Friday, April 12, 2013

Spring Gardening in Alaska

      Snow in April????     Come on, Mother Nature!
 I was planning on writing something about spring and gardens today, and including sprightly photos of my melting garden, but as you can see, it doesn’t feel like spring here. In fact, it feels reversed. Mother Nature decided winter wasn't over this weekend, and dumped two more feet of snow on us. So much for me getting my hands dirty any time soon.

In Alaska, it isn’t unusual to get snow in the Anchorage area as late as May. I’ve been a certified Alaskan Master Gardener for 13 years, now, and gardening much longer than that, and boy do I have gardening stories to tell. One year I remember rushing to lay bed sheets over my zucchini plants because it snowed in June. Farther north, they routinely get snow even later. Nineteen years ago, my husband and I were staying in a cabin at Poker Creek (the northern-most border crossing in the U.S.) in July, and one night the sky dropped three inches of snow.

Pea Flowers
 So how DO we manage to garden up here? Well, for one thing, we start almost everything indoors, even those “touchy” plants like cucumbers and zucchini. The photos above are broccoli. Green beans and corn get their own little pots and I transplant them out well into June when I’m fairly certain we won’t have a freak frost. I’ve even known people who transplant peas, although I’ve never bothered, since they don't need a long growing season to produce. I do, however, "pre-sprout" them, otherwise, our cold soil may delay germination long enough for the seeds to rot instead of grow.

Wallo' Water
 We also use season extending tricks, like row tunnels, Wallo' Waters, or plastic Infra Red Transmitting Mulch (not to be confused with black plastic, which actually makes the soil cooler up here.) In a pinch, clear plastic will work to warm the soil, but won’t block weeds. And I stopped bothering to attempt growing tomatoes or cukes in the ground, because our soil never warms up enough to make them happy, no matter what I do. Instead, I use an unheated greenhouse and, being the frugal Alaskan I am, I made some homemade self-watering containers and plant in those. As for beans and corn? Well, let’s just say depending on the weather, there are bean years and there are lean years. You take your chances, and make sure you always plant enough broccoli and carrots to make up for a lean year. 

The water that comes out of my well is a frigid 38˚ and will shock plants, so I never water things like tomatoes or cucumbers right out of the tap. Instead, I allow the water to warm either in the hose or in watering cans before applying. A sprinkler is okay for the main garden because the air takes the chill off the droplets before they hit the plants. 

June in the Garden
 In spite of fighting the chilly short season, there are some really nice things about gardening up here, too. We don’t have many garden pests. Slugs can be a problem in a rainy year, but I simply trap them or use iron-phosphate slug bait (organic.) Root maggots can be pretty bad, but I let my chickens into my garden beds every spring and they root out most larvae. I’ve also watered with beneficial nemotodes, but it’s hard to tell if they made a difference, and they are expensive to ship. Using a breathable row cover right after planting seems to work best of all, keeping the flies from laying their eggs on the baby plants. 

Finally, our loooooong daylight creates some monstrous veggies. Last year, Scott Robb set the world record for largest cabbage at the Alaska State Fair, with a monster weighing 138.25 pounds! I've grown 35 pound cabbages with little effort. Plus, it is awfully nice to be able to garden while the sun sets at 11 PM.

Tam Linsey lives in Alaska with her husband and two children. In spite of the rigors of the High North, she grows, hunts, or fishes for much of her family’s food. During the long Alaskan winters she writes speculative fiction. You can find her at or on Facebook or Twitter.


Jae Awkins said...

Very informative! You're a true 'diehard' when it comes to gardening - admirable.
I'm impressed at how knowledgeable you are about our unique Alaskan environment! Thanks for sharing. :o)

Lynn Lovegreen said...

I spend less time in the garden now that I'm writing more. But I love to provide my family with the few veggies I've grown. And I hope to buy another tomato plant from you this spring, Tam! :-)

Tam Linsey said...

"Diehard" - such a nice way of saying "obsessive" My kids say I take more photos of my plants than I do of them, lol!

My windows are full of tomatoes, so I'll make sure I put one aside for you, Lynn! :)