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. . .

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Gardening in Ruby, Alaska

Full length shot of Evelyn sarten in mud boots.
Evelyn Sarten in her garden. Photo by Molly Cerridwen.

Evelyn Sarten and her late husband Ed (Dwight) have gardened in Ruby, Alaska, for a quarter of a century. Evelyn, who was raised on the land on a Native American reservation in Taos, New Mexico, estimates she grows about 30% of her food. 

She was taught to live with the land and she’s always grown her own food. Their garden in Ruby is characterized by innovation and making do with what is available. For instance, their chicken coop fence was constructed from an old couch frame, old bed frames, and leftover fencing from the school. Now her one remaining chicken lives in her Arctic entryway.

In addition to growing her own large garden, she also works for the Native Village of Ruby as the natural resources and agriculture program director, helping others in Ruby garden as well. With Evelyn, I and the Tribes Extension Program (www.uaf.edu/ces/tribes) sent out vegetable and flower seeds and organized gardening and plant foraging workshops at the school. We also purchased and built a raised bed garden for the school.

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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.

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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.

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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. This resource is helpful if you want to choose best squash varieties for where you live.

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Herbs—Easy to Grow, so Many Ways to Use

In the summer, there’s no reason to settle for dry, colorless herbs that may have been in your cupboard just a little too long. Simply trot out to your backyard herb garden, ideally as close as possible to your kitchen, and snip your herbs as needed. Another advantage? They’re a great thing to grow in a small space.

a variety of herbs planted, bordered by rocks.

In the winter, herbs are one of the easiest edible plants to grow indoors as well. You’ll need grow lights and some type of aeroponic or hydroponic system also helps.

What herbs lack in calorie count and volume, they make up for in flavor and variety. In addition to a wide range of herbs like basil or Perilla (shiso), there are many, many varieties of each herb. For example, there are sweet basil, purple basil, lemon basil and on it goes.

purple basil with blooming orange flowers

Here, purple basil is interplanted with calendula and fox glove. Purple basil is tasty, but pesto made with purple basil is very unappetizing looking.

Give herbs similar growing conditions that you would give vegetables—neutral pH, sunny location and well-drained, fertile soiland they will thrive. But there are several ways that herbs differ from growing vegetables. One big difference is that you’ll generally only need to grow one or two plants, unless it’s something like basil that you like to eat a lot of. Continue reading

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.

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