Living in colder climates is undoubtedly somewhat challenging when it comes to growing food. The harshness of frost and ice leaves our gardens dormant, our ground frozen over, and our animals shivering.
However, as with all permaculture tricks, the idea is to think outside the box to adapt to these conditions. For those in cool humid to cold climates, extending the growing season is imperative, while understanding food preservation and storage for the winter months will help to keep your food secure year-round.
Characteristics of Cool Humid to Cold Climates
The world can roughly be split into 3 types of climates: tropical, temperate, and polar. Among these, the climatic areas can be split into subclimates.
Cool humid to cold climates are considered to be colder versions of the temperate climate. In this sense, when applying permaculture techniques, we’re using those more suitable to temperate climates, adjusting them a little to compensate for the colder temperatures and higher levels of precipitation.
These types of climates tend to have four distinct seasons: spring, summer, fall, and winter. The summer and spring are the ideal growing times, however, fall also enables you to have a short growing season extension. The winters tend to be wet and cold, but rain can occur in any of the seasons.
Characteristically, cool humid to cold climates tend to be subject to some of the more extreme cold weather features such as ice, snow, frost, and frozen ground. The coldest months are below 0 degrees (Celsius), while the warmer months are above 10. Wind is also characteristic of these climates, especially cold humid air and downslope cold winds.
While the warmer summers and fresh springs are easy to deal with, when it comes to these types of climates, it is the frosts and winds that we are attempting to work with in order to create a more sustainable permaculture garden.
In general, these kinds of climates are good for berry crops, from blackberries to cranberries, as well as featuring forests of half evergreen and deciduous trees. In the colder climates, fir forests can also be seen, accompanied by the forage-able goods that come with colder forests, like mushroom and nut production. You’ll also find species-rich meadows and more natural prairies in these areas.
Extending the Season
Most importantly with these cooler climates, we need to focus on how to deal with the colder weathers. With tropical climates, the growing season can be considered to be more easily year-round, but with colder climates, the threat of frost and snow can lead to times without food production.
In this sense, we want to produce as much food as we can in the spring and summer, while pushing those seasons as far as we can, to mimic these warmer temperatures and enable crops to grow longer. This is known as season extension and encompasses methods of plant selection, appropriate technology, and land management to create more suitable growing climates.
The first thing to consider is that not all plants grow at the same time of the year and that not all plants are tolerable to the same temperatures. That said, while some plants cannot withstand frost and cold, other plants need this to germinate.
With this in mind, we want to consider the edible plants that we select for our gardens to take advantage of these changing seasons. When we first think of our annual crops, the warmer season annual crops are easier to choose.
Summer vegetables need the warmer temperatures for the seeds to germinate and the summer heat for the plants to flower and fruit, with the brilliant sunshine for the fruits and vegetables to ripen. Typically, they have a longer growing season, which is why they are planted in the springtime, ripening in the summer.
With cool humid to cold climates, we can plant tomatoes, beans, peppers, squashes, cucumbers, carrots, eggplants, and so on. These types of plants do not tolerate the colder seasons and will die with the first frost.
Fall vegetables have shorter growing seasons. They can be characterized by the fact that they are grown for their leaves, stalks, roots, and bulbs to be eaten, as opposed to summer vegetables where the fruit is the bounty. They can tolerate light frosts and, in some cases, the frost will enhance the flavor of the vegetable, as with broccoli and cabbages where the sugar within them acts as an anti-freeze.
The colder weather stops these vegetables from ‘bolting’; this is where they quickly spring up flower stalks and stop bulking out. The nutrients drain from the leaves and stalks to produce flowers, leaving them spindly and unformed. This can occur if there is an unusual heatwave.
Fall vegetables tend to include leafy greens (spinach and Swiss chard), alliums (garlic, chives, and onions), roots (parsnips and beets), stalk vegetables (fennel and celery), and cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, kale, and cauliflower).
Equally, adding diversity to your crop will help to extend your growing season. This will alter your diet somewhat but will provide food alternatives for when the annual crops don’t produce as much. Perennial alternatives (especially native perennials) do not need to be planted each year and will take care of themselves yearly.
With a little water and some mulch, you’ll find that these types of plants return a yield year after year without as much hassle.
Examples of perennial alternatives are water celery, walking or wild garlic, Caucasian spinach, wild forest leek, asparagus, perennial scallions, sea kale, garlic chives and sylvetta (perennial arugula).
Your property has its own microclimate, which is a subsection of the climate in which it sits. This microclimate can be manipulated in a variety of ways to enable you to extend your growing season and create artificial warmth as the temperature drops. Here are a few of the ways you can achieve this.
Windbreaks can serve to prevent summer drying winds from stripping the soil of moisture, while also blocking cold winter winds that can compromise plants with their strength and lower the temperature of the soil. Many people also use windbreaks to shelter buildings to protect from cold weathers and provide better insulation.
When designing your windbreak, first you need to consider where it will be positioned. From mapping the direction of winds across your property, you can work out how to place your windbreak to act as a shelter, cutting that wind direction off. In this sense, they need to be placed perpendicular to the wind flow.
A windbreak is made up of several layers of trees. The idea is to create an upward slope so when the wind hits the treeline, it is diverted upward, to cycle back on itself, similarly to how the water in a stream would act if it were to hit a rock. By having several layers of trees, we can create a triangle shape.
The idea is that if you were to cut a cross-section into your windbreak, you would have an equilateral triangle, with roughly 60-degree slope angles from the shortest plants on the outside to the tallest trees on the inside. Due to this, seven layers are usually recommended, with woody bushes on the outer edge, with smaller fruit trees next, followed by larger trees, followed by canopy trees, then again, the large trees, to smaller fruit trees, and to woody bushes on the other outer edge.
As a general rule, the length of the tree belt should be ten times the height of the tallest tree. The upward lift created by the barrier will give you a protection of 20 times the height of the tree. So, a 10-meter tree will protect upwards of 300 meters.
The length of the windbreak should not be more than ten times the height of the tallest tree. If you need more protection, you can add taller trees.
While trees have spacing requirements, when planting a windbreak, you are looking to place those trees far closer together than the recommended distance. This is because you’re not looking for the highest amount of fruit production, but to form a barrier that weaves in between each other, blocking winds.
By putting the trees closer together and creating this triangle shape, you’ll find that 60-80% of the wind is blocked from coming through and diverted upward.
When choosing your trees, think about deciduous versus evergreen trees. If the cold wind is coming from a certain direction in the winter, deciduous trees are no good. However, if you are subject to warm winds in the summer but would like those warm winds in the winter, you’ll need deciduous species.
Remember to stack functions with your windbreak. It can serve as a food forest or animal fodder, as well as source for coppicing firewood, growing mushroom, and attracting pollinators.
Sun traps are similar to windbreaks but as designed to capture and encourage the sun. The idea is to protect cold and frost sensitive plants. By creating sun traps, you can take advantage of bright winter sun without subjecting your frost-intolerable plants to the cold winds and permafrosts. The shape diverts the winds upwards and around the sides of the sun trap, keeping a bubble of warmth in the middle.
The most important things to consider are where the winds are coming from and the sun’s path. This is because a sun trap is a U-shape with its open end facing the sun, and the closed parts of the U serving as perpendicular windbreaks.
If wind comes from the same direction as the sun, this is not the most suitable method. The ideal usage for this is if the wind comes from the north, but it will also protect against easterly and westerly winds as you can rotate the U-shape to still catch the sun ray’s within its daily path.
The closed end of the U-shape should have the largest trees, tapering down into smaller trees and bushes toward the open end, as not to block the sunlight.
You want to select perennial plants and trees (edible versions are even better), bearing in mind the issues with deciduous trees in the winter. They need to be placed closely together using similar principles of the windbreak.
The closed end of U-shape should mimic that of the windbreak, using the same equilateral triangle method for best protection. The layers can taper down as it reaches the open end.
There are a couple of ways to utilize passive solar energy in order to extend the growing seasons. Perhaps the most obvious is the use of a cold frame or a greenhouse.
A cold frame is a smaller version of a greenhouse, usually used to start seedlings. When looking to extend the seasons, a cold frame is a great way to get your seedlings started before spring really gets into full swing. You just need a small solid frame, covered by glass or clear plastic. This should be rotated toward the sun to take full advantage of its heat.
Equally, a greenhouse or glasshouse serves in the same manner. The sun shines into the greenhouse and becomes trapped inside, warming the greenhouse and giving the plants the impression of the spring/summer seasons.
There are some clever ways to extend this even further, such as the example of heated irrigation. To keep the warmth inside the greenhouse, you can warm the water that feeds into the greenhouse.
This can be done by running a black pipe through an aerobic compost pile, which heats the water in the pipe. When this is pumped through the greenhouse, it can be pushed through misters to both irrigate the plants and raise the temperature of the greenhouse.
Alternatively, people use the idea of thermal mass. By placing large rocks that heat in the sun inside the greenhouse, or large (usually aluminum) barrels of water (ceramic pots are better than plastic or aluminum, but if you’re using plastic or aluminum barrels, paint them black to absorb the heat). The rocks or water will absorb the heat while it is being given out, and when the sun lowers and the temperature drops, they will release the heat back into the greenhouse. This raises the temperature and allows for a longer growing season.
It’s not uncommon to confuse permaculture with jazzy gardening. It’s far more than this however, and this is demonstrated very obviously in cooler climates, where there is a distinct time with no growing season.
While modern life has enabled us to tide ourselves over with convenience stores and supermarkets, these establishments come with large-scale import and export and massive carbon footprints. Considering food security is hugely important yet we want to increase our self-sufficiency, this takes planning during the months when food is available, as well as being prepared to change your eating behaviors.
Storage is your first key and your best friend. When you’re producing food, you’ll find that you often have abundant fruits and vegetables. While you can, of course, give them away in line with the ‘Fair Share’ ethic, thinking about the non-growing seasons should always be in the forefront of your mind if you live in cool humid to cold climates.
The ways in which produce is stored significantly affects its shelf life. Like extending your seasons, you can also extend the life of your site’s products to help push into the non-growing seasons.
Think about this. Fruits and vegetables respire like humans and need nutrients to do so. When picked, they continue to respire as they ripen off the plant; however, their source of nutrients has gone. By slowing this respiration, you can increase the shelf life.
Often, we do this by putting things in a fridge. For many fruits and vegetables this is fine, but vegetables that are cold sensitive (i.e. high summer vegetables), sometimes this can ripen unevenly and rot quicker. In this sense, we need to be cautious to understand the correct temperature per vegetable.
On this note, Holmgren, one of the permaculture co-founders, has an incredible design he calls ‘The Cool Cupboard’. The idea is to create an in-home fridge that uses little to no power and can store produce without shocking it with unnatural temperatures.
A concrete pipe is laid under the house, far enough down that it is cooled by the naturally lower temperature of the Earth. Inside the house, a cob cupboard is built on top of the opening of this pipe, with a flue installed out the roof. A solar-powered fan at the other end of this pipe sucks the air through, which cools as it travels along the pipe and the flue draws the cool air upwards and out. This can cool food in the ‘Cool Cupboard’ by up to 10-11 degrees Celsius.
Even within this ‘Cool Cupboard, you should also think about how your produce is stored and which vegetables are stored with which. Some plants produce a plant growth regulator called Ethelene. Other plants are sensitive to this and will go on to ripen far too quickly. As a general rule, fruits are Ethelene makers and vegetables are more sensitive to this, so storing them apart will be beneficial. There are many other rules such as not storing onions and potatoes together, leaving broccoli and asparagus in water, and storing your tomatoes without them touching. These kinds of storage tips will help you to organize your shelves.
Another storage idea is to install a root cellar. As most people know, roots like cool, dry storage places. Root cellars create a natural way to store your roots and bulbs (as well as pickles and preserves). They are usually rooms submerged 3/4s of the way underground and outlined with cob to take advantage of the Earth’s insulation.
Preservation is the art of processing foods in order to prevent the growth of fungus and bacteria, so food can be used in the processed form later, without needing to be frozen or often even chilled.
There are several processes of preservation, with many dating back numerous generations. Drying is one of the best ways to store foods. While you can dry food with an electric dehydrator, there are many amazingly simple designs for passive solar dehydrators. You can dry fruit, vegetables, and even meat and fish; storing these in airtight jars in a cool, dark place. When done with meat or fish, this is often called curing and uses salt to dry it out. Following this, these things can also be smoked.
photo: Passive solar dehydrator for drying food
Vinegar is an excellent preservation tool. You can pickle vegetables straight in vinegar, but you can also make chutney, which involves making savory jelly recipes of various cut fruit and vegetables. Sugaring is the process of using sugar to preserve, which forms a barrier against microbes. This is usually done either by covering fruits in sugar or making sweet jellies and jams.
Lastly but perhaps most importantly is the act of fermentation. Mollison, the other co-founder of permaculture, talked widely about this in his books before he ever came up with the concept of permaculture.
Lacto-fermentation is most widely used for preserving food and creates foods which are very high in good bacteria and are exceptionally healthy for the gut flora. This type of fermentation leads to yogurt, pickles, kimchi, and so on. Vinification is the process of letting sugar-rich juices, normally fruit juices, ferment naturally. This causes the sugars to become ethanol via yeast. This can make vinegar as well as making alcoholic beverages.
Permaculture is made to be a toolbox to enable you to create innovative design methods to produce food, medicine, clothing, etc in your own environment. Humans have survived nearly all climates, adapting to their surroundings; permaculture thinking invites you to do the same.
While it may seem that these cooler climates struggle with periods of no growth, there are myriad ways to overcome this by extending the seasons as well as altering our consumption patterns to better suit the natural climate.
Interestingly, you’ll not only find it easier and easier to extend you growing seasons once you have employed a few of these techniques, you’ll also find that this shift in diet is likely to increase your health levels; especially with an increase of pickled and fermented products improving your gut health.
More than just gardening tips, permaculture tools will teach you to live abundantly year-round using dynamic thinking and closed loop systems to adapt to whatever weather!
Emmy Jenkins, AKA Permie Emmy, has spent many years traveling around the globe and working remotely, dipping her toes into a myriad of disciplines. Having spent several years volunteering on sustainable farms, Emmy chose to delve deeper into permaculture theory to understand the social and economic patterns often neglected in the philosophy. When she’s not planting edible gardens and frolicking the jungle, she’s consulting on projects around the world to help permaculturalists to understand regenerative ‘Fairshare’ economic patterns and to encourage People Care patterns that focus on biomimicry.