One of the most important choices you make in your garden each year is which crops and which varieties to grow. More than any other choice, this can make or break your garden. How do you choose from the many varieties available? Do you grab whichever seed packets happen to be staring at you in the grocery store? Or do you grow the same things every year that have worked for you in the past? Short of turning your backyard into an experiment station, how do you determine which varieties will do best where you live? Descriptions on the backs of seed packets and catalogs provide some insight, but remember seed companies are not an objective party. Ultimately, they want to sell seeds. Practically speaking, they likely have not tested their varieties as far north as Alaska because we are a small market.
There are several basic criteria to consider when choosing varieties—yield, taste, and how easy it is to grow. Yield and how easy a variety is to grow are highly specific to where you live. Taste is going to be less location-specific, although Alaska grown vegetables tend to be sweeter. For more help choosing which varieties to grow in your region in Alaska, see what Extension recommends in the Interior, Southeast, or Southcentral Alaska and which varieties performed best in trials at the Experiment Stations in Alaska, Alaska Plant Materials Center, or trials funded by the Alaska Division of Agriculture.
Variety trials, if conducted where you live, are the most rigorous source of information about what grows where you live. But because they’re expensive and there is limited funding for this type of research, variety trials are rare in Alaska. This was a big motivator for creating the Grow&Tell mobile app. Variety trials are expensive and can only be conducted in a few places in Alaska. Gardeners and farmers are constantly trying new varieties and by sharing that information with others, can help each other determine which varieties grow best in their location. It’s basically Yelp for gardeners. In addition to helping others, another great reason to use the app is because it’s an easy way to keep a garden journal. At the end of the season, you can download everything you’ve entered into excel from the Grow&Tell website.
As plant breeders innovate new varieties, tried and trued varieties may be discarded or consolidated. Unfortunately, how a variety performs in Alaska is not a big driver in this process and so sometimes we lose high performing varieties. However, some of the newly developed varieties will perform great here, it’s just a matter of determining which ones. The more people in Alaska that contribute knowledge to the Grow&Tell app and the more trials that are done, the more information we’ll have to choose the best varieties for where we live.
Previously published in the Fairbanks Daily Newsminer July 20, 2017.