Preparing a Garden on Permafrost

Some families living in arctic and sub-arctic areas will be starting new gardens on soils that have never been cultivated. In many cases the soil surface will be underlain with permafrost (frozen soil) making the soil very cold with virtually no drainage. When starting a new garden on permafrost; choose an area that has a little slope if possible. This will allow the water from the melting soil to drain away from the garden area. In early spring as the surface melts remove the moss and surface vegetation (the insulation that keeps the ground frozen) to allow the soil under it to begin thawing. Because there is no drainage in frozen soils, begin trenching the garden area in a herringbone pattern, with the trenches not more than four feet apart as soon as the soil surface shows signs of thawing. The herringbone pattern is formed with a center trench and "V" shaped trenches feeding the center trench with one half of the V on each side of the center trench. The point of the "V" needs to be pointing toward the lowest part of the garden to allow drainage. As the soil continues to thaw, deepen the trenches so the soil can thaw deeper and the water drain away. This process will allow the soil surface to start drying out. When the soil surface is dry enough that it is no longer muddy the first crop can be planted.

During the first season the soil will be very cold and somewhat moist, but crops of lettuce, radishes and some of the other short-season crops can be planted with fair success. New soils with high organic matter will undergo heavier-than-normal decomposition during the first season. This will cause nitrogen starvation in the plants being grown. The visual indications include plants with yellow-green foliage and poor yields. To help alleviate this problem on new soils, broadcast a one-fourth to one-half pound of nitrogen in the form of 33-0-0 or 45-0-0 plant food per 100 square feet. Adding organic matter that is not fully decomposed will compound, not help, this problem. After the first season, 2 to 4 pounds of a complete plant food such as an 8-32-16, 16-16-16, or 10-20-10 per 100 square feet should be adequate. If the new soil is mineral base with not a lot of organic matter the soil pH should be fairly close to neutral which is a pH of 7.0 and should grow crops fairly well. If the new soil has an organic base like peat moss or other organic matter, the soil will probably be very acid and require lime to neutralize it. A soil test is required to determine the soil pH and fertility. Soil testing services are available through the university cooperative extension service. If you live in a remote area the extension service will provide sampling instructions and the sample can be mailed in for testing.