Gardening Tips For The Northern US
Northern Climates Can Be Tricky
We have a small farm in Laramie, WY. Fun fact: Laramie is the 9th coldest city in the US! Our winters are harsh and our summers are short, which sometimes makes farming a tricky business. We compensate for the short, mild season by choosing the right crops, planting at the right time, and efficiently using what we DO have. We harvest a nice little bounty from our farm, and our CSAers love it! (CSA is Community Supported Agriculture, kind of like Bountiful Baskets, only it's local, fresh, and often organic.) We think that small farmers and hobby gardeners alike can benefit from a few cold-weather tips, so we've put some together for you.
Crops We Adore
When the ground thaws and we start working the soil in the spring here (May), there are a variety of crops we are thinking of. Some of those we know are delicate and we have to keep our eyes on them, especially at night. Others are so sturdy and tough that even a few nights below freezing won't keep them down. These are the plants that we grow just about every year and have had success with: Potatoes and peas are among the toughest. They both tolerate cold temperatures. Some even argue that peas taste better if they've been through some cold nights. Most roots crops will surprise you with hardiness; even if the tops get wilted, they often bounce back. Other crops, such as kale, collard greens, chard, mustard, kohlrabi, and cabbage thrive in cooler temperatures but are more likely to get knocked out by freezing temperatures. These are the crops that we recommend starting indoors before planting the seedlings outside once the last frost has come and gone. (If you must plant them outside before the last frost, cover them in horticultural fleece or old bed sheets at night, or build a cold-frame.)
The plants that love the heat are squash (all kinds, from cucumber to pumpkins), tomatoes, lettuce (lettuce likes cool temperatures but if it freezes it probably is gone forever), and green beans. We do grow these plants here, but they do better in a greenhouse where it's hot.
There are, of course, many other crops that you can try. If you have had success with other crops, please leave them in the comments below! We'd like to hear about them.
Use What You Have
There's an old saying that I heard many times during my childhood. My mother would often respond to one of my many complaints with, "Use it up, wear it out, make it do, and do without." As the petulant and impatient youngster that I was then, I didn't appreciate the wisdom of those words. Now as a slightly less petulant "adult" (it still feels strange calling myself that) trying to make the most of a little, I see the wisdom in her words. Helping with Bright Agrotech's farm in Laramie, Wyoming, I have a great opportunity to put those words to use.
Farming in Laramie is different from farming in, say, Grand Junction, Colorado. We don't have as much sun, we don't have much heat, and our growing season is short. So we work with southern light and cool temperatures, and we grow just as much in four months as others do in six. One of our secrets is that we realize what we have and we maximize on it.
Here's what we have: cheap firewood, a mild season, and two high tunnel greenhouses. The cheap firewood means that we can buy a wood burning boiler and use it with fuel that costs us next to nothing. This allows us to grow year round in one of our greenhouses. The mild season gives us the opportunity to grow crops such as kale year round. Can't do that in Grand Junction! It also means that our lettuce never gets bitter like it does in hot weather. The other high tunnel extends our growing season by several weeks on each end- we roll the walls down at night and the high tunnel retains much of the heat it acquired during the day. We are planting bok choy, lettuce, mustard greens, and more in the high tunnel in April- three weeks before we dare plant anything outside.
If you want to start growing in early spring, you should consider a cold frame.
Peas are one of our favorite cold-weather crops. They do well through out the summer in cold climates.
See How Other Farmers Are Using What They Have
Heating systems can be pricey, but that doesn't mean they have to be. Check out what fuel sources are cheap near you. You might find a jackpot of cheap, accessible fuel to use!
JD Sawyer uses earth batteries to heat his greenhouse.
Firewood is an abundant and cheap resource... so why not use it up?