What Should You Grow this Summer?

It’s not hard to dream about what you will plant in your garden when the seed catalogs start arriving, or you go to the greenhouse and see the luscious vegetables and gorgeous flowers. However, an overcrowded garden will be less bounteous and beautiful than a thoughtfully planned one with adequately spaced plants.

bright pink and orange flowers
Harlequin Mix Livingstone Daisy.

When choosing what to grow, try to find relevant information that is local, unbiased, and not profit-driven. Seed companies and catalogs are a great source of information, but they may not have done trials in Alaska. At the end of the day, they are also a business. When buying seeds, look for varieties that are identified as being adapted to short, cool growing seasons. For some crops like onions or strawberries you need to consider how day-length affects fruit maturation and keep your eye out for day-neutral varieties. For crops like spinach, look for bolt-resistant varieties. Take note that some varieties are developed to be grown in containers and some in a greenhouse.

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Growing Currants in Alaska

My favorite berries are blueberries (wild Alaskan ones of course!) and raspberries, but I have a special place in my heart for currants  as well. Like many Americans, currants aren’t a mainstay. I first heard about currants from my grandma who lived in Anchorage. She was fanatic about them and currant jelly specifically. But I didn’t really appreciate them until later in life when I took a berry class from Dr. Pat Holloway. Importantly, I learned to identify them. This is an important first step in identifying any wild berry, particularly if there is a poisonous berry that is the similar color (there is and it is bane berry!). Wild currants can also be mistaken for high bush cranberries. Unlike high bush cranberries and lowbush cranberries which are too tart for me to want to eat  fresh and high bush too seedy, I like fresh currants. I also like them made into syrup and jelly as well. You can make currant jam but it’s not easy! I prefer eating red currants fresh to black currants because their skin is much thicker. However, black currants have even higher antioxidant levels and vitamin C levels than red currants.

There are six species of black and red currants that are native to Alaska. Searching Ribes in plants.usda.gov via the Alaska State search will bring up all the species of Ribes in Alaska, including gooseberries. I’ve never seen them in quantity enough to pick many in the wild, but that may change along with the climate. In the wild, I find currants in the understory of forested areas, and so unlike many berries that prefer full sun, you can grow currants in partial shade.

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Growing Raspberries in Alaska

Most gardeners I know tend to be fairly haphazard with their raspberry patches and that may include myself. And you can be because they tend to spread on their own (much more than you might want in some cases) and come back year after year without too much effort. However, with some forethought to the soil, attention to variety you’re planting, and regular pruning, you can maximize the quality and production of your raspberry patch.

red raspberries up close

Raspberries are personally one of my favorite berries to eat fresh or frozen. Although American red raspberries (Rubus idaeus L.) grow wild throughout Alaska, they can be annoyingly small and wormy, although their intense taste does compensate somewhat for these drawbacks. But in my backyard, I’d rather grow larger, more productive cultivars of raspberries. Raspberries also meet most of the criteria I have when choosing what to grow: they are a high dollar item, best fresh, highly perishable, can be eaten without cooking, can be harvested successively, and are something my family will eat as much of as I can grow. As with strawberries, there is a lot to learn about how to maximize production.

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Bump Up Your Strawberry Production

There are never enough strawberries in our patch — I think my kids and my neighbor’s kids would agree!

I am not the only one who is figuring out how to grow strawberries successfully in Alaska. One of the top posts on my blog, It Grows in Alaska, is Untangling the Mysteries of Growing Strawberries in Alaska. To figure what I can do to bump up my strawberry production, I interviewed Andy Harper, a local strawberry farmer (Highlands of Alaska Farms) as well as University of Minnesota researchers who have studied annual strawberry production using a low tunnel system.

strawberries in a box
Photo by Andy Harper.

Andy has a half acre of strawberries in production this year. Some of those plants are research plants. He said he started the farm because, “I love berries, I lived in the UK and Scotland, they love black currants, I love those. I met Papa [Meunier] and he had everything. All different types of berries. I just loved berries. So I decided I wanted to do berry farming. Strawberries are the only ones I can make money on the first year.”

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Beyond Strawberries and Raspberries—Try Currants, Honeyberries, Serviceberries and More!

Raspberries and strawberries are ubiquitous in Alaska gardens and I, for one, never tire of eating them.

But there are other lesser known types of berries that also thrive in Alaska that are worth trying. You might even find a new favorite.

Saskatoons (or serviceberries), haskaps (or honeyberries), currants and gooseberries are well adapted to Alaskan growing conditions.

red currants growing on a bush

I love the tart, unique taste of currants. There are many varieties to choose from. They are a bit seedy, but the seeds can be eaten. They make an excellent jelly.

Saskatoons and haskaps are incredibly prolific and productive. They can be eaten fresh or in baked goods or preserves.

saskatoon bushes

Saskatoon or serviceberries are prolific. To me, they don’t compare to blueberries, but they’re a berry nonetheless.

Haskaps have the added benefit that they mature earlier than other berries, which extends the time you can be eating fresh berries. I love the tart flavor of currants, which is excellent when made into syrup or jam.

Growing berries is not as straightforward as growing lettuce or carrots. But at least you don’t have to plant them every year since they are generally perennial. Most berries benefit from full sun, mulching, compost, weed control, disease prevention measures, plentiful pollinators, good drainage and consistent watering. But berries vary substantially in their day/night length requirements, fertility needs, ideal pH, cold tolerance, required pruning regime and pollination strategies. Continue reading

The Biggest and Sweetest is NOT Always the Best When it Comes to Fruits and Vegetables

When compared with many foods, fruits and vegetables are unequivocally healthy. But look more closely and you’ll find a wide variation in how nutritious they are. This variation is given short shrift by most health campaigns, which focus on nudging people toward eating fruits and vegetables and less junk food, period. Unfortunately, the devil is in the details. I think most of us, including my 4-year-old, are adept at distinguishing between unhealthful junk food and the merits of fruits and vegetables. But we don’t give much thought to which types of fruits and vegetables (and which varieties) are most nutritious.

Tote of multiple varieties of cauliflower.

If you’re like me, you think just because something is a fruit or vegetable then you can eat as much of it as you want to. For instance, mandarins and super sweet corn, albeit a fruit and a vegetable, veer toward junk food in terms of sugar content. One medium mandarin has 9 grams of sugar, on par with one standard Reese’s cup, which contains 10 grams of sugar. One large white ear of corn contains just about as many carbohydrates (25 grams) as half of a bagel (27 grams). Granted, they do contain more fiber and nutrients than junk food.

Simple slogans from the U.S. Department of Agriculture encourage us to fill half of our plate with fruit and vegetables each meal (a little more vegetables than fruit). This gives us the idea that as long as we eat a certain amount of any fruit or vegetable at each meal, then we have our bases covered and will be healthy. Continue reading

Want to Grow More Food? First, Make a Plan!

There are so many reasons to grow more of your own food. It’s healthy, it can improve your food security, and it it can be highly rewarding. If you’re hoping to ramp up your production to make a bona fide contribution to your diet, first make a plan.

Containers of Raspberries, strawberries, saskatoons, currants and rhubarb harvested in late summer.

I created a completely customizable Google Sheet to help you do this. Based on the size of your family and preferences for various vegetables and berries, the sheet will help you calculate how much row and square footage you’ll need to grow enough food to reach your desired goals. You’ll have to make a copy of the sheet or download the sheet to enter your numbers and you will need a google account. Continue reading

Blueberries—Wild and Citified

For some, blueberry* picking is a laid-back, fun activity. For my family, it’s a competitive sport—the winner being the one who picks the most and biggest berries in the least amount of time.

heavily laden blueberry bush

A little pruning goes a long ways — this heavily laden bush was in my backyard where I regularly pruned the bushes.

Picking berries is also something that brings us together. It’s something I’ve done with my grandma, mother and sisters since I was young, something my daughters do with me and something that results in a tasty reward chock-full of antioxidants. Wild or citified, learning a little about these marvelous blue pearls can help us protect and boost their production for generations to come.

First, the land may need protection. The Blueberry Preserve in Goldstream Valley exemplifies how a community coalesced to protect a popular and productive blueberry spot. On private land, protect your berries by not building or landscaping over them. Trust me, it’s easier to maintain a blueberry patch than a lawn and a lot yummier, too.

Invasive species are another looming threat to blueberries. Many people remarked on the bountiful, hefty blueberries this year. Did you notice how lush the bird vetch was too? Although there are many invasive species to weed and control, bird vetch is particularly onerous because it can invade undisturbed areas, unlike many invasive species that only thrive in disturbed areas. The Winterberry and Berry Futures projects are great resources for monitoring berry patches across Alaska especially in the face of a changing climate. Continue reading

Untangling the Mysteries of Growing Strawberries in Alaska

Nothing is more agonizing than patiently waiting for sweet strawberries, only to be rewarded with luscious green leaves. That’s what happened to me when, on a whim, I bought what sounded like a perfect strawberry for Alaska called Sparkle. In spite of promises for “vigorous, productive plants” and that it was “a favorite of northern growers”, it only produced a handful of berries. I guess the plants did vigorously produce leaves and they must consider Washington, northern. What went wrong?

Left, photo of ripe strawberries harvested. Right, photo of strawberry plants with flowers growing in a teracotta pot.Based on response to day length, strawberries are categorized as: June bearers, everbearers or day neutrals. Sparkle is a June bearer.

June bearers flower and fruit in response to short days (or more precisely, nights that are at least 10 hours long) and do so once per season. But in Interior Alaska, our long days encourage the growth of runners. Our days are only short enough when we also have freezing temperatures and snow. Continue reading