Don’t Let Someone Else’s Tradition Decide What You Eat This Thanksgiving

At its core, Thanksgiving was and should remain a celebration and appreciation of the bounty of the land and those who are indigenous to the land. To me, the Thanksgiving meal is about celebrating what comes from the land where I live, not what was eaten in Jamestown, Virginia in the 1600s. 

A gilled piece of salmon fillet on a green plate decoratively seasoned with fresh herbs.

Don’t be afraid to feature salmon instead of turkey in your Thanksgiving feast. This salmon is grilled and topped with fresh herbs, garlic, butter, and lemon.

Do you have copious amounts of moose, caribou, salmon, blueberries, or cranberries in your freezer? Or carrots, potatoes, or winter squash stored from the garden? Why not showcase what you gathered, hunted, fished, or grew this year? Why not place an Alaskan meat or fish in the center of the table? Perhaps, prepared in an extra special way for the holidays? Instead of apple or pumpkin pie, why not serve spiced blueberry pie (I add 1/4 cup lemon, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg, and 1/2 teaspoon of cardamom to my blueberry pie filling), cranberry pie with pecan crumble, or cranberry blueberry pie (use half cranberries and half blueberries)? Note: when I say cranberry in this article, I’m talking about Alaska low bush cranberries or lingonberries. Instead of standard dinner rolls, give a nod to the early miners of Alaska or sourdoughs and make sourdough rolls? Cooperative Extension has tons of recipes featuring Alaskan harvested, hunted, gathered or fished ingredients, as well as on how to cook with sourdough. Don’t worry, there aren’t any Thanksgiving police that will come to make sure you have a turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie at your celebration (okay maybe you do have one in your family). Continue reading

Gardening in the Wind

I grew up in Fairbanks and according to my memory, it was never windy. Without wind, 40 below zero is not that cold. Without wind, you can water your garden and it stays moist for the day. Without wind, plastic row covers do not blow away. You get the idea. I am not a huge fan of the wind. 

This spring, in addition to the wind, we had very dry (drought) conditions. I direct seed a large portion of my garden and the seeds need to be kept wet until they emerge. Keeping the seeds moist was really hard to do this spring because of the combination of hot, dry, windy weather. To keep the seeds moist, I used drip irrigation, covered the seedlings with Remay (frost cloth), and watered the seeds sometimes three times a day with a sprayer hose. Later in the summer, it is so much easier to keep a garden watered because the plants provide shade and they have roots.

blown over trees
The August 2022 windstorm blew over trees across a driveway near Fairbanks, AK. Photo by Julie Strickland.

Not only did the breeze seem to be a more constant companion this spring, there were also a couple of uncommonly intense windstorms in July and August. In Golden Valley Electric Association’s (GVEA) Ruralite magazine (September 2022), Josh Davis, the director of operations said, “The July wind storm was the worst storm we’ve had in my 18 years here.” He noted that the August windstorm was also pretty bad. 

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Do Artichokes Grow in Alaska?

Do artichokes grow in Alaska? Why yes, they do! Unlike in warmer climates, here they are usually grown as annuals rather than perennials. They’re not something I’ve seen commonly grown or at farmers markets, but they have been grown in Fairbanks as far back as 1984 and are being trialed at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. 

About a decade ago, as an Extension employee, Taylor Maida grew artichokes in Fairbanks. Now as the trials manager at High Mowing Organic Seeds, she said artichokes growing in Fairbanks looked better than in Vermont! Her favorite vegetable to grow and eat is the artichoke.

Heidi Rader in front of an artichoke.
Here I am with Colorado Star artichokes. Photo by Dev Khalsa.
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Growing Winter Squash in Alaska

Some extraordinary gardeners like Virgil Severns and Terry Reichardt have been growing winter squash in Alaska for years, but for us ordinary gardeners, it’s becoming a much more reliable and feasible crop. 

This video is a companion to this article.

If you’re gardening for food security, squash is a great option because you can store it without having to freeze or can it (and incidentally, you should NOT can pumpkins or squash at home according to the National Center for Home Food Preservation, but you can can cubed winter squash). Storing as is saves time during the mad dash of fall when we are trying to cook and eat all of the fresh produce from the garden or preserve what we can’t eat; as well as pick berries, fish and hunt. Not only does winter squash actually provide some calories as opposed to greens, it is paleo friendly, gluten free, delicious and nutritious. If you don’t have the space to grow squash, you can find locally available winter squash here.

Fully grown squash at the Fairbanks Experiment Farm. Photo by Glenna Gannon.
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Building Your First Greenhouse

There are plenty of reasons to build a greenhouse in Alaska if you don’t have one. Having a greenhouse could extend your growing season, give you a place to grow starts (if you have a way to heat it), or allow you to grow warm-season crops like tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers with ease, as well as to eat other crops earlier than you otherwise would. 

But growing in a greenhouse requires more management than an outdoor garden. When it rains, it will not water your greenhouse plants. When it’s hot, you’ll need to make sure it doesn’t get too hot. When it’s humid, you’ll need to ensure adequate ventilation. Pests can multiply quickly in a greenhouse and can be hard to eradicate once there. But those are all manageable problems.

attached greenhouse with lots of plants growing
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Raised Beds Make it Possible to Garden Just About Anywhere

Gardening in raised beds offers a lot of benefits, and a few drawbacks. Raised beds are a great option for gardening on top of a porch, concrete, or on poor, rocky soil. They’re ideal for corralling good soil while keeping it from getting compacted. They make it easy to employ no-till gardening and to eliminate weeds in the aisles, especially if your walkways are made of concrete or something else that completely keeps weeds from growing. 

raised bed garden built with paving stones. Sunflowers, vegetables and nasturtiums spill over the side
One of the most beautiful and productive raised bed gardens I’ve seen were planted and cared for by Gretchen Kerndt for the Princess Hotels. This bed is built with paving stones.
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Gardening in the Aleutian Pribilof Island Region of Alaska

For this article, I interviewed two people who have gardened or farmed in the Aleutian Islands. Lily Stamm manages a geodesic dome greenhouse in Nikolski, Alaska, located on Umnak Island. Two domes were erected in 2003, one of which has since blown away. I also interviewed Michael Livingston, who homesteaded with his family in Cold Bay in the 1960s. You can watch the video of these interviews here. If you are a gardener or grower in the Aleutian and Pribilof Island region and are interested in sharing what you know, or photos and videos of your garden, please contact Heidi Rader at hbrader@alaska.edu.

lupine in the foreground, ocean and mountains in the background
Near Michael Livingston’s family’s homestead in Cold Bay. Photo by Michael Livingston.
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Bolting – THE Challenge with Growing Spinach in the Land of the Midnight Sun

I love fresh spinach so that’s why, even though much of the spinach I plant bolts (in other words, goes to seed), I always try again next year. One of the true pleasures of spinach is how quickly it grows. It is one of the first things I plant in the spring, as soon as the ground is workable, and the first thing I eat. 

In my experience, bolting is THE challenge with growing spinach in Interior Alaska. Warm temperatures and long day lengths are mostly to blame, but big temperature swings and cold temperatures can also play a role in bolting as well. This article does a good job of explaining how cold temperatures trigger bolting (flowering) in spinach and other crops. 

Spinach is usually direct seeded. It’s possible that transplanting spinach could help mitigate bolting, but trials are needed to assess this. Direct-seeded spinach should be thinned to four to six inches, or whatever spacing is specified on the seed packet. In my garden, I often do not get around to thinning my spinach, which might increase bolting rates, although Glenna Gannon, the director of the vegetable variety trials at the Fairbanks Experiment Farm, says that proper spacing did not reduce bolting rates in trials. Consistent watering also can help prevent bolting in spinach. Spinach leaves can be snipped with scissors and allowed to regrow for successive harvests until it bolts, making it inedible.

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Luscious Flowers that Blossom and Climb

I like to grow edible plants. The rest of my family prefers flowers. One of my sisters is a peony farmer. And the other one lived in Jordan for years and was particularly fond of flowering vines. She wanted to know which ones grow here so that got me thinking: Which climbing flowers do thrive in Fairbanks?

I’m not talking about gushing flowers like bakopa, lobelia or creeping Jenny that flood baskets hung all over town. I’m talking about flowers that clamber from the ground up clutching on fences, trellises, tepees and pergolas.

Fast and easy to grow, the Black Eyed Susan vine comes in a rainbow of colors although orange and yellow are the most common. It can even be grown in a hanging basket.

Easiest and most trustworthy are canary bird and black-eyed Susan vines, sweet peas, scarlet runner beans, climbing nasturtiums and morning glories. Fairbanks researchers described Milky Way morning glory as a “vigorous, thick vine covered with blooms” that proffered a “very attractive display all summer” and “grew rapidly (covering) the trellis by midsummer.” Don’t bother with Cypress Vine, which did not flower at all in trials.

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Growing a Cut Flower Garden

A slew of research and attention has been given to peonies in recent years, but research on growing other cut flowers in Alaska has been limited in the last decade. To get an idea of which cut flowers are growing well in Fairbanks in recent years, I asked a few farmers about their go-to cut flowers for creating unique, locally grown bouquets. 

buckets of dahlias and zinnias in a market display

Caitlyn Huff with Arctic Blooms and Bouquets has loved flowers since she was a girl, but got into the flower farming business when she moved into a house in Fairbanks with 600 peonies. She grows flowers and arranges bouquets for weddings, the farmers market, a CSA, and bazaars (as dried flower arrangements). She loves the beauty and joy they bring people. 

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