Gardening Year-Round in North Country, by RAP1

Many people see gardening as primarily a busy spring and summertime activity. But in truth it should be viewed as a part-time, year-round pursuit, and It shouldn’t run your life any time of the year. Autumn is actually a good time to begin your garden for next year. But before I explain what I mean, first some background.   Our homestead is 1.7 acres, in zone 5, located in a sparsely populated community in Maine, and includes a small pond, an orchard with 15 fruit trees, a grape trellis, dozens of blueberry, elderberry and raspberry bushes, an asparagus bed, and a vegetable garden roughly a half an acre in size. Until recently, we also had a chicken shed and yard.

One of the best tasks that you could do in the fall is to add cover crops to your growing areas. Cover crops protect soil quality, add nutrients and keep microbial activity going…more on this later. Hopefully, you also might have set aside patches of carrots and beets, and have a good size planting of ‘survivalists’ parsnips in the ground. Carrots and beets and yes even cabbage and swiss chard can be mulched for the winter now. You’ll love these fresh veggies when warmer weather rolls around next spring.

Of course this time of the year we have our storage supply of potatoes, squash, onions and garlic. We’re fortunate to have a cool basement which works well for storing these vegetables, and fruit like apples, asian pears, and we usually have plenty of berries in the freezer.     We also invested in a cider press sometime ago which we crank up in the fall, producing cider, grape and elderberry juice. Some of the cider we boil producing a wonderful sweetener. Two plantings of elderberries a few years ago have expanded to give us wonderful berries and flowers. These we press with the grapes to produce a very fine wine to sip alongside the wood stove in the winter.

Contrary to many gardening experts I no longer have the usual seasonal extenders like hoop houses and greenhouses. Takes too much time, caretaking and unless you’re trying to get a jump start selling crops at the farmers’ market, there is no real advantage to be gained for the homesteader or survivalist gardener. Key to our successful gardening experience is to devote a good deal of time in November to preparing ferments, like sauerkraut, pickle beets and cukes. These are so good that thinking of them now makes my mouth water!

I use the winter months to strategize my next year’s garden. Good time to write down what worked and what didn’t. Along with this I do a broad brush run through last season’s weather. See what parallels there might have been between the two. It’s also at this time of the year I start getting my seeds together. I save squash, potatoes, pole beans, peas, cuke and tomato seeds because it’s easy to do. I’m also at this time of the year cruising discount stores, like Home Depot, looking for big discounts on last years’ open pollinated seeds. Harris and Ferry Morse seeds are sold in these places and they have worked well for me.

In Soil Seed Sprouting

More recently I’ve added seed sprouting in soil, (not jars) as one of my favorite wintertime gardening activities. This is fun and easy to do. Plus, you get some of the most nutritious food you can imagine. The best source of info on this is anything written by Peter Burke.   I’ve set aside two cubbies in my entry way, roughly 2’x3’ in size, installed LED grow lights, mats for bottom heating, and temp and light controls. My daily harvest is about 14 ounces of greens from five small 3-by-6-inch aluminum bread pans. Occasionally I use a larger container when I want a double batch of greens.

One cubby I keep in the dark but with bottom heat going. The second cubby is where the LED lights operate on a timer for 12 – 14 hours. It’s best to have this located on a heated wall. I’m lucky I suppose we have a south-facing entry way where my cubbies are located so the heat mats are not using juice all the time. Some of the seeds I use for cover cropping, like buckwheat, field peas, radish, sunflower and oats I can also use for soil sprouting. This all works well, and it’s sweet and simple! In a week or two I’ve got a delicious sprout salad for dinner, along with my apple cider vinegar, potatoes, squash and a bit of locally produced sausage – a real feast!

These cubbies also serve me well early spring when it’s time to start my seedlings. First to get planted are onions and celery seeds. I like celery, and home grown onions are indispensible, plus they can go in the ground early. I like a few flowers too, like marigolds, ageratum and zinnias and these get started early too. We definitely have more to do in the summer, but don’t mind because we’ve spread things out so it’s never overwhelming.   Here’s a rough schedule for our spring-summer planting:

  • April-May….Early seedlings like onions and celery, broccoli and cabbage; plant outside spinach, peas, kale, s. chard
  • June….Additional seedlings – tomatoes, peppers, basil. transplant onions, Plant outside cabbage, broccoli, lettuce, and potatoes. Late June plant squash, cukes and corn. Pick/freeze strawberries
  • July….Early July plant carrots, parsnips, beets, and pole beans outside. Plant/try a few price discounted herbs like dill, cilantro, oregano, arugala, chives
  • August….Weed & much with grass clippings, start/transplant new strawberry plants for next year, Pick/freeze blueberries, raspberries. Get leaves for compost piles
  • September….Plant garlic for next year, do cover crops. Pick apples, make cider, wine. Harvest and put away other crops into October.
Soil Condition

We have a lot of clay in our soil, so even though we try to limit tiling the soil, it still needs to be loosened for planting in spring-summer. Rototilling is fun and looks good, but it really isn’t good for your soil microbes. To minimize this we do what’s known as ‘strip tilling’. This method introduces air to the soil but only when and where you’re going to plant. With a 3 prong hand cultivator-rake we will remove the cover crop residue/mulch and loosen up a 6″-to-8” wide row to plant in.

Preserving the structure of your soil is so important. Cover crops are great but so are trace minerals, that’ll feed your microbes, and you eventually. We’re fortunate to have a granite quarry nearby. We go there with bucket in hand and ask for some granite dust, a fine source for mineralizing your soil. You can also buy some Azomite, another excellent source for minerals. We’re spreading minerals on our soil, along with calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, gypsum, greensand etc. One of the best investment you can make is to get a University soil test; only $15. And you’ll get a wealth of information. This is not what you should be penny-pinching on. Getting your soil balanced, along with adding minerals is what produces nutrient dense food, and will keep you healthy. An important added bonus is that undertaking this will also do wonders in helping to keep pests and diseases away from your produce.

Always Have Something Growing

Whenever we harvest a crop we’ll add the soil amendments, as recommended by the soil survey, and if it’s late summer we plant buckwheat for a late summer cover crop mulch. It is very important to always have something growing. Never leave the soil bare! Our winter cover crop mixes are planted late summer, and the seeds chosen so that they grow in the fall, survive a few light frosts and are then winter killed, leaving a good much behind ready for the spring. My favorite seed mix for my climate is field peas, vetch and oats. Don’t use rye – it comes back in the spring and can be hard to do in without tilling.

Up until recently we had chickens, seeing them as essential for our garden operation. But after two decades keeping birds we no longer think it’s worth it. Oh sure the eggs are wonderful and chickens ate a lot of our household kitchen waste. And certainly they are fun to have around. They also chewed up a lot of grass and weeds but organic feed also seemed essential for them, and it is expensive. Chickens it seems need to have 60 -70% of their diet as grain. We liked the idea of a chicken tractor. Moving them around the garden in a small cage enclosure we envisioned that they would be like little mini-tillers, turning soil and chicken manure over for the benefits of all.   In truth it often seemed that were slacking off on the job, digging potholes for dust baths, escaping from the enclosure and eating lettuce and strawberries.

It is so much simpler to have cover crops and a couple of compost piles. No daily treks in winter through the snow necessary. No feed and water to keep up with daily. As you get your soil quality really cooking you’ll find a lot less need for nitrogen and other soil amendments. You should visually check the health of your crops daily in the summertime. If they look a little peaked (i.e., wilting, yellow leaves), give them a little foliar feed with a seaweed/fish emulsion concoction. Just like you store food for emergencies, you really should store extra supplies of minerals and fish emulsion. If you live anywhere near the ocean take a vacation day and go pick up some seaweed along the shore. Excellent stuff! Phosphorus apparently may be the first essential soil amendment to become scarce. So it might be a good idea to stock up. We are fortunate to have a local organic gardening coop where we can purchase supplies jointly with others for a better price.

It’s a real pleasure to be outside early in the spring, in good weather, and feel the sun on winter weary bones. There’s nothing better than surveying the estate on those cool mornings, no bugs, plenty of birds and good ground to sink your hands into.

One of my best gardening references is Johnny’s Selected Seeds Catalogue, and it’s free too! (Johnnyseeds.com}

For Further Reading

Steve Solomon’s The Intelligent Gardener, New Society Publishers, 2012

Nancy Bubel’s The New Seed Starters Handbook, Rodale Press, 1988




10 Comments

  1. Agree with everything you said except for the part about forgoing any season extension or greenhouse techniques. Although there is truth to the notion that these play a bigger role if one is growing for market and needs to speed up the date when they will have marketable produce, I find season extension techniques invaluable in my far north(zone 3-4) region of VT. I’m not talking about using external heat sources but just covering with ag fabrics or unheated “tunnels”. I have found these offer many benefits including harvesting a crop in a bad(cold and wet) season, disease and insect protection and even protection from hail storms which we get a lot of. Especially with the really weird weather we’ve been getting lately including record breaking cold in early fall, row covers or unheated greenhouses will make a big difference. It also allows one to continue to grow some crops such as hardy kales, chard, spinach etc into very cold snowy weather while covered. As well, using row cover over strawberries for the winter provides great protection.

    In addition, I was totally spoiled by only growing tomatoes in my large greenhouses which protected the crop from late blight to a good degree. Growing field tomatoes here, especially organically, is difficult due to our now persistent late blight. When I’m growing on my own land again I hope to build a small greenhouse especially for the tomatoes(and peppers, eggplants and other crops that will benefit). Otherwise I think you’re spot on with all of your other observations. And in Maine you’ve got both FEDCO and Johnny’s! How lucky!

  2. This article has a wonderful “live according to the seasons” message with a connection to the rhythms of life!

    The rough calendar is easily readable, and may be especially helpful to new or newer gardeners who are trying to wrap their minds around the seasonal mechanics of gardening.

    Also an excellent reminder that we should stock up on the supplemental supplies needed to feed garden plants directly (or support the soil otherwise such that one feeds the soil in order to feed the plants).

    Our family gardens year round, and we do use seasonal extenders with excellent success. We also have chickens, and wouldn’t be without them! But… We live in a different part of the country. Our environment is such that our hens can easily forage. Food supplementation increases egg production, but they do quite well without much intervention.

  3. Here is one of my favorite gardening books. It goes month by month. I adjust which months I follow depending on which gardening zone I am in. Definitely helpful and there are a number of inexpensive used copies available.

    https://www.amazon.com/New-Victory-Garden-Bob-Thomson/dp/0316843369/ref=asc_df_0316843369/?tag=hyprod-20&linkCode=df0&hvadid=312111868535&hvpos=1o2&hvnetw=g&hvrand=5223868437088905807&hvpone=&hvptwo=&hvqmt=&hvdev=m&hvdvcmdl=&hvlocint=&hvlocphy=9029400&hvtargid=pla-568766686453&psc=1

  4. Here in Alaska we need our poly tunnel. If I grew only in the ground without the help of the tunnel the crops we could grow would be limited to potatoes, lettuce, beets, cabbage and carrots.

    With the tunnel we can have beans tomatoes and lots of other tasty vitamin filled foods.

    When your growing season is so short the only to get an abundant harvest is to grow under glass or plastic.

  5. Thank you for sharing this. Its nice to get new perspectives which stimulate new ideas for our place. I appreciate it.

    We’re watching a redoubt blizzard-type snowstorm by the birthplace of my blog name. Enjoying living a prepared life.

  6. Thanks for the much needed information and experience. Without food, there ain’t no future. And you are in zone 5, where the season is very short. I might have missed it, but did not see any reference to a now more likely solar minimum, and even shorter growing seasons. If the severity of the colder weather proves out, how would we compensate? I planted mostly short season cold weather varieties. My potatoes were very small, but the turnips were huge. Beets were small as well…. but the chard was massive… Spring took off with a spring, yet the 20 degree cooler than last summer, changed the game.

    I believe any and all methods to compensate for cooler growing seasons should be considered, yet I have little experience here. A green house can only be only so large, and materials in the future for hoop houses and other such structures may not be available.

  7. Tunnel Rabbit makes a good point about the limits of the size of a greenhouse. One option is the use of hydroponics systems which can produce many multiple times the food bounty of traditional soil-based agricultural methods. In well-managed and tightly controlled environments, the multiple for salad greens can be 40x and potentially 50x the production rate.There are lots of design ideas, and each one has its merits for specific types of plants. Hydroponic growing, in our experience, is not suited to all types of garden plants, but it does work really well for several. Our strategies combine hydroponics and soil-based growing, as well as greenhouse and outdoor growing. We find that we are constantly learning and adapting, and very much appreciate the generous sharing of information — ideas, problem solving, the works — by the editors and the readers!

  8. Chicken breed is very important if you are homesteading. Domesticated breeds tend not to be strong foragers and not to go broody. We have found that the heritage breeds are much stronger foragers and seem to do better in extreme climates.

  9. I erred by not mentioning the importance of row covers and ‘caterpillars’ in providing a few extra degrees when you need it most. Remay or Typar or Agribon or even clear well-ventilated plastic keep early tender plants out of the wind and bugs away when necessary. Plants also can weather temps dropping to 28F and come back mightly, when under a row cover. I’ve also cut a few pieces of good strong wire and buried the edges of a propped up row covers to advantage. Again, I suggest getting Johnny’s catalogue to see pictures of various row cover options. Yes, this stuff is a plastic derivative but it can be reused over many years if carefully handled.

    We burn well over 4 cords of firewood to heat our small energy efficient home. Taking out the ashes of the stove every week or so gives us the opportunity to collect ‘biochar’. For us biochar is the small pieces of unburned firewood sifted out of the ashes that we collect and placed in a separate bucket. Early spring we inoculate the char pieces by peeing on them, giving them a nice charge of nitrogen as well as other minerals. Then we sprinkle the biochar on our garden beds, cover them with a row cover – in this case plastic is best. This will help warm the soil, provide ‘micro-tenements for our soil microbes, as well as fertilizer for the crops to come.

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