The grown season is very short in Alaska. Many perennial plants cannot survive the harsh winters with temperatures below -40. In addition, not all plants like daylight 24/7 from mid May to early August. Read what Alaskans grow in the yards, and how they do it.
- Growing Conditions in Alaska
- 24/7 Daylight Boosts Growth in Interior Alaska
- Varieties and Yields
- What Fails to Grow Well
- Growing Tomatoes in Alaska
- Summer Is too Short to Grow tomatoes the Old Fashioned Way
- Alaskans Fry the Green Tomatoes
- Watching the Forecasts for the End of the Growing Season
- Best Alaska Gardening Outfits
Important information: Terms indicates with * are explained in the High Latitude Style Glossary (opens in a new tab).
Growing Conditions in Alaska
Well Alaska is as large as the Lower 48 from Coast-to-Coast or Europe from the Ural to Portugal. Thus, the following applies to the Interior of Alaska that has very continental climate.
Interior winters can face below -40F (-40oC). During the growing season (June to early September), on average 51 days reach daily maximum temperatures above 90F (32.2oC). Mean annual precipitation is 10.9 inches (277 mm), just 1.4 inch (35.6 mm) more than in Moab in the Utah desert (9.5 inches or 229 mm).
Since in summer, there is daylight 24/7 everything grows 24/7. With irrigation, you can grow cabbage as big as a basketball! However, what’s great for vegetable and fruits, it’s not for the person who has to mow the law. Alaskans mow their lawns twice a week at least. #Alaska #lifestyle Click To Tweet
24/7 Daylight Boosts Growth in Interior Alaska
Fairbanks’ summers typically have a bounty of flowers. They blossom nicely and grow well as there is light 24-7. Since may, June and July are the drought season, people keep are watering their flowers to keep them alive. The high insolation, relatively windy conditions and high temperatures increased the potential transpiration of the plants. Fortunately, plants have mechanisms to regulate their transpiration to a certain degree. Their transpiration depends on the aforementioned meteorological conditions, and plant available soil moisture. If the air gets too hot and/or dry and/or the soil moisture is low, they can close their stomata to reduce transpiration. At the same time, however, they do less photosynthesis. If the conditions of high potential transpiration and a deficit of plant available water persist too long, the plants reach their permanent wilting point and die. Then any watering is too late. After the first frost, the blossom bounty is usually over.
Varieties and yields
Rhubarb grows like crazy. The green variety grows best, but your rhubarb cobbler or pie are greenish-brownish instead of red.
Potatoes grow well. My favorite for Rheinischer potato salad are the black potatoes. Actually, they are purple on the inside and outside. Harvesting them is like an Easter egg hunt in the dark soil. Russian fingerlings grow best, sometimes even into hand-like form (see next photo). We grow them in pink, white and yellow. They are great for pan fried potatoes or in stews or soups. Yukon Gold has a yield of 4-5 per seed. They are good for Reibekuchen, which is a Cologne specialty of a hash brown with spices, onions and eggs in them.
Radish grows well, but you have to harvest them all within two days. Otherwise, they start blooming. Kale and turnips provide great harvests year after year. Snow-peas and broccoli work great too if voles and moose, respectively, don’t eat them before you can harvest them. Broccoli, however, has to be pre-grown.
Raspberries, cranberries, wild strawberries, and blueberries are the best growing fruits. Gooseberries do well when the weather is dry during their blooming, and you water them well during that time.
What Fails to Grow Well
Lettuce doesn’t do well. The Interior’s weather is typically too hot and too dry. Carrots get just as big as fingers. Leek doesn’t get thicker than a normal woman’s finger.
Tomatoes, garlic and beans won’t grow unless you apply some tricks or use a glass house. Except Sitka roses and wild roses, roses die at the end of summer as it gets too cold in winter. They just don’t have the hardiness.
Growing Tomatoes in Alaska
As you can imagine, Alaska lacks the summer warmth to grow tomatoes. However, who loves the smell and taste of self grown tomatoes grows them nevertheless. A greenhouse is an obvious choice, but most Alaskans use the old trick of tanning fast that was popular in the 1960s.
Alaskan gardeners plant their tomatoes in a huge pot, place the plant against a south-facing, white reflective wall, best underneath a short roof or other cover that protects a bit from nighttime radiative cooling. A south-facing garage door, for instance, does the trick.
If your driveway is light you get some reflection of sunlight from there too. If it is back, no problem. The dark driveway warms up during the day and releases the heat when the sun is low on the horizon shining from the North, i.e. when the plant is in the shadow. When you are one of my regular readers, you have seen this arrangement in several of my outfit photos.
In summer, the sun sort of circles around you when you are in Interior Alaska. The short length of the vegetation period is made up a bit by having daylight and no dark nights for about 84 days.
Summer Is too Short to Grow Tomatoes the Old Fashioned Way
The first tomatoes actually get red on the plant, but most of the yield fails to ripe in time before the first frost. When the first frost is in the forecast, Alaskans pick all their tomatoes, red or not. Thus, in early/mid September Interior Alaska kitchen counters are full of green tomatoes.
Alaskans Fry the Green Tomatoes
Some Alaskans cut the green tomatoes into about half an inch (1.25 cm) slices and fry them in a pan for dinner. When I was served this dish for the first time, I was quite astonished. Growing up in Germany, I was taught that green tomatoes are poisonous! Well, I also was taught the same for raw green, yellow or purple beans, and mushrooms. 🙂 If you found this post interesting you may also like to read about Alaska weeds that are edible.
Watching the Forecasts for the End of the Growing Season
In fall, gardeners in the Interior of Alaska follow the weather forecast very closely for frost advisory. They want to harvest their vegetables as late as possible to give them more time to grow. Since everyone does so, a frost forecast causes tweets, and Facebook postings reading something like “Get your vegetables in”, “harvest time”, or “frost in the forecast 🙁 ” to avoid that friends loose their harvest by the first frost. Thus, after the first frost Alaska kitchen counters are full of green tomatoes.
When the first night frost is in the forecast everyone also cuts all their frost sensitive, still blooming flowers and puts them in a vase inside the house to further enjoy the last flowers of summer. Frost in the Interior can be as late as June, for which Alaskans don’t start their yards prior to early June, and as early as end of August, i.e. only one month seems totally safe.
Best Gardening Outfits for Alaska
In Alaska, mosquitoes are a real problem when gardening. I am wearing a traditional Alaska kuspuk* over jeans, which is the traditional way to wear a kuspuk. The tightly woven fabric is hard to drill thru for mosquitoes. If it gets really bad, I add a mosquito jacket with face mask (first photo of this post). I wear my husband’s old winter gloves to protect my hand from getting blisters while digging, and to protect my hands from mosquito bites. More on the mosquitoes plague in Alaska.
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Photos of me: G. Kramm
Other photos: N. Mölders
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