Gardening in the great white north is fraught with challenges residents know all too well — freak blizzards, blazing hot summers, and enough acidic plants to drive even the most content groundcover out of a space.
It’s challenging to grow your own food in the northwest, but not impossible, and any veteran gardener will tell you, you just learn a few hard lessons along the way.
#1 — Know First and Last Frost Dates
Mother Nature hardly plays by the rules, but having a good idea of when your first and last frosts usually hit is a great way to decide which plants go outside when.
#2 — Start Your Seeds Early
Mature plants weather the challenges of northwestern climate much better than seedlings. Get a grow table and lights set up if you have to, and give your plants as much of a headstart as possible.
#3 — Watch the Weather
Mother Nature doesn’t care what your forecast says, but it’s nice to at least pretend to know what to expect. Keep an eye out for sudden increases in moisture and decreases in temperature. If there’s dew on your lawn in the evening and the temperature’s flirting with freezing overnight, chances are good that a frost is sweeping in.
#4 — Have an Emergency Frost Measure
Even if it’s a thin one, a barrier between plants and air can prevent frost burn and the devastation of all your hard work. Have some light but insulative blankets on hand as a last ditch failsafe against frost. Tent them with stakes if your plants are too weak to support their weight without damage.
#5 — Use Microclimates to Your Advantage
Microclimates are small parts of a property that take on unique miniature climates of their own. It might mean that frost tends to collect there, that sun scorches the property, or that the ground drains incredibly fast.
Whatever it is, don’t plant all over your property in the same manner — pay attention to the way the land and temperatures fluctuate in your unique zones, and plant things that are going to thrive under those conditions there.
#6 — Make the Most of South-Facing Spaces
South-facing land gets more sunshine year-round, so if you have a southern exposure slope, make sure you plant accordingly. Give sun-loving plants the real estate in these sections of your property.
#7 — Use Thermal Mass to Keep Things Warm
If you’re working in a frost pocket or with a particularly short growing season, consider incorporating some thermal mass into your garden this year. Semi-underground greenhouses make use of the earth’s natural ability to maintain and store heat. Hugekultur beds utilize mounds of dirt with rotting wood to both harbor moisture and heat, and can be a great way to create a heat-absorbing wall you can garden right into.
#8 — Invest in a Greenhouse
Conventional cold frame greenhouses aren’t the perfect solution for challenging northwestern climates, but they give you a place to hold onto heat during the winter, a frost barrier, and a way to shade and cool a space that gets too hot in the summer.
Earth-bermed greenhouses are going to be your best bet in a northwestern climate, so invest in a book like The Earth-Sheltered Solar Greenhouse by Mike Oehler to start planning yours.
#9 — Plant Bare-Root Trees for Hardiest Fruit Trees
Bare root trees aren’t what you typically find in the big home improvement stores. These sad looking little twigs are actually one of the best ways to start fruit trees in a challenging climate though, so don’t let their lack of foliage fool you.
By bringing these young saplings out of dormancy in the climate and soil they’ll be growing in, you’ll be growing a hardier tree that’s more tempered to your climate. You can learn more about bare root trees here.
#10 — Use Companion Planting to Protect from Intense Sun
Some plants, like corn and tomatoes, absolutely adore getting beat on by the sun all day. Others, like greens, can be quick to see too much of it, and dry up as a result. Give them a little relief from the sun’s harsh rays by planting these vegetables together.
Companion planting, or polyculture, mimics nature’s model, creating biodiversity that gives plants the opportunity to fight for what they need, instead of rebelling against where you decided to put them. Because you have a variety of plants growing together, it also makes it more difficult for pests to wipe out your hard work.
#11 — Be Mindful of Acidic/Allelopathic Soil
The northwest is a climate rich in evergreens. Beautiful though these trees and plants may be, they can create soil that is too acidic for much else to thrive there. Some plants, like berry bushes, don’t seem to mind, but give more temperate plants a little space from any pines that might be in your yard.
#12 — Try No-Till Methods for Rocky Terrain
Living in the mountains has its perks, but growing in them definitely has its challenges, the least of which is digging in a garden. Thankfully, tilling is hardly necessary. Raised beds are attractive, hugelkultur solves problems with irrigation, and simply piling soil on top of cardboard is a tried and true method among many in this neck of the woods.
Either way, put that hoe away — if you’re tilling in this part of the country, you’re probably working harder than you need to be.
What tried and true lessons have you learned from gardening in the Northwest? Tell us on Facebook and tag us in the post! #WheatMT