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

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

Indoor Edible Gardening

Big strides have been made in the techniques and technology used for indoor gardening. From automation to LED lights to the proliferation of simple, functional hydroponic setups– indoor gardening in Alaska is more attainable than ever. With our short growing season, why not take advantage of the winter and grow something you can eat?

The most practical and productive things you can grow indoors would be microgreens, lettuce, herbs, cucumbers and tomatoes. For non-fruit bearing plants (greens, herbs, and lettuce), you don’t even need special grow lights, regular fluorescent lights will do. Some microgreens mature in as little as a week while many other types of greens mature in as little as three weeks.

Ripe and unripe lemons on an indoor-grown lemon bush.

Lemons ripen on my mom’s indoor-grown lemon bush. Photo by Maggi Rader.

While not as productive or practical, here are some of the indoor edibles on my wish-list are:

  • Kaffir Lime Tree
  • Lemon Grass
  • Bay Laurel
  • Brown Turkey Fig
  • Calamondin Oranges (small, bitter oranges)
  • Passion Flower
  • Tamarillo Tree

I want to grow my own kaffir lime and lemon grass they are not readily available in town and the Thai recipes I cook always call for them. Fresh bay leaves are extra flavorful and since you need herbs in small quantities, I think I can produce enough to satisfy my need. One of my favorite pizza’s combines fresh figs, fig spread and bacon. Fresh figs are also difficult to find. Calamondin oranges are bitter, but more productive when grown in an indoor environment. Have you seen a passion flower? It’s a wild and beautiful thing that I would not mind having in my living room. Tamarillo trees are basically wild tomatoes. They take about two years to mature so of course they could not be grown outside. Fruits and vegetables that are closer to their wild ancestors tend to be more nutritious. Unfortunately, these exotic edibles are not as easy to grow as many houseplants, but maybe, some day, they will reward you with a tiny morsel to savor. Plus–bragging rights! 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