Winter Gardening in Canada and Cold Climates

Did you know you can garden and grow food year round if you live in a cold climate (zone 3 for example)? Sure, it is some extra work and you have to think outside the box but there are ways to still provide yourself and your family with some fresh food even if you live in a cold climate, such as myself here, in Edmonton, Alberta.

Winter Gardening

What is winter gardening? What does it look like? If you homestead, garden or grow food in a cold climate such as a Canadian climate (I’m a zone 3’er) or the Northern U.S. States, you may be familiar with the definite seasonality of gardening in your area. My perosnal area is characterised by a very short yet productive growing season (my frost free days are just three months of the year) and long, deadly cold winters. In fact, as I write this it is currently -50c outside.

Gardening definitely is done for the year, or so traditionally it was thought. Nothing grows here during winter and instead many gardeners and homesteaders spend the winter months daydreaming of fresh salads, veggies and herbs. If this is you and you just have the itch that you need to get some gardening in, then keep reading on as I have some ideas about winter gardening to share with you.

Greenhouses

A person's hands caress a shrub growing in a greenhouse
Heated or passive solar greenhouses can provide year round growing

So the first place one might look for season extension in Alberta is to the greenhouse. Now they have their uses and benefits absolutely however if you are looking to get more bang for your buck, how you utilise your greenhouse is what is key. A standard unheated greenhouse will not allow for winter gardening here, at best it will add a few weeks on either end of the growing season.

Heated greenhouses work much better to provide you with longer year round growing potential but also come with the very real trade off, of heating the greenhouse. This can be expensive and a lot of work depending on your time, budget and chose heating method. What may be a more efficient method of having a heated greenhouse is the passive solar greenhouse, you can read about a working model here in Alberta, a passive solar greenhouse  can provide enough heat that leafy greens and even tomatoes can be grown into early December. Although all greenhouses utilise the sun, the passive solar model also utilies the sun and cleverly structured materials to use the sun as a heat source rather than relying on an artificial input. Essentially the roof and one wall are double layered plastic that allow sunlight in and provide a layer of insulation. The other walls are insulating materials that have a reflective surface, reflecting light and heat back into the greenhouse. Passive solar greenhouses work very well for season extension because they are so well insulated. The other factor eventually becomes daylight length and so, in mid December-mid February there may not be enough daylight to grow. Interested? You can read more about passive solar greenhouse design here.

Cold Frames

A toddler sits on two cold frames, a grown mans hand is seen fixing the lid onto the box
A cold frame can be simple in design but add a decent amount of growing extension

Cold frames can also provide some season extension. Generally in the climate I live they will not provide year round growing, however they will buy you a few weeks on each side of the growing season. Smaller than a greenhouse and easier to salvage, recycle and source materials these can be ideal for novice gardeners, if you are on a budget or have a smaller space. They are typically built with four wooden sides and a glass lid, the temperature inside can get significantly warmer than the surrounding soil beds. Usually, we grow cold hardy greens in our cold frames as early as March. I talk more about season extension methods in my podcasts here

Indoor Gardens

A white aeroponics gardening tower is full of lettuce greens
An aeroponics system, growing lettuce greens

One great method of winter gardening in a cold zone is well…to bring it indoors! Indoor gardening can be a great method of supplementing your diet with fresh herbs or greens (I’ve even done indoor strawberries)! There are a couple of ways to indoor garden, ranging from complex set ups to the very simple.

A more complex but fun and involved method of indoor gardening is to try a hydroponics or aeroponics system such as the Tower Garden System which is pictured above. These type of systems are soil free and usually utilise a nuttient/water system for growing. They will also have the option of specific lighting that will have the required spectrum of wavelengths of light for plant growth. There are multiple set ups from various companies in various styles and sizes. The Tower Garden happens to be the system I have used. In my experience I have found these systems to be awesome with all the fresh goodness over the winter months but do require some more precise maintenence than the standard potted plant. I recommend weighing up your options/budget/various brands to find a set up you like.

A girl's hands pot a herb into a green pot on a gardening bench.
Growing potted herbs indoors can be a good way of supplementing your kitchen throughout winter

Lastly, you can’t beat an indoor kitchen garden. Have potted herbs in spaces with ample sunlight and you will enjoy fresh herbs throughout the winter months. As well as adding some freshness into your diet, it adds fragrance and sprigs of greenery that undoubtedly bring some joy through the winter months. Some of my favourite potted herbs to keep in the kitchen are basil, rosemary, oregano and thyme. I have also grown lettuce greens throughout the winter months, on long pots along window ledges. Practicing a “cut and come again” method with the leaves, we enjoyed some salad greens throughout ghe winter months.

So even if you miss getting your hands in the dirt and nurturing your garden there are ways to quell the itch. You may even get hooked onto experimenting and trying some new ways to grow! Season extension or some indoor gardening, even in small amounts, can also boost your food independence and resiliency and add an element of freshness into your diet even in the cold, long depths of winter.

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