The Q&A Archives: Adapting to Dry Zone 3/4

Question: I am new to North Dakota, and have been trying to plan small plot gardens (herbs, veggies, and dye plants) but have had little luck finding much that can withstand the extremes out here. The south sunny plot is swept clean of snow and exposed to harsh winds all winter, and reaches temperatures into the high 90's to low 100's during the summer. I have 3 other plots in part to full shade as well. A tiny plot on the north side is in full deep shade and qualifies as zone 3 (up to 20 degrees cooler than south side). In addition, this part of North Dakota is very dry; we get periodic wild storms with very heavy rain and long stretches of baking sun. Have you any suggestions what, if anything, can grow out here under these conditions in this variety of plots?

Answer: Yipes! It sure sounds like you've got a challenge on your hands! Here are a few thoughts:

Is there any way you could erect some kind of wind break -- even something as simple as a snow fence -- to help reduce the severity of the wind, both winter and summer? (It's a shame to lose so much insulating snow cover that can help protect perennial plants, and those same winds in summer can dry out tender foliage.)

Could you set up a drip irrigation system in your plots, so that you could water as necessary, without losing too much to evaporation from those winds?

If your soil is either heavy clay or sandy, I'd add as much organic matter and compost as possible, to help it retain water, while at the same time improving drainage.

As far as your vegetable garden, if you can manage to break the winds somehow, you should be able to grow just about anything, as long as you can provide adequate water. Use the shade from taller plants like tomatoes and corn to help shade plants like lettuce that tend to wilt in the blazing midday sun. You can also try container growing--that way, you can try different spots and see what works best.

Herbs like sage, thyme, and oregano may do just fine. They are adapted to the dry, Mediterranean climate, but they've done fine in my Northern Vermont climate, as long as there's been some snow cover. (Another place for the snow fence to help break the wind.)

You might want to check with neighbors, local garden centers, etc. and inquire about what's worked--and hasn't worked--for gardeners in your region. That's usually the best way to get some good information--and it's a great way to make new friends!

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