Vibrant Hanging Baskets–A Recipe for Success

In Alaska, we make up for our white winter palette with an abundance of vivid, gushing hanging baskets in the summer. How can you get your own colorful basket this summer?

A vibrant hanging basket of purple and pink petunias.

A petunia ball in downtown Fairbanks.

One of my favorite baskets around Fairbanks looks like a ball of petunias. They are planted by Festival Fairbanks; so I asked Julie Jones, the executive director, what her recipe for success was.

She said they start with a 14-inch Cordova basket, which is just a round, plastic hanging basket with drainage holes. This surprised me because when looking at the baskets, they were so full it looks like the flowers were coming out from every which way. So-called flower balls use a wire basket and a liner that allows you to cut holes and plant on the sides and bottom of the basket and even on top. You could also use a hanging plastic bag with holes on it — sometimes called blooming bags or flower pouches. The downside of these methods is that you’ll probably need more plants and they will also likely dry out more readily due to the additional holes throughout the basket.

Jones said they use as many as seven and as few as three plants for each container, but usually five. Two are blue wave petunias, two wave petunias of another color and one other splash of color. In the picture shown, there is also yellow biden, which has been dwarfed by the wave petunias. A huge plus for wave petunias is that they do not need to be deadheaded. Most other annual flowers regularly need the trimming. Volunteers start the baskets in greenhouses about four to five weeks before distributing them downtown in early June for tourists and locals to enjoy. Continue reading

You can Grow Bush, Pole, Runner, and Fava Beans in Alaska

The difference between a fresh green bean and a canned one is huge. But green beans (snap beans) aren’t the only kind of bean you can grow in Alaska. Runner and fava beans also do very well and you can even grow beans for the bean itself, although that requires extra patience, time, and dedication.

Fresh-harvested green and yellow wax beans in a large tote.

Fresh-harvested green and yellow wax beans.

Bean terminology and categories can be overlapping and confusing. For instance, a snap bean could be a bush bean or a pole bean and could also be grown just for the beans. Runner beans, a different species, can be grown with the intent of eating the entire pod, just the bean, or as an ornamental — and in the U.S. you’ll often find the seeds categorized under flowers rather than with beans in seed catalogues. Like pole beans, they are climbers and are either characterized as half-runner or runner beans. Further, fava beans are even more different and are a different genus and species than beans and runner beans.

Common beans (Phaseolus vulgaris), as you might expect, are the most commonly grown bean in Alaska. There are varieties that only get about 2 feet tall (bush beans) and ones that climb high (pole beans). Sometimes the entire pod is eaten (green or snap beans) while sometimes just the bean is eaten. There are some that produce tasty pods and beans while others are produced mainly for one or the other stage. Usually in Alaska, common beans are grown with the intent of eating the whole pod because it takes fewer days to mature — between about 50 and 60 days. Tack on at least a month or so if you want to grow them for dried beans. Continue reading

Fake or Fact? How to Find Research-Based, Reliable, and Relevant Answers to Your Gardening Questions.

It’s easy to find any answer to any question, including gardening questions, right? Sure, you can just google the answer, but unfortunately, you might end up with the most popular answer but not reliable, relevant or unbiased information. The quantity of easily accessible gardening information also doesn’t mean that it is relevant or reliable.

Several rows of corn and vegetable crops at the UAF Agriculture Forestry Experiment Station demonstrating vegetable variety trial research

Vegetable variety trials at the UAF Agriculture Forestry Experiment Station provide research-based information about which crops and varieties perform best for Interior Alaska’s growing conditions. Photos by Glenna Gannon.

One of the things that makes it hard to find answers to gardening questions is that for many questions, they depend on where you live. For instance, which varieties and crops you can grow, when to start seeds indoors and which pests are present is information that is highly dependent on your location. Then of course there is a lot of gardening information that doesn’t depend heavily on your location. Continue reading

Cook More at Home–You Won’t Regret it

Want to save money, lose weight and build closer relationships with your family this year? Resolve to cook more at home. In The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business,Charles Duhigg talks about the power of keystone habits to influence many areas of our lives. In other words, starting one good habit can lead to more good habits (or breaking bad ones). Cooking at home is a good example of a keystone habit.

A fillet of red salmon cooking on the barbecue covered in fresh herbs.

Barbecuing Alaskan salmon with fresh herbs is a simple way to make a delicious meal.

If you want to save money this year, cooking at home instead of going out to eat is a great way to do that. Even when compared with fast food, you can still save money by cooking at home. Leanne Brown created an excellent and free online cookbook called Good and Cheap: Eat Well on $4/day. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education is an excellent source for information if you want to cook healthy on a tight budget. Of course, you can always find loads of Alaska-centric recipes on the UAF Cooperative Extension Service website.

One of the greatest benefits of cooking at home is that you’re more aware of what you’re eating. If you make spaghetti sauce, you choose whether or not to dump sugar in the sauce. If you buy a can of ready-made sauce, you get the sugar whether or not you want it. Even if you scrutinize the nutrition label, it takes work to translate it into the serving size that you’re actually going to eat. There are all sorts of hidden ingredients in ready-to-eat or processed foods that may or may not be healthy for us. Go one step further and start a garden, and you’ll know even more about what’s in your food. Continue reading

Don’t Delay, Start Composting Today

Not only will you save money and improve your garden, but you’ll also make fewer trips to the transfer station, all while helping the environment. You can do it in your backyard, under your sink or in your garage.

How can composting save you money? If you have a garden, you’ll buy less potting soil, fertilizer and other soil amendments. 

A compost pile that has recently been turned and shows both nearly-composed material as well as new kitchen scraps.

Anytime is a good time to start a compost pile. The fall is an especially good time because it’s a time when people usually have the most compostable waste. You can continue to add compostable food waste throughout the winter. In the spring, your pile will be ready to rot. 

Compost (organic matter) is sometimes called “black gold” because it’s so beneficial to your garden.   Continue reading

Friend or Foe? Distinguishing Between Beneficial and Harmful Creatures in Your Garden and Welcoming the Former to Your Garden.

What do you do when you see four-, six-, eight- or 100-legged creatures crawling about in your garden? Is your first instinct to smash them?

Next time, before you do, ask yourself, “Is it a friend or foe?’Closeup of a tufted caterpillarA variety of creatures, big and small, play beneficial roles in your garden, from pollinating plants to preying on pests to cycling nutrients. Some, if not beneficial, are harmless. Then there are those that do in fact damage your garden–the pests. There even are some that are sometimes beneficial and sometimes a pest, like robins. They eat insects, but they also eat berries. Continue reading

How to Build a Better Looking Garden Bed

As some of you might have deduced from reading this blog, I’m a die-hard edible gardener and it’s a stretch for me to think outside the vegetable row. If you can’t eat it and it doesn’t attract pollinators or fix nitrogen, it’s usually not going to get a spot in my garden. This summer, I decided to change that and dedicate one bed to flowers. Here’s how I designed it.

First, I needed to determine what I liked and didn’t like. As a starting point, I glanced through books and magazines, online, and through my many photos of flower beds taken at the Georgeson Botanical Garden on the Troth Yeddha’ campus, and at local hotels, greenhouses and home landscapes. I’m a garden nerd, and so I take a lot of photos of flowers, vegetables and gardens.

One of my favorite beds on campus uses the massing approach, where only one type of flower or plant in one or two shades is grown. This bed is a mass of crimson and strawberry-colored Nicotiana. It creates a dramatic visual impact. I’m not so into the beds on campus that are white and baby pink alyssum, a so-called restful combination.

pink and red Nicotiana fill the screen

These Nicotiana have taken over this garden bed and are a good example of a massing technique.

In addition to the overall bed design, I needed to think about color, texture, flower shape, height, focal points, bloom sequence and whether to integrate flowers, shrubs, herbs, vegetables and grasses. And finally, would the plants I chose thrive in Fairbanks?

From looking at other flower beds, I figured out that for colors, I like the maximum amount of contrast. Give me a bright pink cosmos with dark blue iris (or blue sage) or bright orange marigolds with dark blue lobelia. In There’s a Moose in My Garden,  Brenda Adams calls this a “sassy’ combination. On the color wheel, this translates to a complementary or split complementary color scheme. I’m not so drawn to monochromatic, washed-out colors. This handy color wheel calculator helped further identify color schemes I liked. Cornell University also has some helpful guides for using color to design flower beds and more.

A very colorful garden bed that integrates flowers and vegetables like kale, swiss chard and peas.

A very colorful garden bed that integrates flowers and vegetables is a beautiful and practical way to grow food and ornamentals in limited space. In front are Livingston daisies, Harlequin mix.

I also like varied and dramatic textures like grass or globe onions or coleus combined with flowers. And I like unique, oddly shaped flowers like hibiscus, Chinese asters, double poppies and clematis, not only because they photograph well. I’ll blame it on being a lifetime Fairbanksan, but I’m a little bored with petunias, lobelia, geraniums, begonias and pansies, even though I know they’re dependable.

several pink chinese asters fill the screen

These Chinese asters offer an interesting texture and vibrant color.

Continue reading

Before you Toss Your Fish Carcasses Back Into the River, Consider Making Bone Broth or Composting Them

For many Alaskans, it’s time for fishing! But before you toss your fish carcasses back into the river, consider two options to eke out every last bit of goodness from them. One is to make soup and one is to compost them. Better yet, do both and make broth or soup first, then compost the carcasses or make some soup and some compost. Fish broth is nutritious and tasty for you, and fish compost is nutritious and tasty for your plants.

This recipe incorporates salmon heads, and I would not hesitate to add the tails and bones, too. I would also recommend Brazilian fish stew.

A large compost pile is heating up to 160 degreed Fand steam is riding off of it.

You want to make sure your pile does not heat up over 160 degrees F. You can see the steam coming off this pile. You can monitor your pile with a long-stemmed thermometer.

Methods and materials for composting fish abound. Traditionally, fish was just buried in the garden with decent results. In Alaska, you do risk attracting dogs, bears, flies and other pests to your garden if you practice this method. Steve Kahn wrote in the Anchorage Daily News that one year in the fall, even though there were plenty of other fish washed up on the shore of Lake Clark, bears churned up his garden to get at the ones he and his wife had buried.

If you plan to compost the carcasses, you’ll want to make sure that you have a large bin or pile and that it is fenced in – perhaps with an electric fence if bears or dogs are problematic where you live.

Fish heads are being layered in with fireweed in this compost pile.

Fish heads are being layered in with fireweed in this pile.

Much of these same principles apply to composting in general as with any composting, but there are some additional considerations. Fish composting has the potential to turn into a positively rank operation so you need to have a large enough bin or pile to manage those odors. In general, for a compost pile to heat up, it needs to be at least a cubic yard in size. But when composting fish, bigger is better. Continue reading

Need seeds? Have extra seeds? Then swap and share.

Just like toilet paper, seeds have been a favorite purchase of panic buyers. Several seed companies have temporarily stopped orders, are seeing long delays in shipping times and have sold out of many varieties. Unless you really had your ducks in a row early this spring, you might still be waiting for seeds that you’d hoped to start inside or plant outside, or are simply unable to order from your normal company.

Three bowls lined up with beet, pea, and clover seeds.

If holding a traditional seed swap, participants can spoon in bulk seeds into their own bags. In COVID-19 times, prepackaged seeds are probably best.

If you think you might have ordered much more than you can use in the next couple of years (perhaps based on a plan you made previously) but don’t have enough of some other types of seed, consider swapping or donating them. Continue reading

COVID-19 Could Make Small Farming More Competitive and Offer Plenty of Non-remunerative Rewards

Previously, I talked about how to scale up your garden to grow more food. Now I’m going to talk about scaling up even further. Just like with scaling up your garden, starting a small farm provides not only some food security for you and your family, but also for your neighbors and community members. It might add a few jobs and infuse money into the local economy.  

A colorful and well designed farmer's market display table.

Attractive displays go a long way to selling your crop.

While I’ll be the first to point out that as a small farmer it’s very hard to turn a profit, let alone make a livelihood, our current situation might make small farms more competitive with large farms. Food prices increased nationwide by 1.1 percent from a year ago, and current restrictions might work in favor of small farms with a short supply chain that minimizes handling and transportation needs. Also, COVID-19 brings into focus what’s essential and important in life – like food and having something productive and helpful to do.

This thesis, Assessing Food Security in Fairbanks, Alaska  is dated, but still provides insight into the demand for and challenges of farming in Interior Alaska. And, this market analysis also provides important information for Interior Alaska on the demand for local produce. Continue reading