Growing Currants

My favorite berries are blueberries (wild Alaskan ones of course!) and raspberries, but I have a special place in my heart for currants  as well. Like many Americans, currants aren’t a mainstay. I first heard about currants from my grandma who lived in Anchorage. She was fanatic about them and currant jelly specifically. But I didn’t really appreciate them until later in life when I took a berry class from Dr. Pat Holloway. Importantly, I learned to identify them. This is an important first step in identifying any wild berry, particularly if there is a poisonous berry that is the similar color (there is and it is bane berry!). Wild currants can also be mistaken for high bush cranberries. Unlike high bush cranberries and lowbush cranberries which are too tart for me to want to eat  fresh and high bush too seedy, I like fresh currants. I also like them made into syrup and jelly as well. You can make currant jam but it’s not easy! I prefer eating red currants fresh to black currants because their skin is much thicker. However, black currants have even higher antioxidant levels and vitamin C levels than red currants.

There are six species of black and red currants that are native to Alaska. Searching Ribes in plants.usda.gov via the Alaska State search will bring up all the species of Ribes in Alaska, including gooseberries. I’ve never seen them in quantity enough to pick many in the wild, but that may change along with the climate. In the wild, I find currants in the understory of forested areas, and so unlike many berries that prefer full sun, you can grow currants in partial shade.

Continue reading

Growing Raspberries

Most gardeners I know tend to be fairly haphazard with their raspberry patches and that may include myself. And you can be because they tend to spread on their own (much more than you might want in some cases) and come back year after year without too much effort. However, with some forethought to the soil, attention to variety you’re planting, and regular pruning, you can maximize the quality and production of your raspberry patch.

red raspberries up close

Raspberries are personally one of my favorite berries to eat fresh or frozen. Although American red raspberries (Rubus idaeus L.) grow wild throughout Alaska, they can be annoyingly small and wormy, although their intense taste does compensate somewhat for these drawbacks. But in my backyard, I’d rather grow larger, more productive cultivars of raspberries. Raspberries also meet most of the criteria I have when choosing what to grow: they are a high dollar item, best fresh, highly perishable, can be eaten without cooking, can be harvested successively, and are something my family will eat as much of as I can grow. As with strawberries, there is a lot to learn about how to maximize production.

Continue reading

How does your garden grow? Through the seasons in an Alaska garden.

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. 

August 11, 2023: Herbs and nasturtiums are thriving.

Here is how my garden grew this summer. . .

Continue reading

Bump Up Your Strawberry Production

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.

strawberries in a box
Photo by Andy Harper.

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.”

Continue reading

Never, Ever Gardened Before in Alaska? Keep Reading. . .

Gardening for the first time can be daunting, especially in Alaska with the added challenges of a short growing season, sometimes too-cool weather, and sometimes very hot weather. Although the internet provides a wealth of information, when you’ve never done something before, sometimes you don’t even know what questions to ask. Here are some questions you may not have known to ask.

The first thing to think about when starting a garden is where are you going to put it?

An ideal garden spot would get eight or more hours of direct sunlight; have rich, loose soil free of weeds, rocks and roots; be a good distance from trees and shrubs; have an easily accessible water source; and have an 8- foot-high fence to keep moose and other pests out. That’s the ideal, but many of us garden in less than ideal spots because that’s what we have available. However, it’s something to work toward or arrange if you can.

raised bed with hoop house filled with flowers and veggies
This productive raised bed is located at the University of Alaska Fairbanks community garden which is a repurposed bridge and road over the train tracks. It heats up and gets full sun.
Continue reading

Do Artichokes Grow in Alaska?

Do artichokes grow in Alaska? Why yes, they do! Unlike in warmer climates, here they are usually grown as annuals rather than perennials. They’re not something I’ve seen commonly grown or at farmers markets, but they have been grown in Fairbanks as far back as 1984 and are being trialed at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. 

About a decade ago, as an Extension employee, Taylor Maida grew artichokes in Fairbanks. Now as the trials manager at High Mowing Organic Seeds, she said artichokes growing in Fairbanks looked better than in Vermont! Her favorite vegetable to grow and eat is the artichoke.

Heidi Rader in front of an artichoke.
Here I am with Colorado Star artichokes. Photo by Dev Khalsa.
Continue reading

Growing Winter Squash in Alaska

Some extraordinary gardeners like Virgil Severns and Terry Reichardt have been growing winter squash in Alaska for years, but for us ordinary gardeners, it’s becoming a much more reliable and feasible crop. 

This video is a companion to this article.

If you’re gardening for food security, squash is a great option because you can store it without having to freeze or can it (and incidentally, you should NOT can pumpkins or squash at home according to the National Center for Home Food Preservation, but you can can cubed winter squash). Storing as is saves time during the mad dash of fall when we are trying to cook and eat all of the fresh produce from the garden or preserve what we can’t eat; as well as pick berries, fish and hunt. Not only does winter squash actually provide some calories as opposed to greens, it is paleo friendly, gluten free, delicious and nutritious. If you don’t have the space to grow squash, you can find locally available winter squash here.

Fully grown squash at the Fairbanks Experiment Farm. Photo by Glenna Gannon.
Continue reading

Bolting – THE Challenge with Growing Spinach in the Land of the Midnight Sun

I love fresh spinach so that’s why, even though much of the spinach I plant bolts (in other words, goes to seed), I always try again next year. One of the true pleasures of spinach is how quickly it grows. It is one of the first things I plant in the spring, as soon as the ground is workable, and the first thing I eat. 

In my experience, bolting is THE challenge with growing spinach in Interior Alaska. Warm temperatures and long day lengths are mostly to blame, but big temperature swings and cold temperatures can also play a role in bolting as well. This article does a good job of explaining how cold temperatures trigger bolting (flowering) in spinach and other crops. 

bowl of large leafed spinach with pink gerbera daisies in the background

Spinach is usually direct seeded. It’s possible that transplanting spinach could help mitigate bolting, but trials are needed to assess this. Direct-seeded spinach should be thinned to four to six inches, or whatever spacing is specified on the seed packet. In my garden, I often do not get around to thinning my spinach, which might increase bolting rates, although Glenna Gannon, the director of the vegetable variety trials at the Fairbanks Experiment Farm, says that proper spacing did not reduce bolting rates in trials. Consistent watering also can help prevent bolting in spinach. Spinach leaves can be snipped with scissors and allowed to regrow for successive harvests until it bolts, making it inedible.

Continue reading

What Grows Where? How to Choose the Best Varieties for Where you Live.

One of the most important choices you make in your garden each year is which crops and which varieties to grow. More than any other choice, this can make or break your garden. How do you choose from the many varieties available? Do you grab whichever seed packets happen to be staring at you in the grocery store? Or do you grow the same things every year that have worked for you in the past? Short of turning your backyard into an experiment station, how do you determine which varieties will do best where you live? Descriptions on the backs of seed packets and catalogs provide some insight, but remember seed companies are not an objective party. Ultimately, they want to sell seeds. Practically speaking, they likely have not tested their varieties as far north as Alaska because we are a small market. 

colorful carrots

There are several basic criteria to consider when choosing varieties—yield, taste, and how easy it is to grow. Yield and how easy a variety is to grow are highly specific to where you live. Taste is going to be less location-specific, although Alaska grown vegetables tend to be sweeter. Another consideration is the nutritional quality of the variety. For more help choosing which varieties to grow in your region in Alaska, see what Extension recommends in the Interior, and Southcentral Alaska and which varieties performed best in trials at the Experiment Stations in Alaska, Alaska Plant Materials Center, or trials funded by the Alaska Division of Agriculture. The Southeast Alaska Farmers Summit has helpful presentations and resources for Southeast Alaska.

Continue reading

Growing Carrots in Alaska

Carrots, especially fresh Alaska grown carrots, are unmatched in taste and texture. A favorite of kids and adults alike, they’re excellent raw, in soups or stews, roasted, or even fermented. Carrot tops can also be eaten. I like to use them to make broth, juice, and pesto.

Two bunches of fresh Alaskan carrots

With proper thinning, and well-drained, loose soil, carrots thrive in Alaska. The biggest challenge with growing them is probably getting the spacing right and keeping them weeded. Carrot seeds are tiny so you almost always have to thin after they emerge. Some people like to use seed tape or a seeder and pelleted seeds to get their spacing just right—or even a paper-pot transplanter. But if you don’t plant thickly enough and you have poor germination rates, you’ll also have low yields. Germination can also take quite a few days (about two weeks, and longer in cooler soils). During this time, you have to ensure the seeds stay consistently moist. I like to cover the seeds with frost cloth to hold the moisture in and provide some extra warmth. I learned this trick from a farmer in Homer, Alaska. Unfortunately, while your carrots take their sweet time to emerge, weeds are eager to grow and soak up the water and nutrients intended for your carrots.  Continue reading