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

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

How to Build a Better Looking Garden Bed

As some of you might have deduced from reading this blog, I’m a die-hard edible gardener and it’s a stretch for me to think outside the vegetable row. If you can’t eat it and it doesn’t attract pollinators or fix nitrogen, it’s usually not going to get a spot in my garden. This summer, I decided to change that and dedicate one bed to flowers. Here’s how I designed it.

First, I needed to determine what I liked and didn’t like. As a starting point, I glanced through books and magazines, online, and through my many photos of flower beds taken at the Georgeson Botanical Garden on the Troth Yeddha’ campus, and at local hotels, greenhouses and home landscapes. I’m a garden nerd, and so I take a lot of photos of flowers, vegetables and gardens.

One of my favorite beds on campus uses the massing approach, where only one type of flower or plant in one or two shades is grown. This bed is a mass of crimson and strawberry-colored Nicotiana. It creates a dramatic visual impact. I’m not so into the beds on campus that are white and baby pink alyssum, a so-called restful combination.

pink and red Nicotiana fill the screen

These Nicotiana have taken over this garden bed and are a good example of a massing technique.

In addition to the overall bed design, I needed to think about color, texture, flower shape, height, focal points, bloom sequence and whether to integrate flowers, shrubs, herbs, vegetables and grasses. And finally, would the plants I chose thrive in Fairbanks?

From looking at other flower beds, I figured out that for colors, I like the maximum amount of contrast. Give me a bright pink cosmos with dark blue iris (or blue sage) or bright orange marigolds with dark blue lobelia. In There’s a Moose in My Garden,  Brenda Adams calls this a “sassy’ combination. On the color wheel, this translates to a complementary or split complementary color scheme. I’m not so drawn to monochromatic, washed-out colors. This handy color wheel calculator helped further identify color schemes I liked. Cornell University also has some helpful guides for using color to design flower beds and more.

A very colorful garden bed that integrates flowers and vegetables like kale, swiss chard and peas.

A very colorful garden bed that integrates flowers and vegetables is a beautiful and practical way to grow food and ornamentals in limited space. In front are Livingston daisies, Harlequin mix.

I also like varied and dramatic textures like grass or globe onions or coleus combined with flowers. And I like unique, oddly shaped flowers like hibiscus, Chinese asters, double poppies and clematis, not only because they photograph well. I’ll blame it on being a lifetime Fairbanksan, but I’m a little bored with petunias, lobelia, geraniums, begonias and pansies, even though I know they’re dependable.

several pink chinese asters fill the screen

These Chinese asters offer an interesting texture and vibrant color.

Continue reading