Gardeners have different philosophies about what to plant in your garden each year. Some like to specialize in a small handful of things while others prefer a wide diversity of plants to grow in your garden.
We generally fall into the second camp, preferring to grow a wide diversity of plants in our garden. There’s a couple reasons for this, but in particular this year, we need to gain first hand knowledge of our new growing area in Fairbanks, Alaska. The other reason is, like with many things, people can often have a strong bias towards or against certain crops based on experience. For example, if someone had a bad crop of onions one year, they may come to the conclusion that onions simply don’t grow well in their area. That doesn’t mean everyone will always have problems growing onions in your area. There could be a lot of contributing factors involved from the soil, a given year’s weather pattern, over/under watering, early or late frosts or who knows what else.
Get To Know Your Area & Growing Season
It’s important to understand your growing area and what does well in your particular area. For that, your local extension service should have a ton of information that is helpful in this regard.
You should have a basic understanding of how many growing days you have, which is all the days between average first and last frosts. Make sure everything you intend to grow will mature under that time and you should be fine. Most seed banks and packets indicate the number of growing days the plant will require. In Fairbanks, we can expect around 100 days, and that’s what we’re planning around. A good Indian summer can offer 5 to 20 additional days, but there’s no way to know ahead of time. For us here in Alaska, aside from a few exceptions, the growing season is over come first frost and it’s very risky to venture out before last frost.
Your primary gardening efforts of what to plant in your garden should focus on things that are known to do well in your area. Generally speaking, crops fall into one of three major categories. Warm weather, cool weather and relatively neutral. Each plant has specific conditions that it excels in, but short of trying to grow in the arctic or desert, it’s often possible to get anything to grow in most places. Your harvest, on the other hand, may possibly suffer if you’re not in optimal conditions.
Your Zone Doesn’t Matter In Gardening!
You may have heard of zones in relationship to gardening, which is basically the USDA dividing up the various climates across our country. As an early gardener, I was always concerned that I didn’t live in the correct “zone” for a plant and made decisions based on this understanding.
The zones specifically deal with perennial plants, or plants that come back year after year. In Fairbanks, we’re in zone 1B, which basically means pretty much most perennial plants won’t survive our harsh winters. That doesn’t mean our fine summers can’t support a bountiful harvest! What really matters is that spring, summer and fall support your annual plants, or plants that you don’t intend to keep after one season.
If you want to keep a perennial plant year after year in zone 1, you have a couple of options. You can simply plant it in a container that you can bring inside as a house plant once the weather turns towards winter. The other option is to dig up your plant and re-plant it in a container, tending to it over the harsh winter months. If you leave it outside, chances are excellent that will be the end of the road. While it may be common sense for most, a true annual plant can not be kept as a house plant as it has but one season to give.
Warm Weather Crops
For those of us here in Alaska or other cold climate areas, our limitations are are obvious. Warm weather crops aren’t going to do as well with our cool days and nights. Plants like cucumbers, squash, melons and tomatoes are going to struggle more than others simply because we have cool to cold conditions at night where these plants may not pollinate or produce the flowers necessary for pollination. Commonly, these plants struggle when overnight temps drop below 55 degrees, the results of which can be anything from no fruit at all to malformed fruit.
The most common approach to this limitation is the use of a greenhouse or cold frame. Greenhouses typically use heat to prevent temperatures that approach freezing, where cold frames work by trying to prevent moisture from settling on your plants. Both can extend your season by a couple months. For us, we don’t have either of these! We’ve dealt with this by dropping melons from our typical list of grown items, but we didn’t want to just abandon warm weather crops entirely. We spent a fair bit of time researching varieties that will do well with the cool nights and are known to pollinate at 50 degrees, some even down to 45 degrees! We also hope to build an inexpensive cold frame from PVC and plastic to help improve our odds, but really a lot of it is semi-experimental.
Cold Weather Crops
Cold weather crops, such as our lettuces, spinach, cauliflower, cabbage, peas and radishes are going to do really well in Alaska. In a warmer place, they’d face exactly the opposite problem that us Alaskan’s do, where their cold weather crops might bolt early or wither out. The best thing about gardening in cold climate areas is that you can take steps to keep things from frost, but there’s not a whole lot you can do to cool down the outdoors!
Fortunately for us Alaskan’s there are a ton of cold weather crops! Pretty much all leafy vegetables (lettuce, spinach, kale, etc.) are going to excel in cool weather. Root crops (radish, parsnips, etc) are also going to do exceptionally well.
There are even a good handful of plants that will survive or even improve with frost. Things like kale varieties, carrots, Brussels sprouts, collards, parsnips are all going to do well in frost-imminent zones like Fairbanks, Alaska. Potatoes are among this group where the leafy parts may die off come first frost, but your potatoes will be eager for a harvest at this time.
One of the most exciting things about a garden in Fairbanks, Alaska for us is the long daylight hours. This is the concept called photoperiodism, or basically the length of your day and night cycles. Combined with a generally cool climate, we’re really excited to see the potential of some of our growth this year. We’re not expecting Matanuska Valley size cabbages up here, but we are looking forward to our cool weather crops doing exceptionally well in our area. The drawback of our crazy long summer nights is you really need to focus on varieties that can handle it. For example, spinach has strong tendencies to bolt unless you select a variety that can handle our short nights.
The truth is, neutral crops don’t “technically” exist. Fortunately, a lot of plants are very neutral and will grow from 45 degree low temperatures to 100+ degree days. These are really crops that can grow in virtually any climate without trouble.
Many herbs fall into this category, so they tend to be a good option regardless of where you live. Even neutral crops may have a preference one way or the other, but they’re going to do well no matter what. A lot of flowers also do well in most climates.
Other Things To Consider For What To Plant In Your Garden
The really important thing, though, is to grow what you like to eat. We love the radishes! We could have a few dozen radishes a week and that would be OK with us. For the opposite reason, we don’t grow parsnips because we really don’t use them in cooking all that much. We both disagree about collards, but as long as she can cook them to be edible, I don’t mind taking care of them.
Another factor you should take into account for what to plant in your garden is the effort and resources versus reward. We don’t grow celery, whether it does well in our area or not. Why? Because we can buy it extremely inexpensively at the grocery store and it also consumes more water than virtually all other plants. For you, your list might forego warm weather crops entirely since you’ll have to take a extra steps to ensure they do well against nature’s challenge of a cold climate.
For foods that we can preserve through freezing, canning, drying or proper storage, we intend to grow a lot more of it than we can reasonably eat when fresh. Food preservation techniques are one of the ways to really make a garden work for you and you can enjoy your efforts well into winter and perhaps even the following year. We’ll discuss more about preservation in upcoming posts.
Lastly, always plant as many flowers as you can afford either in space or purchased starts. Flowers attract pollinators (bees, flies, etc) that will move pollen from one plant to another, producing the opportunity for fruit. Not only are they essential for any fruit bearing garden, they also add an attractive element to your garden and can be very rewarding to see when they bloom.
Our 2016 Fairbanks Garden Plant List
Our entire list of plants for our 2016 garden can be found below. You will see that it focuses a fair amount on cold weather crops, but also offers
- Snap beans
- Dry beans
- Pole beans
- Broccoli (First time!)
- Brussels sprouts (First time!)
- Chamomile (Containers)
- Cucumber (Cold variety)
- Flowers (Multiple varieties)
- Lavender (Container)
- Lemon balm (Container)
- Lettuce (Head and leaf)
- Mint (Container, multiple varieties)
- Green onions
- Potatoes (Fingerling, early, first time!)
- Potatoes (Russet, first time!)
- Thai chili peppers (We’ve read these do well in AK)
- Winter squash (Galeux d’Eysines & Spaghetti, experimental)
- Strawberries (Grown as annuals, first time!)
- Swiss chard
- Tomatoes (4 different varieties including Polar Beauty)