What Grows Where? There’s an App for That.

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 with grow and tell logo

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. For more help choosing which varieties to grow in your region in Alaska, see what Extension recommends in the Interior, Southeast, or 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. Continue reading

Too Much or Not Enough Zucchini? A Matter of Perspective.

When you’re planning your garden–how much zucchini do you need? When I was a kid, I hated zucchini except when it was covered up in zucchini bread. Maybe because it was so bountiful and we ate so much of it at certain times of year. Maybe it was because often it ended up as a soggy mush in a stir-fry. 

A blue tote full of two kinds of freshly harvested zucchini.

Zucchini is best picked before it grows too big. Costata Romanesco (striped) is an heirloom variety and one of my favorites.

Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate and hope for a bumper crop of all types of squash. Maybe it’s because I’ve found tastier varieties like Costata Romanesco, an heirloom type with a sturdier texture and nuttier taste or summer squash with a more neutral taste than zucchini. Also, I’ve learned there is a big difference between the gargantuan zucchinis I grew up eating and the more petite sizes that optimize taste and texture. 

You should have good luck with most varieties of summer squash. Try a variety and see what you prefer. You’ll want to start your seeds indoors 3-4 weeks before transplanting them outside. Plant a couple of seeds in a  4-inch pot and snip the weaker plant. Squash are heat lovers so planting them in a plastic mulch or in a low or high tunnel will boost their productivity. But don’t forget to hand-pollinate them if they are enclosed in plastic. Space the plants 2 to 3 feet apart in your garden. I am growing yellow summer squashes, Tempest and Zephyr, as well as Costata Romanesco zucchini. This post can help you calculate how much zucchini you should plant.

zucchini plants growing in a high tunnel

Squash like heat so planting them in a high tunnel will increase their productivity.

You can find the following three recipes on the Smitten Kitchen Blog, my go-to source for recipes. I can’t get enough of “squash pizza.” A close cousin is “zucchini grilled cheese,” which might make sense if you want an easier, quicker lunch option. Much like zucchini bread, these recipes both do a good job of almost making the zucchini disappear. Another fantastic, but slightly more involved ending to your zucchini story is the “burst tomato galette with corn and zucchini.”

I’ve sworn off home deep frying. First, it stinks up the house and makes a big mess. Second, it’s not healthy. And third, my technique leaves something to be desired as usually whatever I deep fry doesn’t taste very good. In any case, there are two things that are commonly deep-fried — squash blossoms and zucchini fritters. But I tried a baked version of squash blossoms, and they were delectable. I will definitely be making this recipe more this summer.

UAF Extension’s publication on zucchini provides tips on growing, preserving and cooking with zucchini. Fair warning—some of the recipes are dated (particularly the casseroles) and might be more interesting in terms of a historical perspective on how people ate rather than something you or I would think about making today. But, in the dozens of recipes, you’re bound to find a few that sound good to you and that perhaps you can tweak to accommodate a more modern palette. You can find even more growing tips from Minnesota Extension.

When Your Dreams Outsize Your Garden Space, Choose Your Crops Wisely—Here’s How.

When your dreams outsize your garden space, choose your crops wisely—here’s how.

Grow things you like to eat often. For me, that’s lettuce. I eat salad most days and sometimes twice a day. Salad is easy to make because, well, you don’t have to cook it. Simply wash, chop, toss and it’s ready. After a winter of eating salad greens with a whiff of decay, I relish fresh lettuce.

A Close of of vibrant green and red baby lettuce growing.

Fresh baby lettuce is a welcome treat in the spring.

Grow fast-maturing crops. Don’t grow cabbage or Brussels sprouts, which can take 90 days or more to mature. Do grow crops such as baby lettuce mix, spinach or radishes, which mature in about 30 days. When you grow fast-maturing crops, you can grow some successive crops in the same space, upping your productivity per square foot. After the first crop matures and is harvested, remove its remnants, prepare the soil and plant again. Continue reading

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 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

Stretch Your Growing Season Into the Fall With Season Extension Techniques and Cold Hardy Vegetables

Although the growing season in Alaska is short, particularly in some areas, it’s getting longer. Still, from year to year, there are noticeable differences in the length of the growing season. Season extension techniques help deal with some of this year to year variability and make the most of your season. You can protect your plants from frost and cold using a range of season extension techniques: frost cloth, low tunnels, cold frames or hoop houses.

A garden in Alaska using frost cloth to create a low tunnel to help insulate plants from cool temperatures.

Frost cloth can be used to create a low tunnel to help insulate plants from cool temperatures.

Frost cloth, or row cover, comes in a variety of weights – the heaviest can protect plants down to 24 degrees.

Low tunnels are constructed from metal hoops and can be covered with frost cloth or plastic.

Cold frames can be insulated and/or heated (hot bed). You can even make a rudimentary cold frame with straw bales. If you’re willing to add heat to a cold frame (known as a hot bed) or high tunnel, you can extend the growing season even further into the winter.

Old windows can be used to create a structure called a cold frame. Here, a cold frame is erected over a raised garden bed.

Old windows can be used to create a cold frame.

Hoop houses and high tunnels are another option. They provide a little less protection than cold frames because they are usually constructed from simple structures and use a plastic covering.

If you have extra room in your greenhouse, you can plant cold-hardy vegetables in mid- to late summer, but it might be hard to take precious space from your tomatoes and cucumbers when they are at their peak and give it to the lowly corn salad (mache). 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

Don’t Grow Food to Save Money—Do it for so Many Other Reasons

Food is cheap in the U.S. and we spend a lower percentage of our disposable income on food than any other country. We cook less and eat out more where a large portion of our food budget goes. But we pay for cheap food in other ways. Industrial agriculture takes a toll on the environment and contributes to climate change, impacts our health, and makes it more difficult for small farmers to be competitive and make a living.

Thumbnails of various crops that grow well in Alaska, including: Potato, zucchini, carrots, broccoli, beans, cabbage etc.es,

Because food is so efficiently produced and inexpensive to buy, having a garden probably won’t save you money especially if you factor in your time and labor. Establishing a new garden can also cost a bundle to start, this article from the Journal of Extension outlines a cost-benefit analysis of starting a home garden. Gardens add daily chores to your schedule and require someone to water while you’re gone fishing/hiking/hunting this summer (unless you install a drip-irrigation system like I talked about in this article). Continue reading