Over the past few years, I have developed a reputation for cheating. This causes some disgruntle among observant neighbours. They feel like I am getting away with something I shouldn’t be getting away with, and the truth is, maybe I am.
My confession? I don’t wait until the May long weekend to plant my crops. No. I pay careful attention to the weather, and I plant my crops as soon as the soil is workable. I then leave some of my crops in the ground until the end of October on occasion. This is my cheat.
As Calgarians, we are told to wait for that magical date in late May before planting and seeding our crops ensuring they don’t freeze. But I just happen to be well versed in cold crops; a gardener’s dream come true if you live above the 49th parallel, so I’ve decided to take advantage! We only have between 90 and 110 consecutive frost free days per year, so we don’t have time to wait for these frost free days, instead we must take advantage of our cooler days.
There are some crops that, in fact, need cooler temperatures to thrive. I will highlight these so that us Calgarians can feel proud of our amazing growing season; not for the tomatoes we can squeeze in before it gets below 5 degrees Celsius, but for the mineral rich leafy greens and e family delights, some of which can handle as cold as -8 degrees Celsius and grow beautifully here.
I am going to break these cold crops down into 4 categories: Leafy greens, cabbage family, root crops and peas, to simplify the memorization aspect.
Apart from basil, almost all leafy green vegetables are considered cold crops:
Only some varieties are frost tolerant, so check the package!
These crops can be direct seeded into your garden as soon as the ground is soft enough to dig. They can then stay put until they freeze solid, so try not to harvest them too soon. Leafy greens for example, can be harvested by simply plucking off a few leaves from each plant as needed, which means come September and October, you will likely still have leaves that are still available for harvest. You can also harvest peas quite late into the season, although I have noticed their production rate starts to slow down as the light gets lower and air temperatures get cooler.
Root crops are some of my favourite cold crops, as the soil essentially preserves them. My friend Patrick Sweet dug out his carrots just days before christmas after covering the rows with straw and tarps for protection. Just because the green tops have died back doesn’t mean the roots are gone too. I have occasionally dug up a carrot the following spring that somehow got missed the previous fall, and it is still as sweet as any home grown tuber you might harvest during the summer or fall.
Patrick says he waits to cover his roots crops until the weather is cool, between 0 and 5 degrees C, and dry outside. The key is to keep both the moisture and the mice out, and he shared with me a system that he has found worked for him this year. He says that putting an old blanket down first (as it’s breathable) then a large load of dry leaves on top works well to create air pockets, which is what insulates the carrots. He then puts a tarp on top to keep moisture out, and “hems” the edges of the tarp down by shovelling a small amount of soil around the perimeter. He suspects this might even deter a wandering mouse, or keep them from smelling the carrots. He suspects his success this year was also due to a layer of snow that blanketed the works, sealing things, and most importantly providing a little more insulation.
Extend that vegetable season and enjoy the cold crops to make the most of them in this frosty winter land we live in!
Learn how you can have carrots at Christmas by joining GrowFoodCalgary seminars.