Our Core Subarctic Gardening Techniques That We Use In Our Gardens

It surprises some people that we use a variety of gardening techniques across our gardens.

This post is all about the core gardening techniques we use in our gardens.  We explain what techniques we use and why we use them in this post.

Why Do We Use Multiple Gardening Techniques For Success?

When we initially started gardening in the subarctic, we postulated that using different gardening techniques might be helpful for different plants.

It seemed plausible that if you combined the strengths of certain gardening techniques with the strengths or weaknesses of certain plants, you might be able to achieve more optimal conditions for growing in the subarctic.

For example, if a plant really doesn’t like cool soil and you combine that with a gardening technique that promotes warmer soils, you’re going to get a better result.

That makes sense.  Right?  Maybe it’s even common sense.

When you combine that concept with knowledge of plant tolerance and the general costs of operating different gardening systems, an interesting concept starts to emerge.

The northern gardener can use multiple techniques to harness the most effective and least expensive conditions they can grow their plants in.

Put another way, you can tailor the growing techniques to your specific plants, while also meeting their needs most effectively.

In the testing of our hypothesis, we found three foundational gardening techniques that were helpful to use in subarctic gardening.  One could call these our core garden techniques.

The three techniques that we use are:

  • In-ground gardening using wide-raised rows
  • Raised beds gardening
  • Container gardening
    • We use sub-irrigated container gardening, both outdoors & in a greenhouse!

In-Ground Gardening Has A Place In Subarctic Gardening

We like to grow in the ground.  It’s “real” gardening, if you will.  When most people think about a garden, they immediately think about a patch of dirt in the back yard.

In the north, however, in ground gardening is not the sure-fire technique for every plant, like you might see in more southern latitudes.

The reason for this is that the northern ground is comparatively cool.  While air temperatures are often quite suitable, our grounds are simply not warmed up as quickly.

Nonetheless, ground based gardens in the subarctic still do very well for a lot of different kinds of plants.  Basically, any plant that doesn’t demand fairly warm roots will do well in the subarctic ground.

The list of plants that will take to cooler soil is, fortunately, quite large.  It’s almost easier to think in opposite terms – as in, what doesn’t grow as well in cooler soils.

If we had to create a list, the things you want to avoid planting in barren subarctic ground include:

  • Tomatoes
  • Peppers
  • Eggplants
  • Cucumbers

That said, even when it comes to plants accommodating cooler soils, some plants are still better grown using different techniques.

Growing In The Ground Is Better When It’s Raised

We have written an extensive piece on raised row gardening.  It’s certainly one of the most basic, foundational gardening concepts that can be employed in the far north.

We learned about this technique in Ann Robert’s book, Alaska Gardening Guide.  She extensively covers the topic and explains why it’s a go-to technique in the far north.

This is our community garden in late summer.  We almost exclusively use the wide raised row technique at this garden.  It’s great for potatoes, brassicas and squash!

The primary advantages of the raised row technique, over basic in-ground gardens, are:

  • Easier for the sun to warm the soil
  • Same cost (or barely more expensive) compared to in-ground gardens
  • Significantly cheaper than raised beds
  • Less area for compost applications and tilling requirements
  • Provides distinctive walking/access paths
  • Can be used with, or without, mulches such as weed fabric for flexibility in growing both ways

When compared to basic “in ground” gardens, it is apparent that raised rows provide several general benefits to the northern gardeners that use them.

It is also barely more expensive than simply planting in the ground.  The basic cost is moving dirt and that effort can also be free.  Per plant cost is extremely low, similar to in-ground gardens.

Raised rows are one of the most cost effective and helpful in-ground growing techniques you can employ in the far north!

Raised Beds Are Absolutely Worth It, But Not For Everything!

Most gardeners learn, at some point, that raised beds are a great thing.  There are countless examples of beautiful gardens based on the raised bed concept.

It’s important for the new gardener to understand that the aforementioned “raised row gardening technique” are basically raised beds, without all the cost.

Raised beds are expensive to build.  Cost is probably their biggest downfall, they are expensive to build and they are expensive to put good soil in.

We built about 160 square feet of raised beds.  Between materials and soil, we spent well north of a thousand dollars.  (Interior Alaska prices, anyway, and they are premium grade beds.)

That said, raised beds are really, really good.  Since we took the effort to make good soil to put in them, we have a great foundation for growing plants.  We use them to grow intensively, so we’re attempting to maximize the food production we get for that higher cost.

We use our raised beds for fairly high value crops, especially things we can plant intensively.  A smorgasbord of high quality, heirloom leaf lettuces create incredible value for us.

Due to their cost, however, raised beds are not necessarily the most desirable technique to grow everything.

We generally use our raised beds for the following types of vegetables, again, planted intensively:

  • Lettuces & greens
  • Garlic
  • Allium & onions
  • Root vegetables (carrots, parsnip, etc.)
  • Strawberries
  • Celery

We wouldn’t want to use them, for example, with larger plants that need 12 to 24 inch spacing.  Your per-plant cost would be pretty significant if you go that route.  You’re also paying for soil to fill a space when it’s the plant’s leaves that need the space.

For larger plants, it’s almost always better to choose either an in-ground technique or to use containers.

Speaking of containers, that’s our next topic!

Container Gardening Is An Excellent Subarctic Gardening Strategy

Container gardening is probably one of the most effective, cost-friendly and flexible growing techniques out there.

You can grow almost anything in a container.

It’s also a technique that is too often overlooked.  Sometimes it is even disparaged as, “not really gardening” or “that’s what renter’s do.”

Others might find container gardening doesn’t “fit” their view of what gardening should be.  That’s all nonsense.  It’s perfectly acceptable to have a pot of flowers, so should be a pot of vegetables.

Why Do Container Gardens Rock In The Subarctic?

In the subarctic, container gardens offer the gardener some very strategic and great benefits that might not be immediately obvious.

  • Very rapid soil warm up times.
  • Can use dark containers to further improve heat absorption
  • Highly resistant to problems from heavy rain, voles and rabbits.  The right placement can even deter moose effectively, such as a deck garden
  • Can get the container off the ground and prevent the ground from cooling the container
  • Allows uncommon garden locations that can provide radiant heating techniques, such as placing containers near your house

The most interesting of these to the northern gardener are those that related to soil temperatures.

What makes ground-based gardening in the subarctic so challenging is the comparatively cool soil temperatures.  It’s the soil (and the plant’s roots) temperatures that are holding your plants back.

It might not be immediately obvious, or considered, that soil temperatures do not change nearly as quickly as the air.  It can take considerably longer for soil to warm up.  The entire time, your plant’s roots are cold.

You remove that whole equation when you garden in containers.  If you don’t have contact with the ground, your plants aren’t subjected to the cooler temperatures of the ground!

If you’re interested in a deep dive on container gardening, one of our favorite books is The Vegetable Gardener’s Container Bible: How to Grow a Bounty of Food in Pots, Tubs, and Other Containers.

The Sensible Use Of More Expensive Gardening Techniques

While containers are moderately expensive to get into, they do have a much lower per-plant cost compared to raised beds.  Cost wise, containers are going to be in the $5-$15 per plant site range, compared to raised beds that have higher initial investment costs.

Container gardening is also slightly more expensive to operate than the previously mentioned techniques.  Outside of just the cost of the container, they have higher water input costs and high soil costs, like you have with raised beds.

We have a “rule of thumb” for plants that we grow in containers.

We use containers for any plants that:

  • Benefits from warmer soil
  • Are fairly large, requiring 12 to 36 inch spacing
  • Are expensive (or more costly) to buy at the grocery store

We use them for peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, huckleberries, and artichokes.

Since they are super convenient and can be placed almost anywhere, we also use them for herbs.  It’s simply epic to have your herb garden right outside your front door.

Sub-Irrigated Containers Are The Norm At Frosty Garden

In 2019, we decided to give a good, hard look at our container gardening techniques.  We were previously using grow bags, which is a very effective and fairly cost effective container gardening technique.

Solving The Main Problem Of Container Gardens

We wanted to get our container garden entirely off the water grid.

It was important to us, for a couple of reasons, to have our container garden’s water needs to be fulfilled entirely by our rain water catchment.

The biggest problem with container gardens is they are incredibly inefficient when it comes to water.

The water inefficiency of container gardening made it impossible for us to get that garden off the water grid.

We considered a couple of major techniques that were known for high levels of water efficiency – sub-irrigation and hydroponics.  We chose to go with sub-irrigation.

The Right Container Garden For Frosty Garden

Specifically, we went with the GroBucket sub-irrigation solution from GroTech.  We have continually increased the size of this system and it’s currently our go-to container gardening technique.

Mint and parsley grown in GroBuckets, a sub-irrigated container garden solution that uses the common 5 gallon bucket.  As demonstrated, it is an extremely effective container gardening technique.

What’s great about sub-irrigated containers is they are, as mentioned, extremely water efficient.  Probably 95% (or better) of the water you apply to the plant will be used by the plant.

They also significantly reduce drought conditions, since sub-irrigated containers always have access to water, if needed.

Additionally, you’re still working with soil gardening techniques.  While we have worked with hydroponics in the past, we did like that we were still working with soil.  All the fertilizers, existing soil and soil gardening knowledge we had could still be used.

In 2020, we took our GroBucket solution even further and connected it to a central, off-grid irrigation system.  It’s been simply amazing and has revolutionized our subarctic gardens.  We are planning on putting up a post about this when we can, so hopefully we remember to come back and update this with a link!

This was our 2020 fully off the water grid sub-irrigated container garden.  It was a very effective producer, despite the relatively terrible gardening year.  The containers are not on the ground and there was virtually zero risk of a moose getting it!

We did use a commercial solution in this case.  It was the right one for us.  It wasn’t cheap.  Our per-plant cost is almost $20 per grow site when using them.

Though costs will become less in future years, we’re very particular about growing our “high value crops” in them, almost exclusively.

Greenhouses Are Awesome For Subarctic Gardening

In 2020, we built our greenhouse.  We were pretty sure it was going to make a big difference, but we had no idea what to expect.

Having a greenhouse has been so profoundly garden changing for us.  We are resistant to call it “essential” but if you really want to grow those warm weather crops effectively in the subarctic – a greenhouse is almost an essential.

Of all the techniques and various improvements we’ve made to our subarctic gardening techniques, the greenhouse has been the most impactful.

The yield improvements that we get from tomatoes and other warm loving plants have been absolutely worth it.  In many cases, we’re seeing exponentially better returns in produce.  As we tune it and learn how to use it most effectively, that trend should only continue.

That said, it’s also the single most expensive investment we’ve made into our gardens.  Our initial per-plant costs are so ridiculously high that we’re almost ashamed to write it down.  It’s a mind boggling $75 per plant site cost!  $75.  PER PLANT!

What this means, though, is that this technique is reserved entirely for high value crops.  Things that go in our greenhouse need to provide maximum value from the more optimal growing conditions.

Of course, the more years that we use our greenhouse, the more that per plant cost will go down.  It was, and still is, considered a long term investment.  That per plant cost will eventually go down to almost nothing.

We will eventually yield enough produce to pay for it – it’s just going to take a few years.

Combining Techniques For Subarctic Garden Winning

We’ve discussed a few different techniques and tools that we use.

Where you really start to win subarctic gardening, though, is when you start combining these techniques together.

We knew we were primarily going to be using our greenhouse for plants that met our two criteria for growing them in containers.  They were large plants, preferred warmer soils and were kind of stupid expensive at the grocery store.

Why does it all of a sense make sense to use a different growing technique?  It doesn’t.

Our greenhouse, from day one, was built to use our sub-irrigated buckets.  If it wasn’t that, it probably would have been grow bags.

We could have put in raised beds, or even wide raised rows.  Or we even could have grown in the ground.  The greenhouse would have improved all those techniques, a lot!

What we aimed for, though, was to combine multiple beneficial techniques to create an even more optimal technique.

We have been able to achieve incredible results combing multiple core gardening techniques.  These are some of our subarctic grown tomatoes from our greenhouse, growing in sub-irrigated containers.

An iterative approach to our learning about subarctic gardening has been tremendously useful to us.  When we start using previous discoveries and knowledge with new attempts to get knowledge, we are seeing exponential benefits.