Vegetable gardening can be fun and rewarding, but also challenging in our area of Montana. The challenges to gardening–from rocky soil, insects, pests in general, and frosts that can occur on June 15 or August 15– are outweighed by the fun and rewards of raising delicious, nutritious food ourselves. I love using my dried herbs for the chili I make for the Super Bowl or adding frozen garden corn and beans, and stored carrots and potatoes to delicious vegetable beef soup on a cold winter day. If you have young children, gardening can teach them math and science skills, responsibility, and agricultural principles.
For new vegetable gardeners or those who need to know what varieties grow best here, I’ve compiled some recommendations and planting dates:
Once your soil is tilled, around May 1, you can plant greens like spinach, chard, and lettuce. Plant spinach early so it will ripen early and not ‘bolt’ in hot weather. Try the spinach variety Bloomsdale Longstanding; it has been used for years with good success. Tyee spinach, which resists bolting, is recommended by Don Mathre from the Gallatin Gardeners Club. Most any of the leaf lettuces and greens will do well and mature here but some head lettuces need a longer growing season than we have. Buttercrunch lettuce has ripened into small but delicious heads in our garden. Or try Ithaca, a 70-day head lettuce.
Short season radishes and peas can be planted early in late April or early May. Green Arrow shelling pea is an old favorite in Northern climates because of its heavy yield, good flavor, and long pods. Sugar Ann snap peas have an edible pod with excellent flavor. Oregon Giant and Oregon Sugar Pod are good snow peas to use in stir fry. Plant your onions in early May, too, so they are ready to harvest in time to stir fry with the snow peas. (Add some mushrooms you buy at the grocery store–yum).
Mid-May, is the time to plant potatoes in your garden. Purchase only local seed potatoes because the seed-potato growers in Churchill and Manhattan want to keep any potato diseases from entering the valley. Potato varieties raised locally include Norland, an early red , Norkotah, an improved white potato, and Yukon Gold, a potato with yellow flesh popularized by gourmets. Carrots and beets can be direct-seeded in mid-May. I had great luck with Scarlet Nantes carrots last summer, but many other varieties of carrots will grow just as well. Try Detroit Red or Early Wonder beets.
Greenhouse-grown transplants in the nutritious brassica group of vegetables which includes broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, and cabbage, should be planted in the middle of May. Brassicas prefer cooler temperatures and have some frost tolerance. Try Green Goliath broccoli, bred for extended harvest and Snow Crown cauliflower which has large, pure white heads. You might have the best luck with the earlier varieties of cabbage such as Stonehead.
Direct sow zucchini seeds and summer squash, beans, and sweet corn around Memorial Day. Black Beauty zucchini is a standard, but all summer squash are easy to grow. Children might enjoy the interesting shapes and colors of various summer squash like Crookneck or Flying Saucer.
We switched from growing bush beans to pole beans once we discovered how easy it was to pick them when they are up off the ground. Blue Lake and Topcrop are two types of beans that have been grown in area gardens for years. Slenderette is an improved Blue Lake bean that is less stringy. We like Roma and Romano beans which have a flat pod that is tasty and freezes well.
Fresh sweet corn from the garden can’t be beat. Those who live south of town or at a higher elevation than Bozeman might have trouble ripening their corn and should plant only the earliest varieties. Make sure your soils have warmed up before you plant sweet corn. We plant 4 or 5 varieties with a succession of ripening times so we are eating ripe corn for over a month. We still recommend Earlivee sweet corn, a reliable 60-day hybrid, but make sure you pick Earlivee right before you are going to cook it; the sugar in the kernels will turn to starch if the corn is stored for any length of time.
Some of the new hybrids, called sugar-enhanced, have improved sweetness, tenderness, and keeping quality. A few of the sugar-enhanced varieties ripen early enough for our climate. Fleet, a new bicolor, sugar-enhanced corn is sweet and tender. Fleet ripened as early as any sweet corn in our garden. Precocious corn was also sweet and early, about a week later than the Fleet and Earlivee.
Late May to Early June
Wait to plant tomato, pepper, and other frost-tender vegetable starts until the danger of frost is past—or use the handy Wall-of-Water protectors which give these plants a boost in our cold spring weather. Nancy, our greenhouse grower, did some tomato taste tests last summer and found Glacier, Northern Delight, and Fireworks varieties were the favorites of our staff. Many of our customers who grew Park’s Whopper tomato commented on how big and sweet it was. Northern Gardener magazine listed Juliet, a newer grape tomato, as the best in trials at the University of Minnesota.
If you want a more colorful vegetable garden, interplant edible flowers such as pansies, nasturtium, sunflowers, calendula, or batchelor buttons. Then, use them on your plate as a garnish. Marigolds or fragrant herbs planted next to vegetables will detract insects and pests.
To learn more about vegetable gardening, consider joining the Gallatin Gardener’s Club, where the members share their vegetable gardening expertise at every meeting.
Good luck and enjoy!