Growing Winter Squash and Pumpkins in Interior Alaska

Heidi and her two sisters holding large zucchini squash in their childhood garden with large sunflowers in the background.

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 are being grown more and more in gardens and farms around town.

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

Growing Bulbs in Interior Alaska

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.

purple tulips blooming in a bed

Purple Lord and Pinochio tulips bloom in a flower bed close to my house. You can also see peony plants emerging.

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. 

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. The ideal time to plant in the fall will vary some from year to year but is around early to mid-September.

Tulips and daffodils should be planted 5-6 inches deep while smaller bulbs like Scillas and grape hyacinths can be planted 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: 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

What Your Plant Hardiness Zone Won’t Tell You About Your Garden’s Climate

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. There are two main reasons I encourage you to look beyond your zone and more closely at your garden’s microclimate. For one, your zone–is based only on the “average annual extreme minimum temperature.’ For another–it is outdated. It’s developed from data from 1976 to 2005.

A map of Alaska indicating USDA Plant Hardiness Zones by color variation. Much of Northern and central Alaska consists of growing zones 1a to 2b, with coastal regions 2b to 4a and Southeast Alaska contains zones ranging from 4a to 7b.

Alaska USDA Plant Hardiness Zones.

I’m not going to tell you to set up a weather station in your back yard–although that would be the most accurate thing to do and there are some fairly inexpensive digital temperature monitors out there. I’m going to show you a couple of tools that will allow you to zoom in on the particular climactic conditions in your garden–all from the comfort of your armchair. 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. Continue reading

One Family’s Extraordinary Commitment to Grow, Gather, Hunt, and Fish for most of their Food in Interior Alaska and to Help Others do the Same

When some Alaskans retire, they head south for warmer, easier, sunnier lives. They take their stories and their adventures of Alaska life and that’s enough. But Terry and Paul Reichardt are different. They’ve ramped up what they’ve done for decades – wresting nearly all of their food from the Alaska landscape.

While it’s not unusual for Alaskans to hunt, gather, fish and grow their own food, it is unusual for a family to obtain most of their food this way, especially while working demanding jobs. Paul Reichardt was a chemistry professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks starting in 1972 and the provost from 1998-2007, and Terry Reichardt founded and ran Love In The Name of Christ for 16 years.

Terry Riechardt poses with two baskets of vegetables from her garden.

Terry Riechardt and the bounty from her garden. Photo courtesy of Terry Reichardt

When the Reichardts settled in the hills above Goldstream Valley in 1973, they grew their own food, in part, to save money. And because it was something Terry had always done. Their garden adapted to the needs and demands of a growing family. Less time meant more weeds, but three kids meant a lot of extra helping hands. Continue reading