I am fortunate to live in an area where winter temperatures rarely dip lower than 5° C below zero. (26° F). Nonetheless, there are some practical solutions I need to take to successfully grow food year-round on my cold climate homestead in the UK.
I also work on permaculture designs for gardeners with much colder climates, and so have developed a range of simple strategies that can help you with growing food year-round on a cold climate homestead, no matter where you live. Going back to basics can often be helpful, but there may be some new suggestions in this article that you might not have considered.
The Limitations of a Cold Climate Homestead
Many who live on a cold climate homestead rely on canned and stored food to make it through the coldest part of the year. Their main challenge is usually perceived to be the short growing season. And that certainly can be a challenge on a cold climate homestead – especially in more extreme environments.
However, even in areas with extremely cold winters, it is possible to continue to grow food year-round. You just have the overcome the major challenges: the temperatures, extreme weather conditions (such as strong winds, ice, frosts, and heavy snow), and the low light levels.
If you live in a colder climate, there certainly are limitations to which crops you can grow over winter. You won’t have as many options open to you as those who live in warmer climes, but it is important to recognise that you can overcome the limitations you face as long as you implement practical solutions that work for where you live.
Low Cost, Simple Solutions for Growing Food Year-Round on a Cold Climate Homestead
If you, like me, live in an area where temperatures do not drop precipitously, there are a range of low cost, simple solutions you can adopt to keep plants safe from frost and give them a little protection from the elements.
For certain overwintering plants, organic mulches may be enough to protect plant roots and stop the soil from freezing. For example, you might use a layer of straw, bracken, or fall leaves. I use a mulch of fall leaves to protect my fall-planted garlic and winter onions.
Another idea involves simply using cloches to protect individual plants. There is no need to rush out to buy any, either. You can make your own cloches to protect plants from winter cold from household trash that might otherwise be thrown away – plastic bottles or milk containers, for example.
If you have annual garden beds or larger planters that need protection, you can also use a row cover. You could purchase a row cover, but again, you can also consider making your own from natural and reclaimed materials. For example, a frame of leftover poly pipe, bamboo, or natural branches can be covered by an old bed sheet or other old fabric, or an off-cut of plastic used for packaging or leftover from another project.
Greenhouse or High-Tunnel Design
I purchased a polytunnel/high tunnel for my property. But you do not necessarily have to go down that route. There are plenty of ways to make your own, often for surprisingly little money.
When it comes to choosing, designing, building, and positioning your new greenhouse or high tunnel, there are a number of things to consider.
First and foremost, think about how you can implement the principles of passive solar design.
Passive Solar Design on the Cold Climate Homestead
Passive solar design is all about making the most of the light and heat the sun can provide over the winter months. (And also about minimizing excessive heat gain in mid-summer.)
Passive solar design means thinking about maximising southern exposure in the winter, but potentially providing shade from the sun during the hottest part of the day in summer. So this is something to think about when you choose a location, design, and orientation for the structure.
Another key element in passive solar design is maximising thermal mass. Materials with high thermal mass catch and store heat energy from the sun during the day and release it slowly at night. So adding more thermal mass in your greenhouse or high tunnel can help keep temperatures more stable – staving off night frosts in winter, and lessening issues with extreme heat in the summer months.
I have logs as bed edging in my polytunnel that have pretty high thermal mass. I have also used stored water in my tunnel when particularly cold weather threatens, as it is also great for adding thermal mass. You can direct rainwater into storage barrels in your undercover growing area to help keep plants warm. Other materials such as earth, brick, clay, and ceramics also have good thermal mass.
Another way to go is to incorporate thermal mass in the structure itself. For example, you can make an earth-sheltered or sunken greenhouse (walipini) to take advantage of the thermal mass of the ground. Alternatively, you can build a greenhouse with walls of straw bales, cob, or adobe on the northern side. Another option is to build a lean-to structure and take advantage of the thermal mass of an existing south-facing wall of your home or garden.
Another thing to consider when building a greenhouse or high tunnel, especially in a particularly cold area, is insulation. A single-skinned plastic structure will be fine for areas like mine. But in colder areas, a double-skinned or glass structure may be required to keep plants inside from freezing.
Remember, adding mulches, cloches, or row covers mentioned above inside a greenhouse or tunnel can also help in protecting tender plants over winter. An extra layer between plants/soil and the elements will reduce the rate at which heat is escaping.
Another way to reduce heat loss from an undercover growing area involves reducing wind chill. Ventilation is important, but make sure that you position the structure so the wind does not whistle through it in the winter months. Also, consider adding wind-break hedging and shelterbelt planting to shelter your winter garden.
Heating an Undercover Growing Area on a Cold Climate Homestead
If you have a particularly severe winter climate, the protective measures mentioned above may not be enough. You may need to consider heating your undercover growing areas.
Some eco-friendly heating solutions to consider include:
- A hot bed (in which composting manure and carbon-rich materials gently heat plants from below).
- Piped hot-water heating (with water warmed by a wood-fired boiler, solar power, or heat generated in a composting system, for example.)
- Ground-to-air space heating. (Fans pump warm, humid air from the greenhouse through a network of pipes below the soil. There, the soil “collects” the energy, which is then pumped back into the space to keep it warmer at night.)
- A rocket mass stove or other efficient solid-fuel space-heater.
- Electric space heaters run on solar panels or other renewable energy.
Thinking outside the box, you can also heat a greenhouse or high tunnel with the heat generated by chickens, rabbits, or other livestock.
Keeping chickens (or other homestead livestock) in one part of a greenhouse (or in an adjoining coop/housing) while growing plants in another can be a good idea for winter growing. Body heat (and heat given off by manure) can really add up. The livestock can also benefit because the greenhouse will collect heat from the sun during the day, which will help keep their housing warm, too.
No matter where you live, there are practical solutions for growing food year-round on your homestead.