What Grows Where? How to Choose the Best Varieties for Where you Live.

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. 

colorful carrots

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. Another consideration is the nutritional quality of the variety. 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. Continue reading

Too Much or Not Enough Zucchini? A Matter of Perspective.

When you’re planning your garden–how much zucchini do you need? When I was a kid, I hated zucchini except when it was covered up in zucchini bread. Maybe because it was so bountiful and we ate so much of it at certain times of year. Maybe it was because often it ended up as a soggy mush in a stir-fry. 

A blue tote full of two kinds of freshly harvested zucchini.

Zucchini is best picked before it grows too big. Costata Romanesco (striped) is an heirloom variety and one of my favorites.

Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate and hope for a bumper crop of all types of squash. Maybe it’s because I’ve found tastier varieties like Costata Romanesco, an heirloom type with a sturdier texture and nuttier taste or summer squash with a more neutral taste than zucchini. Also, I’ve learned there is a big difference between the gargantuan zucchinis I grew up eating and the more petite sizes that optimize taste and texture. 

You should have good luck with most varieties of summer squash. Try a variety and see what you prefer. You’ll want to start your seeds indoors 3-4 weeks before transplanting them outside. Plant a couple of seeds in a  4-inch pot and snip the weaker plant. Squash are heat lovers so planting them in a plastic mulch or in a low or high tunnel will boost their productivity. But don’t forget to hand-pollinate them if they are enclosed in plastic. Space the plants 2 to 3 feet apart in your garden. I am growing yellow summer squashes, Tempest and Zephyr, as well as Costata Romanesco zucchini. This post can help you calculate how much zucchini you should plant.

zucchini plants growing in a high tunnel

Squash like heat so planting them in a high tunnel will increase their productivity.

You can find the following three recipes on the Smitten Kitchen Blog, my go-to source for recipes. I can’t get enough of “squash pizza.” A close cousin is “zucchini grilled cheese,” which might make sense if you want an easier, quicker lunch option. Much like zucchini bread, these recipes both do a good job of almost making the zucchini disappear. Another fantastic, but slightly more involved ending to your zucchini story is the “burst tomato galette with corn and zucchini.”

I’ve sworn off home deep frying. First, it stinks up the house and makes a big mess. Second, it’s not healthy. And third, my technique leaves something to be desired as usually whatever I deep fry doesn’t taste very good. In any case, there are two things that are commonly deep-fried — squash blossoms and zucchini fritters. But I tried a baked version of squash blossoms, and they were delectable. I will definitely be making this recipe more this summer.

UAF Extension’s publication on zucchini provides tips on growing, preserving and cooking with zucchini. Fair warning—some of the recipes are dated (particularly the casseroles) and might be more interesting in terms of a historical perspective on how people ate rather than something you or I would think about making today. But, in the dozens of recipes, you’re bound to find a few that sound good to you and that perhaps you can tweak to accommodate a more modern palette. You can find even more growing tips from Minnesota Extension.

Drip Irrigation Systems can Save you Time, Money and Energy

If you enjoy unwinding, unkinking and dragging hoses hither and thither in your yard and garden or lugging watering cans around, then stop reading. If you want to save water and fertilizer, weed less and relieve yourself of a sometimes twice-daily task, then read on. Drip irrigation (or trickle irrigation) can do all this for you and more.

Wide garden bed on a terraced slope showing three lines of drip tape running the length of the bed to adequately cover the space.

Wide beds may require multiple drip lines.

When you water with a hose or watering can, it’s difficult to water thoroughly because it tends to pool on the surface and run off, especially if your soil doesn’t have adequate organic matter. You also get more evaporation with these methods. As the name implies, drip irrigation slowly dribbles water to plants through equally spaced holes in drip lines or through emitters. This minimizes evaporation and runoff and deeply waters plants, which results in more robust root systems. It also keeps plant foliage dry, which tends to reduce pests and disease. 

The fact that you can add a timer and automate your irrigation system is yet another compelling reason to set up a drip irrigation system. Go fish, hunt or do whatever it is you like to do in the summer without stressing about your garden while you’re gone. Continue reading

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 helps 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