Raised Beds Make it Possible to Garden Just About Anywhere

Gardening in raised beds offers a lot of benefits, and a few drawbacks. Raised beds are a great option for gardening on top of a porch, concrete, or on poor, rocky soil. They’re ideal for corralling good soil while keeping it from getting compacted. They make it easy to employ no-till gardening and to eliminate weeds in the aisles, especially if your walkways are made of concrete or something else that completely keeps weeds from growing. 

raised bed garden built with paving stones. Sunflowers, vegetables and nasturtiums spill over the side
One of the most beautiful and productive raised bed gardens I’ve seen were planted and cared for by Gretchen Kerndt for the Princess Hotels. This bed is built with paving stones.
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Gardening in the Aleutian Pribilof Island Region of Alaska

For this article, I interviewed two people who have gardened or farmed in the Aleutian Islands. Lily Stamm manages a geodesic dome greenhouse in Nikolski, Alaska, located on Umnak Island. Two domes were erected in 2003, one of which has since blown away. I also interviewed Michael Livingston, who homesteaded with his family in Cold Bay in the 1960s. You can watch the video of these interviews here. If you are a gardener or grower in the Aleutian and Pribilof Island region and are interested in sharing what you know, or photos and videos of your garden, please contact Heidi Rader at hbrader@alaska.edu.

lupine in the foreground, ocean and mountains in the background
Near Michael Livingston’s family’s homestead in Cold Bay. Photo by Michael Livingston.
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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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Luscious Flowers that Blossom and Climb

I like to grow edible plants. The rest of my family prefers flowers. One of my sisters is a peony farmer. And the other one lived in Jordan for years and was particularly fond of flowering vines. She wanted to know which ones grow here so that got me thinking: Which climbing flowers do thrive in Fairbanks?

I’m not talking about gushing flowers like bakopa, lobelia or creeping Jenny that flood baskets hung all over town. I’m talking about flowers that clamber from the ground up clutching on fences, trellises, tepees and pergolas.

Fast and easy to grow, the Black Eyed Susan vine comes in a rainbow of colors although orange and yellow are the most common. It can even be grown in a hanging basket.

Easiest and most trustworthy are canary bird and black-eyed Susan vines, sweet peas, scarlet runner beans, climbing nasturtiums and morning glories. Fairbanks researchers described Milky Way morning glory as a “vigorous, thick vine covered with blooms” that proffered a “very attractive display all summer” and “grew rapidly (covering) the trellis by midsummer.” Don’t bother with Cypress Vine, which did not flower at all in trials.

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Growing a Cut Flower Garden

A slew of research and attention has been given to peonies in recent years, but research on growing other cut flowers in Alaska has been limited in the last decade. To get an idea of which cut flowers are growing well in Fairbanks in recent years, I asked a few farmers about their go-to cut flowers for creating unique, locally grown bouquets. 

Caitlyn Huff with Arctic Blooms and Bouquets has loved flowers since she was a girl, but got into the flower farming business when she moved into a house in Fairbanks with 600 peonies. She grows flowers and arranges bouquets for weddings, the farmers market, a CSA, and bazaars (as dried flower arrangements). She loves the beauty and joy they bring people. 

buckets of dahlias and zinnias in a market display
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Ready, Set, Grow a Garden this Summer!

Whether it’s your first time gardening or you’ve been at it a long time, this handy garden calendar will help you get started. Villages in Interior Alaska can request a free virtual or face to face workshop with Heidi Rader or another Tribes Extension Educator. Cooperative Extension offers a variety of workshops statewide.

Below is a basic gardening calendar for Interior gardeners. Here is another more detailed seed starting calculator and another resource on getting started gardening.

March 15

March 26

  • Start your cucumbers and tomatoes intended for a greenhouse.
four pictures of emerging seeds and seedlings

April 2

  • Start your pansies, petunias, and peppers!

April 4

  • Join a seed sharing event! If you live in a village in Interior Alaska, contact your Tribal Administrator or Behavioral Health Aide to confirm that they will be hosting a seed sharing event.
Seed sharing is a great way to get your seeds for the season.
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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, 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. This resource is helpful if you want to choose best squash varieties for where you live.

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Drip Irrigation Systems can Save you Time, Money and Energy

If you enjoy unwinding, unkinking and dragging hoses hither and thither in your yard and garden or lugging watering cans around, then stop reading. If you want to save water and fertilizer, weed less and relieve yourself of a sometimes twice-daily task, then read on. Drip irrigation (or trickle irrigation) can do all this for you and more.

Wide garden bed on a terraced slope showing three lines of drip tape running the length of the bed to adequately cover the space.

Wide beds may require multiple drip lines.

When you water with a hose or watering can, it’s difficult to water thoroughly because it tends to pool on the surface and run off, especially if your soil doesn’t have adequate organic matter. You also get more evaporation with these methods. As the name implies, drip irrigation slowly dribbles water to plants through equally spaced holes in drip lines or through emitters. This minimizes evaporation and runoff and deeply waters plants, which results in more robust root systems. It also keeps plant foliage dry, which tends to reduce pests and disease. 

The fact that you can add a timer and automate your irrigation system is yet another compelling reason to set up a drip irrigation system. Go fish, hunt or do whatever it is you like to do in the summer without stressing about your garden while you’re gone. Continue reading

Seed Availability Spring 2021 and How to Host a Seed Swap

For a variety of reasons related to COVID-19, this spring, seed companies are struggling to fill the demand for seeds. Johnny’s Selected Seeds and Stokes Seeds for example are limiting or temporarily limiting orders from home gardeners. Right now, these seed companies are only offering larger quantities of seeds. The availability of certain varieties is somewhat limited and shipping times may be much longer than we’re used to. For these reasons, gardeners should strongly consider holding a seed swap. Even in normal times, a seed swap can be a great way to save money. Seeds can get expensive at $2 to $4 per packet. There are a couple of different ways to organize a swap or share. Gardeners could bring their leftover seeds that may otherwise go unused, or a host or group could purchase seed in bulk, which is cheaper than buying packets, and then divvy them up at the seed swap. The cost can be shared among attendees or, if the host is a nonprofit, borne by the host.

Bags of bulk seed lined up, measuring spoons and small baggies to facilitate a seed sharing event.

Seeds purchased in bulk are more affordable and ideal for sharing seeds.

When you buy seeds in bulk, you won’t get a fancy seed packet with an alluring photo of the flower or vegetable. You also won’t get the basic growing instructions on the packet. However, you can easily look up growing instructions online or in a seed catalog. Labels for bulk seeds, with basic growing information such as days to maturity, plant spacing and more, can be preprinted and provided to swap participants. Seed swaps and shares are also an opportunity for gardeners and farmers to bring truly unique seeds that they may have developed and saved from their own garden or farm that are well adapted for the local growing conditions. While you’re swapping seeds, trade your latest gardening hack, too. A seed swap or sharing event doesn’t have to be big. It can be a small, informal affair with friends.

If you decide to host a seed event, make sure you let people know if they are expected to bring seeds to share or contribute to the cost of buying bulk seeds, or if the seeds are provided for free by the organizer. You might want to have a sign-up sheet beforehand (much like a potluck sign-up sheet) so you don’t end up with everyone bringing carrot seeds or radish seeds. Getting a head count for a seed-sharing event will also help with planning.

Here are some suggestions for hosting a seed swap or sharing event: Line up bowls or containers for all of your seeds and label each one with the seed variety it contains. You can hand out a sheet of labels to each participant and arrange the bowls in the same order as the labels. You should also supply small envelopes like coin envelopes for each participant. I’ve used small plastic bags but they are not recommended for long term storage. The envelopes are better for long-term storage because they are breathable and opaque. You’ll need enough bags or envelopes for the number of gardeners attending multiplied by the number of seed varieties. Again, circulating a sign-up sheet prior to the event will ensure you have enough supplies.

Ask each person to bring some measuring spoons. Before everyone starts helping themselves to seeds, calculate or estimate the amount of seeds they should take in terms of a measuring spoon size and write that on the container.

Now, let the seed swapping and sharing begin! Have everyone rotate around the room. Seeds can be arranged in the same order as the labels on their sheet to make things less confusing. Each gardener will spoon the allotted amount of seeds into each bag and label it. Once everyone has gotten some seeds of every type, gardeners can circulate once more until any leftover seeds are gone, or you can save some seeds for another event.

The benefits of gardening are many. Those who garden get some regular exercise, save money, eat more fruits and vegetables, share with their family and neighbors and benefit mentally. A seed swap or sharing event might be just the thing that plants a seed to help someone start a new garden for the first time. If you end up with leftover seeds, here are some tips on saving your seeds.

Previously published in the Fairbanks Daily Newsminer May 20, 2017. Updated January 28, 2021.