How to Garden in a Cold Climate

It’s mid-May. The grass is green. We had snow last week. The neighbors north of us got four inches of HAIL a couple days ago. And this is totally normal.

There’s really no sense complaining about it, since that’s just how we roll in Wyoming. But hey, I figured this is perfect timing, so let’s talk about how you can garden in a cold climate. Because I’m proof that it’s possible! (Most years, at least…)

Our prairie homestead is in Southeast Wyoming and we are in garden zone five. I guess it could be worse, we don’t live in Alaska, but still… this is far from an easy place to garden.

I generally plant our cold-sensitive plants around Memorial Day or the first week of June (this year is extra-cool, so I’m waiting a bit longer than normal..) and we can have frosts as early as September sometimes. We have to be prepared to have the most important crops wrapped up by the middle of September, which doesn’t leave us very much time at all to grow our vegetables for the year.

I’ve had a lot of questions from readers about how to garden in a cold climate, and I want to encourage you that it can be done, it just takes a little bit more consideration and effort.

How to Garden in a Cold Climate

1. Know Your Garden Zone and Frost Dates.

Click here to see the USDA Plant Hardiness Map. In order to know what will and will not thrive in your area, it’s crucial that you understand your first and last frost dates. This is especially important if you are in a cold climate like we are and your garden-growing-window is especially small; you must maximize that window as much as possible.

2. Pick the Right Seeds.

I order my seeds in January and when I go through my seed catalog (these are my favorite heirloom seeds), I pay special attention to how many days it takes for the seeds to grow to maturity. I am pretty careful about picking the varieties of beans, peas, corn, squash, etc, that are going to take the shortest possible amount of growing time to mature. This ensures I have the best chance of a harvest before the frost hits.

3. Start Seeds Indoors.

A big part of gardening for us, and I’m sure for many of you (even if you’re in a less harsh climate than me) is the process of starting seeds indoors.

I’ve gotten better over the years at starting seeds and getting my seed starting system properly set up so it’s less hassle and stress compared to how it was at the beginning, and I can easily start several hundred seedlings in my basement on any given year. It saves me money and it makes sure I have a wider availability of vegetables that I wouldn’t have if I was only putting things direct in the soil. Here’s my video on how we set-up our seed starting equipment.

4. Use Season Extenders for Gardening.

One topic that always comes up as far as cold climate gardening goes is using season extenders or things like greenhouses, hoop houses, and/or cold frames. I do think those are very much worth looking into if you live in a harsh climate like we do.

However, we haven’t quite gone that route yet, but we have toyed for years with the idea of building some sort of greenhouse. Now that we have our raised beds, we’ve also considered creating hoops and thick plastic to go over the tops to warm things up.

The main issue with building a greenhouse where we live is the hail, strong winds, and snow… Those cute little plastic greenhouse kits you see floating around? Those wouldn’t last a week here. Therefore, in lieu of building a seed-starting fortress that would outlast Armageddon, we’ve decided to hold off– at least for now.

Also, it feels somewhat scandalous to admit this, but by the time October rolls around, I’m usually quite ready to put the garden to bed for the year and be done with it. I’m not really keen on figuring out how to creatively extend the growing season into the snow or into the cooler weather. That’s just me, but if you are a gardening-diehard and you want to garden all year, you should absolutely look into cold frames, hoop houses, and all that good stuff.

5. Garden with Raised Beds.

I get tons of questions in regards to our raised beds, and while cold-climate gardening wasn’t the only reason we built them, it was a factor in our decision. I talk more about why we started using raised beds in this post. Raised beds can increase the temperature of your soil a little bit and it might give you just enough of a leg up that it helps you get things started in the garden a little bit sooner.

summer garden in Wyoming

6. Pay Attention to Where You Get Your Plants.

One of my very best tips that I have learned more recently is to pay attention to where you’re getting your plants if you live in a cold climate. For years, I would lean heavily on the generic stores like Lowes and Home Depot for my plant purchases. I realized last year after talking to local gardening experts that you’re going to be much better off going with a local gardening store that understands your area.

I discovered that while Lowes and Home Depot do carry plants rated for our zone, there are different variations for Zone Five. In contrast, our local gardening store have a better understanding of which plants are rated for OUR type of Zone Five and they are far more knowledgeable in helping one understand the nuances of the area.

Take my currant bush for example. When I go to a generic store, they sell fruit trees and berries, but I’ve never had great luck with those options. Last year, I started researching currants and talked to some local gardening experts, and I learned that this particular currant variety is designed to thrive in our harsh prairie climates. Bingo.

preparing raised beds for spring planting
P.S. I’m totally obsessed with currant bushes at the moment

Sure enough, my currant bush started blooming in April and it’s super happy, even though everything else is still pretty much dormant.

Moral of the story? Talk to people who have been in your area a long time and don’t blindly trust the labels on those generic store plants.

Another example of where we found success with this concept was with our tree row. Instead of just going to a big box store and buying random trees, we worked with local tree experts to find the right varieties to plant in our protective tree row. Pinpointing the hardiest species of trees for this area has saved as a lot of money and heartache in dead trees.

(Just in case you were wondering, we planted Austrian and Ponderosa Pines, native plums, lilacs, and then some cottonwood and ash trees mixed in the back row. They are slower to mature but they’ll provide wonderful protection in years to come.)

preparing raised beds for spring planting

7. Look for Sheltered Areas on Your Land

As you are planning out gardens in your yard or around your homestead, keep your eyes peeled for the locations with extra shelter.

For example, we have a little herb garden up against the house and this particular area is far more sheltered than the other garden against the wind. It also captures the southern light against the house and it is slightly warmer than other areas of the yard.

If I have plants that are rated for Zone Five but need a little extra TLC, they go in this sheltered area since it’s a little more protected.

Side Note: Dealing with Spring Fever…

One of the hardest parts about living in an area with a late spring is getting the gardening itch in mid-April and not being able to really do much out here until end of May. What have I been doing to quell my spring fever? We put fresh soil in some of the raised beds that were getting a little compacted, I’ll be testing the soil, We’ve dug up some of the beds and fluffed everything up, and we’re going to be putting some fresh mulch in the pathways. So I may be wearing a sweatshirt and dodging snowstorms, but at least I’m still outside digging in the dirt.

You CAN garden (almost) anywhere…

If I can garden in the wide-open, windy, and hail-prone prairie of southeast Wyoming, you can do it where you’re at with just a few extra considerations. It might take a little more effort than someone living in the deep South who has a long growing season and very little frost but we can do hard things and it is worth the effort, I promise.


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