By Amy Grisak
One St. Patrick’s Day my father asked me if I had my peas and potatoes planted. That was the traditional day we put them in the ground back in Ohio, but since there was a foot of snow on the ground, I figured it would have to wait. That’s the tricky part of Montana vegetable gardening. If you’re from another state, don’t hold fast to anything you used to do. If you move from one area of Montana to another, keep the same advice in mind.
The growing season in Montana varies from less than ninety frost free days to more than one hundred and fifty depending on your location. Even with such dramatic differences, there are a few tips for highly successful vegetable production when the weather can throw you curve balls.
How Early Can You Plant?
Gardeners are an impatient bunch. I’ve known of one woman who turned on the sprinklers in early spring to melt the snow off of her beds.( Okay, so I’ve done it myself when I learned how well it worked.) Keep in mind, if the mud is clumping to your feet like concrete shoes, it’s too early. However, with a couple of warm days to dry out the soil and pull the frost out of the ground, you can dig in.
Don and Marlys Danell, long-time vegetable gardeners in Havre, use Good Friday, which typically falls in the middle of April, as their guide to begin planting as long as the garden is dry and workable. This is the time Don Danell plants potatoes, carrots, parsnips and onions. He says, “The potatoes will stand a lot of frost, “ and he simply cuts off any damaged parts when a freeze does nip them. Danell waits about a week after planting the potatoes to plant his peas because if they’re put in the ground too early, they won’t germinate quickly and might tend to rot.
As a rule of thumb, once the frost is out of the ground and the soil is warmed up a little bit, it’s time to start your cool-season crop. Plant lettuce, spinach and radishes in two week successions for six to eight weeks so you have a continuous crop well into the first part of the summer. Towards the end, when the temperatures are much warmer, these crops might have a tendency to bolt in the heat, but at least you’ll stretch them as far as you can.
The Many Faces of May
With daytime temperatures sometimes flirting near eighty degrees, it might seem safe to plant the more heat-loving plants, such as tomatoes and peppers, but you need to resist the temptation to plant too soon. Early May is a good time to plant broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage that still prefer the cooler temperatures. LeAna Sacrison, who has flower and vegetable gardens on a grand scale in Kalispell, always rings her plants with plastic containers ( such as from a sixteen ounce cottage cheese container) with the bottoms cut out to protect the young plants from cutworms. If not, the cutworms may destroy the
plants at the soil line. They should be removed before the plants become too large to pull them over the top. When you remove the containers, it’s also time to tie the leaves of the cauliflower together to bleach the vegetable. Simply pull the large leaves together at the top and secure, without tearing the leaves, with a string at the top.
The Danells start their tomatoes in a sunny window in the house weeks before they’re ready to set outside. Depending on the variety, allow at least eight weeks to have a sturdy plant. They’ve found milk cartons with holes punched in the bottom give plenty of room for the seedlings to grow. They plant their tomatoes in the middle of May. Although Memorial Day is listed as the final frost date in their area, they watch the weather and cover the plants if needed. Cages are placed around the young plants, so if they have to cover them with a sheet it will keep from crushing them. After the plants are larger, they build wooden frames around them to support the rapidly growing plants.
In many parts of Montana, planting too early is a death sentence for tomatoes or other heat-loving plants; however, there are a few tricks to protect them during freezing nights. Wall-O-Waters are ingenious water teepees placed over the new seedlings that absorb the heat of the sun during the day and gradually release it at night. These are wonderful for tomatoes, which can sometimes be planted up to eight weeks before the official final frost date. I’ve even had tomato plants pull through unharmed after a series of snow storms with the Wall-O-Waters in place.
Floating row covers made of a light polymer fabric also can protect sensitive plants from dangerous temperatures, or give the heat-loving varieties a boost during cool summer nights. The row covers can be placed directly on top of the plants without crushing them, and do allow sunlight and moisture to pass. Wire supports can also be used to make a tunnel for heavier fabrics.
Solar umbrellas are another boon to the Montana gardener. The clear plastic umbrella is pushed into the ground over the plants and creates a mini greenhouse. These are a fantastic for smaller plants, such as eggplant and peppers, and can be left in place throughout the season keeping deer and insects off the plants as well as providing an optimum growing environment. They do have to be removed to water, and be sure they are pushed securely in the ground, or they could end up in your neighbor’s yard after a windstorm.
While many gardeners have to wait longer for the danger of frost to pass, Vic Riggs, a vegetable gardener who has experienced growing in several areas of the state, has found a gardening paradise in Miles City where you can grow nearly anything. With the long growing season and “some nights where it doesn’t get below eighty degrees,” other Montana gardeners will envy the fantastic watermelons and cantaloupe he can grow. Vic says, “You can grow the melons they grow down South, like honeydew” that require an extended season. Even the watermelon and cantaloupe grow huge and sweet, and Riggs often takes them as snacks or lunch on hunting trips in September.
Vic’s method to growing melons is to germinate the seeds indoors in peat pots, then plant the whole thing to not disturb the delicate roots. He places black plastic around the plants, and sometimes covers them with the floating row cover. It’s a “little bit of a jump until you start having those hot nights,” because the plants will just sit there and not grow otherwise.
Corn is “what really shines over here,” states Vic. Once the danger of frost has past in mid-May, Vic begins planting his corn in successive crops every week for six weeks. He starts with early maturing varieties and graduates into a slightly longer growing type. This way when the corn comes on fast, it won’t be all at once and they can enjoy it well into the season.
“Very seldom does it freeze in June,” states Don Danell, so he waits until then to plant his corn to prevent it from being nipped by a late frost. Even then, there should still be ninety days left in the growing season, which is typically enough time for most varieties to mature.
One method of seeding corn is to double row plant it. Instead of a single row, dig two trenches approximately 10-inches apart and plant your corn normally spaced. This way it utilizes space better and gives the plants better support in windy areas.
The Garden Is In
Watering is an issue for everyone in Montana. The Danells use sprinklers and strongly recommend, “Don’t water in the heat of the day. Water only in the morning before 10:00. Let the sprinklers sit in each position of the garden for about an hour at least three times a week if it doesn’t rain.”
Even though Miles City seems perfect, Riggs notes, “It’s a good place to grow a garden if you have water.” He starts sprinkling immediately in early May when he plows the garden and begins planting. Once plants are established, he flood irrigates about once a week during the rest of the summer. He’s rigged his tractor with an implement to dig a ditch in between the rows to allow the water to saturate the garden without drowning the plants. If you live in town and have to pay for water, he suggests using “lots of mulch,” such as lawn clippings to prevent the soil from drying out too quickly.
Just when everything is looking wonderful, sometimes deer arrive and spoil the party. They seem to know when produce is ready and have an uncanny way of harvesting it before you do. While an high fence will keep them away from the cabbage or carrots, many folks don’t want the time, expense or unsightly appearance. Keeping everything protected with the floating row cover or solar umbrellas often work, although working around it takes a little more time to weed or pick vegetables. Other folks use bags of human hair ( you can usually ask your hairdresser to keep clean clippings for you), bars of soap, or radios to discourage deer from loitering in the garden. There are also newer tools, such as “Deer-D-Fence,” a nearly invisible plastic fence that deters wildlife, that
are far more visually appealing than a solid metal fence, and are proven effective even in some very deer laden areas.
After a fast and furious gardening season, it’s time to wind down and begin to think about next year. Don Danell says the rule of thumb for his area is “the first frost is six weeks after the golden rod blooms;” however, he’s decided September 21 is the end of his season so he can finish his outdoor chores before bad weather.
One key to Danell’s success is compost, but not compost created from the typical heaping, unsightly pile of grass clippings, vegetable scraps, and the dead stalks and weeds from the garden. Danell digs a trench approximately a foot deep alongside the garden, and fills it with the organic matter, including 40-50 bags of leaves and manure. He recommends, “If you aren’t in a damp area when you put leaves in water them” to help them decompose. Once the trench is filled, it’s buried. It breaks down, and is eventually turned under with the shovel with the rest of the garden. As a result, their garden is a gorgeous bed of soil fill with nutrients and worms that is a foot higher than the rest of the yard.
By the first part of October, it’s also time to plant a year’s crop of winter, also called traveling, onions. He plants the sets one and a half inches apart. Once they start firming up later in the spring with the warm temperatures, they can be harvested for the kitchen, keeping them approximately 3-inches between each onion. They continue to grow in diameter and can be used throughout the season. The true beauty of winter onions is they’ll continue to produce more sets and provide an early harvest each year.
When many areas of Montana are already dusted with snow, Miles City gardeners can enjoy harvesting into October. The average first frost is the first part of the month, but there are many years when you can pick to nearly Halloween. Vic claims, “You can’t dig carrots until there’s couple inches of snow on the ground.” This makes sense. Why should you store the carrots before you have to when the earth does a bang up job of keeping them sweet and fresh? Once everything is picked, lawn clippings and chicken manure are spread over the garden, and it’s left until next spring to be turned under and prepared for the next season.
Regardless of the challenges, Montana vegetable gardens enjoy produce by the bucket load at the height of the season. The greatest difficulty soon becomes who else will take a zucchini, or wondering why you planted so many tomatoes.