Watch / Listen Here:
What We Covered
Dive into an extraordinary tale of winter gardening in one of the most challenging climates in the continental US. Our special guest, Dawn Trammell, shares her inspiring journey of transforming a snow-covered backyard into a productive garden. It’s not just about defying the cold; it’s about redefining the conventional gardening calendar.
This episode is a must-listen for anyone intrigued by the resilience of nature and the ingenuity of a dedicated gardener. Join us as we explore the unique tips and strategies that make gardening viable, even under several feet of snow. Get ready to be inspired and perhaps start your own winter gardening adventure!
- Visit Dawn at Northwest Homesteader to claim your free copy of her in-depth video class on winter gardening
- Sustainable Preparedness – details on how to make your homestead systems (water, power, heat, etc) more independent
Hi, I’m Lisa Meissner, and welcome back to the Ready Life podcast where we show you how to make your home and family as independent as possible for basic necessities like water, heat, food, and the power that most of us are very dependent on for our basic necessities these days. Today we are missing Nick because we have a friend joining us today.
And today we’re going to be talking about gardens in the middle of winter with my friend Dawn Trammell. So we’re very excited to have her because she has successfully had a garden under feet of snow for the last several years and we wanted to bring her on to our podcast so we could talk about that today. So welcome to our podcast, Dawn. All right. Thank you for having me, Lisa.
I’m very excited to be here today and to share what I have learned. Yes. Well, let’s start off by finding out what in the world inspired you to do a crazy thing like growing a garden in feet of snow. Well, it actually did kind of turn out to be crazy. 1 year I was just gardening and fall came along and I decided, I’m kind of tired of hanging up my rake and being done gardening so why not figure out how to garden year-round I thought why do I have to be done I didn’t want to be done because I really enjoyed gardening so much that I thought there has to be a way that I can garden year round and I saw the food prices in the store.
Oh yeah, that helps. I decided I wanted to feed my family for basically free and have good nutritious food for them year round. So it started me on a journey. Wow, you didn’t like the anemic food in the grocery store. I was kind of tired of eating lettuce.
I had no taste, according to my husband, has no taste. Yeah. That is so awesome. So can you describe the kind of climate that you live in and, I don’t know, some of the challenges that you face in your area for growing through the winter. Yeah, wow crazy for sure.
We have a pretty harsh cold climate. We 1 year had 8 or 10 feet of snow cumulative through the entire winter which is crazy and it’s very cold. It can get very cold at night, sometimes below 0 temperatures in the wintertime, and the snow just kind of like hangs around and hangs around, so yeah, it’s pretty crazy to think about trying to grow food in a climate like that. Yeah, last year, last year we had. Not only that, but it’s dark.
Yes, true. It’s not like we have a lot of really sunny days to try to grow food. So yeah, I was definitely up for a challenge. Yeah, I know we just had the time change not too long ago and now days are ending like middle of the day. It’s dark for over half our day.
So yeah, so I’m wondering, could you explain to us how to get started with a high tunnel and how to actually grow this winter garden? Well really you just need some space where you can build a greenhouse or a high tunnel and it needs to have some good southern exposure really no matter where you are living in the United States or in the world here, you need to have good southern exposure. Even in the wintertime, if it’s not sunny all day long, you’re still getting some light through the clouds. And so that’s really what the plants need. So As you’re getting started, you really need to just think about where can I put a structure that’s going to get some light, especially in the winter months?
When I say winter months, I’m talking like November through February for northern climates, for northern climates. But in any climate, really, you need the sun, the sunlight. So yeah, you would do that. And then if you go to my website, there is a step-by-step process on building an actual hoop house, but really just decide what kind of size you’re looking for, what you can afford, and just lay out your basic frame and start putting plants inside. So you had a lot of money, right, to build this with?
Oh, yes. Like everybody else these days. Really, we didn’t have much when we first started out. We really had a little budget. This will be our 10th year of growing in the snow.
And we started out, we only had $500. So we actually built our first hoop house with $500. And that’s everything, that’s even the seeds. That’s everything. So what did you build your your your hoop house out of?
So we actually went to a lumber yard and got reclaimed or lumber that you know they couldn’t sell. Scrap type stuff. And that’s how we first started out. We just built a frame with that and then we bought the other pieces the rebar and the plastic The plastic was probably the most expensive thing And I would highly recommend that you get the right kind of greenhouse plastic so that it’ll last You know, then we just started collecting seeds and then we just kind of looked online at different ideas that people had and I’m curious. So put it together.
What did you use for that great big arch thing? So we used gray conduit, electric conduit, not the white conduit, because it would splinter in the sun and fall apart. So we got the gray conduit and we put 2 10-foot pieces together to make a 20-foot span. Wow. And then we got a 20-foot piece of rebar and put it inside of that and then framed it inside the tunnel.
Wow, okay, so if you want to learn how to do her on the budget high tunnel, you’ll have to go visit her website. What is your website? Yes, it’s northwesthomesteader.com And I have a presentation on the winter gardening that goes step by step with pictures of how we did it. The first year we did it, I took pictures of everything so that I could just document, you know, is this going to work or is this really crazy indeed? And it did work.
And so we put it all together into a presentation for people if they wanted to go and watch it and learn how to build it how we did it. That is so so cool. Okay so middle of winter I’m picturing plastic and conduit and some rebar. Like how does that hold up under feet of snow? You mentioned like 8 feet of snow 1 year or something.
Well we put clips on the ends of it So the plastic is clipped down there pretty well on the reed or the conduit. Yeah. But yeah, you have to keep the snow off of it, obviously. You know, some nights we would get 2 feet of snow in a night. And so, you know, the plastic was kind of doing this.
It was kind of scary, but it held up really, really well for us. I would just keep shoveling the snow off when it got hot. You don’t want to keep snow on it, even like 2, 3 inches, because really what, your plants underneath that plastic, your plants really need the light. Okay so you want to keep the snow brush off every morning. Basically every day that it snows you’re out there brushing it off you’re hitting the inside with a broom you’re shoveling it however you do you got to get the snow you have to keep the snow off of it.
That’s really the trick because the plants really do need that light in the wintertime. It’s not the heat. So we’re not heating this greenhouse at all. It’s just the light that they need. Wow.
That’s the trick. That’s phenomenal. And that’s what people can’t get their minds wrapped around. They think they have to put heat into the greenhouse. In order to…
There’s absolutely no heat. Okay. Should I mention? Go for it. My favorite, the author that I was using for inspiration was Elliot Coleman in his books.
And his motto is unheated, uninsulated, unbelievable. And it really is, because there’s absolutely no heat whatsoever. And believe me, I’ve seen and I’ve benefited from some of her winter harvest and it is phenomenal and it is Delicious. It’s a miracle. It really is amazing.
Okay, so you mentioned that Obviously you’ve been doing this for 10 years, right? Yes. So 10 years ago you spent 500 dollars with your budget to start with a You know budget cost hoop house. Is that so obviously you’ve been teaching this. How much do you think that’s going to cost me to set up something like that?
I would guess now with the price changes and things I would say somewhere between 1200 and 1500 dollars I would guess depending on how much money you want to spend on lumber. The cost of plastic hasn’t gone up too much, but the conduit has really gone up a lot in price and the rebar. Okay, unless you can go to a dump somewhere and find rebar and reclaim stuff like that. And you never know. But if you don’t have that much snow, then you don’t have to worry about that.
Like if you’re in a more southern climate, you wouldn’t even need the rebar. By the way, that’s just a fraction of the cost of what a hoop house would cost. Because Nick and I were actually been looking into high tunnels and hoop houses and greenhouse options because we want to do something like that here but man alive it’s expensive. In the thousands. Yeah multiple thousands anyhow depending on how large of a hoop house you want to build.
And let me mention also, because I have at my classes, a lot of people ask me that question, what kind should I buy and purchase? And I would say just be aware that a lot of those kits that you buy, you can spend $15,000, $20,000 on 1 easy, and they do not come with framing for the ends. Oh my. So it just is a piece of plastic that comes down over the end of it and then you have to build your own framing and build your own door. Wow.
So just keep that in mind that and some of them don’t have any kind of vents either So you got to price all that into it also. OK. Wow. So budget options, here we come. Yes.
Yes. So once you’ve got your hoop house set up, what kind of plants or things can I grow my tomatoes? In a northern climate, you don’t want to grow tomatoes, peppers, eggplant. They need more sun. They need the light.
Once the shorter days kick in, October, November, December, January, you really can’t grow those kind of crops. So, no. Don’t even try. So, what kind of crops do you grow during the winter here? So I have successfully grown beets, spinach and cabbage, all sorts of greens.
I don’t know, Asian greens mostly. All sorts of different kinds of lettuces that I’ve grown also. Yeah. Boy, nice salad. It’s a good salad, yeah.
Soup, salad type stuff. And celery, I’ve done celery, which means I’ve taken the celery and transplanted it into the greenhouse for winter so that you can still be cutting it, yes. Wow, that is so cool. Well, my mouth is watering. That sounds so delicious.
And onions, don’t forget onions. I have onions year round and they’re growing. Wow, and I remember 1 time coming over and you had carrots that were so delicious. Something about that colder weather makes the vegetables sweeter and less bitter. Yes and you can leave them in the ground and then just pull them when you need them.
Very nice. And not have to dig through 8 feet of snow to try to find them. So could you walk us through the timing of planting some of these vegetables for your greenhouse? OK, so kind of as a rule of thumb, if you’re wanting to do this in a colder climate, you have to think of when do you want to eat this crop. So say I want to eat my carrots in December.
So what you have to do is go back 3 months. You have to multiply by 3 whatever the timing is on the seed packet. So if your carrots say they take 30 days until you can eat them, multiply that by 3 and that’s 90 days. So you want to go back 90 days and that’s when you want to sow the seed. So it’s going to be different for everyone just depending on when it is that you want to eat the food.
Got it. So you have to kind of do a little bit of math and make kind of a little chart in your mind of everything’s going to be different and then your cutoff dates are different too because you don’t want to plant things or sow seeds too late because then they don’t have time enough to mature before the shorter days kick in. Got it. Okay. So yeah, a little bit of math, a little bit of thinking involved, or you could just do it simple like I do now and I just plant everything in July.
And then every 2 weeks I’ll do another planting, 2 weeks I’ll do another planting, and then I cut it off at the end of September. Wow okay that is really cool. Okay so how do you manage the soil health in your high tunnels over the consecutive growing seasons? Okay yeah So my winter bed is almost always full of food. I usually only have about 30 days or 45 days when there’s nothing in that particular bed.
So I’m usually adding amendments during that time and that’s usually around June. So I’ll just take composted chicken manure or something like that. If you don’t have that you could just buy different manures like that from your hardware store add that to it or minerals you know if it’s it’s if it’s low in calcium or something like that. Now’s the time to do it and then till it all in so that it’s ready for your first planting in July. That’s how I do it.
Okay. That’s really smart. I mean, taking care of your soil is kind of fundamental to having a really good… I’ve learned that the hard way, unfortunately. Well, and then obviously sometimes while it’s growing too, you can just sprinkle other amendments over top of your plants.
There’s nothing wrong with go ahead and putting in some extra organic fertilizers and things like that and working it in your plants while they’re growing too. Okay. I’ve done that. Okay, So challenges with a hoop house. I know that there’s some challenges that you’ve dealt with.
First question is how do you ensure adequate ventilation in your high tunnels so you prevent issues like molds or… Well I had 1 person at my class 1 time said that they went around their hoop house and sealed all the cracks and all the crevices and edges with some kind of foam sealer and then they were dealing with some serious mold issues. And I’ve never done that. And so we just have natural cracks here and there, you know. So there’s constant airflow.
And then the fabric covers that go over the plants, they’re also permeable to the airflow. So I haven’t dealt too much with mold but when I do see that there’s a little bit coming on the plants what I’ll go in there and do is I’ll just open up all the doors, open all the windows, and I’ll pull back the covers on all the plants for a few days as long as it’s you know not too cold outside. That’s what I’ll do. Just kind of get some air flowing. And sometimes I’ll turn on a fan if I need to do that.
And if I see any type of mold growing on any of the plants, which is pretty rare, I did have that happen a couple times because it got to a deep freeze below 0 and I had to double cover everything for about a week and so it wasn’t breathing well. So I had to go in there and do a little bit of damage control. I just kind of picked the moldy looking leaves off the plants and then just let them come back after that. So that’s how it, you need air. You have to have air in there.
That’s the number 1 thing. Okay. Okay. What are some other common challenges that you might face working in your high tunnel? The first year we didn’t have, We had too much heat in there and that’s easy to get on a warm sunny day.
Even especially in the winter time it can get 70 in there quickly if the sun comes out like in January. And so you have to remember these are winter plants and so I again I’d have to open everything up take the covers off and so you kind of have to keep an eye on the temperatures in there because the plants like it cold so you’re trying to keep it cool in there because these are cold hardy yeah these are cold hardy winter plants you can’t just grow whatever you want You have to actually grow stuff that is bred for the colder, you know, non-sunny days. Mm-hmm. Okay. But, and I did deal with spider mite, not spider mites, aphids 1 year, and again that was in the summer mostly because we didn’t have a fan running in there yet because we didn’t know how to do that with a solar panel.
We do now. So that’s another concern is when people are going to be building something like this is to make sure they have a fan running of some kind or a side that rolls up or vents in the roof or some way to keep airflow going. Got it. Okay. And that helps with things like aphids.
Oh yeah. Wow. Okay. And keeping the snow removed obviously is another challenge. So if you have room to run a snowblower all the way around your hoop house, that’d be great, because then you could blow it away.
Otherwise, you got to keep it shoveled away. You don’t want big berms piling up piling up because then the sun comes down and makes a shadow on your plants that are below the berm. Got it, I hadn’t even thought about that. Yeah, that’s another challenge. Snow.
Okay. Snow, especially up here. Okay, so how does your winter gardening contribute to your self-sufficiency and food security goals? Well I have fruit I have fresh food now 365 days a year so you know anytime I want to have a salad or anything green especially I can just walk in there and have my own private grocery store, produce aisle. Really I mean I don’t have to buy stuff it’s pretty rare that I buy produce now because I’ve either canned it or frozen it or I’m growing it fresh in there So it has saved us thousands of dollars in food.
Wow. Not only that, but it’s just it’s freedom to be able to walk into your own, you know, backyard and walk into your own produce aisle grocery store and have food there for your family all the time. So if you got snowed in or something happened, you’ve got food. That is it’s more, it has surpassed the goals that I’ve had or any dreams that I possibly thought was possible. It’s just amazing.
That is so exciting and so inspiring. I mean I My goal this summer was to hopefully get a winter garden set up for this fall. Unfortunately This summer didn’t work out for us, but that’s on our docket for next summer we’re gonna get our hoop house set up so that we can have fresh greens coming out our ears. Yeah and that’s why it is so exciting and it is a miracle and that’s why I’m trying to get this message out to people that because I had no idea you could do this. I didn’t know this was possible but now that I know I’m just trying to teach everybody that I possibly can that yes you can do this you can be independent.
Yeah that is that’s exciting. So what improvements though have you made in your later years on your hoop house? Because you started off, then you mentioned at 1 point you installed a fan. So what are some of the improvements that you’ve made to your high tunnel or your winter gardening system in general? Yeah, well as the budget allowed we did a little bit more and so we’ve added 4 feet on so it’s a little bit longer now.
We also added a beam across the top of it just for my peace of mind and it’s cemented in the ground. Yeah so that when I go up there in the morning and I see the hoops doing this. I wasn’t so afraid because I knew there was a beam. So that was nice. I really appreciate having that beam.
Plus I can tie plants to it. We also added the fan with a solar panel. So it just runs now when the sun is out. So that’s perfect. We also added an automatic vent arm at the end of the greenhouse.
And so on hot days, it just opens automatically and closes itself. So I’m not up there every single day 3 times, 4 or 5 times a day opening and closing the vent. So that’s been really really nice. Yeah so there’s the improvements we’ve done. Yes.
Oh well that is really awesome. Yeah. I’ve seen your greenhouse and I I’m impressed. It’s incredible what you’ve done up there. So last question, how do you involve the community or educate others about the benefits and methods of year-round gardening?
Well, once my friends found out that what we were doing, They insisted that I start teaching classes. So they started booking me for classes and that was probably, I did my first class probably 8 or 9 years ago. And so I’ve been just going here and there teaching people whenever I get a call. I try to go and my busiest months are January, February, and March where I’m doing local classes anywhere between I don’t know Montana and Washington and Oregon and Idaho all over the place. I will go to teach people and I also have a YouTube channel too where people can watch it online and also teach classes on wild edible plants too that people have come and they’ve done plant walks and things like that.
So I just have a lot of different ways that I’ve been able to educate the community And I’m excited to get the message out because I know that people can do this. You don’t have to have a lot of money. A woman can do this easily. There’s so many ideas on my website, on the PowerPoint that you can see that people have done just smaller greenhouses with like minimal money. So I’m all about, you know, alternative ideas.
You don’t have to do it the way we did it. Just figure out some way that you can grow food. That’s my goal. That is wonderful. Well, Dawn, thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with others.
I know I’m really excited to start working on our high tunnel next summer and having a winter garden. And let me tell you, those greens, they taste phenomenal when you grow them and you put in that hard work and then something about that cooler weather just just takes all the bitterness out of them and They’re just so sweet and so delicious. Yeah, they are. So anyhow, go and please visit her website. It’s northwesthomesteader.com.
Is that homesteader? Yes. OK, so northwesthomesteader.com. And go and learn how to set up your own high tunnel. Also, I just wanted to mention again, Nick and I are really excited about what we’re putting together for this fall.
Next summer when we start working on our high tunnel we’re gonna bring you along with us and you’ll be able to see step-by-step how we set ours up but that’s all gonna be part of our great big launch that we’re getting ready for next month So keep your ear to the track. We’re super excited and we can hardly wait. Thank you so much for joining us again for our podcast and thank you Don for coming and sharing and you’re welcome. We will See you all next time.