Alaska – where long hours of daylight grow record breaking cabbages, but cause watermelon vines to only produce male flowers. Cool summer temperatures allow us to harvest peas in July and August, but ripen mealy and unpalatable tomatoes (if they bother to turn red at all.) Fruit trees which can survive -40˚F in Minnesota begin flowing sap during sunny April days, then freeze and burst when nighttime temperatures drop into single digits or lower.
I’ve been a Certified Alaskan Master Gardener for 14 years, and gardening for … well, let’s just say longer than that. I experiment with a few new seed varieties every year, but have largely settled into a reliable list of cultivars which I consider my go-to vegetables. I start almost everything inside and transplant after the last frost date.
Tomatoes – Siletz.
A few years back we had a summer where I don’t believe we had a single daytime temperature over 65˚F, and this tomato produced delicious fruit without a hiccup. I grow the bulk of my tomatoes in an unheated greenhouse, but also grow two pots of Siletz on my south-facing front porch every year with great success. Siletz is a slicing tomato, and in personal flavor tests, it beat other early ripening varieties hands down, with a tender skin and nearly seedless fruit. The flowers set fruit even when nighttime temperatures dip into the 40’s. Determinate plants are easy to grow in pots with support. Start seeds indoors in mid to late March.
Cukes are iffy this far north, even in a greenhouse, but I always harvest enough from a couple of vines if I grow Cool Breeze. The plants are nearly all female, and they set fruit without pollination, a must-have trait for greenhouse growing. The dark green fruits have fine spines, almost like fuzz rather than spines, are seedless, and they pickle beautifully. They are also great fresh in salads or munched for a treat while gardening. Start seeds indoors in early May for transplanting in the greenhouse in mid May. Be very delicate with the roots when transplanting or the vine will refuse to grow.
Artichokes – Imperial Star.
These plants are grown as annuals in Alaska. I average three jumbo chokes per plant with several smaller side chokes. While the plant takes up quite a bit of space, it is also ornamental for those of us who have gardens in the front yard. Start plants indoors in late February, and plant more than you need. Cull the scraggly looking seedlings because they will not produce well (believe me, you cannot baby them into fruition. Cull them.) The key to bud production is to trick the plants into thinking they are two years old. I do this by placing the seedlings in the greenhouse in late April and exposing them to temperatures below 50˚F but above freezing. They need a couple of weeks in these low temperatures, and you will enjoy the sweet, succulent taste of your own artichoke hearts.
Zucchini – Partenon or Cavili.
Alaskan summers are so cool, bees and other pollinators often stay under cover when flowering plants like zucchini need their attention. The result? Tiny, bitter fruits that rot at the blossom end. Rather than trudge out to the zucchini hill every day with a small paintbrush to play worker bee (usually in the rain, I might add) why not choose a variety that sets fruit without pollination? Partenon is a dark green, traditional zucchini squash, while Cavili is a lime-green variety with a fantastic, nutty flavor. Both produce loads of fruit, no matter the weather. Start seedlings indoors in mid May and transplant with extra care to the roots to prevent transplant shock. You can get an earlier jump on things if you use a Wallo’ Water as a mini greenhouse starting out.
Pumpkin, Pie – Baby Bear.
These vines ripen 2 pound fruits even in less than ideal weather. I’ve grown them successfully in the ground, but my favorite place to grow them is on top of my compost pile right after I turn it in the spring. I warm the pile with some clear plastic for a couple of weeks, and then transplant right through the plastic in early June. Start seeds indoors mid May and be extra gentle on those roots when transplanting or the vines will sulk and refuse to grow. If bees are reluctant in your area, take the time to go tickle the flowers; better pollination creates more and larger pumpkins. The little beauties make the best pie.
Celery seeds, like carrots, take a while to germinate. Start them indoors in mid February and be patient while the spindly babies develop their root systems. Celery enjoys our cool season, and with plenty of nutrients and moisture, will grow into tall, succulent stalks. I harvest from the outside of the plant all season, as needed for cooking, and then bring the rest of the plants in for munching and cooking at the end of August.
Kohlrabi – Eder or Winner.
If you haven’t heard of this vegetable gem, you should give it a try. The stem of the plant forms a bulb which, in our cool weather, can reach the size of a softball before becoming woody. Some people compare the texture and flavor to a nutty apple, or the inside of a sweet broccoli stem, but I say try it for yourself to decide. I love it fresh, chopped into salsa, or lightly steamed. You can also eat the tender leaves like salad greens or kale. Kohlrabi requires plenty of steady moisture to bulb without splitting, and because the edible portion of the plant grows above ground, it won’t be damaged by root maggots if those are a problem in your area.
Cauliflower – Cheddar or Bishop.
Like the name implies, this cauliflower isn’t white, its orange. My kids say it looks like its already covered in cheese. Cheddar resists turning purple, and makes nice sized heads if given steady moisture and nutrition. Break a few leaves to shade the head from the sun once it begins developing. If you prefer white cauliflower, Bishop is a good variety because it is less picky than other types and self-blanches to help keep the head white. Watch for slugs, which will climb over the top of the ripening heads and leave you with a slimy mess.
Onion – Copra.
The long hours of daylight this far north make long day onions a must. Copra stores well, which is a requirement for me. I grow onions from seed because seeds are cheap and I don’t run the risk of introducing new pests or diseases from infected plant starts. Sprinkle seeds in a 3″ pot in mid February and keep them watered. Fertilize with a weak fish emulsion every couple of weeks. When it is time to plant in May, split the root ball and tease the individual stalks apart to transplant. Onions do not tolerate weed competition, especially early on, so I cover the bed in about an inch of good compost and anchor 6 sheets of newspaper over the top, watering well. To plant, I poke holes every 4-6 inches and tamp the seedling in. The paper prevents chickweed and other weed seeds from taking hold.
Peas – Maestro or Serge.
One might think peas would do well up here, no matter the variety, but our long daylight causes some varieties to outgrow support fencing, reaching well over 8 feet, so I try to choose bush types. Maestro and Serge are supposed to reach about 2 feet, but usually top out at around 4 feet. Maestro is easy to tell when ripe, because the pods do not fatten until the peas fill them out (useful if you have young garden helpers) and Serge is a nearly leafless variety that makes seeing pods much easier during harvest.
Other vegetables which grow well up here are Broccoli, Cabbage, Lettuce, Carrots, Potatoes, Swiss Chard, and Beets. For these, I choose whatever seed suits my fancy from year to year, although I am partial to Nantes type carrots because they are so sweet. Bolero is a great storage carrot and we are usually eating the last of our fresh carrots from the garden in March or April. Potatoes grown up here will also be unusually sweet because of our cool soil. My Yukon Gold potatoes were monsters last year.
A special note on beans. In Alaska, they say there are lean years and there are bean years. I’ve had seasons where I harvested enough green beans to can a few. But I’ve had many more seasons where the handful I got were not worth the time and the garden space. If you want to try your hand at beans in the High North, Provider is a good start. Include some season extending techniques like row tunnels or IRT mulch. The same advice goes for corn, which I have grown successfully, but which is a gamble from year to year.
If you’ve had a different experience with these crops, or something of your own to recommend, I’d love to hear from you!
Amended 1/30: Rhonda mentioned she’s been growing watermelon successfully for a few years in Tok, so you might want to check out Blacktail Mountain watermelon seeds, available from Baker Creek Heirloom seeds. I plan on trying them this year!
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