Gardening is something that is quite enjoyable for many, offering food as payment for all of that hard work and planning. Gardeners in most areas can use the general gardening advice that’s available in such forums as Off The Grid News, but there are some areas in which gardeners need a little bit more information and advice. For instance, places where much of the advice is not applicable because the climate is more of a challenge. In fact, extreme climate can be the greatest challenge in certain areas of the world.
I grew up in the high mountain desert in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. My husband and I have tried our hand at gardening and have learned a bit along the way. In the high mountain desert, our main concern was that we were gardening in an area that has easy potential of snowfall in July and end-of-summer freezes (first frost date) anytime starting around mid-August. Our average growing season ran about 62 days. In order to garden in such a place, you have to be willing to try a lot of things to extend your season and up your odds of success — and not let yourself get depressed if it doesn’t always work according to plan.
Here are a few things we have done:
1. Tires/Raised Beds
The first thing we did was to start growing in tires. This was before people were starting to concern themselves about what was leaching out of the tires and into the soil, and potentially making its way into the food. If you are in a survival situation, this concern might be the least of your worries. Do your own research on the issue and make your decision accordingly.
The method was to lay the tire on the ground and fill with good dirt. These days you might instead build a raised bed with untreated lumber. The reasoning for using the tires was that we were not only repurposing something; it was also cheap, and the black tires would draw much needed warmth from the sun into the cold soil, thus allowing us to plant a bit earlier and to help protect the seedlings on cold mountain nights since the tires would retain much of their heat through the night.
Depending on what you are growing, you may want to stack tires as the plants grow. One example is with potatoes; start with the one tire and plant your potatoes. Once they have come up and are getting a good start, you can add another tire, more dirt, and plant another layer of potatoes. Continue through the season and at the end of the season you can knock the tires over and get your big potatoes from the lower levels and your new potatoes from the upper levels. You can do a similar thing with tomatoes to help with better root development and healthier plants, stacking the tires and adding soil until the first flowers show. Stop adding tires and soil at that point to allow the plant to focus on fruit production.
2. Wall o’ Waters/Jugs of Water
Growing tomatoes in our area was mostly unheard of. Most people scoffed at anyone who tried without the use of a greenhouse, and if they wanted fresh, non-store tomatoes, they would drive the hours away to warmer areas that could more easily grow them. We feel that we largely owe our success the year we got 85 or so tomatoes from a handful of plants to the “walls of water,” a fairly new invention at the time. I believe we got ours from the Gurney’s catalog. Though they were fairly expensive, we were able to make them last a couple years, dumping and drying them at the end of the season. We used them until the year they wouldn’t hold enough water to stand up. The previous years, we used them with empty cells that had holes in them, and they still helped to serve their purpose.
A less expensive and less protective method of keeping the plants warm through the cool times is to fill containers with water and leave them out in the sun among your plants. I’ve seen this method used in more than one yard in short-season locations. It’s not the most-fashionable thing to look at, but it is fairly functional. Just situate the jugs around your plants. Be aware that the cheaper, biodegradable jugs will very quickly become compromised and leak the water out, defeating your purpose of holding in the warmth. You may want to seek out the non-biodegradable jugs, or just keep an eye on the ones that develop holes and replace them when needed.
3. Cold Frames/Covers/Greenhouses
Another way to protect your plants is to have a cold frame, or to have a greenhouse. These tend to be one of the more obvious ways to protect your seedlings and plants. You can start seeds in these earlier in the season and move them out when ready or you can plant directly in the soil under the cold frame or greenhouse. If you use a greenhouse, you might also want to put a raised bed inside to help further warm your soil.
Covers, whether of clear plastic, fabric, etc. will also extend your season. Situate them over your most fragile plants.
The above will also help to keep your food crops safe from wildlife.
4. Choose Your Seed Varieties Carefully
Perhaps the most crucial thing to consider when planning your short-season garden is what varieties of seed you choose to plant each year. It’s not imperative to use a shorter-season, hardier seed, but it will get you much further ahead and help to ensure you get a bit more for your effort. Or, at least it will up your chances. See what your county extension service has to say about your area’s planting zone and freeze dates or check it out online on at sites such as Gardening Know How  (in the US). Similar information can be found in seed catalogs and websites. For best results, use seeds and plants that are at your plant hardiness zone or lower and that have the shortest number of days to harvest that you can find.
We had success with Sub-Arctic Tomatoes and Early Girl tomatoes. We also grew snow peas (Dwarf Grey Sugar), loose leaf lettuce mixes, spinach, zucchini and acorn squash, onions, radish, beets and carrots. Potatoes were grown in the area as well (and even got featured on the show Dirty Jobs!). Rhubarb was a reliable perennial food plant. As far as fruit in the area, we had a decent patch of raspberries along the north side of our house, strawberries in raised beds, and nanking cherries were planted at the local college and did well (planted somewhat protected in building alcoves and the north side so they did not bud out too soon and freeze, but no special care beyond that through the cold months).
Some other seed varieties on our list to consider would be:
- Siberian Heirloom Tomato (popular in Alaskan gardens. Determinate. 50-70 days depending on climate conditions).
- Minnesota Midget Melons (60-75 days).
- Fava Beans.
Plant nurseries should carry varieties suitable for your area, but don’t depend on this assumption. Check out seed sites and catalogs, paying close attention to the zones and days needed for harvest, to find varieties that will work for you. For even better results, get your hands on shorter season heirloom seed and save your best seed from year to year. For what to plant when in your area, the Old Farmer’s Almanac  offers detailed information based on your zip code.
Whatever you decide upon, make sure you keep a record of what you grow and your successes and failures. These notes will help you as you decide what to do in future years. Every climate is different, and things change year to year. It’s an evolving process and a learning experience; that’s part of what makes it fun!
Here’s to your gardening plans for the coming year. What are you planning to grow, and what will you do differently than what you did this year? What are some challenges you are facing? Share them and let our community share our knowledge and we can learn together!