What To Plant In Your Subarctic Garden?

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Gardeners have different philosophies about what to plant in their gardens each year.

Some like to specialize in a small handful of things.  Some are only interested in flowers and just prefer to buy their veggies.  Most gardeners, however, prefer to grow a wide diversity of plants to grow in their garden.

We generally fall into the second camp, preferring to grow a wide diversity of plants in our garden.  Every plant we grow is an opportunity to learn and potentially experiment with.

In this post, we’ll attempt to help you determine the things you might want to grow, the factors that go into variety selection and we also offer criteria for figuring out what might be best to grow.

Get To Know Your Area & Growing Season

16755502650_2281afa1ef_bIt’s important to understand your growing area and what does well in your particular area.

Your climate has a lot to do with what you can successfully grow, as well as what you can’t.

For example, you’re not going to grow outdoor pineapples in Alaska.  Conversely, you’re also not going to be successful with growing kale in the heat of an Arizona summer.

But, let’s remember that climate and weather are not the same things.  You can live in a cold climate and have warm summers.  You can also live in a hot climate and have below freezing winters.

For the most part, plants have “preferred environments” that they want to grow in.  Some prefer warmer temperatures, some cooler temperatures.  When you’re growing in climate extremes, it becomes important to understand this information.

Additionally, you should have a basic understanding of how many growing days you have.  This is all the days between average first and last frosts.

The reason you need to know this is if a plant requires 160 growing days and you have 110 available to you in your area, you just don’t have enough frost free days to grow that plant.

While a good “Indian summer” can offer 5 to 20 additional days to your growing season, there’s just no good way to know that will happen ahead of time.  It’s always best to plan for your average growing season.

Your primary gardening efforts of what to plant in your garden should focus on things that are known to do well in your area.

Your Zone Doesn’t Matter In Gardening!

You may have heard of zones in relationship to gardening.

A gardening zone is basically the process of dividing up the various climates across given geopolitical boundaries.

As an early gardener, I was always concerned that I didn’t live in the correct “zone” for a plant and spent way too much time trying to figure all this out.

The zones specifically deal with perennial plants, or plants that come back year after year.  The zone you are in has almost no bearing on annual plants you can grow, although climate can still matter.

What really matters is that spring, summer and fall support your annual plants, or plants that you don’t intend to keep after one season.

When it comes to perennial plants, however, the zones do matter.  We have written a fairly extensive piece on growing subarctic food forests from perennial plants.

Growing Hot Weather Plants In Cold Climates

When you’re gardening in climate extremes, such as the subarctic, there is bound to be a bit of challenge.

The largest, for us here in the northern extremes, is when we want to grow plants that prefer warmer climates.  With cooler temperatures being the norm, rather than the exception, there are some issues that you’ll run into.

You have to take an active interest in creating the best possible environment for these plants to grow.

Examples of techniques that can help deal with this conflict include:

  • Seeking varieties that are known to handle cooler climates
  • Container gardening
  • Raised bed gardening
  • Greenhouses, hoophouses and cold frames
  • Growing near thermal mass such as a home

We have made many attempts at growing warm weather crops in our comparatively cool subarctic summers.  It is completely doable, although harvests will be significantly impacted and many times, you have to accept failure as the result.

The more you can do to create a more ideal environment for these plants, the better.  In our experience, this is especially true when you start getting into creating higher than ambient air temperatures through the use of greenhouses, cold frames and hoop houses.

Even if you are limited in these abilities, you can still have a bountiful garden harvest.  You might just want to stick to cooler climate crops initially, until you have the means of pursuing these concepts.  There’s also nothing that says you can’t experiment, so long as you’re open to being disappointed sometimes.

Grow More Based On Your Climate

The climate you live in is the deck of cards you’re dealt.  Almost every climate out there has its advantages and disadvantages.

A person in Arizona would be envious of the person in the Interior of Alaska, for their ability to grow incredible leafy greens.  Cool climate vegetables excel in the far north.

For us, since we’re in a cooler climate area, we try to focus a lot of our garden on cooler climate foods.  If we were in a hotter climate, the opposite would be true.

Unfortunately, the extremes of climates do somewhat limit your options.  You’re going to struggle growing things like okra, eggplant and super hot peppers.  Some things are just out of reach or at the whim’s of each summer’s specific characteristics.

Sometimes, though, something may surprise you.

An example of something that has surprised us is just how well we can grow artichokes in the Interior of Alaska.  It’s nearly a perfect climate for it, with many days under 50 degrees Fahrenheit.  While they won’t perennialize for us, they can be grown as an annual quite well.

Other Things To Consider For What To Plant In Your Garden

577375513_47a278d241_bThe most important aspect of growing a garden is to grow what you like to eat.

If you really don’t think you’ll use a particular plant, don’t bother growing it.  There’s a ton of things that we choose not to grow because we won’t use much (or any) of it.

Like most gardeners, we like to grow a lot of things.  Every year, though we re-evaluate our growing situation.  If we didn’t use something or it wasn’t really that desirable, we don’t grow it the following year.  We’ve nixed countless herbs and other vegetables from our plans this way.

Simpler is often better.  Don’t feel like you have to grow everything.

Another factor you should take into account for what to plant in your garden is the effort and resources versus reward.  This isn’t always a straight forward process, though.

For example, we used to not like growing celery because it was always pretty cheap at the store and the water requirements to grow it are fairly high.  When we started growing it, though, we found our homegrown to be so much more incredibly flavorful.  In this case, the reward is worth the extra cost.

Another example, potatoes.  They grow super well in our climate, but they have several “strikes” being that they require a dedicated growing method, are inexpensive to buy and take up a lot of space.  But, they require very minimal management to grow and they are also a fully sustainable being that we can plant each season’s potatoes again the following year.  (Plus, they are a ton of fun to dig up.)  In this case, it’s a labor of love.

Grow More Of What You Can Preserve

For foods that we can preserve through freezing, canning, drying or proper storage, we usually grow much more of it than we can reasonably eat when fresh.

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Food preservation techniques are one of the ways to really make a garden work for you and you can enjoy your efforts well into winter and perhaps even the following year.

We really like freezing as one of our primary preservation methods.  We store up a ton of blanched veggies, including cauliflower, broccoli, and brussels sprouts.  It’s also common for us to reserve a portion of our pepper harvest for freezing, these go great in practically anything that needs heat.

One of the things we tend to buy a lot of are canned tomato based sauces.  From pasta sauce to diced tomatoes, this is almost always something we use a lot of over the year, whether we make it ourselves or not.

Tomatoes were the primary reason we decided to build a greenhouse.  It was that valuable of a product that it made sense for us to build a greenhouse so we could grow them well and in sufficient quantities for preservation.

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