Saturday, February 6, 2010

The good and the bad

 Growing conditions here in interior Alaska are unique. We have a short growing season, long daylight hours and extremely cold winters. Our "official" growing season is just ninety days. Of course that varies with elevation and the use of season extenders. The recommended planting date is June first. First frost can be expected as early as mid- August, but early August is not unheard of.  Early finishers are essential to a productive garden, especially when it comes to heat loving plants such as corn, tomatoes, peppers and eggplant and melons. In general these crops need an early indoor jump start, raised beds, row covers or greenhouse covering, plastic mulch, fertile soil and heavy fertilizing to produce anything.

I grow about thirty tomato plants each year, mostly in my greenhouse (unheated hoop house) or in raised and covered beds. Early Bush Girl, Early Wonder and Early Cascade are my workforce. Then I grow one or two of a few heirloom or specialty varieties that I can't resist such as Sungold, Black Krim and Green Zebra. I don't plant any tomatoes that take longer than eighty days to reach maturity from time of transplant, and most of them are under seventy days. When you begin seedlings indoor in March and then nurture them until August and in return in you get one mature tomato, well that is a real bummer. A couple tomato plants that have not produced much for me are Paul Robeson, Pink Accordian, Black Pear and Orange Russian. I've gotten just a couple fabulous ripe tomatoes from these plants, just enough to wish I could grow them elsewhere.The green tomatoes off these plants don't even ripen well indoors.

Our long days help make up for the short season. There are days when the vegetables look noticeably larger than the day before. There are some plants that prefer full sun, but because of our long daylight hours, they do better here even in the shade, than you'd think. The main drawback to the long daylight hours is that some vegetables are prone to bolting, such as spinach and cilantro. Succession planting is the key to having fresh spinach and cilantro all summer. 

Interior Alaska ranges in zones from 1 to 3, maybe even 4 in a few hilltop micro climates.Our cold winters are tough on perennials. Our selection of perennial flowers, fruit bushes and trees is extremely limited. When choosing perennials I would recommend sticking with zone 1- 3 perennials. Furthermore, buy perennials locally. Head out to the local apple orchard (only one that I know of) and buy a tree from the guy who has been growing apples here for over twenty years. I plan on buying raspberry canes this summer from the u pick raspberry farm, rather than ordering or purchasing canes from the supermarket. That being said, we are still ever so tempted by the zone four Nanking Cherry shrub or zone four Peach tree that we saw in a catalog. There are certainly extra efforts you can take to make your fruit trees happier, such as digging extra big holes and filling them with lots of goodies. However, when we have a colder winter than usual, not even a super thick layer of mulch is going to save the tender non-native perennial.

My next biggest lament is that our winters are too cold to store even the hardiest vegetables in the ground, nor do the most insulated cold frames suffice come December. Let me know if you've had success, but I don't think you could insulate the outdoor ground well enough to dig carrots or beets in December. I've harvested hardy greens under row covers or in cold frames into November and then sowed greens in late March. I'm sure there is room for improvement, but I'm pretty sure it is a fact that unless you have a heated greenhouse, growing outdoors from December to February is unrealistic if not impossible. 

Cold winters discourage most fall seeding, depending on the type of seed and weather conditions. As far as fall sown cover crops go, my understanding is that the seed has a better survival rate if it does not germinate until spring. If you put down seed right before the ground freezes and it doesn't warm up again, and the snow falls, providing insulation, you may get lucky. The only crop we've planted in the fall with success has been garlic. We plant the hardiest hard neck garlic we can find and have been fortunate so far with it overwintering. We mulch heavily and have the added benefit of living in a protected micro climate. 

The good news: We don't have many pests or diseases to worry about. So when a seed catalog says that a plant is disease resistant, I couldn't care less.
There are a lot of crops that thrive here and they include cool weather greens, brassicas and root crops. Alaska is known for our fabulous carrots, other root vegetables such as beets, radishes, rutabagas, turnips and potatoes all thrive here without much pests other than root maggots. Broccoli, cauliflower, kale, cabbage and greens all thrive here. 

I succumb to the temptation of planting numerous varieties while lacking the organizational skills to successfully keep track of labels over the course of a summer. Last year I grew several types of Broccoli and was happy with all of them but wasn't sure what was what. The exception to this was that I was given numerous broccoli plants that I planted in addition to the ones I'd started and none of these plants ever produced broccoli, total bummer. Won't make that mistake again. I harvested over a hundred pounds of carrots this fall. The carrot that has done the best for me over the last few years in Early Sugarsnax. It gets over a foot long, but remains very crisp, sweet and tender. I also grew a row of mixed colorfull carrots with less success, but it was partially a location issue. Here is a pile of onions and a sampling of the colorful carrots I was thinning this August.

We wait as late as possible for the final root vegetable harvest. Sometimes when our ground freezes and it starts to snow, that is the end of it and the ground won't be diggable till spring. A couple years now I've scared myself by waiting to long. One year I had to plant garlic in the bed of potatoes that Dustin had broken up that day getting taters out. The rest of the garden was frozen solid. We pull carrots in a thinning manner all summer, and wait and wait until one day we panic and run around crazy digging and bagging root vegetables in a frenzy. Here are some of the sugarsnax carrots.

When ordering or purchasing seeds for northern climate gardening look for key words such as early, vigorous, heavy producer, good for northern climates, short season variety. The first thing I look at after the picture of course, is how many days the plant takes to produce. You can't go wrong getting the earliest day variety you can find. Then you can always plant a little of something you can't resist.  A lot of crops that would be direct seeded in other areas get started indoors here. So if you are in Alaska pick up the Alaska Gardening Guide, or most greenhouses have seed starting guidelines for your area.

There are not too many areas in the world where you just drop seeds, water and reap enormous harvests. Every climate has it's challenges, too warm or cold, too many pests and who has perfect soil from the get go? As much as I moan about not being able to grow persimmons and peaches, we have the best blueberries (do I dare say in the world) and cranberries growing wild on our property. So I'll take the good with the bad, and better than making do, I'll appreciate what we do have.

1 comment:

Throwback at Trapper Creek said...

Great post! I just read a good book about living in the wilderness below McKinley.

[i]Searching for Fannie Quigley[/i]by Jane Haigh

The pictures of her garden and tales of her gardening, wildcrafting and cooking were a delight to read.