Want To Grow Your Own Food In Bozeman?

Top 10 recommendations for this climate

Monday Apr. 1st, 2024

Spring is just around in the corner, which means that gardening season will soon be underway! If you want fresh food for yourself and your family, I’d highly recommend planting a garden this spring. Getting into gardening has so many benefits: in addition to eating homegrown nutritious vegetables, you cut down on your grocery bill, you spend more time outdoors, you get exercise, and when the vegetables that you’ve grown are on your dinner plate, you get an indescribable sense of accomplishment!

Plus, learning how to grow your own food is one of the most positive steps forward at this time. In a world where climate change, war, wildfires, drought, and floods are a regular part of the daily news, I believe getting back to the basics is critical. Having a garden reduces your carbon footprint by reducing your food miles, while making you and your community more food secure. Rather than feeling helpless and fearful about the future, a garden can make you feel like you are a living part of the solution.

While you may be excited about starting a garden, if you talk to long-time gardeners in the Gallatin Valley, you’ll soon learn that gardening in our climate isn’t the easiest undertaking. Don’t let that dissuade you, however. For over a decade, I’ve not only grown hundreds of pounds of veggies and fruit for my family, I’ve helped countless people do the same through my business, Broken Ground. From my personal experience and that of my clients, here are my top ten recommendations to start you off on the right foot.

Plant what grows well here
Not only should you try growing what you and your family eat on a regular basis, but plant what can mature during our shorter growing season. Cool season crops like radishes, peas, lettuce, spinach, kale, cabbage, and Swiss chard do really well in our climate. In addition, herbs like cilantro, parsley, oregano and thyme are also sure bets. If you want to grow warm season crops like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant, be prepared to work a little harder to get them to mature on time.

Use frost cloth or other season extension techniques
The other strategy to ensure success with warm season crops is to use season extension techniques. This can mean anything from having a greenhouse or a cold frame to something as simple as a frost cloth with hoops over a garden bed. Any of these techniques will protect your crops from our cooler nights and give them a head start in the spring. Once fall rolls around, you might use that frost cloth again to cover your tender veggies when a frost threatens. For example, I cover my tomatoes in the spring when I first plant them, then cover them again in early September, when evening temperatures dip back down.

Plant at the right time
In gardening, timing is everything, espcially with Bozeman’s short growing season. If you plant too soon, seeds can rot in the ground, or seedlings can get stressed because the soil isn’t warm enough. If you plant too late, your vegetables or fruit might not have enough time to mature before the first fall frost. That’s why, in this climate, it is critical to understand what to plant when. Typically, cool season crops are direct-seeded in Bozeman at the end of April/early May; broccoli and cabbage seedlings go in mid-May, and warm season crops get planted around Memorial Day. Of course, there are microclimates all around Bozeman, so your best bet is to ask around, especially if you have a neighbor who is a gardener.  If you need more insight, I have a planting calendar available on my website, www.brokengroundpermaculture.com. Click on the Resources page and you’ll find it!

Buy seedlings from local growers
You’ll be planting some vegetables directly from seed (e.g. lettuce, kale, peas), but others will go in the ground as small seedlings. If you aren’t going to grow these seedlings yourself (which I wouldn’t suggest in your first year of gardening), I’d recommend purchasing seedlings from local growers, who often have plant sales in early spring. Pay attention to farms like Amaltheia Organic Dairy, Three Hearts Farm and Gallatin Valley Botanical, who consistently sell vegetable seedlings and herbs. These long-time farmers are going to be selling tried and true varieties that do well in this climate. You can also check out local farmers’ markets and nurseries. Avoid buying seedlings from big box stores!

Take advantage of microclimates, or create your own
With our challenging and short growing season, identifying areas on your site that are warmer can be really helpful. For example, a south-facing patch right against your house, where the snow disappears first, would be a great place to have a garden and/or to grow warm season crops. A garden plot next to a rock wall, which acts as thermal mass and retains heat at night will bump up nighttime temperatures for your plants. Sidewalks and driveways also act as heat sinks. Before starting a garden, observe your site for these microclimates, or create them with rocks or pavers.

Water wisely
As Bozeman grows, water conservation will be absolutely crucial to maintaining an adequate water supply. So what are our options when much of what we want to grow as gardeners, especially when it comes to fresh fruits and vegetables, needs a decent amount of water?

To be water-wise in your vegetable garden, water by hand if you have a small garden, or install a drip irrigation system; this will allow for the most conservative use of water. I recommend watering in the morning and, typically, less frequently and more deeply. If you water your garden daily, the plant roots stay at the surface. If you water less frequently, the plant roots will grow down, searching for water, creating a more robust root system and a healthier plant. Even in mid-July, I never water more than once every two to three days. I often do the finger test to check soil moisture if I’m unsure. A finger test means that you stick your index finger in the soil, up to the knuckle. If the soil feels moist, there is no need to water.

Build your soil
A healthy soil rich in organic matter and full of living microorganisms is the foundation of a garden. Adding compost to your garden year after year will ensure good yields, and also serves to increase the capacity of the soil to hold water. Soils that are rich in organic matter have a sponge-like quality, allowing them to absorb and retain more moisture over a longer period of time.

Mulch your plants
Applying a four to six-inch layer of mulch (either straw or leaves) between your plants will complement your soil-building efforts and also cut down on watering. Mulch keeps the soil and the plant roots cool during the summer months, while maintaining a more consistent soil moisture. This translates into less frequent watering and less water stress on the plants. It also has the added bonus of smothering weeds. As the straw and leaves break down, they will also contribute organic matter to the soil.

Grow perennial plants if you have the space
In addition to planting an annual garden, introducing edible perennials into your yard is also a good idea. Perennial plants are those that come back year after year. They not only get a jumpstart on the season, but are a lot less work in terms of maintenance and watering. So if you have the space, I recommend planting perennial “food forests.” This can be in the form of a few fruit trees (apple, pear, plum, cherry), berry bushes (raspberries, currants, gooseberries, honeyberries), perennial herbs (chives, oregano, mint, thyme, sage, lovage), or vegetables (rhubarb, asparagus, Jerusalem artichokes). Need more ideas? Visit the Story Mill Learning Garden and Food Forest this spring and look at all the trees, shrubs and flowers that are growing there.

Check the weather, especially in the early spring and fall
If you’ve been living in Bozeman for a while, you know that the weather can change on a dime. Whether it’s a late frost in June, a hailstorm in July or an early frost in September, you need to pay attention to the weather! Nighttime temperatures are especially critical early and late in the season. Your vigilance could make the difference between having homegrown veggies on your plate or having all of your time and effort wasted in one weather event.

Gardening is about observing, understanding, and being connected to the place where you live. Even in a challenging climate like Bozeman, you can be a successful gardener. I would encourage you to start small the first season. As I like to say, you can “grow into your garden” as your skills and experience improve over the years. 

Your garden will be your best teacher on many levels. It will teach you how to grow food and be more self-reliant. It will instill in you more respect and appreciation for your food, for the soil, and for the hard work that goes into putting nutritious meals on the table. It will also teach you intangible lessons like patience, understanding natural cycles, and the benefit of observation. Gardening in Bozeman may challenge you in many ways but when you have success, it will be sweet, meaningful, and nourishing.

For more information, videos, and resources related to growing food in Bozeman, check out brokengroundpermaculture.com/resources.  

Owner of Broken Ground, Kareen Erbe is a garden design consultant and educator. For over a decade, she has helped people in cold climates grow their own food through consultations, design services, her signature Resilient Homestead Program, and her YouTube Channel (www.youtube.com/@BrokenGround).