Starting a Spring Garden in the Canadian Wilderness

Categories: Life Stories

Greetings from Northern Canada! We recently started writing blog posts for this wonderful off-grid site and today, we will give some insight into how we grow much of our own food in our large gardens. We are isolated 100 miles in the wilderness and we count on what we grow to make up the majority of our vegetable, fruit and herb needs. The fact that we live north of 56 degrees adds our cold weather climate to the mix. That sure makes gardening a more challenging endeavor!

I've never considered our lifestyle as anything special. Unique that we choose to live this remote perhaps, but it seems so natural to us. Most people have the opportunity to run to the local grocers whenever the need arises, but for us, the “local” grocery store is far away and requires a flight on a float plane to reach civilization. We shop twice a year and it is only during those times that we receive mail, take care of appointments and interact with other humans. The rest of the year, we are on our To supply our vegetable and fruit needs, we have two large gardens. One is planted with vegetables each spring and, the other is dedicated to perennials: various fruit trees and fruiting bushes, strawberries and asparagus. A small garden in front of the house on the south side, provides much of our herb and tea needs. We supplement all this by foraging for wild blueberries and cranberries each summer. This yearly gardening routine is an integral part of our being self-sufficient.

We've already made a start on this year's garden. We have a super insulated home with walls 10 inches thick. As a result, windowsills are wide and are a great place to put trays of started seedlings.

The little plants look out at a cold, white world. Last week, we hit -22 Fahrenheit and they were not happy watching the snow flakes drifting lazily by the window. There will come a day when we will set them out for good, but that time is about 8 weeks away. The 2 feet of snow still on the garden is always discouraging this time of year. I dragged my power ice auger out to the lake to bore a hole and there is 22 inches of ice. Spring seems so far off and yet the day length is increasing by about 4 minutes per day. It's only a matter of time before warmer weather starts winning the battle. For now, we wait!

The weather and outdoor conditions we are currently experiencing are normal for our location, but we've learned to adapt. We can grow just about anything here. Despite the fact that frost can occur at any time during the growing season, there really isn't much we can't grow. It just takes a modified approach. A typical garden for us will include: tomatoes, green and wax beans, peas, leaf and head lettuce, peppers both hot and bell, dried beans, onions from seed and sets, kale, winter and summer squash, pumpkin, red and a white potato, various radishes, carrots, early and late cabbage, asparagus, broccoli, brussel sprouts and even cantaloupe. We choose different varieties of certain vegetables depending on their intended use as well as their maturity date. For example, we plant various types of leaf and head lettuce so that throughout the growing season, we will have a continuous supply of salad greens. Not only do we plant multiple varieties, but some vegetables have staggered planting dates so that we get a recurring harvest. We are able to do this not only with lettuce but also with spinach, peas and broccoli. Our season is too short for succession plantings of beans or corn. We only plant a single variety of corn. We found one variety we like, Fleet, and it's all we grow. Because it is an early maturing variety, about 60 days, we have consistent success with it ripening no matter what the weather may be for any given summer.

The following is excerpted from my book titled Off Grid and Free-My Path to the Wilderness: “By March, Johanna has started our garden plants, and every window sill is overflowing with seedlings. She had the foresight to dig buckets of soil from the garden the previous fall, before the ground froze solid. She brings the buckets, which have been stored under cover in the greenhouse, into the house to thaw, and once warmed up, the medium is ready to give a germinating seed a new lease on One of the benefits of ten–inch-thick walls is that they have wide window sills, making a dandy place to park potted plants and seedlings. An occasional tray rotation ensures the plants get even sunlight. Johanna starts peppers, melons, squash, Cole crops, various tomato types, and even corn indoors. Certain vegetables will be grown from hybrid seed but, as often as possible, we favor open pollinated, heirloom varieties whose seed can be saved from year to year. Not only does seed saving give us more independence, but it also allows us to save seeds from the strongest plants, plants that have adapted the best to our location and growing conditions. In other words, a tomato plant that has given us jumbo tomatoes has obviously taken to our climate and conditions, so seed saved from some of those tomatoes should give us a good chance of repeating that success in future gardens.

Despite being north of the 56th parallel, there is very little we can’t grow here. We are able to grow all of our vegetables and about half of our fruit needs. Besides starting many of our seedlings indoors, we employ numerous growing tricks to help cope with our short summer season. Up here, spring has a nasty habit of returning to winter with a vengeance. So even though the calendar says May, there’s no guarantee we won’t have more snow and ice. Because we can have a frost in any month of the year, we are left with circumstances requiring constant vigilance regarding the weather.

We have a south-facing greenhouse that becomes home to melons, tomatoes, and peppers in late spring. But before they are planted, with snow still on the ground, we sow the seeds of salad fixings to satisfy our hankering for fresh greens after a long winter’s dearth of lettuce and radishes.

Cold frames, which we set in the greenhouse, act as a sort of greenhouse within a greenhouse. A cold frame is a box with clear lid (glass or plastic), a setup that gives protection to early plantings of lettuce, kale, onions, and radishes, even when temperatures are still going down to 0°F at night.”

One important point… the soil that we dug up and stored for seedlings needs to be sterilized before planting any seeds to prevent damping off, a fungal disease, which can attack germinating seedlings. We use a stainless steel pan, fill it with wet garden soil, and either place it on top of the wood cookstove or inside the oven as space permits.

Using a meat thermometer to monitor soil temperature, we heat the soil to 160 F. The steam generated from the moisture in the soil acts to sterilize it. Once sterilized, Johanna adds Vermiculite and Perlite and puts the soil mix in a sterilized flat. Seeds are planted in the flat and once the first or second set of true leaves appear, the strongest seedlings are selected and transplanted to individual pots.

You can see our cold frame set up in the attached image. Cool tolerant plants are either direct seeded or set out as seedlings and at night time, a couple of jugs of hot water are set inside, a layer of garden fabric is laid over all, the lid is closed, a blanket then covers the entire cold frame and we don't care what the temperature goes down to at night.

In my next post, I hope to report that spring has finally sprung and that ice and snow melting is well under way. That's if the weather gods cooperate!

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