Peony Farming—More Work and a Smaller Reward Than Many Imagined

In the last decade, peony farms in Alaska have increased tenfold. According to the latest Census of Agriculture, there were 100 peony farms in the state.

The growth has been propelled by headlines like these: Alaska’s peonies are the state’s new cash crop, ‘The industry’s about to explode’: Peony market flourishes in Alaska, Alaskan peony farmers aim to grow industry, and How Alaska became a center of peony cultivation.

Credit for the boom also goes to UAF Professor Pat Holloway who, 20 years ago, made it known that, because Alaska peonies bloomed at a time when they weren’t available anywhere else in the world–during the height of the wedding season–they could garner premium prices.

Notwithstanding the ebullient headlines, are Alaska’s peony farmers flourishing? Are they making money? That’s what I wanted to find out when I interviewed over a dozen farmers in Interior Alaska.

David Russelll is the president of the Alaska Peony Growers Association, and owner of one the largest peony farms in Alaska. He likens peony farming to a video game. The first level is growing marketable peonies, the second, chilling and post-harvest handling, and the third, marketing. Each level presents new challenges and unknowns. If you successfully reach the third level, you must continue juggling all of the challenges of the first and second levels as well. Continue reading

Good Garden Reads—What’s on my Bookshelf

If you find yourself with any extra time these days, you know, because there’s a pandemic, check out one of these inspiring garden reads. Here’s what’s on my book shelf.

Books reccomended in this article on a bookshelf.

Recommended garden reads

The Garden Classroom by Cathy James is an excellent resource for teachers, parents, or those involved with children. It’s intended for kids aged 4 to 8 and has all sorts of fun, creative ideas for integrating learning with the garden whatever subject is the focus (math, science, reading, and art).

Brenda Adams, is an award-winning landscape designer in Southeast, Alaska and has written two books: There’s a Moose in My Garden and Cool Plants for Cold Climates. Although you’ll need to filter her plant recommendations through the lens of an Interior gardener, the books are inspiring, beautiful, and backed by a very experienced Alaskan landscaper. They will help you whether you’re designing a new flower bed or an entire landscape.

Not only will Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties  by Carol Deppe spark your interest in saving seeds, it might also inspire you to develop a new vegetable variety. Deppe explains it’s easier and more fun to develop new varieties to suit your own desires and location. We live in a unique climate and have a relatively small population so it’s worth trying! If you’re inspired, then check out the Ester Seed Library and ‘borrow’ some seeds that other local gardeners have been adapting for Interior Alaska. The seeds are free, but you’ll be expected to save and replenish the seeds. While you’re there, look for books on this reading list at the John Trigg Ester Library or other books on sustainability and agriculture. Continue reading

All About Alliums—Knowing Your Onions, Shallots, Garlic and Leeks

Alliums are the vegetables we can’t do without–onions, garlic, chives, leeks, and shallots. They are so called because they belong to the genus Allium. We add them to pizza and pasta, soups and stir-fries, and Thai and Indian cuisine. So why not make some space for alliums in your garden this year?

Siberian Onions growing in the Georgeson Botanical Garden in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Siberian Onions growing in the Georgeson Botanical Garden in Fairbanks, Alaska.

They are easy to grow but you must first know how to start them. There are several ways.

You can plant onions, shallots, leeks, chives, and Siberian onions from seed. Garlic, on the other hand, does not produce fertile seed so you must plant garlic cloves. Seeds should be started inside about 10 weeks before transplanting outdoors.

But seeds aren’t your only option. I don’t have the patience for starting alliums from seed so I buy sets or dormant plant bundles which can be planted directly outside and show visible, daily growth. Sets are dried, half-grown or baby onions. If growing onions, shallots, or leeks, you can grow them from semi-dried or dormant plants that come in bundles of about 50 or 60 plants. If kept cool and dry, you have up to one week before they need to be planted. You can also buy live transplants, but this is likely more expensive than sets or dormant plants. Continue reading

Asparagus is Worth a Try in a Warm, Sunny Garden

Rhubarb patches are common in Alaskans’ backyards, but not asparagus patches. Like rhubarb, asparagus is an edible perennial and, if not quite as reliable or prolific as rhubarb, is certainly one to consider. The beauty of perennials is that once they’re established, they’re relatively easy to maintain and you’ll be harvesting them around the time you’re planting annual vegetable crops. Perennials do require more upfront work than annuals.

Asparagus ferns growing in plastic mulch at the Georgeson Botanical Garden in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Asparagus ferns at the Georgeson Botanical Garden in Fairbanks, Alaska.

In 1995 Pat Holloway described asparagus as “finicky” in Fairbanks and I asked her recently if this was still true. She said yes and explained: “Warmer winters are one thing, but they are like peonies–they need snow cover. We have had spectacular successes on our warm south-facing slopes until we lose the snow then everything is wiped out. If we keep getting these 40 below spells, and there is no snow–not good. At my house–1000 ft elevation, I can’t grow it worth a darn even though I rarely get to minus 25. I get these wimpy stalks that make great feathery fillers, but not much else. They survive, but just barely. I think it is worth trying on the good, warm sites, but don’t be surprised if it doesn’t work.” See what a difference a high tunnel in Homer, Alaska makes in how well asparagus grows in Homer, Alaska.

There have been just a couple asparagus trials done in Alaska that I’m aware of–in the 90’s by Pat Holloway and more recently the Alaska Plant Materials Center starting in 2014. Most of the varieties trialed in the 90s aren’t readily available anymore. Jersey Giant was one of the top performers in these earlier trials and in 2014 so that is probably a good bet. Compared with crowns planted in the same year, Viking KB3, an open pollinated variety, yields were highest. Both Jersey Giant and Viking KB3 are available from Daisy Farms, along with many of the varieties trialed more recently by the Alaska Plant Materials Center. Continue reading