Every gardener has challenges that they need to overcome in order to be successful. Some areas get hot quickly and can limit what can be grown. Other areas are more ideal for nearly year-round gardening, however, they may encounter more pests or diseases. Then there are places where the growing season is not only short but also includes a cool climate. I fall into the latter category. Though it can be a struggle to achieve a successful garden, these 6 tips for cold climate gardening will help those in cooler climates to reach their gardening potential.
When I first started gardening here, I honestly wasn’t sure what would grow. With such cool and short summers, a lot of plant varieties were not suitable to grow. Though I wasn’t a beginner gardener, I had learned all of my gardening skills in a much warmer area. This meant that I had to essentially relearn how to garden and work with mother nature even closer than before. It took a few years to learn the ins and outs of gardening with a short growing season and cool summer weather.
6 tips for cold climate gardening
Know your grow zone
Whether you live in a cool climate or not, it is important to know your grow zone. Grow zones can dictate the first and last frost dates, the ideal time to plant various crops and even give you recommendations on what to plant. Knowing this will help you plan out your garden ahead of time to avoid that panic of doing it all when the garden season finally starts. A great site to find out what growing zone you are in is the Old Farmer’s Almanac.
Focus on short-duration crops
Generally speaking, if you live in a cold climate area then your growing season will be on the short side. This means that you will need to focus most of your gardening efforts on plants with a short growing duration. Finding out the duration of a certain plant is fairly easy. All seed packages come with this information on the back. Once you know your hardiness zone, this makes finding those crops with the right growth duration easier.
Peas, radishes, many beans, lettuce, spinach, and onions are just a few of the many crops that do well in cool and short growing areas. Over the years, I have experimented with at least 10 different varieties of beans and they have all excelled in growing during our cool summers. Another easy plant to grow is potatoes. They do quite well with cool summers and short growing seasons, though admittedly, their production rate can be a bit low.
Grow frost-tolerant crops
When living in a colder climate it is very important to find varieties that are frost-tolerant. With such short growing seasons and cool weather to boot, the threat of frost at the beginning and end of the season can really have an effect on the garden. Plants such as cauliflower, broccoli, spinach, onions, and potatoes are well known for their frost tolerance. Sometimes, non-frost tolerant plants can survive early or late frosts, especially if the frost is light. However, if you are hit with an unexpected frost, you can avoid a lot of the damage caused to it by gently watering everything before the sun comes up. I have had to do this a number of times and works well at saving plants that would otherwise be destroyed by even a light frost.
Experiment with long duration crops
Though short duration crops tend to work best when dealing with a cold climate, that doesn’t mean that you should avoid long duration crops. Just be aware that these plants may not be as successful and thus the harvest will be lacking. This is why experimenting with these varieties is important. Just remember, give it at least two years before you determine whether a particular plant is viable in your climate or not. One year is not a good enough test as each year can present its own challenges that will have an effect on what you are growing.
Though I only have about 100 days of frost-free weather, I still grow carrots, which take at least 110 days to mature. Though this generally means my carrots are on the smaller side, I find that it’s something the family enjoys eating, so it’s worth the necessary space and effort.
Start plants indoors
One major step in beating a short and cool growing season is starting your plants inside. Each variety will require a different number of weeks to grow before they are well established and ready to be planted outdoors. Generally, this time is determined by your frost date and the maturity rate of the seeds. One important thing to know is if you plan to do this, you will need a good light source. Putting them on a windowsill is not enough as doing so will lead to the plants becoming leggy – a term used to describe overly tall and weak seedlings. Investing some grow lights will make a major difference.
Another important step is hardening off your seedlings. This is the process of slowly introducing them to sunlight. Having been grown under artificial lights they need to adjust to the strength of the sun. This must be done slowly over several days, exposing them to shade initially and then working up to the full sun. Without doing this, the seedlings will get sunburn and not survive.
I have done this several times and it does make a difference, especially when dealing with plants that have a longer growing time. Tomatoes, peppers and many herbs benefit from this method.
Get a greenhouse
If push comes to shove, and you really want to grow those plants that don’t do well in short and cool growing seasons, then it may be a good idea to invest in a greenhouse. There are a wide variety of greenhouses available to meet your budget and growing needs. I have tried a pop-up greenhouse which worked well for three years before it succumbed to a wind storm. For the price, I was happy with how well it held up and it did make a difference in how well my plants grew. If you want something bigger and sturdier than you will need to dig deeper into your bank accounts. The advantage to these larger more expensive greenhouses is that they are permanent structures that will last a good long time – thus are a worthwhile investment.
By using these 6 tips for cold climate gardening you are on your way to gardening success. Go forth and grow, gardeners!