My husband and I have been residing in the north woods of Maine for 17 years now. The USDA map shows that we are Zone 3b but we are situated in a low pocket that is Zone 3. Keeping a gardening/homesteading journal is the best advice I can give. You might think you will remember what types of plants did well last year and when that 1st frost was but in reality….
Gardening is very humbling. One sneaky frost or good hail storm can destroy weeks or months of hard work. Never take the weather for granted. Keep track of last and first frosts in your journal and write down successes and failures. USDA states that zone 3 has last frost of May 15. As I’m writing this, it is May 24th and yes, we had an unexpected frost this morning. And then 1st frost on September 15th. These dates are only vague guidelines. Keeping an eye on NOAA and having your own thermometers, barometers, etc is essential during the beginning and end of the growing season. I have seen mid 40’s in July and 85 degrees in late September. Knowing how to read the sky and clouds is also valuable info. On a cloudless night we know the temps will drop lower than the weather man will predict. A full moon also brings on cooler temps. We learned all of this the hard way. As we live literally in the woods, it is a constant battle keeping back the woods. Everything we do is small scale… rabbits, chickens and our garden. We have very little flat, usable land and are able to make the most of it. Last year we added a rainwater collection system and that has been a blessing.
Patience is required as a few nice, warmer days make you want to start digging and planting only to find ice and frost 3 inches down. The local stores and nurseries start putting out plants in May and a good amount of them will be frost damaged as they tend to just leave them outside and uncovered. When ordering seeds, its a good idea to research where the plant grows naturally. If something is growing naturally in zone 9 or 10 its a safe bet it wont make it outside up here. Even with a greenhouse it will probably be too cold and not enough sunlight going into fall to produce fruit. We started a while ago googling and you tubing growing food in northern Russia and other cold climate areas. Plants that do well in those areas should be fine here. When planting your garden, study the sun. We have very little sunlight in late fall, winter and early spring. I was shocked at how little daylight we had our 1st winter here. Know where the maximum amount of sunlight is and plant in that spot.
Growing in the Greenhouse
Artificially extending the growing season is necessary for a good harvest. We are fortunate to have a 12 x 25 foot greenhouse. We do not attempt to heat our greenhouse. Some people have been successful in doing this but between the heating costs and set up, and lack of light in fall/ winter, we opted out of this idea. We have a cold frame in the middle of the greenhouse to start lettuce early. We try to start with lettuce, greens and radishes in March but that really depends on how much snow is still on the ground and if the greenhouse has defrosted. The cold frame will be used again in late September for greens and such. We usually pick the last crop of of greens around Thanksgiving as the lack of daylight really becomes an issue. Tomatoes, peppers and eggplants go into the greenhouse end of April or early May depending on 10 day forecast. We have great success with ping tung and Black Beauty eggplants.
Tomato breeds that have done well are Carbons, Purple Cherokee, and Amish Paste. Basil and cilantro are also grown here. Ground cherries like it warm and do well also. We discovered these fruits a few years ago and are a welcome addition. Aunt Mollies is the type we find to be most successful. I keep the greenhouse windows and doors closed at night and don’t open up til about 10 am when the sun has had a chance to warm it up inside. On a 65-degree sunny day, by mid-afternoon temps inside the greenhouse can reach 120 degrees. We also have a box fan inside to increase airflow on still days. In the early growing season we water early afternoon as the water cools the soil off and I want to have the sun warm it back up again before evening. The windows and doors are also closed up @ 4pm. to allow the soil to keep warm thru the evening. When planting new seedlings, we also cover each plant at night with a soda bottle cut in ½, sort of like a mini greenhouse. If its going to be below 40, out comes the frost blanket as it will drop to probably 32 in my area.
I always have a plague of grasshoppers every year in the greenhouse and can’t seem to get rid of them permanently but have found some methods for reducing their numbers. I have mint, chives and oregano growing and they really don’t like those herbs. I also dust with diatomaceous earth and this is a tremendous help in reducing the grasshoppers. If a really bad infestation occurs, I place glue traps out ( the kind used for catching mice) and just brush the plants with the top of my hands and it sends the offending creatures hopping onto the glue traps. The windows have screens but the door is open during the day to allow bees and wasps in and out to pollinate the plants. I have rescued some birds that were stuck inside and could not seem to find the door to exit. I keep a net handy for this. I use a hoe to stir up the dirt around the plants every other day to and this also helps with the plants absorbing water.
I direct compost as much as I can instead of waiting for the compost pile to turn into compost. Coffee grinds, eggshells and anything else the chickens won’t eat goes directly into the soil. We raise meat rabbits and their poop also goes in directly to the soil. Just turn the dirt over with a pitch fork and spread it out. The egg shells going directly into the soil cured the blossom end rot which plagued us for several years. The eggs shells also discourage slugs.
Outside the Greenhouse in the Raised Beds
Cold weather crops can go into the raised beds in May. Kale, lettuce, radishes, cabbage and broccoli are what we consider cold weather crops. The broccoli and cabbage are grown under a frost blanket due to something nibbling on the leaves this year. I suspect some kind of fur-bearing critter is doing this. Will need to set the have a heart trap. Resist the urge to get seeds in the ground too early, the soil must be warm. The soil may appear warm on the surface but dig down and surprise!, ice and frost! The seeds will just sit there and do nothing if its too cold. Beware of those cold, nasty windy days also. Rain is also cold until the beginning of June. The seeds are planted mid to end of May and covered with straw. This will keep them warm and moist, great for germinating. It also keeps the birds from plucking out those little tender green shoots they love to eat.
We have CPVC pipe over some of the raised beds and drape plastic or frost blankets over the plants on cooler evenings. If you use plastic, it is critical to get the plastic off before the sun comes up and cooks everything. The plastic doesn’t touch the plants but direct sunlight fries them quickly. Please learn from our mistakes! The cpvc pipes are a one-time investment and can be used year after year. The plastic sheeting will usually last several years and frost blankets about 2 yrs before they fall apart. I move some tomatoes out into the raised beds also. The peppers and eggplants stay in the greenhouse as they like it really warm. Kale grows anywhere and we like it and eat a lot of it. Sometimes an existing plant will regrow if I leave it in the ground over winter. We have a nice plot of Egyptian walking onions, a small perennial onion that slowly spreads. They are small, tangy onions and can be contained in a large bucket or pot if you dont want them spreading. They love cooler climates. Hardneck garlics do best in colder climates. We have been growing Russian Red for years with good, consistent yields. We find bush beans do better than pole beans ( blue lake). Carrots, parsnips, and beets are in raised beds.
Blueberries and elderberry grow beautifully in zone 3. The roots of the plant are covered with straw to protect them from cold and keep down the weeds. Rhubarb and horseradish do well also. Black and raspberries are in abundance in the wild so we have no need to plant them in our garden. The wild raspberries and blackberries will take over an area quickly if you dont stay on top of them. There are plenty wild apple trees near by also. Our big regret was not planting fruit trees when we first moved here. No use crying over spilled milk and move on.
After the growing season is over, the raised beds are turned over and fish guts (courtesy of my husband) are planted about a foot deep. The guts are kept in the freezer until the ground is ready to start freezing. To date, we have never had any critter dig up the guts but there is always a 1st time for everything.
Growing in Chicken Compost
We have a large area of wood shavings and chicken poop from the hen house clean outs. I have noticed that pumpkins, gourds and tomatoes are grown beautifully in this stuff. I don’t plant any of these bonus crops, the seeds just happen to be in the wood shavings from scraps thrown to the chickens. These plants are totally neglected, never weeded or watered and come September I have tons of extra tomatoes and pumpkins! Last year I grew potatoes in the compost with great success. This year I am going to plant potatoes, onions, squash and cukes in this mixture also.
Herbs are grown in and out of greenhouse and flower gardens. Oregano takes up a good chunk of the area that had been our front lawn. I am constantly rooting mint and thyme and planting it elsewhere. Chives, wormwood, and bloody dock do well. Lavender has consistently disappointed me. If its an extremely cold winter, then it won’t grow back. This still doesn’t stop me from getting a new plant every year and trying again.
A lot of food can be produced in zone 3. Extending the growing season is not labor intensive and can be done cheaply with soda bottles, cast off windows for cold frames, cpvc pipe and plastic. With the looks of the produce ( and price) in the grocery store, we are doing all we can to grow and preserve. Every garden season starts with my prayers to God that if I plant, weed and water, will He please do the growing part.
Don’t ever get comfortable thinking you are a master gardener! Stay humble and be willing to learn from others as well as from your own mistakes.
Keep good records and you will find your yields will improve. Be creative, stay thinking outside the box. One day while driving home from the store, we noticed a big, black pile on the side of our road. It was a nice, big pile of moose poop. If filled up a third of a 5-gallon bucket and into the garden it went. Free organic fertilizer! I am very reluctant to use “free” manure from livestock due to round up being every where, even if the farm is organic. I have read of too many horror stories with burnt crops from supposedly round up free poop. When frustration arises (and it will), take a deep breath, go have a cup of coffee and read some scripture. Then get back out there and try, try again.
May God bless you all and have a great growing season!