It seems that it’s finally gardening season here in Alaska.  We’re still a few weeks away from the last frost but the ground is mostly thawed and workable now.  So I’ve dug in some fresh compost and planted by peas and fava beans.

The garlic I planted last fall seems to have survived the winter.  This is my 1st time growing garlic so I was a bit apprehensive about whether I timed the planting right and protected it well enough from the cold.  It was planted late last October, well after the last frost, and just a few weeks before it snowed.  I planted it and then piled on about a foot of mulch.  A few weeks ago (pretty much as soon as the snow was gone) I removed the mulch and covered the area with a small portable plastic hoop-house/cold frame.  About 10 days or so later I noticed the first shoots poking up.  Now three weeks later, the largest are a couple of inches tall and others are just starting to show.  I’ll keep them covered to help protect against the frost and cold nights for a few more weeks yet.

There are two varieties.  I bought these from a local garden who had ordered too much seed garlic last fall.  I thought I had written down the variety somewhere but it seems I can’t turn it up anywhere now.  Oh well I guess they’ll have to be mystery varieties.  I do remember one is some type of red variety and the other is a large bulb, artichoke type.

I’ve been busy with other yard chores and cleaning up the lawn.  I’ve also been hard at work making a few things fro the garden.  Some new ceder deck boxes, grow bag planters, and a mini-greenhouse to shelter a few pepper plants.  I’m working on finishing replacing the raised beds near my deck. More on these project in the next posts….


Early Spring Garden Chores

It’s been a pretty quite week on the gardening front.  The snow is mostly gone now…just a few small patches left in the yard!  All of my beds are finally uncovered but the soil is still pretty cold or still frozen in shady areas.

I did take the mulch off the garlic I planted last fall.   Nothing is sprouting yet so I have no idea if it made it through the winter.  I have high hopes.  I did cover the area with a small hoop house type frame I made last year to help protect young plants.  It seems to be doing it’s job of helping to warm the soil.  Yesterday I took a soil temp inside the hoop, in the late afternoon on a nice sunny day it was 60F .  Soil just outside was only 40F so it does seem to be working nicely.

I also got the compost pile going again.  It’s a small pile and was only partially filled last fall, thus it froze solid over the winter.  Since it’s thawed now I decided it was time to get it cooking again.  I picked up a bunch of used horse bedding (urine soaked straw and a bit of manure).  I dug out the old partially composted garden waste that has been sitting all winter and layered that with the bedding, some fresh kitchen scraps, and coffee grounds.  It ended up being about 2/3 bedding and 1/3 everything else.  In between layers I sprinkled on a bit of blood meal to give the pile a nitrogen boost.  I’m happy to report that the pile was a steamy 145F when I went out to check on it today.

Potting up Seedlings

I did a bunch of transplanting of my seedlings today.   Basil and chives were pricked out from a tray and the pepper were potted up from Jiffy peat pods.

The artichoke seedlings are coming along nicely too.

I potted up a few more tomatoes as well.  I started some more Sub-Arctic as my first batch had really low germination rates (only around 25%)  This batch did as well but between them I’ve gotten what I want.  I also started a few Yellow pear tomatoes.  I started all of them in peat pods and then potted them up after the 1st set of true leaves appeared.  A few didn’t have their true leaves but I went ahead and put all of them in larger pots.  The plants on the left are newly potted up at 12 days from seeding. The ones on the right were potted up about 2 weeks ago and are 25 days from seeding.

They’re doing pretty well.  I noticed a few of the older plants have a bit of yellowing on the leaves.  I may be watering too much.  I’ll have to make sure they dry out well before I water them again.  They’re not getting too leggy, unlike the 3 below.  I was out of room below the brighter lights so I moved some of my surplus out and under just a small grow light (that is mounted higher than is ideal).  I have plenty of this variety so I figured if they don’t do well it’s not much of a loss.  I’m not sure I’ll have room to plant them anyway. The difference in how leggy the seedlings are is pretty dramatic.

I also started some garlic chives, dill, and beets.  I’m not sure I can start much more inside.  I’m pretty much out of room under the lights.

Seed Potatoes

I picked up some seed potatoes earlier this week.  Tonight I set them out to start chitting.

Chitting breaks the dormancy of the potato and allows it to get a head start on the season.  In areas where the soil temperatures are slow to raise, potatoes planted out directly may be slow to sprout and thus maturing later.  A potential problem if frost comes early, like it does here.   So while chitting isn’t strictly necessary it seems to be a good idea in areas with short growing seasons.  Plus it’s really pretty easy.  Just prop the potatoes up with the end containing the most eyes upright.  Make sure air can circulate freely around them.  Place them in a sunny (indirect light is best) but cool (around 50F) location for about 4 weeks.  That’s it.

I decided to go with German Butterball and Nordonna.

German Butterball is a late maturing (130 days), yellow fleshed, oval and smooth to slightly flaky with a yellow skin color; fresh market potato. This cultivar is fast emerging with a medium vine and white flower. German Butterball has a indeterminate growth habit and large extensive root system, tubers set throughout the hill and bulk up late in the season.  Fertility needs are minimal and excess nitrogen may delay tuber production in favor of excess vine growth.

NorDonna is a medium to late maturing (101 – 110 days), dark red-skinned cultivar grown for the fresh market.  NorDonna has a large, full vine with distrinct reddish-purple flowers.  Tubers are oval shape with bright red skin and white flesh.  It holds its color well in storage.  Tubers have medium-long dormancy.

I’ve heard good things about the German Butterball and it’s suppose to be a variety that does well in potato towers.  I’m planning two pyramid towers for my potatoes and possibly some in containers if they don’t all fit in the towers.  I didn’t know anything about the Nordonna variety but wanted a red skin potato and this was one of the two varieties my local feed store had.  I could have ordered other seed potatoes from online but decided not too for a couple of reasons.

1) Local varieties are more likely to be adapted to local conditions and thus do better in those conditions.  Our growing conditions here in Alaska are unique from most other areas of the country so I think this is even more important.  Plus as a new gardener to Alaska I figure this also reduced my room for errors.

2) I’d like to support local companies and this way I’ve supported a local feed store and the local farm that grew the seed potatoes.

3) It reduces the gas miles of my food.  This is a big reason for me to grow my own food.  Might as well follow this through starting with the seed when I can.


Here’s what they look like almost  two weeks after having been set out.  They’ve been sitting in a room around 60-65F.  It’s a sunny room but they’re in a spot that doesn’t get direct light.

Making a Worm Composting Bin

I’ve been thinking about making a composting worm bin for awhile now.  Today I finally got around to making one.

I have quite a few of these soda crates sitting in my shed (they were there when I moved in).  I thought they’d make nice trays for a worm bin.  They stack together tightly and there are small holes in the bottom so when stacked the worms can move from one tray to another.  I just needed to cover all the holes in the sides.  I thought about cutting some wood paneling but then ran across some landscape fabric I had left over in my shed.  I decided that would be a good material to cover the sides.  It’s plastic so it won’t get soggy, moldy, or break down over time.  It’s dark enough that it doesn’t allow much light through, important since worms like dark places.  It is somewhat breathable so should allow for some air circulation.  The most common problem with worm bins made from plastic storage bins is lack of circulation so the contents are too wet and rot.


I cut the landscape fabric in strips and used hot glue to tack it down all along the inside bottom. I then folded it over the top and used more hot glue to hold the folded over section down on the outside.  Here is a finished tray.











I cut up a bunch of newsprint into strips and soaked them in warm water for a few hours.  I then drained the strips and mixed in a few handfuls of sawdust so that the bedding was moist but sopping wet.


The whole tray was placed inside a plastic tote, to catch any runoff.  The tray is propped up on some scrap 2×4 pieces so that it won’t sit in any fluid.

Finally I added a cup of worms.



I bought the worms at Alaska Mill and Feed.  They sell them in cups of 50 worms.  Most sites recommend that a bin will need about a pound of worms (there are anywhere between 500-1000 worms in a pound).  So I’m starting with way fewer worms than recommended.  I don’t want to spend a fortune on worms so I thought I’d start small and let them breed.  It’ll mean they can only eat a small amount for the next few months but eventually the population will increase.


The tray was covered with a piece of cardboard to act as a lid and help hold in moisture.  For now I’ll just use one tray but I made three so I can add on as my worm population increases.   Eventually, I should be able to rotate out the trays, feeding from the top one, and taking compost from the bottom.



That’s it.  Using materials I had around, I have a worm bin that cost me nothing except $10 for the worms and a few hours of time.  Much better then paying $100 for a commercial one.

Tomatoes: what varities I’ll be growing and why.

Tomatoes can be a real challenge up here. Most varieties need a greenhouse to produce. I tried last year to grow some regular varieties (Roma and Early Girl) without a greenhouse. Well I got a grand total of 0 tomatoes from those plants. I did manage to get a handful from the yellow pear. I also grew two northern varieties, Sub-Artic and Siberian. Those were in planters on the deck and in spite of an awful summer for the garden actually produced some ripe and lots of green tomatoes. For the 75 days of summer we had only 15 days without rain. We broke records for the most consecutive days of rain. It was a cloudy, cold, wet summer. On the bright side I had more lettuce than I could eat.

So I figure if I can get a handful of ripe tomatoes from the Sub-Arctic and Siberian in those conditions I should actually manage to get a decent yield with them in a regular year. I decided to try two more types that are suppose to be good for outdoors here: the Early Tanana and Polar Beauty. All of these will set fruit even when temps get down below 50F. Nighttime temps in the 50’s are the norm most of the summer so this is pretty important.

Sub-Arctic 25:  very cold tolerant, setting heavy yields of high quality, solid, meaty, 2 ounce, bright red, flavorful, smooth globe shaped, bite sized fruits when the night temperatures are only in the 40’s. The plants are compact and produce their first blossoms very early and will mature fruit outdoors in the warm interior areas of Alaska in early August. 42 days to maturity.


Siberian: Dwarf sprawling plants with very early fruit set. Eggshaped 2-3″ fruits with good strong flavor. 57 days to maturity.Plant produces good yields of flavorful 5 oz bright red tomatoes. Plant is capable of setting fruit even at 38 degrees. One of the earliest varieties on the market, takes only 7 weeks when transplanted outdoors.

Polar Beauty:  produces large 2 1/2 to 3 inch slicing quality fruits , cold tolerant, outdoor variety. The mounded, determinate, 24 to 36 inch plants set their first blossoms early and yield large quantities of high quality, solid, meaty, bright red, flavorful, globe shaped fruits when the night temperatures are only in the 40’s.  68 days to maturity.  I decided this was a good option to try for a larger slicing tomato.

Early Tanana:  produces large quantities of 3 1/2 to 4-ounce, smooth, light red, low-acid fruits. The compact plants are cold-resistant, set fruit at low temperatures and hold their foliage well protecting the fruits from sunburn .  60 days to maturity.  This variety is suppose to be a good storage tomato that can be picked green, willripen in storage, and keep for a couple of months. Since there are likely to be lots of green tomatoes at frost time again I though I’d give this variety a try.


Yellow Pear: , The yellow, pear-shaped, fruits are firm skinned, 1½ inches long, and have a nice flavor. Good in salads, sauces or by themselves. They are somewhat cold tolerant.  78 days to maturity.  I like this variety of tomato and did get a few from it last year so thought I’d try again.

What tomatoes are you growing this year and why?

Artichokes in Alaska

I read Jeff Lowenfels column on gardening in the Anchorage Daily News and a last month  I noticed his garden calender said it was time to start artichoke seeds.  Artichokes, I thought, I love artichokes.  It never occurred to me that I could grow artichokes this far north.  So I did a bit of research and found some articles and forum topics indicating that yes it really is possible to grow artichokes up here and no they don’t have to be in a greenhouse.

The trick is to get a really early start indoors and grow them as an annual (they can’t survive winter up here).  I found out that depending on the variety you may have to trick them into thinking they’re two years old.  How do you trick an artichoke?  Apparently you set it out in cool weather (around 50F) for a couple of weeks so the plant thinks it’s winter.  Then when it warms up the plant thinks it’s entering its second summer.  This process of tricking the plants is known as vernalization (for the geeks like me out there who like scientific terms). This is important as most varieties don’t produce until the second year.  Some new varieties, like the Imperial Star, have been developed specifically for annual production.  I ended up with seeds for the Emerald Artichoke (just because that’s the variety I bought on an impulse).

I decided that all this didn’t seem to hard and I was anxious to plant something.  Soon after I noticed that one local big box store had their seed display up.  And they had a pack of artichokes seeds.  I couldn’t resist and brought home a mini seed starting kit and some seeds.  I planted 6 artichoke seeds in the little peat pots, watered, but the lid on, and set them in a sunny spot.  This was back on March 4.  Then I waited and waited.  The packet said they would germinate in 14 days.  14 days came and went with no sign of anything green.  I did a big more research and discovered artichokes need warm soil temps to germinate.  I guessed that my seeds were too cold.  About the same time I bought seed heating mat so I set my little seeds on that to give them some warm.  Two sprouted but the other 4 rotted away.

Here those two plants are 29 days after planting.

I started a few more seeds, just 4 more as my seed packet only had 10 seeds to start with.  This time I soaked them in warm water for a few hours then folded them up in a damp paper towel sealed inside a plastic baggie.  I set the baggie on the heated seed mat so it would stay nice and warm.  4 days later the seeds had sprouted.  I then planted them into peat pots.  Sorry I forgot to take any pics of this step.  Just planted them with the sprouted bit (which will become the root) downwards and just enough soil to cover the seed.

Here those plants are 8 days from the soaking, 4 days in the soil.

I hope in the end to have 3 plants to set out.  I don’t think I’ll have room for more.  Artichokes take up a lot of space.  They can get 5 feet tall and 3-4 feet wide, so not exactly the best choice in a small garden.  These, however, are going to go into some large containers.  I’m thinking of adding some wheels to the base so I can roll them in and out.  I’m going to set them alongside of my house, near my drive.  So, it’ll be easy to roll them into the garage if frost threatens.  There is plenty of space and sunlight over there and the space isn’t being used for anything right now.  The downside of this plan is that they’ll be outside the fence and thus easy picking for moose.  Will moose eat artichoke plants?  I have no idea…they’re suppose to be fairly resistant to browsers but moose take browsing to a whole different level.  Guess I’ll find out.