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High, Dry, Cold Climate perennials

 
Erica Wisner
gardener
Posts: 1132
Location: Okanogan Highlands, Washington
183
books cat dog food preservation hugelkultur
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I am experimenting with a neglect-tolerant garden in a somewhat unforgiving climate.

We are gone for periods from 2 weeks to 2 months.
We live in the arid North American west, at an elevation of about 3200 feet (1000 meters?) above sea level.
We have rain averaging maybe 12" to 15" per year, possibly more due to cloud-forest effects at our elevation.
The pattern is about 1" (2.5 cm) per month 8 months of the year, with up to 2" (5 cm) in May and June, the best growing season. Up to 3 high summer months (July, August, into September) are often completely dry. If there is rain it will be a thunderstorm often accompanied by lightning-struck fires. We get pretty smoky some summers from all the wild fires.

The soil is rocky, glacial and volcanic silt. Areas of upland bog are showing some signs of salt accumulation.

We have a pond, in which I am attempting to remediate some past bulldozer and black-plastic work. I am spreading existing cat-tails and bulrushes, silver cinqueoil, and hardy reeds as I clear plastic from the exposed banks. The pond does not hold as much water as formerly. The entire mountain is being settled more and more; we may have a groundwater shortage, or more draw from the aquifers than is replaced by snow and rain. Or it could be due to earth-moving efforts; there have been some dams on the creek upstream, illegal drainage work, etc. We may just not be receiving the spring thaw floods as we used to do.

So as a responsible permie, I would prefer a no-irrigation garden.
I am working with hugel beds (buried logs), both above and below ground level. I had arugula re-seed in one of the beds after total neglect from mid-August through mid-October, a real success for me.
I am also interested in working along the boggy areas around the pond, and some existing lawn-like swales grazed by an elderly horse, to create food and wildlife habitat without much additional fence work.
Experimenting with re-establishing aspen trees, using capsicum and slash piles to deter browsers.

I would like more perennial food plants for our fenced garden areas, a mixed orchard with some pine shade, a south-facing exposed area with hugels. And I'd like to expand into unfenced areas if there's a way to do this.
My first choice would be native American bulbs and perennials that can produce a fallback food supply with no attention at all. Berry bushes would rock, but locals have not seen blueberries naturalize here. Huckleberries? We do have wild currants or gooseberries, and elderberries and apricots do well at elevations not much lower than ours.
I'm also interested in fuel forestry, insulation materials, and basketry plants; the reeds and cat-tails are great there.

Do you know anything useful, and cooperative about future succession, that can out-compete thistles in disturbed ground?
(yes, please give me 3 magic beanstalks, and a flying carpet, too. thank you.)

My next choice would be food plants that can survive the winter here (sometimes -10 to -30 in exposed places, we don't always get enough snow to insulate the ground before it freezes hard.)
We have had some good success with horseradish, rhubarb, some onion species, wild and some cultivated strawberries, violets, a small dwarf orchard with apple, cherry, and trying to establish Asian pears; the plum rootstock thrived but the graft didn't.
As for greens, we plant some frost-hardy stuff like peas and broad beans, and are looking at hardy stuff like the horseradish. Some kind of sorrel has volunteered, either re-seeding or perennial.
We would like to find more tubers or bulbs, more perennial vegetables.

The plants we need are both frost-hardy and drought-hardy.

We can get snow in any month, though it's rare past April and before late September. Intermittent radiant frosts are common. The in-laws raised radishes, salad greens, potatoes, bush beans, and strawberries enough to run a farmer's market stall for a few years, using hand-watering irrigation for these annuals and choosing varieties with very short seasons (55 days to maturity) because our average frost-free season is only 70 days.
Summer drought is predictable and extended - we just call 2 or 3 months with no rain "summer," aka "Fire season."
Almost all the native plants are frost-hardy and put on their main growth spurt during the spring thaw, with a minor growth option in the fall if weather permits. Many are summer dormant due to the low moisture. Humidity levels are routinely below 25% in summer daytime, increasing above that level only at night. Daytime humidity may remain below 10% for weeks at a time. Evaporation exceeds rainfall by several times 100% in these months.

Summer is not excessively hot - 90 to 105 highs occasionally - but more typically 80's high with 60's low through the summer, sometimes 50's lows even after a hot summer day.
It's just completely without rainfall, and the soil is well-drained expansive silt - "moondust" that can block incoming water and drain the rest pretty quickly.

We do have connections in the valley for your more standard annuals, where the frost is not as extreme, and irrigation water more easily available due to the river and being downslope of some mountain reservoirs. There are a few grass crops that are grown without irrigation in our climate, but the majority of production is irrigated orchards, irrigated hay and grain, and small fruit-and-vegetable farms.

So we don't need to grow the usual annuals up here - we're looking for creative options.

Any favorite plant suggestions much appreciated!

We have had some good suggestions in threads in the regional forums, as well. I liked these threads:
- Montane Indicator Plants
- High Dry Plant List (book review, article link: Article with plant examples from book)
- Okanogan Highlands - good groundcovers, mulch plants?

Thanks,
Erica W
 
Ann Torrence
steward
Posts: 1191
Location: Torrey, UT; 6,840'/2085m; 7.5" precip; 125 frost-free days
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Eric Toensmeier's high altitude Colorado plant list
 
Rhana Thompson
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My favourite top 3 perennials are Astilbe, Lady’s Mantle and Heartleaf Bergenia. They are often considered as old fashioned, but I adore them. They thrive well in a shade garden like mine. Here is more info about them https://medium.com/@jessiealinari/three-shade-tolerant-perennial-plants-that-will-brighten-your-garden-88336d17783f
Heartleaf Bergenias deserve to be more popular as they have unique leaf form and beautiful flowers. They don't require much care, tolerate prolonged droughtр spread quickly ьха form a lovely dense cover.
 
Bill Bradbury
pollinator
Posts: 684
Location: Richmond, Utah
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Hello Erica,

It sounds like you live in a rough place to grow food!

We have different soils, but a similar climate here in Northern Utah, so I can share what has worked for me.
This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but in addition to the plants you have already named:
Saskatoon Serviceberry - the most useful native plant in North America
In the sunny dry areas;
Choke Cherry, Nanking Cherry, native Plum, Siberian Almond, Elderberry, Sumacs, Utah Honeysuckle, Goji, Aronia, some grapes, Golden Currant,

In the shady, wet areas;
Thimbleberry and Salmonberry

Red willows and Osier Dogwood, Gingko and Linden trees, Asparagus, Comfrey, Feverfew and some fast growing coppice trees like Elms near the pond.

I am also trying out Asian Pears, but they grow very slowly here.

I'm sure some plant experts could be more helpful, but that's a start.

All Blessings,
Bill
 
elle sagenev
Posts: 1268
Location: Zone 5 Wyoming
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Lupine, blue bells, bachelor buttons and yarrow come up here no their own.
 
Joseph Lofthouse
garden master
Posts: 1993
Location: Cache Valley, zone 4b, Irrigated, 9" rain in badlands.
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My definition of native plant is anything that is currently growing in the surrounding wildlands...

So with that big grain of salt added to an already over salted bog, I'll add to the excellent suggestions previously given: winter wheat and rye, biscuitroot, parsley, Oregon grape, flax, Pinion pine, apricot, lettuce, chard, Egyptian onions, pistachio.
 
John Weiland
Posts: 767
Location: RRV of da Nort
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Erica, I don't know how your seasonal environment compares to that of Summerland, BC, but there is good ag research done there and some of it may be relevant to your own climate. There may be a university research extension service there in addition to the Ag-Canada--Summerland facility [ http://www.agr.gc.ca/eng/science-and-innovation/research-centres/british-columbia/pacific-agri-food-research-centre-summerland/?id=1180620561099 ]. I could not find extension bulletins in the short time poking around on the web, but you may find others who know who, and how, to contact them for information the information that you seek. I did come across some private grower blogs from people who are probably in Summerland as affiliates with the research station. May be worth a try....good luck!
 
Erica Wisner
gardener
Posts: 1132
Location: Okanogan Highlands, Washington
183
books cat dog food preservation hugelkultur
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Thank you for all of these excellent suggestions.

I didn't describe the native plants much, but in case it wasn't clear, of course I'm very interested.
We do have serviceberry and something my father-in-law calls "Indian ice-cream," a leathery-leaved, red-berried fruit with a slightly bitter aftertaste, kinda like baby aspirin (one of my favorite bitters).

We have Oregon grape, aspen, larch, bunch grasses and reeds from the wetland footprint, some native currents or gooseberries of some sort, possibly some cherry or willow types (there is certainly cherry across the street where the creek goes through the neighbors); and thorny wild roses that put on good hips.
In spring, flowers include lupine, shooting stars, and something that might be a wild garlic, then a few tiny balsamroot, and some white-blooming things I don't know. Snowberry, strawberry, and kinnickinnick (creeping bear-berry, I know there's a lot of things called kinnickinnick, this is the low-growing relative of blueberry and heather and manzanita that has small, slightly leathery/fuzzy green leaves, woody creeping vines, and reddish berries.). We don't get to eat the wild strawberries but it's nice to have them there all the same.

There are also some pines with edible nuts, if the squirrel-cache in our woodshed is any indication.

I stumbled upon a great resource in an out-of-print ethnobotany booklet, Ethnobotany of the Okanagan-Colville Tribes, done in our area and just north of us in BC. Learned a lot more about what I already have that is edible - up to and including some of the ubiquitous black tree lichen. It will probably take me years to fully learn all of the info in that book, and it's grouped by type of plant not location for harvest, so I will have to learn to recognize what will grow up this way.


-Erica
 
nancy sutton
gardener
Posts: 626
Location: Federal Way, WA - Western Washington (Zone 8 - temperate maritime)
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Perusing one of my favorite nursery's (Burnt Ridge) website, this harkened back to your inquiry -

BUFFALOBERRY (Shepherdia argentea)
Widely adapted 6 ft.shrub native to the northern Great Plains. Small, tart, but pleasant tasting, red fruits have enough sugar to be eaten fresh or dried and can also be made into preserves or wine. They are very high in lycopene and other phenolic antioxidants. This plant can tolerate extremes of cold, wind, drought, alkalinity and poor soils, fixing nitrogen much like peas or beans. Silvery gray foliage, small yellow flowers, thorny branches. These can be male or female seedlings so plant 2 or more for cross pollination. Zone 2.
 
Wayne Mackenzie
Posts: 107
Location: Sunizona Az., USA @ 4,400' Zone 8a
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Jujube trees & Sand Cherries have been easy for me.
 
Come have lunch with me Arthur. Adventure will follow. This tiny ad:
Quality Hand Tools for the Garden, Homestead and Small Farm.
https://permies.com/t/58443/Quality-Hand-Tools-Garden-Homestead
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