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.

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

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

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

All About Alliums—Knowing Your Onions, Shallots, Garlic and Leeks

Alliums are the vegetables we can’t do without–onions, garlic, chives, leeks, and shallots. They are so called because they belong to the genus Allium. We add them to pizza and pasta, soups and stir-fries, and Thai and Indian cuisine. So why not make some space for alliums in your garden this year?

Siberian Onions growing in the Georgeson Botanical Garden in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Siberian Onions growing in the Georgeson Botanical Garden in Fairbanks, Alaska.

They are easy to grow but you must first know how to start them. There are several ways.

You can plant onions, shallots, leeks, chives, and Siberian onions from seed. Garlic, on the other hand, does not produce fertile seed so you must plant garlic cloves. Seeds should be started inside about 10 weeks before transplanting outdoors.

But seeds aren’t your only option. I don’t have the patience for starting alliums from seed so I buy sets or dormant plant bundles which can be planted directly outside and show visible, daily growth. Sets are dried, half-grown or baby onions. If growing onions, shallots, or leeks, you can grow them from semi-dried or dormant plants that come in bundles of about 50 or 60 plants. If kept cool and dry, you have up to one week before they need to be planted. You can also buy live transplants, but this is likely more expensive than sets or dormant plants. Continue reading

Asparagus is Worth a Try in a Warm, Sunny Garden

Rhubarb patches are common in Alaskans’ backyards, but not asparagus patches. Like rhubarb, asparagus is an edible perennial and, if not quite as reliable or prolific as rhubarb, is certainly one to consider. The beauty of perennials is that once they’re established, they’re relatively easy to maintain and you’ll be harvesting them around the time you’re planting annual vegetable crops. Perennials do require more upfront work than annuals.

Asparagus ferns growing in plastic mulch at the Georgeson Botanical Garden in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Asparagus ferns at the Georgeson Botanical Garden in Fairbanks, Alaska.

In 1995 Pat Holloway described asparagus as “finicky” in Fairbanks and I asked her recently if this was still true. She said yes and explained: “Warmer winters are one thing, but they are like peonies–they need snow cover. We have had spectacular successes on our warm south-facing slopes until we lose the snow then everything is wiped out. If we keep getting these 40 below spells, and there is no snow–not good. At my house–1000 ft elevation, I can’t grow it worth a darn even though I rarely get to minus 25. I get these wimpy stalks that make great feathery fillers, but not much else. They survive, but just barely. I think it is worth trying on the good, warm sites, but don’t be surprised if it doesn’t work.” See what a difference a high tunnel in Homer, Alaska makes in how well asparagus grows in Homer, Alaska.

There have been just a couple asparagus trials done in Alaska that I’m aware of–in the 90’s by Pat Holloway and more recently the Alaska Plant Materials Center starting in 2014. Most of the varieties trialed in the 90s aren’t readily available anymore. Jersey Giant was one of the top performers in these earlier trials and in 2014 so that is probably a good bet. Compared with crowns planted in the same year, Viking KB3, an open pollinated variety, yields were highest. Both Jersey Giant and Viking KB3 are available from Daisy Farms, along with many of the varieties trialed more recently by the Alaska Plant Materials Center. Continue reading

Corn—The Holy Grail of Alaska Gardeners

Growing corn in Alaska is a pain in the neck. If you’re lucky, the summer is hot and you get a few ears. If you’re not lucky, and the summer is cold and rainy, you get zilch. Either way, a lot of effort and garden space goes into your attempts with mixed results.

Heidi Rader hold two flats of corn seedlings and prepares to plant seedlings in a prepared garden bed with bright blue sky in the background.

Heidi Rader prepares to plant corn seedlings. They were seeded in a greenhouse on May 4th and planted on June 3rd and were a tad larger than ideal. Photo by Glenna Gannon.

Still, Alaska gardeners’ eyes light up when you talk about growing corn in a way you don’t see when you mention, say, kale, which is so much more reliable, nutritious and higher-yielding. Maybe part of the allure of growing corn is the challenge. Or maybe that it’s about 10 times sweeter than kale. If you get a twinkle in your eye when you hear corn-growing talk, here are some things you should know.

First, you will want to choose a variety that matures in around 70 days or less. You’ll also want to consider the genetics of the corn variety you’re selecting and not just for curiosity’s sake. It’s important for predicting cold hardiness, sweetness, seedling vigor (in cold soils), the shelf life or rate that sugar turns to starch and isolation requirements. I’m not going to lie, it’s a little bit confusing, but Delaware Cooperative Extension, does a great job of delineating the corn by their genetic traits. Johhny’s Seeds also provides a nice comparison of sweet corn types. Continue reading