The real secret to gardening in cold-climate, short-season, rocky, shady soil


Oh, and lots of finding out what doesn’t work. For us, that’s corn. And anything that grows south of the Mason-Dixon line. And most things that the Western Garden Book says should grow in Idaho. (Ever notice how that book has about four zones for the entire state, while they have 571,000 for California—one for every block? Have those guys even been to Idaho?)

Here's this year's crop, started in the south-facing window seat of my studio. And yes, that's snow outside.

Every gardener knows that every year is a toss-up. Some years the tomatoes will do phenomenally, while others they get blossom-end rot or whatever hideous tomato-specific disease the Garden Demons hatch in their off-hours, and of course it only attacks when the tomatoes are at the almost-ripe, brilliant-red, pulling-down-the-plant heaviness, when you practically drool every time you walk past—then overnight, bleuaak, blossom-end-rot. Our prize tomatoes have suddenly transformed into chicken-fodder-matic! It doesn’t seem to phase the chickens; we’ve never seen our eggs with blossom-end rot.

We have friends across the river, a few miles north of here as the crow flies, whose garden is phenomenal. Like, magazine-quality. Maybe the Western Garden people were thinking of them when they wrote their book. Our friends live on flat ground, with clay-based soil, and they have a pond right next to the garden that never seems to dry up. Plus their livestock is a never-ending source of nitrogen, which is Miracle-Gro for country folk. I go over there and they say, “Hey, want some corn?”

“Corn?!” I squeak. We haven’t grown corn for the past nine seasons—it’s too much of a hog.

“Corn,” they crow, hacking their way through the squash-and-pepper undergrowth with a machete to find the corn stalks. I drive home with the tire springs sagging under the weight of all the fresh corn. We love it—don’t get me wrong—but we can’t grow it.

7000 years ago (or whenever) when Glacial Lake Missoula burst its icy banks and flooded the country, our neighbors’ land was graced with the murky silt that guarantees a bounteous harvest every year for centuries. We got all the rocks. Plus we’re on the northeast slope of the ridge, so the blazing afternoon sun that scorches all you city folk is—insert smug cackle here—behind Turtleback Mountain* at our place. It’s good for us heatophobes, but poor for the peppers.

Plus we have a fondness for trees over 70 feet tall. I’ll drop ‘em for firewood when they die and dry out, but I sure hate to cut down a majestic Douglas fir just because it’s shading the beans. Would you, if you had a whole tree named after you?

So this is the solution we’ve worked out. Start the warm-weather plants—peppers, tomatoes, squash—in February, in the south-facing window in Doug’s studio. Here’s this year’s batch—even the eggplants are up! Build a greenhouse to shield your tenderlings from cold, wind, frost, snow, basically anything that can harm them up until they’re tough enough to survive outside. And most importantly, raised garden beds! Those have been the magic touch for us. I built ours out of treated lumber and old galvanized metal roofing I bought from a local off of Craigslist (it was already rusting, but hey, the price was right!).

Jessica’s done a wonderful job despite all these obstacles. Here’s last year’s growth.

But still, every year something new crops up (wait, was that a pun?), and every year you have to deal with it. That’s why I say, Keep at it. Practice. And when the snow’s deep and the weather’s dark, you’re grateful for all the home-grown food in your root cellar.

* I named that mountain myself. Remind me to tell you the story sometime.

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