Surviving a Shetland Winter with Home-Grown Veg

I sometimes despair at reading general gardening magazines as nothing really reflects the growing conditions up here in the very north of Scotland: tomatoes outside…no! Pumpkins outside…no! 

Growing vegetables in the severe climate in the far north of Scotland presents many challenges  but I try to grow what I can to eat during the darker months in Shetland.   

Shetland lies on the 60th parallel of latitude, the same as Quebec, Canada, Narsaq, Greenland and Uppsala, Sweden. Our weather is severe, we do not get much heat or sun in the summer.

We have hardly any trees as the wind is so strong and they take much longer to grow. It is a 12 hour ferry trip to get here from Aberdeen and we distinctly feel our distance to the rest of mainland Scotland, especially when autumn hits and the strong gales begin again.

Some Shetlanders joke that we only have 2 months of summer and the rest of the year is winter! The average wind speed over the year is force 4 but in the winter, hurricane force 12 is not uncommon and the degree of wind chill is very high.

When the autumn nights draw in our light disappears, gradually leaving us with light from only 9am-3pm in mid winter. 

So here in Shetland we have to maximise the use of indoor growing space. Last year I had no indoor space and just grew outside.

I still had a decent harvest and food all winter by using cold frames but it is definitely more productive having a greenhouse, polytunnel, or polycrub. I bought a cheap polycarbonate greenhouse, heavily reinforced it, and my husband built an 8 foot fence around it.

That may seem extreme but with the strength of the wind here it was necessary – and it has lasted a Shetland winter, the best accolade a greenhouse can receive! 

Although I have a large garden, I really have had to learn about small space gardening this year, learning how to maximise a small growing space inside the greenhouse. Vegetables like carrots, tatties, and peas do well outside but anything slightly more exotic has to be grown undercover. 

Inside the greenhouse, I have grown pumpkins vertically and tied runner and French beans by rope to the roof. It has given me a good amount of food so far and I have squashed in four tubs of oca plants, a tub of sweet potato, six early corn plants, three courgette plants, and two physalis peruviana plants to really maximise the growing space.

It is somewhat trickier to grow food here in the far north of Scotland in the darker months of winter. Living on an island, it is hard to buy fresh vegetables; the vast majority is imported and old before we get it. Sometimes we do not get any fresh food at all when the force 12 gales hit, as then the ferries stop and the supermarket shelves empty quickly. This encourages me to try and grow as much as I can so we can still eat some nutritious vegetables. 

I try and prioritise growing veg in summer that can store well, like potatoes, root veg, garlic, and onions. This year, I have grown plenty of broad beans which I will leave to dry and use in recipes over winter – I fancy roasting some as crisps. 

I make sure to sow all my module grown winter vegetables and outdoor sown vegetables by early August: they need the light to germinate and get a good head start before autumn weather hits. I grow what I can inside my house on the windowsills too, maximising all possible space. This autumn, I am growing pea shoots which are great for stir fries, and lettuce on my windowsills. I am also very much looking forward to harvesting ginger from a supermarket root that I grew – an exotic treat in a dark Shetland autumn!

What I Am Harvesting This Autumn

  • From Outside: leeks, beetroots, kale, salad, neeps, Pak Choi, cabbage, Daikon radish, Swiss chard, carrots, Kailaan, dill.
  • From the Greenhouse: pumpkins including crown prince, Marina Di Chioggia and kuri squash, spring onions, sweet potatoes.
  • From inside the house on the windowsills: ginger root, pea shoots, lettuce.

What I Have Growing for Later Harvest

  • From Outside: Shetland kale, spring cabbage, curly kale, Russian kale, spinach, chard, dill, leeks.
  • From the Greenhouse: Oca, kholrabi, kale, cabbage, purple broccoli, spring onions.

Note: I grow some of the same vegetables inside and out to maximise the harvest, but the ones inside will tend to grow better as the winter winds can destroy outside crops.  

What I Have Harvested and Stored for Eating Over Winter

  • Tatties, stored in hessian sacks – including Kerr’s Pink, Maris Piper, Shetland Black, Red Rooster.
  • Garlic and onions.
  • Dried broad beans.
  • Frozen runner beans, peas, and courgettes.

Cairi Balmain grows lots of vegetables in her garden in the Shetland Islands where the weather is extremely challenging. She also makes traditional, cold process, botanical soaps and botanical balms from home grown herbs and flowers. You can follow Cairi’s vegetable growing and botanical soap making adventures on her Instagram account.


  1. Wow!! Great post and phenomenal effort under pretty extreme circumstances! I’m well impressed !! While I’m on an island in the “roaring 40’s” – south of the equator, I’ve all but given up on gardening (almost), mainly trying to keep possums, wallabies and birds from destroying what-ever we grow. Some extreme measures of fortification are needed if I am to succeed.

  2. Most people would see these growing challenges as too much trouble but as a joiner, we troubleshoot continuously and develop a different mindset to problems. I see potential.
    Growing under cover is a must but a greenhouse could easily be destroyed so a much stronger geodesic dome would be much stronger.
    The wind should not be looked at as a negative. It’s a gift to be harnessed for huge amounts of power and could be used to power grow lights to extend the light on those low day light hour days or seasons. You could have huge abundance if those “negative” issues were looked at as positives. We can create a Mediterranean climate inside a dome if we have enough power for light and heat and those strong winds give you the ability to generate those power levels needed. The islands populations are drastically reducing but imagine having small communities living like they are in the Mediterranean but with the beauty of the Scottish islands.

    • Barry, we’re not all rich enough for fancy domes, personal wind turbines and heat lights . This lass hasn’t been negative about the wind, she has been incredibly positive and taken on the challenge to grow food in an extreme climate without forking out for expensive equipment. And trust me, Shetlanders know how to be positive about the wind and harness it when clean clothes need dried!
      Maybe be less negative and patronising yourself and acknowledge the care and effort that has went into the success of growing veg at 60 degrees North!

Leave a Reply