Country Lore: Short Growing Seasons and Cold Winters

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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.

Dwarf cherries also grow well in the Far North. Like the honeyberries, our cultivars were developed by the University of Saskatchewan Fruit Program. When eaten raw, the cherries are tart, but still tasty. They can be used for pies and juice, among other things. The trees only grow to about 8 feet tall, which makes picking much easier. We first planted ‘Carmine Jewel’ dwarf cherries. Our best production so far has yielded about 20 pounds per tree. We’ve since planted ‘Juliet,’ ‘Romeo,’ and ‘Crimson Passion.’ They take several years to produce. We hope our later plantings will start producing soon. These cultivars are self-pollinating, so just a single tree will bear cherries. The fruit is also loved by birds, so netting is necessary. Also, if you’re like us and want to grow organically, you might need exclusion netting to keep the cherries free of fruit fly larvae and the leaves protected from aphids.

Here are the sources we’ve used for seeds and plants: Jung Seed for ‘Goddess Hybrid’ muskmelon seed, Fedco Seeds for ‘Blacktail Mountain’ watermelon and ‘Painted Mountain’ corn seed, and Honeyberry USA for honeyberry and dwarf cherry plants.

Our northern adventure in gardening and fruit production is ongoing, and has been an enlightening journey.

Rick Olson
Williams, Minnesota

Ready-Made Round Baler

I live on a 5-acre homestead in the interior of Alaska, and have a small flock of Icelandic sheep and some rabbits that consume hay.

You published a tip about a “Low-Capital Hay Baler” in your June/July 2019 issue (Country Lore). A few years ago, I had an epiphany while contemplating a small, wooden single baler: I could make a ready-made round baler.

I had a 55-gallon Rubbermaid trash can I was using to store feed grains, so I bought some plastic 55-gallon trash bags. I put one in a trash can, and then filled it with dried hay. I tamped the hay down, and then added hay five or six more times. Between each filling, I sprinkled a little salt and sprayed some vinegar. (If the hay isn’t totally dry, the salt and vinegar will preserve it.) I then tamped the hay again, this time with more force, to remove as much air as possible. Then, I twisted the top and tied the bag securely with a string. Finally, I tipped over the container, and had my round bale.

I use a 2- to 3-inch, 6-foot blunt pole to tamp. If you do this carefully, and there are no holes in the trash bag, the bag can be used again for another bale.

James Schmidt
Delta Junction, Alaska

Putting the ‘Green’ in Greenhouse

We garden and preserve as much food as possible each year. We wanted a greenhouse to grow vegetables from seed in winter. However, we didn’t want to spend the money for a pre-made model. Instead, we went “green” and came up with the idea of repurposing old windows, doors, and scrap lumber for our own eco-friendly greenhouse design. This project was much easier to manage than we’d originally imagined, and we recommend giving it a shot on your own property!

The first step is to find old windows and doors. Start by perusing your local papers, asking friends, and visiting sites where houses are being remodeled or demolished. Finding these items may take some time, but it’ll save you money, and you’ll upcycle items that might otherwise be wasted.

Once you’ve acquired enough old windows and doors for the desired size of your greenhouse, lay out all the pieces and determine the placement of your walls. This step is similar to putting together a puzzle: You’re trying to figure out how all of your pieces will fit to create your greenhouse.

Next, build your frame and support structure. This is where scrap lumber will come in handy. Use the lumber to erect the four corners of your greenhouse, with any additional support beams you’ll need in between them. Depending on the size of your greenhouse, you may need more support beams throughout the structure.

Once your frame is set up, you can attach your doors and windows however you’ve chosen to arrange them. Make sure each piece fits closely to the one next to it, minimizing the number of gaps and cracks you’ll have to fill in later. After everything is attached, just paint and seal the entire structure, filling in any gaps you may have left behind during construction.

You can choose the flooring material; we found that gravel left over from updating our driveway worked perfectly, but you may be more interested in using concrete or a similar material.

Just as you salvaged old windows and doors for the walls and ceilings, you can find and repurpose materials to create your setup for the inside of the greenhouse. We cut up an old entertainment system to build tables and create storage space for our greenhouse. For these types of materials, you can look online to find cheap pieces of furniture, or ask friends who are remodeling. After you have the materials, customizing them is easy.

Our greenhouse has already saved us money! We’ve been able to purchase plants during the big end-of-season sales and grow them in our greenhouse throughout winter. Previously, we weren’t able to take advantage of the lower prices offered by nurseries at the end of the season, but with our greenhouse, we can stock up on cheaper plants and have a head start when spring arrives.

Gary Blocker
Oran, Missouri

A Morphing Miniature Hoop House

I’ve seen articles and ads for hoop houses in MOTHER EARTH NEWS and Grit. I decided to make one with a sheep stock tank I had lying around. I drilled drainage holes in the bottom of the tank, and then filled it with soil. Then, I made a cover for it with elastic around the bottom. Unfortunately, I found that elastic just doesn’t hold up to weather. Also, the Grow Guard material I used got so thin that the process of taking it on and off put holes in it. So then, I tried micromesh material, but some small black bugs were able to get through and eat my lettuce.

This past winter, I tried to solve this conundrum by sewing the Grow Guard and the micromesh together. I used Velcro to secure the cover to the metal tank. Next, I concerned myself with creating enough headspace in my hoop house for any kind of lettuce, so I bought some 1/2-inch PVC pipes, and my husband helped me attach them to the tank.

I also wanted to have flaps that would open up so I wouldn’t have to remove the cover when planting or harvesting. Because of cost — I estimated it would cost more than $60 — I decided to use coat zippers instead of Velcro. With four of the longest coat zippers I could find, I can now open up the area between the hoops on both sides.

I’ve planted a lot of different lettuce cultivars. I started out with drink bottles that I’d fill with water to get water down to the roots, and I also used a watering can. A few weeks ago, I ordered a flat soaker hose that works well. I also have some radishes, carrots, and beets in there (overflow from my pots). I garden entirely in containers. I have an oak barrel with carrots in it. Then, I have big pots for my tomatoes, beets, potatoes, rhubarb, bell peppers, sweet peppers, ‘Tophat’ blueberry bushes, and basil. Here in North Carolina, temperatures can fall into the teens in winter. When it gets that low, I lay an old blanket over the hoop house, and I’ve never lost anything to the cold. I also start my seedlings inside under a grow light. This setup works well to get the plants started. I’ve started my lettuce, basil, tomatoes, and peppers that way, while I direct-seed the carrots, beets, radishes, and potatoes.

Chris Young
Angier, North Carolina 

Rebar Jack

Faced with the task of removing several 5/8-inch rebar posts from the ground, and not wanting to resort to chains and jacks, I came up with a simple and effective device.

By dropping the center hole of the sprocket over the rebar post, it’s a simple and easy task to “pump” the rebar out of the ground. (Gravity moves the sprocket down as the post is pulled from the ground.) This same design can be used to remove fence posts.

Stephen Balazs
Panorama City, California

Seed-Starting Racks

I enjoyed the article on how to make a grow-light table from PVC pipe (“Growing Indoors,” Homestead Hacks, February/March 2019). More than 25 years ago, I made a simpler table from a utility shelf, shop lights, and 1/2-inch dowels. You can see my setup pictured above.

I’ve used this homemade grow-light every year since 1992, and it’s held up very well. All I had to do to make it was to drill 1/2-inch holes on the undersides of the utility shelves so I could slide the dowels through to hang the lights. My grow-light table is easy for me to set up and dismantle. I just remove the lights and then move the shelf unit into my storage shed. It holds all my seed-starting supplies, plus the lights, during the rest of the year.

Marjorie Carlson
Accord, New York

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