as a dance floor. Paths leading from the gazebo down to the garden are festooned with big baskets of petunias.
"People want annuals," John said, as he watered baskets of petunias.
"We've seen a change in customer attitude," added Leslie. "They can't afford time in the garden. They want one of these pre-planted pots in full flower, ready to go. It's changed the whole way of selling nursery goods."
Extending the season
Because the Tahoe growing season is so condensed, the nursery had difficulty getting plants into bloom before customers were gone.
"Our plants would start blooming in late July," Leslie said. "By then, the customers had already planted their gardens."
Last year, the Hyches started leasing 3 acres in Loomis at a shuttered nursery. That enabled them to expand their inventory and bring many plants up the hill, already in bloom.
This week, the most popular colors for pre-planted pots: Combinations of red, white and blue.
"Fourth of July; that's very big up here," Leslie said. "Everybody wants red, white and blue in their garden."
The nursery obliges with annuals and perennials that extend their bloom for weeks beyond Independence Day. Some perennials and shrubs will put on a floral fireworks show for many summers to come.
"I love Shasta daisies," Leslie said. "They're foolproof. Monkshood (with deep-blue flowers) does well here, too. There are a lot of different blues."
Bright-red geraniums or petunias complete the patriotic trios.
Perennials are perfect for snow country, Leslie noted. They appreciate the cold, wet snow of winter and the hot summer sun. They reward gardeners with a dependable flower show, year after year.
"My favorites are the lilacs and peonies," she said. "But there are so many others foxglove, campanula, dianthus, yarrows, Russia sage, veronicas, scabiosa, coreopsis, stachys, asters, coneflowers, butterfly bushes, hardy geraniums, hostas. The list just goes on and on."
Vegetables and other edible gardening are geared toward a short growing season, no more than 90 days.
"Rhubarb does fabulous," Leslie said. "Most herbs do great; chives are super. All the berries do fine. With tomatoes, pretty much stick to cherries."
As for other landscaping, it depends a lot on deer.
"Carpet roses do great, but hybrid roses are just OK," Leslie said. "Tiger lilies are fantastic. So are many bulbs. You have to experiment."
But the results make it worthwhile.
"This time of year can be so perfect, with bright-blue sky and warm sun," Leslie said. "This is why we live here. We're not here for the skiing. We love the summer."
ALTITUDE WITH ATTITUDE
Gardening at high elevations takes persistence. Plants will die. That's OK. Experiment with varieties and location. You'll learn what will and won't work in the microclimates of your outdoor space. (And remember, some things that "always" work will occasionally die, too.)
Here's more advice from gardeners who have thrived at higher elevations:
Before planting, notice what grows well where. Is the forest thickest on the north side of the road? The eastern Sierra, for example, is much drier than the western slope. Observe how and where nature has distributed plants in your high-elevation neighborhood and include that in your personal planting guide.
The sun at higher elevations is more intense and can prevent seeds from germinating on southern slopes. An eastern exposure with afternoon shade is more forgiving and may produce better results.
The Sierra may be high, but they're still part of California's Mediterranean climate. That means little rainfall in summer. Your garden will need irrigation.
That harsh sun dries out gardens quickly. If using drip irrigation, water every day during summer.
Cold air tends to pool at the bottom of shallows or slopes. That can create pockets of frost danger, even in early summer or fall.
Areas with some shade tend to retain moisture and help plants cope with harsh conditions. Plant in the shade of trees or taller plants.
Due to lack of rain, many mountain soils tend to be more alkaline, making it tough for many familiar annuals and vegetables to grow. The high pH of alkaline soil can be lowered with garden sulfur or ammonium sulfate (which is about 23 percent sulfur). Have your soil tested, then adjust accordingly to a more balanced pH.
Wind is a major factor and can quickly dry out tender vegetables and annuals. Give plants some protection.
Soil depth is shallow in most mountain areas. Augment with compost. Consider building raised beds or planting in containers.
Plan for a short, intense growing season. If planting vegetables, look for varieties that reach maturity within 90 days; under 75 days is better. For tomatoes, cherry tomatoes and the Early Girl hybrid offer the best harvests.
"Cold season" vegetables such as lettuce, peas, cabbage and chard grow well during summer months at higher altitudes. They can take the occasional cold night without protection, but need some afternoon shade to avoid sunburn.
Start seeds indoors and transplant after the last frost.That's usually Father's Day in the high Sierra.
Most berries blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, thimbleberries and strawberries thrive at high elevation. But they need protection from thieving critters.
Your garden will need protection. Sapsuckers can wipe out young trees. Other birds gobble berries. Squirrels dig up tasty young growth. Rabbits can wipe out a veggie garden. Deer eat everything. Fencing and netting are a must. Consider other deterrents such as motion- activated sprinklers.
Summer annuals such as petunias and snapdragons do best planted in pots or boxes. These containers make it easier to monitor soil moisture and they can be moved in case of frost or violent weather.
Perennials such as peonies and Shasta daisies thrive at higher elevations. They naturally die back each fall, so they're not crushed by heavy snow. A thick blanket of snow will insulate their roots in winter.
Lilacs love higher elevations. Snow will give their roots the right amount of chill to trigger copious late-spring bloom.
Most evergreen conifers enjoy life at higher elevations, but the species vary by elevation. Among the native species that like Sierra conditions between 3,000 and 7,000 feet are yellow pine, Jeffrey pine (which smells like vanilla), Ponderosa pine, sugar pine, incense cedar, sequoia redwood and white fir. Spruces and mountain hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana) also do well. Above 7,000 feet, look for red fir and lodgepole pine.
Deciduous trees also have a place in the high-altitude garden. California black oak is native to the Sierra. Other possibilities that do well include aspen, birch, alder, silver willow, lemon willow, dogwood and Japanese maples.
Tahoe Tree Co. and McBride Nursery are located at 401 West Lake Blvd., Tahoe City. The nursery is open daily from late May until November snowfall. For more information, visit www.mcbridesnursery.com or call (530) 5833911. For information about holding special events, visit www.tahoetreecompanyweddings.com.