Seed Availability Spring 2021 and How to Host a Seed Swap

For a variety of reasons related to COVID-19, this spring, seed companies are struggling to fill the demand for seeds. Johnny’s Selected Seeds and Stokes Seeds for example are limiting or temporarily limiting orders from home gardeners. Right now, these seed companies are only offering larger quantities of seeds. The availability of certain varieties is somewhat limited and shipping times may be much longer than we’re used to. For these reasons, gardeners should strongly consider holding a seed swap. Even in normal times, a seed swap can be a great way to save money. Seeds can get expensive at $2 to $4 per packet. There are a couple of different ways to organize a swap or share. Gardeners could bring their leftover seeds that may otherwise go unused, or a host or group could purchase seed in bulk, which is cheaper than buying packets, and then divvy them up at the seed swap. The cost can be shared among attendees or, if the host is a nonprofit, borne by the host.

Bags of bulk seed lined up, measuring spoons and small baggies to facilitate a seed sharing event.

Seeds purchased in bulk are more affordable and ideal for sharing seeds.

When you buy seeds in bulk, you won’t get a fancy seed packet with an alluring photo of the flower or vegetable. You also won’t get the basic growing instructions on the packet. However, you can easily look up growing instructions online or in a seed catalog. Labels for bulk seeds, with basic growing information such as days to maturity, plant spacing and more, can be preprinted and provided to swap participants. Seed swaps and shares are also an opportunity for gardeners and farmers to bring truly unique seeds that they may have developed and saved from their own garden or farm that are well adapted for the local growing conditions. While you’re swapping seeds, trade your latest gardening hack, too. A seed swap or sharing event doesn’t have to be big. It can be a small, informal affair with friends.

If you decide to host a seed event, make sure you let people know if they are expected to bring seeds to share or contribute to the cost of buying bulk seeds, or if the seeds are provided for free by the organizer. You might want to have a sign-up sheet beforehand (much like a potluck sign-up sheet) so you don’t end up with everyone bringing carrot seeds or radish seeds. Getting a head count for a seed-sharing event will also help with planning.

Here are some suggestions for hosting a seed swap or sharing event: Line up bowls or containers for all of your seeds and label each one with the seed variety it contains. You can hand out a sheet of labels to each participant and arrange the bowls in the same order as the labels. You should also supply small envelopes like coin envelopes for each participant. I’ve used small plastic bags but they are not recommended for long term storage. The envelopes are better for long-term storage because they are breathable and opaque. You’ll need enough bags or envelopes for the number of gardeners attending multiplied by the number of seed varieties. Again, circulating a sign-up sheet prior to the event will ensure you have enough supplies.

Ask each person to bring some measuring spoons. Before everyone starts helping themselves to seeds, calculate or estimate the amount of seeds they should take in terms of a measuring spoon size and write that on the container.

Now, let the seed swapping and sharing begin! Have everyone rotate around the room. Seeds can be arranged in the same order as the labels on their sheet to make things less confusing. Each gardener will spoon the allotted amount of seeds into each bag and label it. Once everyone has gotten some seeds of every type, gardeners can circulate once more until any leftover seeds are gone, or you can save some seeds for another event.

The benefits of gardening are many. Those who garden get some regular exercise, save money, eat more fruits and vegetables, share with their family and neighbors and benefit mentally. A seed swap or sharing event might be just the thing that plants a seed to help someone start a new garden for the first time. If you end up with leftover seeds, here are some tips on saving your seeds.

Previously published in the Fairbanks Daily Newsminer May 20, 2017. Updated January 28, 2021.

Herbs—Easy to Grow, so Many Ways to Use

In the summer, there’s no reason to settle for dry, colorless herbs that may have been in your cupboard just a little too long. Simply trot out to your backyard herb garden, ideally as close as possible to your kitchen, and snip your herbs as needed. Another advantage? They’re a great thing to grow in a small space.

a variety of herbs planted, bordered by rocks.

In the winter, herbs are one of the easiest edible plants to grow indoors as well. You’ll need grow lights and some type of aeroponic or hydroponic system also helps.

What herbs lack in calorie count and volume, they make up for in flavor and variety. In addition to a wide range of herbs like basil or Perilla (shiso), there are many, many varieties of each herb. For example, there are sweet basil, purple basil, lemon basil and on it goes.

purple basil with blooming orange flowers

Here, purple basil is interplanted with calendula and fox glove. Purple basil is tasty, but pesto made with purple basil is very unappetizing looking.

Give herbs similar growing conditions that you would give vegetables—neutral pH, sunny location and well-drained, fertile soiland they will thrive. But there are several ways that herbs differ from growing vegetables. One big difference is that you’ll generally only need to grow one or two plants, unless it’s something like basil that you like to eat a lot of. Continue reading

When Your Dreams Outsize Your Garden Space, Choose Your Crops Wisely—Here’s How.

When your dreams outsize your garden space, choose your crops wisely—here’s how.

Grow things you like to eat often. For me, that’s lettuce. I eat salad most days and sometimes twice a day. Salad is easy to make because, well, you don’t have to cook it. Simply wash, chop, toss and it’s ready. After a winter of eating salad greens with a whiff of decay, I relish fresh lettuce.

A Close of of vibrant green and red baby lettuce growing.

Fresh baby lettuce is a welcome treat in the spring.

Grow fast-maturing crops. Don’t grow cabbage or Brussels sprouts, which can take 90 days or more to mature. Do grow crops such as baby lettuce mix, spinach or radishes, which mature in about 30 days. When you grow fast-maturing crops, you can grow some successive crops in the same space, upping your productivity per square foot. After the first crop matures and is harvested, remove its remnants, prepare the soil and plant again. Continue reading

Growing Winter Squash and Pumpkins in Interior Alaska

Heidi and her two sisters holding large zucchini squash in their childhood garden with large sunflowers in the background.

My sisters and I (far left) reluctantly helping harvest more zucchini in our Fairbanks garden. Photo by Maggi Rader.

I grew up in Fairbanks eating much more zucchini than any kid should have to. Of course I never minded when it masqueraded as bread peppered with chocolate chips. These days, kids in Fairbanks are lucky–they also get to enjoy winter squash and pumpkins which are being grown more and more in gardens and farms around town.

Indisputably, the most knowledgeable and experienced winter squash and pumpkin grower in Fairbanks is Virgil Severns. He has grown the crop for over 30 years with his wife Anne and recently published a pamphlet on the topic. I wondered what attracted him to the crop originally and he said, “The thing that got me started really, years ago, the experiment station and the plant materials center offered a bunch of seeds and so I got some of those seeds and I planted them and they did well so it got me started growing squash.”

The pamphlet explains which varieties will grow best in Interior Alaska and cautions that some types (acorn, butternut, delicata, and sweet dumpling) are sensitive to our long days and as a result, do not produce female flowers in time for the fruits to mature. Continue reading

Greenery and Your Mental Health this Winter

Winter solstice is around the corner. Maintaining mental health in the dead of winter in Interior Alaska is always a struggle, but even more so given the added stress and limitations presented by COVID-19.

Research shows that greenery, both indoor and outdoor, offers a protective factor against the stresses and anxiety caused by living in a time of uncertainty, limitations and challenges. One study asked people about their emotional well being on one day after new restrictions were announced, doing various, daily activities. Exercising, particularly outdoors, going for a walk and gardening topped the charts in terms of promoting emotional well-being. The value of spending time outdoors is not news. In Norway, the term friluftsliv, or open air living, captures their cultural enthusiasm for nature and getting outside whatever the season or weather Spending time with friends as well as children was also associated with positive feelings—but not if it involved homeschooling! Interestingly, interacting with your spouse was also associated with negative feelings. While spending time indoors with friends is discouraged now, socially distanced outdoor recreation is a safe way to connect with friends. Continue reading

A Conversation about Food Sovereignty and Food Justice in Alaska at the Alaska Food Festival and Conference

A primary focus of the 2020 Alaska Food Festival and Conference was food sovereignty and justice.

As a governing board member of the Alaska Food Policy Council, I helped organize the conference that happened virtually November 6-7, 2020. Although the format removed one aspect of the conference that I always look forward to—tasting a wide variety of local and wild foods—it offered the chance to hear voices from all over the state, country and beyond, all from the comfort of our own homes or offices. The conference kicked off with the film Gather, which focuses on the “. . . growing movement amongst Native Americans to reclaim their spiritual, political and cultural identities through food sovereignty, while battling the trauma of centuries of genocide.” This was co-hosted by Native Movement.

There is a Gather grant opportunity open now (due January 14, 2021) to help address tribal food sovereignty issues.
Continue reading

Growing Carrots in Alaska

Carrots, especially fresh Alaska grown carrots, are unmatched in taste and texture. A favorite of kids and adults alike, they’re excellent raw, in soups or stews, roasted, or even fermented. Carrot tops can also be eaten. I like to use them to make broth, juice, and pesto.

Two bunches of fresh Alaskan carrots

With proper thinning, and well-drained, loose soil, carrots thrive in Alaska. The biggest challenge with growing them is probably getting the spacing right and keeping them weeded. Carrot seeds are tiny so you almost always have to thin after they emerge. Some people like to use seed tape or a seeder and pelleted seeds to get their spacing just right—or even a paper-pot transplanter. But if you don’t plant thickly enough and you have poor germination rates, you’ll also have low yields. Germination can also take quite a few days (about two weeks, and longer in cooler soils). During this time, you have to ensure the seeds stay consistently moist. I like to cover the seeds with frost cloth to hold the moisture in and provide some extra warmth. I learned this trick from a farmer in Homer, Alaska. Unfortunately, while your carrots take their sweet time to emerge, weeds are eager to grow and soak up the water and nutrients intended for your carrots.  Continue reading

Growing Bulbs in Interior Alaska

In Interior Alaska, tulips and daffodils are uncommon. You might find them cozied up to a building, downtown in yards with slightly warmer soil due to the steam heat or in the hills.

For those of us who have lived farther south—even farther south in Alaska—we know that there’s a lot we’re missing in terms of spring color. Many spring-blooming bulbs, including tulips, are only hardy to Zone 3 or 4 on the USDA’s Plant Hardiness Zone Map. Some areas of Fairbanks are Zone 1 on paper. But recent, mild winters and a protected garden bed next to my house have inspired me to try my luck with tulips. 

One year, I planted whatever type of bulb looked pretty at the grocery store—I think it was Pinochio, a Greigii tulip. Those came up the first spring after a mild winter.

Later, I did a little more research into hardier bulbs and ones that would multiply, and I planned ahead and ordered them. They included Plaisir, Purple Lord, Alibi and Violacea tulips. Most of these tulips (maybe all) bloomed nicely. In springs three and four, they continued to multiply and survive.

purple tulips blooming in a bed

Purple Lord and Pinochio tulips bloom in a flower bed close to my house. You can also see peony plants emerging.

The first year the tulips are most likely to bloom, if you purchased nice, healthy bulbs. I planted Violate tulips in a bed that was not next to the house and exactly zero emerged, let alone bloomed. Because this garden bed doubled as our snow dump likely played a role in this.

The Georgeson Botanical Garden trialed a smattering of flowering bulbs in the 1990s. Of the tulips, Tarda tulip emerged from the winter with the least amount of injury and survived more years than other tulips at the garden. Bright Gem, United States, and Persian Pearl survived, but not unscathed, from the winter.

In general, Scilla tends to winter over well in Fairbanks and sometimes grape hyacinth does as well. Snowdrops are also hardy. But Scilla, grape hyacinths and snowdrops are too diminutive to satisfy my need for color after a long, white winter. And if the winter is particularly brutal with minimal snow cover, then only the hardiest will survive. 

For bulbs, planning is key, especially for the first year. You’ll need to plant the bulbs two or three weeks before the ground is frozen. This will give them time to establish roots, without the shoots emerging. The ideal time to plant in the fall will vary some from year to year but is around early to mid-September.

Tulips and daffodils should be planted 5-6 inches deep while smaller bulbs like Scillas and grape hyacinths can be planted 2-3 inches deep. If the ground is wet when you plant the bulbs, there is no need to water, but if it’s dry you should water them a bit. Well-drained soil is ideal, especially if it is a very wet fall because the bulbs could rot. Incorporate a little fertilizer before planting—organic or slow-release works best since the bulbs will use it in the spring. Adequate snow cover or mulch is a must for Fairbanks. These types of bulbs require a jolt of cold—but they don’t need 40 below cold, which, if not mulched properly, could likely kill the bulbs. What Fairbanks does have going for it is generally dry conditions and sometimes hot summers.

It can be tricky to find bulbs when you need them. You might spot them at grocery stores and local greenhouses, but they may not be the variety you want or the hardiest varieties. It’s easy to find myriad varieties online, but many companies don’t ship to Alaska. If they do ship to Alaska, they may very well ship them too late—when the ground is frozen or nearly frozen and covered with snow. So double-check that the company will ship bulbs to you earlier than to other customers.

In the spring, peel back the mulch, water, and fertilizer with a slow-release or organic fertilizer. To encourage the bulbs to naturalize and multiply, cut the flower stems after they’re past their prime. Cut the leaves back only after they’ve withered so the bulbs can store nutrients for next year. If they survive the first year and begin to multiply, then you can treat them much like you would treat your other perennials. Some bulbs tend to multiply better than others. If they do multiply, in the fall you can divide the bulbs and plant either right away, giving them more space than if you had not divided them, or store cool and dry to be planted later, but no later than a year.

I have my bulbs planted in a bed with peonies and also usually interplant some showy annuals. This provides nice, successive color. I’m already looking forward to their bright show!

Previously published in the Fairbanks Daily Newsminer Septemper 9, 2017.

When a Moose Invites Itself for Dinner

If your garden isn’t fenced and you haven’t had a visit or two from a moose, count yourself lucky. It’s never too late to fence in your garden and prevent an unwanted visit from a moose. Once they have feasted on your produce, it will be harder to keep them from coming back. Moose are the biggest and most destructive pest in Alaskan gardens. The obvious way to keep them from eating your garden is to build a fence, 8- to 10-feet-tall, strong and possibly even electrified. However, you might not want to fence your garden, for example, if it is scattered across your property, you don’t want to block your view or you can’t afford it. In that case, the following alternative methods may help.

A young bull moose stands just outside Heidi's 8 foot tall garden fence

This moose provided some extra motivation to work hard and quickly to build a moose fence. He walked around the entire perimeter of the fence looking for a way in. The moose did eventually find a way in because our gate was too short. We had to add additional fencing above the gate and duck when we went in. Photo by Chris Cannon.

Moose eat some things because they’re there, others they gravitate to. They are particularly fond of cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower or almost anything in the Brassicaceae family, and peas, but their palate is not limited to your vegetable garden. They’re also fans of flowers, shrubs and trees. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game lists trees and shrubs that are frequently damaged by moose, such as apple and crabapple trees, and those that are only occasionally damaged by moose, such as lilac and maple trees. Continue reading

Growing Turnips, Radishes, and Rutabagas in Alaska

The Brassicaceae family includes a bunch of vegetables that grow super well in Alaska’s often cool weather. Some examples are broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, turnips, daikon radishes, radishes and rutabagas. I’m going to talk about a few of the below-ground or root brassica vegetables now.

You can eat turnips and their greens. Left, photo by Glenna Gannon; right, photo by J.R. Ancheta.

When you think of a radish, you probably think of a small, round, radish (red on the outside and white on the inside) commonly sold in grocery stores. These mature super quickly — in under three weeks. Examples of this type of radish are Cherriette or Cherry Belle. But radishes come in many shapes, sizes and colors. Some are long and cylindrical while some are short and stubby. Some are purple and some are white. Daikon radishes are the biggest radishes. They are white and spicy and make a good addition to kimchi or Korean sauerkraut. Here is a nice comparison chart of specialty radishes. At the Fairbanks Experiment Farm, we trialed just a few Daikon radishes in 2017 and found that Alpine and Summer Cross No. 3 grew big and long respectively. Continue reading