I grew up gardening with my parents. We had a garden about half an acre in size, and grew the basics. Lettuce, peas, carrots, corn and potatoes. Things we knew would do well in a zone 3 climate. When I was all grown up and had a little garden patch of my own, I decided to experiment with every plant you can think of, from eggplants to gogi berries.
Trial and error (lots of error!) has taught me quite a bit. I will be sharing some of my tips and tricks for gardening in the zone 3 prairies. Hopefully it helps prevent you from making many of the same mistakes I have over the years! That being said, I’m no professional gardener – what is written here is based solely on my personal experiences over the years. It’s just my humble opinion on what I have found works and doesn’t work in our climate.
Consider your climate
I use the term zone 3 to describe my growing climate. Zone 3a specifically. The Natural Resources Canada plant hardiness scale classifies your growing zone based on location. Check it out if you’re unsure. Also consider local knowledge. Ask your neighbours when the normal first and last frost is, and when they usually start their gardening. Not only does this foster community, but it gives you an idea of what you can expect in your specific microclimate.
So onto winter gardening – wait what? There’s snow on the ground. How is winter gardening possible? Where I live, it’s not only possible, but necessary if you intend to grow your produce from seed. Many opt to get pre-grown plants from the greenhouse. There’s nothing wrong with that, if you can afford it. When you’re paying 4.49 per pepper plant, the price adds up very quickly. Especially if you’re planning a subsistence garden. And hey, I’m cheap – frugal I mean – so I prefer to use seeds. After all, half the reason I garden is to supplement food costs. The other half is simply pure joy.
Once you have your seeds (I recommend the company West Coast Seeds – incredible seed quality and superb customer service, or seed-saving) you need to know what to plant when. Some will need to be started indoors, others when the soil is just workable, and the rest not until the soil and air are warm. Plants are finicky. Each has its own likes and dislikes. A bit like people that way I suppose.
Some plants require a longer growing season than what we have here in the Canadian prairies. That’s not to say you cannot grow them here, they just need a bit of a head start. Give the following produce a warm and healthy start by planting them indoors in seed pots. It doesn’t matter if you buy the fancy self-starters from the store, or if you’re ch- ahem…frugal like me and use old cardboard egg cartons.
- Bell peppers. You’re going to want to give these bad boys as much time as you can. I recommend starting your seedlings beginning of February. They will likely require a transplant into larger pots prior to planting into your garden. They are just so slow-growing considering our short growing season. I would recommend the same for hot peppers and chili peppers.
- Tomatoes. My parents always bought their tomatoes pre-grown because they figured it too much of a hassle to care for the tender little seedlings that require so much time to build their hardiness. However, once they reach a certain point, the plants will take off, and you’ll be spending most of your time trimming and pruning them. These guys are fine to start in February or March. If you start them in February, you may need to transplant once prior to planting in the garden.
- Berry bushes (seeds). Admittedly, I have not tried starting every berry bush from seed, I bought Saskatoon and honeyberry bushes from the greenhouse. Generally speaking however, if you do intend on growing your berries from seed, start them early February. Last year I got my gogi berries started end of February, and they just had enough time to mature. It was a bit big a race though, so don’t stress yourself out by not giving your seeds enough time.
- Onions (seeds). Considering time-to-maturity on most onion seeds (seeds, not bulbs) is 300+ days, these are going to be the ones you start very early. We’re talking January if you’re looking for decent sized onions. Last year I was late and didn’t get my seeds in until March – my onions still matured but they were very small. Delicious, but small. This year I have my onions in seed starters already, at the end of January, so here’s hoping for a larger crop this year.
- Annual flowers. This one depends on when you want to see your annuals bloom. If you don’t mind waiting until August for full blooms, then sow them directly in-soil when it’s workable. If however, you want your annuals big and beautiful by the time the frost is gone, get them started early. Keep in mind different species of annuals mature at different rates. I would not suggest planting wildflower varieties early (eg. poppies) – they grow fast and will get away on you. Container varieties would be fine to start in March. That gives them a 3 month head start to their permanent home outdoors at the end of May.
The following produce will be fine if planted in cold soil. They will also persevere through frost and even snowfall. I tested this last year. I planted each of these produce types early, and low-and-behold, we got a late snowfall. All of these plants were absolutely fine and produced ample amounts veggies.
- Potatoes. Plant these as soon as the ground is workable. Ensure that you are able to mound the seedlings as they grow, as this will help the plant produce more tubers.
- Carrots. The cold soil won’t bother your carrot seeds. I even used organic seeds, and they were fine. Feel free to plant when the ground is workable.
- Peas. It surprised me how tolerant my peas were to frost and snow. I had potted garden boxes of snap peas on the deck, and forgot to cover them during the mid-May snowfall last year. They were absolutely fine and produced beautiful pods.
- Lettuce. Plant as soon as the ground is workable. Cold soil and frost won’t bother your lettuce. Remember to stagger your lettuce planting throughout the season to ensure a constant supply (if you eat as much of it as we do!). Tip: My grandpa taught me to let a few of my lettuce plants go to seed – that way, the lettuce re-seeds itself and you’ll have lettuce popping up next season on its own!
- Spinach. Spinach actually gets better with a little bit of frost. I found that the leaves sweetened up quite nicely after a touch of frost. Feel free to plant spinach as soon as the ground is workable. Beware of too much sun however, as I learned the hard way that spinach will burn easily and stunt its growth in too much direct sun.
What NOT to plant early?
Some seeds and seedlings are just not cold-hardy. Direct-sowing them early will be a waste of your time and money. Again, I tested this theory last year, and planted these seeds while the soil was still cold, but workable.
- Beans. Seeds rotted.
- Corn. Seeds rotted.
- Squash. Seeds rotted.
- Melons. Seeds rotted.
These ones don’t need much explaining. Basically, the seeds were planted in cold soil and rotted away without ever germinating. Just wait until the soil and air are warm for these guys – you will save yourself a lot of headache.
Some plants are just plain picky. They don’t like change. They want to be in their ideal environment, and not moved. The following plants I have discovered, do not transplant particularly well.
- Corn. I did not expect corn to be a poor transplanter but I kid you not – every single corn plant that I started in pots, died upon transplanting. I am certain it had nothing to do with the soil, location in the garden (I do companion gardening), or amount of sunlight exposure. The transplanted seedlings just never took, and died within a few days of transplanting.
- Squash. This one is tricky. Squash can be started indoors, but not too early. If you let your squash mature for too long in the seed pots, you will find that the stems grow exponentially faster than the leaves. Without a bed of soil for the long stems to rest upon, the fragile stem weakens and breaks. I had a few squash that I transplanted produce a decent yield, but had much better luck with the ones I direct sowed when the ground was warm. About 60% of my squashes died upon transplant, but the ones I direct-sowed, I got about 80% germination and they all yielded.
- Herbs. Maybe it’s something I did – but I started cilantro, oregano, basil, dill, rosemary and parsley in seed pots, and the only one to transplant well was the parsley. All of my parsley plants were fine. Everything else died. I will direct-sow in containers or in the garden this year.
I Give Up!
These are things I have tried and tried but have never had success with. Hence, I have given up on them and will focus my efforts elsewhere.
- Broccoli and cauliflower. This to be was a big disappointment. The plants grew fine but the yield was so ridiculously small that it’s really not worth my time or the valuable space in my veggie patch.
- Eggplant. My eggplant seedlings yielded nothing. I’m convinced it’s just not the right climate. I’m not wild enough about babaganouj to persist with this one.
- Melons. I add these to the list with a bit of hesitation. I’ve never had success with watermelons or cantaloupe here, and neighbours wonder why I even bother. They need hot weather and a ton of water. I know I need to give up on them – but part of me wants to just try once more…
I hope these tips can add value to your gardening season and save you some time, effort and money. With gardening, there’s always more to learn and new challenges to embrace! Good luck this gardening season.
What are some plants you have experimented with and succeeded or failed at? What produce is your go-to that always yields? Comment below and let me know!