This year, I decided to document my garden through the seasons. One of the incredible things about gardening in Alaska is how your garden transforms overnight. It’s magical, amazing, and perhaps why I love gardening. Only this summer Things. Did. Not. Grow. Until July. But then there were some pleasant surprises.
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.
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.”
Evelyn Sarten and her late husband Ed (Dwight) have gardened in Ruby, Alaska, for a quarter of a century. Evelyn, who was raised on the land on a Native American reservation in Taos, New Mexico, estimates she grows about 30% of her food.
She was taught to live with the land and she’s always grown her own food. Their garden in Ruby is characterized by innovation and making do with what is available. For instance, their chicken coop fence was constructed from an old couch frame, old bed frames, and leftover fencing from the school. Now her one remaining chicken lives in her Arctic entryway.
In addition to growing her own large garden, she also works for the Native Village of Ruby as the natural resources and agriculture program director, helping others in Ruby garden as well. With Evelyn, I and the Tribes Extension Program (www.uaf.edu/ces/tribes) sent out vegetable and flower seeds and organized gardening and plant foraging workshops at the school. We also purchased and built a raised bed garden for the school.
I grew up in Fairbanks and according to my memory, it was never windy. Without wind, 40 below zero is not that cold. Without wind, you can water your garden and it stays moist for the day. Without wind, plastic row covers do not blow away. You get the idea. I am not a huge fan of the wind.
This spring, in addition to the wind, we had very dry (drought) conditions. I direct seed a large portion of my garden and the seeds need to be kept wet until they emerge. Keeping the seeds moist was really hard to do this spring because of the combination of hot, dry, windy weather. To keep the seeds moist, I used drip irrigation, covered the seedlings with Remay (frost cloth), and watered the seeds sometimes three times a day with a sprayer hose. Later in the summer, it is so much easier to keep a garden watered because the plants provide shade and they have roots.
Not only did the breeze seem to be a more constant companion this spring, there were also a couple of uncommonly intense windstorms in July and August. In Golden Valley Electric Association’s (GVEA) Ruralite magazine (September 2022), Josh Davis, the director of operations said, “The July wind storm was the worst storm we’ve had in my 18 years here.” He noted that the August windstorm was also pretty bad.
I like to grow edible plants. The rest of my family prefers flowers. One of my sisters is a peony farmer. And the other one lived in Jordan for years and was particularly fond of flowering vines. She wanted to know which ones grow here so that got me thinking: Which climbing flowers do thrive in Fairbanks?
I’m not talking about gushing flowers like bakopa, lobelia or creeping Jenny that flood baskets hung all over town. I’m talking about flowers that clamber from the ground up clutching on fences, trellises, tepees and pergolas.
Easiest and most trustworthy are canary bird and black-eyed Susan vines, sweet peas, scarlet runner beans, climbing nasturtiums and morning glories. Fairbanks researchers described Milky Way morning glory as a “vigorous, thick vine covered with blooms” that proffered a “very attractive display all summer” and “grew rapidly (covering) the trellis by midsummer.” Don’t bother with Cypress Vine, which did not flower at all in trials.
A slew of research and attention has been given to peonies in recent years, but research on growing other cut flowers in Alaska has been limited in the last decade. To get an idea of which cut flowers are growing well in Fairbanks in recent years, I asked a few farmers about their go-to cut flowers for creating unique, locally grown bouquets.
Caitlyn Huff with Arctic Blooms and Bouquets has loved flowers since she was a girl, but got into the flower farming business when she moved into a house in Fairbanks with 600 peonies. She grows flowers and arranges bouquets for weddings, the farmers market, a CSA, and bazaars (as dried flower arrangements). She loves the beauty and joy they bring people.
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 is becoming a much more feasible crop across Alaska.
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
In Interior Alaska, tulips and daffodils are uncommon. You might find them cozied up to a building, downtown in yards with slightly warmer soil due to the steam heat or in the hills.
For those of us who have lived farther south—even farther south in Alaska—we know that there’s a lot we’re missing in terms of spring color. Many spring-blooming bulbs, including tulips, are only hardy to Zone 3 or 4 on the USDA’s Plant Hardiness Zone Map. Some areas of Fairbanks are Zone 1 on paper. But recent, mild winters and a protected garden bed next to my house have inspired me to try my luck with tulips.
One year, I planted whatever type of bulb looked pretty at the grocery store—I think it was Pinochio, a Greigii tulip. Those came up the first spring after a mild winter.
Later, I did a little more research into hardier bulbs and ones that would multiply, and I planned ahead and ordered them. They included Plaisir, Purple Lord, Alibi and Violacea tulips. Most of these tulips (maybe all) bloomed nicely. In springs three and four, they continued to multiply and survive.
The first year the tulips are most likely to bloom, if you purchased nice, healthy bulbs. I planted Violate tulips in a bed that was not next to the house and exactly zero emerged, let alone bloomed. Because this garden bed doubled as our snow dump likely played a role in this.
The Georgeson Botanical Garden trialed a smattering of flowering bulbs in the 1990s. Of the tulips, Tarda tulip emerged from the winter with the least amount of injury and survived more years than other tulips at the garden. Bright Gem, United States, and Persian Pearl survived, but not unscathed, from the winter.
In general, Scilla tends to winter over well in Fairbanks and sometimes grape hyacinth does as well. Snowdrops are also hardy. But Scilla, grape hyacinths and snowdrops are too diminutive to satisfy my need for color after a long, white winter. And if the winter is particularly brutal with minimal snow cover, then only the hardiest will survive. In Northern Garden Symphony: Combining Hardy Perennials for Blooms All Season, Cyndie Warbelow recommends a showy allium called ‘Purple Sensation’ as another bulb to consider planting in the fall.
For bulbs, planning is key, especially for the first year. You’ll need to plant the bulbs two or three weeks before the ground is frozen. This will give them time to establish roots, without the shoots emerging. Warbelow recommends planting bulbs in late August to early September or when the soil temperatures are in the mid to low 50s (Fahrenheit).
Warbelow also recommends planting bulbs just 1-3 inches deep so that they are in the layer of soil that thaws first in the spring. The standard recommendation is to plant tulips and daffodils 5-6 inches deep and smaller bulbs like Scillas and grape hyacinths, 2-3 inches deep. If the ground is wet when you plant the bulbs, there is no need to water, but if it’s dry you should water them a bit. Well-drained soil is ideal, especially if it is a very wet fall because the bulbs could rot. Incorporate a little fertilizer before planting—organic or slow-release works best since the bulbs will use it in the spring. Adequate snow cover or mulch is a must for Fairbanks. These types of bulbs require a jolt of cold—but they don’t need 40 below cold, which, if not mulched properly, could likely kill the bulbs. What Fairbanks does have going for it is generally dry conditions and sometimes hot summers.
It can be tricky to find bulbs when you need them. You might spot them at grocery stores and local greenhouses, but they may not be the variety you want or the hardiest varieties. It’s easy to find myriad varieties online, but many companies don’t ship to Alaska. If they do ship to Alaska, they may very well ship them too late—when the ground is frozen or nearly frozen and covered with snow. So double-check that the company will ship bulbs to you earlier than to other customers.
In the spring, peel back the mulch, water, and fertilizer with a slow-release or organic fertilizer. To encourage the bulbs to naturalize and multiply, cut the flower stems after they’re past their prime. Cut the leaves back only after they’ve withered so the bulbs can store nutrients for next year. If they survive the first year and begin to multiply, then you can treat them much like you would treat your other perennials. Some bulbs tend to multiply better than others. If they do multiply, in the fall you can divide the bulbs and plant either right away, giving them more space than if you had not divided them, or store cool and dry to be planted later, but no later than a year.
I have my bulbs planted in a bed with peonies and also usually interplant some showy annuals. This provides nice, successive color. I’m already looking forward to their bright show!
Previously published in the Fairbanks Daily Newsminer Septemper 9, 2017. Updated February 10, 2022.
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.
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
Although we can’t predict the weather, by learning more about past weather we can make a more educated guess about the future. By understanding your garden’s microclimate, you’ll be able to choose plants that will thrive in your particular neck of the woods.
Many gardeners rely on the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map for a quick and dirty way to decide what to plant based on their “zone.” Zones are also a favorite qualifier of some nurseries and seed companies. Be aware that your zone is only based on the average annual extreme minimum temperature. The zones were just updated in 2023 and it’s interesting to compare the changes from the previous map.