ISSUE 87  |  Wild at Heart

Gone Wild: How to Grow Vegetables in the Middle of Nowhere

August 29, 2013 10:00 AM

BY Erin Boyle

As an urban gardener with two measly window boxes to my name, my most vivid daydreams involve waltzing out to a vegetable garden to find tomatoes and salad greens going gangbusters. There’d be a peach tree, too. With more fruit than I could possibly eat myself. 

One day.

Until then, my sister Laura’s impressive garden allows me to live vicariously. In the middle of the Wallowa Mountains in Eastern Oregon, Laura’s learned a few tricks for managing a garden that needs more than your average tender, loving care. 

This is what Laura has to say:

“For the past two seasons, I have been gardening at the Minam River Lodge, in remote Eastern Oregon. Without the option of popping over to a garden center, and with a short season that includes late frosts, droughts, wildlife, temperature extremes, and limited daylight, I’ve come up with some crazy gardening schemes.”

Here’s her advice for the wilderness gardener:

1. Break the Rules.

You know that teasing line on seed packets that tells you how many days until harvest? Ignore it. In most remote locations, the gardening books and blogs just don’t apply.  Heck, most gardens have their own micro-climate anyhow. Rather than compare your plants to the schedule they “should” follow, notice what they are telling you from their size and stature. For me, this means embracing green tomato recipes and worrying less over the petiteness of my plants in August.

2. Use What You Have.

Call on your inner eco-nerd! Rather than ship in supplies over the mountains, I use what we have on hand as much as possible.  We use recycled milk and orange juice jugs for potting up seed starts and have been known to plant herbs in old coffee cans.  Eggshells from our ladies [the chickens] and coffee grounds make a great mid-season fertilizer. We use the horse manure and hay from the property for our compost and rocks from near the river to line the beds. We also use our weeds–comfrey, mint, and lamb’s quarter grow on their own out here. Comfrey conditions the soil and makes compost break down faster, so our compost piles co-exist with a huge swath that we let go wild.

3. Extend Your Season.

Advice about using your local resources notwithstanding, we do bring in the supplies that will make a difference. Our indispensable asset, Agribon Row Covers–$119 from Grow Organic–protect our spring and fall crops from frost. Lightweight and sturdy, the magic blankets are also useful for insect control and as a makeshift barrier against hungry deer. In line with rules No. 1 and No. 2, we made our own version of mini hoop houses (deviating from the standard PVC recommendation).  We used scrap wood on site to make A-frame style houses. Their sides can be fully rolled open during the hot days, perfect for our heat-loving summer plants. 

4. Buy Seeds or Plants Specific to Your Region.

Most gardeners I know, myself included, just cannot resist growing tomatoes, or melons, or some other “reach plant” for their area. Within reason, I don’t fight this impulse. I do make sure to buy varieties that suit my climate. Using local seed companies can help, as their varieties often list where the parent plants originally grew. I bought seeds from Wild Garden Seed and Seed Savers Exchange.  Whenever I saw the words “Russian steppe” or “Nebraskan winter” in the description, I knew I was headed in the right direction.

5. Go Perennial.

Learning the land takes time, so I was reluctant to put in long-lasting herbs and vegetables. But as I observed from our beautiful rhubarb, sorrel, and mint patches, the land can do just fine without my worrying. In remote locations, especially, perennial plantings save time, money, and effort. Most perennial plants are hardier and require less water, frost protection, and fertilizer. Make sure you protect the plants from deer pressure and you’re good to go. An old-timer’s gardening tip I learned from the local pilot’s wife: Hang dryer sheets on the fruit trees and berry bushes you want to protect…less muss and fuss than packets of soap shavings, and the deer will be just as befuddled by the fresh laundry scent.

Above: Makeshift containers for potting up seed starts and transplants.

Above: Laura planted orach–a salad green that’s native to the Alps and sometimes called Mountain Spinach. Organic ‘Aurora’ and ‘Mountain Magic’ orach varieties are available at Wild Garden Seed for $3 a packet.

Above: Laura’s partner, Adam, watering the kale and chard crops. 

Above: Plans are in the works for a greenhouse built of locally sourced lumber; in the meantime, Laura and Adam have built a serviceable temporary solution from lightweight materials. In the foreground, comfrey by the compost pile.

Above: Summer squash in the A-frame-style hoop houses designed and built on site.

Above: Pea plants get wrangled with stakes made from fallen branches and string.

Above: Cut-up aluminum cans will deter deer.

Above: Chicken coop for the Lodge’s three happy chickens.

Above: Meet Sassy, Felicity, and Jumper.

Above: Laura’s impressive stand of wilderness sunflowers.

Above: A recent harvest of beets and carrots.

Above: Laura Boyle; wilderness farmer extraordinaire. If you have questions for Laura, feel free to ask them in the comments section below (yes–there’s wi-fi in the wilderness, too!). 

Read more about the Minam River Lodge where Laura’s growing food.