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

Growing Turnips, Radishes, and Rutabagas in Alaska

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

Growing Beets in Alaska

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

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

Growing Peas in Alaska

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.

Freshly harvested sugar anne peas in a blue basket

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

You can Grow Bush, Pole, Runner, and Fava Beans in Alaska

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 in a large tote.

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

Need Seeds? Have Extra Seeds? Then Swap and Share.

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.

Three bowls lined up with beet, pea, and clover seeds.

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

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

The Biggest and Sweetest is NOT Always the Best When it Comes to Fruits and Vegetables

When compared with many foods, fruits and vegetables are unequivocally healthy. But look more closely and you’ll find a wide variation in how nutritious they are. This variation is given short shrift by most health campaigns, which focus on nudging people toward eating fruits and vegetables and less junk food, period. Unfortunately, the devil is in the details. I think most of us, including my 4-year-old, are adept at distinguishing between unhealthful junk food and the merits of fruits and vegetables. But we don’t give much thought to which types of fruits and vegetables (and which varieties) are most nutritious.

Tote of multiple varieties of cauliflower.

If you’re like me, you think just because something is a fruit or vegetable then you can eat as much of it as you want to. For instance, mandarins and super sweet corn, albeit a fruit and a vegetable, veer toward junk food in terms of sugar content. One medium mandarin has 9 grams of sugar, on par with one standard Reese’s cup, which contains 10 grams of sugar. One large white ear of corn contains just about as many carbohydrates (25 grams) as half of a bagel (27 grams). Granted, they do contain more fiber and nutrients than junk food.

Simple slogans from the U.S. Department of Agriculture encourage us to fill half of our plate with fruit and vegetables each meal (a little more vegetables than fruit). This gives us the idea that as long as we eat a certain amount of any fruit or vegetable at each meal, then we have our bases covered and will be healthy. Continue reading

Untangling the Mysteries of Growing Strawberries in Alaska

Nothing is more agonizing than patiently waiting for sweet strawberries, only to be rewarded with luscious green leaves. That’s what happened to me when, on a whim, I bought what sounded like a perfect strawberry for Alaska called “Sparkle.’ In spite of promises for “vigorous, productive plants’ and that it was “a favorite of northern growers,’ it only produced a handful of berries. I guess the plants did vigorously produce leaves and they must consider Washington, northern. What went wrong?

Left, photo of ripe strawberries harvested. Right, photo of strawberry plants with flowers growing in a teracotta pot.Based on response to day length, strawberries are categorized as: June bearers, everbearers or day neutrals. Sparkle is a June bearer.

June bearers flower and fruit in response to short days (or more precisely, nights that are at least 10 hours long) and do so once per season. But in Interior Alaska, our long days encourage the growth of runners. Our days are only short enough when we also have freezing temperatures and snow. Continue reading