Published in the first issue of Zone 4 Magazine, Spring 2009.
Rebroadcasted here with permission from the author, Susan Duncan.
Growing your own groceries has lots of appeal these days with soaring energy and food prices. The bug bit me when I was 11 years old (in 1957). I didn’t begin to put it into practice until I was married and nearly 30 (in 1975). My husband and I built a 76-acre farm from a fallow grain field in the Gallatin Valley of Montana and raised our son here. Raising our own food is an integral part of the economics and lifestyle we developed over the last 30 years.
My food budget is annual. It is not measured by the meal or defined by a weekly trip to the grocery store. Our food comes in once a year as garden produce and a homegrown steer. It is rationed over the next 12 months. My grocery shopping is limited to specials, bulk purchases of staples, and filling in around what I already have. We are not food self-sufficient. We buy grain and dairy products, fats, seasonings, sugar, and leavening agents. For variety, we enjoy store bought meats and eggs, and a greater variety of fruits than we can grow. The pantry stock (both store bought and homegrown) allows us more flexibility in food choices and food expenditures than weekly shoppers enjoy.
Gardening with the purpose of feeding your family for a year is much different than a garden for fresh summer vegetables or for sale at a Farmer’s Market. I am growing for storage rather than immediate consumption. The varieties I grow must be reliable, produce in quantity, offer variety, and keep well.
The climate dictates what I can grow. We live half a mile from the Gallatin River, a major tributary of the headwaters of the Missouri River. If you are thinking “river valley” – deep alluvial soil and warmer temperatures than in the mountains, nothing could be further from the truth. The soil is river wash - no more than 18 inches deep with lenses of water rounded rocks from palm sized to loaf sized. As a low spot in the valley, cold air sinks to the river bottom. It is actually warmer in the foothills of the nearby Bridger Mountains.
The growing season is 90-days at best. I try to plant by Memorial Day, but the last two years I couldn’t plant until June 15th. Frost is a certainty anytime after Labor Day. Spring can be very cool and wet (like 2008) or hot and dry (like 2007). Garden success hinges on 6 weeks of hot weather from mid July to Labor Day. Microclimates within my garden area can also make or break the harvest.
Two thirds of the summer is over before I get my first produce in early August. I do not use a greenhouse or season extending covers or cold frames for several reasons: (1) When it freezes here, it freezes into the mid twenties, not the low thirties. Nighttime covers only extend the season for a week or so until a heavy frost arrives. (2) My garden is too big to cover (3200 square feet). And (3) my green thumb turns brown when I bring plants inside. Starting transplants indoors works very well some years and other years, not at all.
Most of my harvest is available (fresh) for only the last two weeks of August (and into September for root crops). Yields of specific vegetables vary from year to year. August and September are hectic as I create a year’s worth of groceries from a mountain of produce by canning, freezing, drying, and cold storage. Three months of gardening provides nine months of raw material for culinary creativity.
By trial and error, I have found varieties that do well for me. (emphasis added)
Seed Selection – Maturity Dates
For me maturity dates are the most important criteria for seed selection. Over 30 years, I have scoured dozens of seed catalogs in search of the earliest maturing varieties. I cross check maturity dates of the same varieties in multiple catalogs. Across four catalogs (Pinetree Garden Seeds in Maine, Totally Tomatoes and Vermont Bean Seed Company in Wisconsin, and Henry Fields in Indiana) Early Girl Hybrid tomatoes are listed as maturing in 60 days, 54 days, 52 days, and 57 days, respectively. So whom should I believe? Check where they are grown. Maine is most like here – so I’d guess 60 days is the most accurate. Every day, every hour of optimum growing conditions counts. The difference between 52 and 60 days is more than a week of growing season. Back East the nights are warm. Here it takes hours to go from a nighttime temperature of 40 or 50 up to 60-70. That’s precious hours of optimum growing time.
The seed business is prone to fads. Varieties with catchy names reminiscent of P.T. Barnum grace catalog pages – Sugarsnax carrots, Green Goliath broccoli, Royalty Purple Pod beans, Jingle Bells peppers. The catalogs feature the popular varieties that sell well, new varieties, and others that are less well known. Very short season varieties fall in the less-well-known category. Being less popular, they are less commonly offered in catalogs and can disappear altogether. Some of my favorite bean varieties are hard to find now: Earliserve, King of the Earlies, Red Peanut beans, and Limelight. That’s why I started saving seed on my favorites.
“The Garden Seed Inventory Sixth Edition” (ISBN 1-882424-60-3 softcover or ISBN 1-882424059-X hardcover) put out by the Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa lists all non-hybrid vegetable seeds available in the United States and Canada and tells which catalogs offered them as recently as 2004. Through that source, I found a new source for Red Peanut beans and King of the Earlies.
Buy From Local and Regional Seed Companies
Buy transplants and nursery stock grown locally by local growers, if possible. It makes sense to buy seed from local or regional seed companies that produce seed in the climate most like yours. Fisher’s Garden Store in Belgrade, Montana and Seeds Trust/High Altitude Gardens in Haley, Idaho specialize in seeds for high altitude and short growing seasons. For seeds native or adapted to the Southwest, check out Native Seeds/SEARCH in Tucson, Arizona and Seeds of Change in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Seeds from Maine (Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Pinetree Garden Seeds, and Vesey’s Seeds Ltd.) and seeds developed in Canada generally do well for me.
Perusing large numbers of seed catalogs from all over the country every year (for many years) allowed me to recognize early season varieties by name. I also compare prices (and shipping and handling fees) to know which companies offered the best deals on the varieties I wanted. In any one year, I order from one to three companies, grouping purchases to save on shipping charges.
In February and March I watch Wal-Mart and the Dollar stores for packets of seeds for ten to twenty-five cents. I buy several dollars worth of seed for cold season vegetables (like radishes, beets, spinach, carrots, and leaf lettuce) that do well regardless of maturity date. If I find peas, beans, squash, cucumber, and tomato seeds for that price, I confirm the variety and maturity dates closely before buying. I also watch for onion sets at this time for $1 per bag of 80-100.
Seed Selection Guidelines
Here are the guidelines I use in selecting seeds: For summer squash, green beans, and cucumbers, I want seeds that mature in 50 days or less; for corn and tomatoes, 60 days or less; for winter squash, pumpkins, and dry beans, 90 days or less. Even though the growing season is nominally 90 days, the optimum growing conditions don’t always occur for all 90 days. Using these more stringent guidelines, I usually get some corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash and beans regardless of climate conditions. Cold season vegetables are much less touchy. Root crops, leafy greens, early cabbage, Chinese cabbage, broccoli, celery, bok choy, and various oriental greens (mostly in the cabbage or mustard families) all do well here. Head lettuce, most pole beans, peppers, eggplant, melons, and okra don’t do well here.
After harvest, I re-evaluate each variety I chose. Was it hardy and vigorous enough to take the cold, the sudden heat, and the weed competition? Did it produce prolifically and reliably? Was it easy to harvest? Did it keep well in storage? How did it look on the plate? How many ways could I use it? Let me give you some examples of these characteristics in the varieties I grow.
All Blue potatoes (purple inside and out) produce a crop here regardless of the weather. They are usually the first to bloom. I can grow them in newly opened ground and they compete well with thistles and quackgrass. All Red potatoes (rosy, inside and out) need more heat to get fist sized. “German Yellow” fingerlings need the full 90-day season to get 5-6 inches long, but they are prolific.
Peas prefer cool, damp weather and take 70 days to mature. If planted on Memorial Day, they will mature in early August during the hottest part of summer. If I can’t plant early, I choose a variety like “Wando” that can take heat.
Summer squash is tops on my list. The green zucchinis – Black, Greyzini, and Eight Ball – and the yellows - Crookneck, Papaya Pear, and Scallop/Sunburst - grow well here. Winter Squash like Baby Hubbard, Acorn, Mountaineer, Lakota do well some years. If the Hubbard squash only grow softball size, that’s good for the two of us.
Earlivee (a hybrid) and Fisher’s Earliest (open pollinated) are both 54-60 day corns. In 2008 (a cold year), my Earlivee did produce ears - after Labor Day and after frost. In 2007 (a hot, dry year) Earlivee finished before Labor Day. Mincu is the only cucumber I found that produces enough for me to make pickles.
Bean plants are brittle. In picking, it’s easy to uproot the plant or break off a branch with immature beans, reducing the harvest. Some varieties are more brittle than others. I don’t want to have to use two hands to pick each bean.
Since I shell peas by hand, I want a variety with big peas like Laxton’s Progress Number Nine or long pods full of peas like Green Arrow.
Small immature summer squash do not keep well. Eight Ball zucchini (8-12 inches in diameter) and large zucchini keep well on a pantry shelf at room temperature deep into winter. As they age, they turn yellow inside and out and have to be seeded and peeled before eating. Dark colored or thick-skinned zucchini keep best.
Yellow onions keep the best, followed by white onions. Red onions and sweet (Walla Walla’s) onions do not keep well.
A year’s worth of food has to look appetizing on the plate, time after time. Variations in color and shape add plate appeal – yellow, green, and purple beans; yellow and green snow peas; and red, purple, and white potatoes. Shape and texture are important. Chinese cabbage (Napa cabbage) tastes like cabbage, looks like lettuce. Brighten up a salad with multi-colored Swiss chard. Flat, wide Italian style beans blend well with chunks of tomato and zucchini. German Yellow potatoes (shaped like knobby fingers) have a rich, buttery taste.
Squash is enormously versatile - pickles, relishes, jam, breads, cookies, pies, casseroles, in spaghetti sauce, as a vegetable, and even canned in pineapple juice for mock pineapple tidbits.
Limelight and King of the Earlies are multi-purpose beans. They can be eaten as snap beans for a short period when immature, but quickly move on to producing seeds that can be eaten as green shell beans or dry beans.
Growing your own food in Zone 4 is not as easy as plant and harvest. Each garden site is unique. Success is determined by how well you adapt to your site. In your garden, trust your own observations and experience to guide you. Use expert advice for general guidelines. Find varieties that work for you and stick with them. If they are open pollinated, consider saving seed to preserve their genetic adaptations. Continue to experiment with promising new varieties. It’s a great adventure.