Country Lore: Short Growing Seasons and Cold Winters

Readers’ tips on gardening up north, making homemade bailers, building recycled greenhouses, removing rebar, and more.

Rick has had success growing 'Painted Mountain' corn (above) and 'Blacktail Mountain' watermelon (below) in frigid northern Minnesota.
Photo by Dave Christensen

Adventures Up North

When we moved to northern Minnesota 15 years ago, we had limited expectations as to what we could grow with a short season and cold winters. However, we’ve been pleasantly surprised to find some cultivars that have done exceptionally well for us.

Our 'Goddess Hybrid' muskmelon has consistently produced 4 to 8 pounds of sweet melons. By starting the plants indoors, we get a head start on the growing season. Then, we hand-pollinate the first female blossoms and only leave two or three melons on each plant. By staggering the planting by a couple of weeks, our harvest period is extended. We use the same method for 'Blacktail Mountain' watermelon. Many of our melons weigh over 10 pounds and are very sweet if they’re allowed to fully ripen. This cultivar is open-pollinated.

In searching for corn to grind into flour and cornmeal, we found 'Painted Mountain,' a flint corn developed over a 40-year period from a gene pool of more than 70 strains of native corn. It has a short growing season that allows the cobs to ripen and dry out, even in Zone 3a. As its name suggests, its ears have many different colors of kernels. It’s very high in protein and anthocyanins.

Our honeyberries are producing well for us. In 2018, our 36-bush orchard yielded more than 80 quarts of berries, even though the bushes hadn’t yet reached full maturity. Also known as “haskaps,” the berries are blue and taste similar to a tart blueberry. We eat them raw, put them on our oatmeal, and use them to make jam. The bushes are hardy and survive even Zone 2 winters. They bloom early, and their blossoms can survive temperatures down to the midteens. By mid-July, we’re picking pails full of plump berries. Two cultivars are needed for pollination. We started with 'Aurora' and 'Borealis.' 'Aurora' is an upright bush, reaching about 6 feet tall when mature, and has done exceptionally well for us. 'Borealis' is shorter, with the branches close to the ground, and it’s much more likely to have moldy berries. We’re replacing 'Borealis' with 'Honey Bee,' which is an upright bush. The birds love the berries, too, so bird netting is essential. The new bushes can be planted in spring or fall. We’ve found that planting dormant bushes in fall works best for us. It only takes a year or two for the bushes to begin bearing fruit.

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Fall 2021!

Put your DIY skills to the test throughout November. We’re mixing full meal recipes in jars, crafting with flowers, backyard composting, cultivating mushrooms, and more!


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