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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
The Brassicaceae family includes a bunch of vegetables that grow super well in Alaska’s often cool weather. Some examples are broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, turnips, daikon radishes, radishes and rutabagas. I’m going to talk about a few of the below-ground or root brassica vegetables now.
You can eat turnips and their greens. Left, photo by Glenna Gannon; right, photo by J.R. Ancheta.
When you think of a radish, you probably think of a small, round, radish (red on the outside and white on the inside) commonly sold in grocery stores. These mature super quickly — in under three weeks. Examples of this type of radish are Cherriette or Cherry Belle. But radishes come in many shapes, sizes and colors. Some are long and cylindrical while some are short and stubby. Some are purple and some are white. Daikon radishes are the biggest radishes. They are white and spicy and make a good addition to kimchi or Korean sauerkraut. Here is a nice comparison chart of specialty radishes. At the Fairbanks Experiment Farm, we trialed just a few Daikon radishes in 2017 and found that Alpine and Summer Cross No. 3 grew big and long respectively. Continue reading
Beets are a versatile, tasty and nutritious root vegetable. Apparently, like cilantro, some people have a strong aversion to beets. You can eat both the root and greens of the beet. Beets are delicious steamed, roasted, pickled or fermented, and they also store well in a root cellar.
Heidi Rader shows off beets from the variety trials in Fairbanks. Photo by Glenna Gannon.
In 2018 vegetable variety trials in Fairbanks, in descending order, Zeppo, Boro, Subeto, Pablo, Red Ace, Detroit Dark Red, Robin and Merlin yields were significantly higher than Falcon, Early Blood Turnip and Lutz Green Leaf. Zeppo was the highest-yielding variety at an average of 2.1 pounds/row feet. The higher-yielding varieties also had correspondingly high ratings in other areas, including plant vigor, bolting sensitivity and uniformity. The average size of Boro, Subeto and Zeppo beets (all hybrids) were over 5 ounces in 2018!Continue reading
My favorite type of pea is snap peas eaten fresh off the vine—a perennial kid favorite too. I’ve never intentionally grown shelling peas. I prefer growing things where I can eat most of what I grow—like with kale as opposed to Brussels Sprouts. Why give yourself the extra work of not only growing the pod but also shelling it? Maybe I’m just lazy because I don’t clean leaves and stems from my berries either. I guess if you have a dish you like that calls for shelled peas, then I would understand why you would do it. Then there are snow peas where the entire pod is eaten. Their distinguishing feature is that they are flat, sometimes very large pods. So the basic categories of peas are snap, shelling, and snow but there are some grey areas.
I had a bumper crop of Sugar Ann Snap peas one year when I had beautiful, deep, moist silt loam.
One of the confusing things about garden crops is the somewhat fuzzy categories that have been developed and how they don’t always best describe the varieties or types that are being grown. Julie Riley wrote an excellent article on peas, and has some good ideas for how pea categories could better be described. Strawberries are another good example of wonky categories that I have written about before. Julie also talks about the importance of planting peas early and knowing what type of pea you’re growing so that you harvest at the right time.Continue reading
The difference between a fresh green bean and a canned one is huge. But green beans (snap beans) aren’t the only kind of bean you can grow in Alaska. Runner and fava beans also do very well and you can even grow beans for the bean itself, although that requires extra patience, time, and dedication.
Fresh-harvested green and yellow wax beans.
Bean terminology and categories can be overlapping and confusing. For instance, a snap bean could be a bush bean or a pole bean and could also be grown just for the beans. Runner beans, a different species, can be grown with the intent of eating the entire pod, just the bean, or as an ornamental — and in the U.S. you’ll often find the seeds categorized under flowers rather than with beans in seed catalogues. Like pole beans, they are climbers and are either characterized as half-runner or runner beans. Further, fava beans are even more different and are a different genus and species than beans and runner beans.
Common beans (Phaseolus vulgaris), as you might expect, are the most commonly grown bean in Alaska. There are varieties that only get about 2 feet tall (bush beans) and ones that climb high (pole beans). Sometimes the entire pod is eaten (green or snap beans) while sometimes just the bean is eaten. There are some that produce tasty pods and beans while others are produced mainly for one or the other stage. Usually in Alaska, common beans are grown with the intent of eating the whole pod because it takes fewer days to mature — between about 50 and 60 days. Tack on at least a month or so if you want to grow them for dried beans. Continue reading
Just like toilet paper, seeds have been a favorite purchase of panic buyers. Several seed companies have temporarily stopped orders, are seeing long delays in shipping times and have sold out of many varieties. Unless you really had your ducks in a row early this spring, you might still be waiting for seeds that you’d hoped to start inside or plant outside, or are simply unable to order from your normal company.
If holding a traditional seed swap, participants can spoon in bulk seeds into their own bags. In COVID-19 times, prepackaged seeds are probably best.
If you think you might have ordered much more than you can use in the next couple of years (perhaps based on a plan you made previously) but don’t have enough of some other types of seed, consider swapping or donating them. Continue reading