Last week I started this Homegrown Paleo blog series with a post about the important of healthy soil. Soil is not the sexiest garden topic to be sure, yet it's the foundation of a successful garden.
After your soil is in good condition, be it in the ground or raised beds or containers, it's time to think about what to plant.
For your first garden, plant what you like to eat. This may seem like overly simplistic advice; however, it you don't know what is a parsnip or kohlrabi, don't plant it. You'll end up giving away things you don't know how to prepare and eat. Make a list of all the vegetables you most commonly buy from the store and focus on growing those.
Here's where I hate to burst your "I'm growing limes" bubble, but, you're not growing limes in Montana. All fruits and vegetables have a tolerance for cold and frost, and those cold tolerances will determine what you grow here.
All plants can be categorized into annual or perennial growth. An annual plant grows up and dies in one growing season. A perennial plant goes dormant in the winter and then regrows the following growing season. Some plants that are annuals in Montana are perennials elsewhere. One of the determinants of annual or perennial growth in Montana is the first and last frost dates. These dates define our growing season.
Annual garden vegetables have yet another categorization based on their frost tolerance. Some annual plants are cold season crops, meaning they can tolerate cold temperatures or a light frost, and some are warm season crops, not tolerating cold or frost at all.
Many of our favorite vegetables like tomatoes, squash, peppers and eggplant are warm season crops. They will die in a frost (when the temperature is at or below freezing) and will grow very slowly if planted out too early. To pick the variety that will grow best you need to know the length of your growing season.
Here in the Gallatin Valley our last spring frost occurs around May 22 and the first fall frost occurs around September 27. That gives us about a 100 day growing season. Local wisdom is to transplant your warm season crops after Memorial Day.
Cold season crops can be directly sown (planting the seeds) into your garden anytime in April or May and starts can be transplanted in May. Peas grow exceptionally well here and I've successfully sown pea seeds as early at St. Patrick's Day.
Now that we know the length of our growing season we can pick the crops that will grow and produce in less than 100 days. I pick varieties that are 90 days or less to maximize the probability that I will get a harvest. Too many times have I eagerly awaited the ripening of the most beautiful, big, juicy tomatoes only to have my hopes and dreams smashed by a mid-September cold snap. Now I grow all the cherry tomatoes I can! Of course, there are ways of extending the harvest, and that's the subject of another blog.
Lucky for us, we have several local farms and garden centers that have done much of the growing season math for us. You can purchase plant starts from stores now. Just wait to transplant the warm season crops until Memorial Day Weekend.
To help you determine what you can grow in your area, check in with your Cooperative Extension. All Extension services have a department dedicated to helping you grow your on food. These horticulture specialists and Master Gardener volunteers are ready to help you pick the best crops for your garden.
Here's a great guide from Montana State University Extension to help you answer the question, "Can I grow that here?"
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