Are you living and gardening in a cold climate? If so, you likely face some (or all) of the same challenges we do. As we live in Canada’s Northwest Territories, we’re learning that gardening in a northern climate requires ingenuity, patience, and lots of experimenting.
Here are just a few of the gardening challenges we face as Northerners, and some of the solutions we’re trying.
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Late Last Day of Frost in the Spring
Our family lives off the grid north of the 60 parallel in Canada’s subarctic. We’re at about 62 degrees north, to be exact. And while gardening off the grid brings its own set of challenges, the main challenges we face are the same as northern gardeners all over the world.
So each spring I suffer in silence as my Pinterest feed, Facebook feed, and Instagram feed fill up with posts of my southern gardening friends out in their lovely gardens. While they’re enjoying getting in their cold-weather crops, we’re still facing at least a couple more months of -25C to -35C days.
We have three grow lights over our south-facing kitchen counter which make a good place to start. Our beans, onions, chives, carrots, cabbages, radishes, eating cucumbers and pickling cucumbers get their start in our western-facing laundry room. By the end of February or early March, we get a good amount of sunlight hours that help these seedlings grow.
Early First Day of Frost in the Fall
Along with our late last frost date, we have an early first day of frost. For 2020, the Almanac says September 11th will be the first day of frost for Yellowknife in 2020.
Going by the Almanac’s predictions, we’ll have a growing season of about 102 days. Now I have to tell you that I do take these dates as an approximation.
First of all, they’re simply predictions based on the 1981 to 2010 normal climates. And in the past ten years, we’ve seen some pretty strange weather phenomenon here. (Like 20 degree days in March 2019.)
Second of all, we don’t live right in Yellowknife. We’re about a 35 to 40-minute drive east of the city. Plus, we live on the shores of a lake. We get the moderating climate factors of the lake and also the multiple microclimates on our property. So although we’re gardening in a cold climate, we also have several different climates happening within a one-acre area.
The moderating effect of the lake means our frost date is usually a little later than it is in town. Still, we will cover the garden crops with plastic where we can. This year I’m hoping our greenhouse will get built (after the chicken coop though) so I can extend our growing season even more.
Last year we experimented with transplanting our tomatoes from the outdoor beds. Dan dug them up and planted them in large containers. He put them in the laundry room and they did great. We were still getting fresh tomatoes off the plants in mid-November.
Limited Sunlight When Your Garden is in a Cold Climate
One of the things we didn’t even think of when we moved off the grid from southern Ontario to our northern home was the difference in sunlight.
In the late summer and fall months, the number of hours of sunlight starts dropping dramatically. Between that and the rapidly cooling temperatures, we have to hustle to bring in our vegetable harvest.
In addition to using our cold frame tricks to extend our growing season, I’m also experimenting with some permaculture design ideas. One of the basic tenets of permaculture is to use the natural features of your property in designing your gardens.
Our off grid homestead has various rocky outcrops and large bedrock faces leading down to the lake. Now our main garden is a raised garden bed on the east side of our property. It was built by the previous owner who had soil trucked in. Over the years we’ve been adding our compost and extra topsoil here and there.
However, in my quest to extend our gardening season and create a low-maintenance, low-cost garden, I’ve also been studying the various nooks and crannies created by large rocks. By adding containers with sun-loving vegetables (ie. tomatoes and peppers) to these microclimates, we’re able to make better use of our property for growing food.
This year I’m going to experiment with large black growbags in these areas. I’ll let you know how they turn out later this summer.
Extra Sunlight in Late Spring and Early Summer
Extra sunlight doesn’t sound like it should be a problem when you’re gardening in a cold climate, does it? Yet it’s a challenge – too much of a good thing! During the summer in the Yellowknife area, we can get up to 22 or 23 hours of sunlight by June. On the flip side though, we only get about 3 to 4 hours of daylight in December.
One lovely July day a few years back I was admiring my beautiful squash plants. They were growing like crazy. However, on closer inspection, I noticed something strange. While their flowers were pretty and everything looked healthy. Yet there wasn’t any sign of any squash.
My good friend and neighbor Morris knew. (He’s a retired geologist who has lived out here for almost 40 years. He knows all kinds of useful stuff.) According to Morris, it was because they weren’t getting enough hours of the darkness required for vegetables to form. I should have been covering them at night. Come to think of it, this might also be why some (sunny) years my outdoor lettuce bolts.
So that’s what I do now. Cover up our squash, cucumber, and zucchini each night before brushing my teeth and pulling down the blackout blinds at bedtime.
Poor Soil Conditions
Now I realize that poor soil conditions aren’t exclusively a problem when you’re gardening in a cold climate. Soil that lacks nutrients, is too sandy or is just plain bad for growing things challenges backyard gardeners all over.
Soil conditions vary around this area. Our property has a combination of sand and clay soil. That’s why our three main ways to combat poor soil conditions include
- Bringing in topsoil
- Adding compost to our beds
- Practicing crop rotation across our main raised garden bed
We’re always working to build up our garden. And we do live in a region that’s considered subarctic Canada. However, it’s also quite warm, dry and sunny in the summer.
Some years, like the summer of 2014, were so dry that forest fires and brush fires were a real concern. Being prepared with fire protection outdoors for homes off the grid and far from a fire department is an important consideration each summer.
Seed Package Instructions Don’t Apply to Gardening in a Cold Climate
Finally, one of the challenges we faced as beginners gardening in a cold climate was reading the seed package instructions. You know the instructions that come on the seed packets? Like “sow outdoors after last frost date”? Yeah, they don’t work here.
For example, if we sowed our tomato seeds outdoors after the last frost date, there would be a good chance we wouldn’t get a harvest. Our short growing season of about 100 days means there are many crops that simply wouldn’t have enough time to yield a harvest.
As part of my mission to fine-tune my calculations on how much to grow to feed our family each year, I also keep track of how many plants we actually get from the seeds in each seed package. I need to know how many seeds to order and how much to plant to get a year’s worth of food for my family. We’ve recently started saving seeds from our heirloom vegetables to help cut our costs even more.
I also ask all the local gardeners who have lived here longer than I have for their tips and tricks on gardening in a cold climate.
If you have any tips I’ve missed, I’d love it if you’d share them in the comments below.
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