Stretch Your Growing Season Into the Fall With Season Extension Techniques and Cold Hardy Vegetables

Although the growing season in Alaska is short, particularly in some areas, it’s getting longer. Still, from year to year, there are noticeable differences in the length of the growing season. Season extension techniques help deal with some of this year to year variability and make the most of your season. You can protect your plants from frost and cold using a range of season extension techniques: frost cloth, low tunnels, cold frames or hoop houses.

A garden in Alaska using frost cloth to create a low tunnel to help insulate plants from cool temperatures.

Frost cloth can be used to create a low tunnel to help insulate plants from cool temperatures.

Frost cloth, or row cover, comes in a variety of weights – the heaviest can protect plants down to 24 degrees.

Low tunnels are constructed from metal hoops and can be covered with frost cloth or plastic.

Cold frames can be insulated and/or heated (hot bed). You can even make a rudimentary cold frame with straw bales. If you’re willing to add heat to a cold frame (known as a hot bed) or high tunnel, you can extend the growing season even further into the winter.

Old windows can be used to create a structure called a cold frame. Here, a cold frame is erected over a raised garden bed.

Old windows can be used to create a cold frame.

Hoop houses and high tunnels are another option. They provide a little less protection than cold frames because they are usually constructed from simple structures and use a plastic covering.

If you have extra room in your greenhouse, you can plant cold-hardy vegetables in mid- to late summer, but it might be hard to take precious space from your tomatoes and cucumbers when they are at their peak and give it to the lowly corn salad (mache). Continue reading

UPDATED: Greenhouses Remain Open in Fairbanks and Continue to Serve Rural Alaska

With the burgeoning interest in gardening this year, many will probably be relieved to hear that, so far, greenhouses in Fairbanks plan to remain open. They are planning on filling a critical role in helping people improve their own food security, and just as important, their mental health this summer. I interviewed Stephanie Bluekins, owner of the Plant Kingdom and Glen Risse, owner of Risse Greenhouse, about how they plan to meet the demand for all things gardening both in Fairbanks and in rural Alaska.

A view of the inside of one of RIsse's Greenhouses, filled with vibrantly colored flower varieties.

Risse Greenhouse plans to remain open this spring, with curbside pickup. Photo courtesy of Glen Risse.

At both greenhouses, you can make an order online or by phone and schedule a pick-up time. When you arrive at the greenhouse, call and let them know you’re there and they’ll bring your plants and other products out to you. In lieu of their normal in-person workshops, The Plant Kingdom is planning virtual workshops, which may be accompanied by an appropriate kit. Risse greenhouse isn’t quite sure what they will do instead of their large in-person events.

UPDATED: As of 4/20/2020, Risse Greenhouse is open to the public. The Plant Kingdom is also planning to open to the public to some extent. Contact the greenhouses for the most up to date information on hours and special procedures or shopping protocols related to COVID-19.

I also asked them about their continued dedication to serving the needs of villages in rural Alaska. Stephanie is Alaska Native with family throughout rural Alaska and is committed to working with rural Alaska. She offers Bush orders and currently provides a flat rate of $35 for a packing/pulling price in addition to the cost of purchased items and shipping charges. For Bush orders, Risse Greenhouse charges a percentage of the cost of the items purchased as well as shipping. Continue reading

Homer is Passionate About Local Food–and Those Who Produce it

In spring of 2018 I had the happy excuse to visit five farms in Homer–to film high tunnels and season extension techniques for a YouTube series called, In the Alaska Garden with Heidi Rader. While I was there, I kind of fell in love with those farmers. Their passion, tenacity, and creativity was infectious and rekindled my own dream of being a farmer I discovered they’re innovating in lots more ways than high tunnels. I say farmers but they all also identify strongly with the term “market gardener”–a term that describes farmers who grow food predominately for direct markets using mostly low-tech, hand tools on small acreage. They are voracious readers, watchers of YouTube videos, and sharers of ideas. Some of their favorite authors and vloggers include Eliot Coleman (The Four Season Farm), Ben Hartman (The Lean Farm), Curtis Stone (The Urban Farmer), and Jean-Martin Fortier (The Market Gardener).

Heidi Rader stands with Katie Restino while she demonstrates how to cut greens with her Quick Cut Greens Harvester. The harvester is powered by a cordless drill.

Carey Restino demonstrates how to cut greens with her Quick Cut Greens Harvester. The harvester is powered by a cordless drill. Photo by Jeff Faye.

My first stop was Homer Hilltop Farm where Carey Restino has carved out a farm that winds through forest and devil’s club on Diamond Ridge. Carey exuded energy as she showed me her high tunnels and hoop houses that have helped her dramatically extend her season in a microclimate that is cooler than Homer proper due to its higher elevation. She had an impressive lineup of the latest, low-tech tools designed for market gardeners including a six-row seeder, a Quick Cut Greens Harvester, and a soil tilther to name a few. Continue reading

Corn—The Holy Grail of Alaska Gardeners

Growing corn in Alaska is a pain in the neck. If you’re lucky, the summer is hot and you get a few ears. If you’re not lucky, and the summer is cold and rainy, you get zilch. Either way, a lot of effort and garden space goes into your attempts with mixed results.

Heidi Rader hold two flats of corn seedlings and prepares to plant seedlings in a prepared garden bed with bright blue sky in the background.

Heidi Rader prepares to plant corn seedlings. They were seeded in a greenhouse on May 4th and planted on June 3rd and were a tad larger than ideal. Photo by Glenna Gannon.

Still, Alaska gardeners’ eyes light up when you talk about growing corn in a way you don’t see when you mention, say, kale, which is so much more reliable, nutritious and higher-yielding. Maybe part of the allure of growing corn is the challenge. Or maybe that it’s about 10 times sweeter than kale. If you get a twinkle in your eye when you hear corn-growing talk, here are some things you should know.

First, you will want to choose a variety that matures in around 70 days or less. You’ll also want to consider the genetics of the corn variety you’re selecting and not just for curiosity’s sake. It’s important for predicting cold hardiness, sweetness, seedling vigor (in cold soils), the shelf life or rate that sugar turns to starch and isolation requirements. I’m not going to lie, it’s a little bit confusing, but Delaware Cooperative Extension, does a great job of delineating the corn by their genetic traits. Johhny’s Seeds also provides a nice comparison of sweet corn types. Continue reading