These are some of our top tips and tricks for cold climate gardening and gardening in general. We want to see you succeed with your garden, so we freely share the things we’ve learned through trial and error over the years.
While gardening in the sub-arctic does take a certain level of region specific techniques for success, it’s not all that different from gardening in any other cold climate place. At least in Fairbanks, we have a very unique growing season where our summers are ideal for a lot of different vegetables.
General Gardening Tips:
- Start small. If you’re starting out on your first garden, avoid the temptation to over-do it. Grow each year as you feel comfortable taking on the work.
- Understand the growing season, or first and last frost dates. In Interior of Alaska, the average growing season is generally June 1 to September 1. Frost is an enemy to most plants. It’s tempting to get gardening once the weather starts to warm up. Some plants enjoy early cool temperatures, like peas, lettuce, kale, spinach, greens and most root vegetables. Other than these, make sure you wait until it’s safe to plant, or around the last frost date.
- Read your seed packets! Don’t know how to grow something? Practically every packet of seeds comes with its very own manual right on the back of the packet. It will have a lot of helpful information on germinating the seed and sometimes growing the plant.
- Diversify what you are growing among different varieties. Growing different varieties of the same plant can offer you harvests over a longer period of time. Additionally, if a problem affects one variety, it may not affect all of your plants, so it helps for productivity.
- Grow flowers! Flowers, while not always edible, have many benefits to your garden. Flowers will attract pollinators (flies and bees) that will help pollinate your plants such as tomatoes, squash and cucumbers which is essential for successful fruiting.
Garden Preparation Tips:
- Grow what you like to eat! There’s no sense in growing things that you don’t enjoy eating. If you grow what you enjoy eating, your garden will work for you and will save you money.
- Grow things that are easy to preserve! Some veggies such as winter squash, potatoes, onions, storage tomatoes and garlic can easily be stored for months at around average room temperature.
- Growing your own garden starts can save you a ton of money compared to buying from a nursery. It is a more involved process that requires attention to detail. You will also need decent indoor lighting. Poor lighting conditions will result in leggy starts and your plants likely won’t do well throughout their lifetime.
- Buy grow lights! If you are growing your own seeds indoors, just do yourself a favor and budget grow lights. The $25 shop light (and $15 timer) will be light years beyond the light in a windowsill. You don’t need high end lighting, but you need some lighting if you will be starting seeds indoors.
- Resist growing too much! If you want to grow from seed, it’s really easy to over-do it. Try to figure out what you need ahead of time. Think about how much room you have and grow what you need. Plus just a little extra just in case something goes wrong. Don’t be afraid to cull your plants to the best of the best. We know it’s hard!
- Grow one plant in one space. It’s fairly commonplace to plant 2-3 seeds when you’re seeding. If more than one seed germinates, pick the best of the best and remove any others. It’s what’s best for the plant. Again, we know it’s hard to kill them! There are some exceptions to this, but these are rare exceptions.
- Don’t forget to harden off! If you are raising your own garden starts, you will need to introduce them to the sun gradually or they will die. This process is called hardening off. In northern climates, it’s also good to slowly acclimate our garden plants to our relatively cool outdoor temperatures.
- Be gentle with your seedlings! When your plants are young seedlings, use a spray bottle of water to give them a fine spray of necessary moisture. This will disturb the soil less and will help the seedlings to establish good, strong roots.
- Tilling your soil is generally a good idea. Your first year, you should try to till deeply so your plants will have a healthy space to grow into. Subsequent years, however, you want to avoid deep tilling as it will destroy important soil structure and microbe habitats. If you decide to till each year, try to only do about 3-5 inches.
- Compost is a very beneficial additive for your garden as it will add natural nutrients for your plants to feed on throughout the season. Manure is not compost (yet) and should be well composted before adding to your garden. You can practice both hot and cold composting in Interior Alaska to make your own from your garden, food scraps and other organic materials.
- Plan out your garden in advance. When you plan your garden out, it offers you time to consider companion planting and conflicts. Additionally, you will know how many plants you need to raise if you’re doing your own starts, or how many to buy when the time comes.
- Know your invasive species! Some common garden plants are invasive perennials and you should avoid planting them in your garden. Certain plants like mint, lemon balm, raspberries and amaranth can spread like crazy and soon can overtake other plants. It’s best to grow these items in pots or isolated beds where they will not interfere with other garden plants.
- Grow Perrenials! While most common plants grown in the garden are annuals, many perennials do well in interior Alaska. Things like strawberry, rhubarb, raspberries, chives and many other plants will produce year after year. There are many food bearing bushes and trees such as Saskatoon service berries, crabapples, honeyberries and a surprising number of others. In the interior of Alaska, you want perennials that are hardy to zone 1 or 2. Some locations in the hills may be able to get away with zone 3 perennials. Perennials are generally low maintenance and require very little effort each year.
Cold-Climate Gardening Techniques:
- Get Your Plants Off The Ground. In cool climates, particularly here in Alaska, you will see better success if you use either raised beds or some sort of raised row for most crops. Raised beds don’t have to be complex or expensive, you can create narrow or wide rows of raised soil. Raising the soil allows the sun to warm the growing area more quickly, which means your roots will be warmer and allow the plant to grow more easily.
- Support your local nursery. While the big box stores may have good prices on plants, many are not intended for Alaska’s extreme environment. Local nurseries almost exclusively sell plants that will do well in our cold climate. Plus, you are supporting your community more when you buy from small, local businesses.
- Permafrost spells trouble for gardening. If you are growing where permafrost is present, you will see some challenges. You may be able to get away with potatoes and some root vegetables, but that’s about it. It is worthwhile to consider building raised beds or even a suspended raised bed. Alternatively, container garden is a very good method that we heavily use and recommend here in Alaska.
- Grow with a mind for your climate. Cool climate veggies will do really well in the interior of Alaska. If you enjoy them, plant broccoli, Brussels sprouts, spinach, lettuce & greens, potatoes, kale, collard greens and other cool weather crops. For warm weather crops, seek out specific varieties that are known to do well in our region when possible. It’s also beneficial to grow warm weather crops (such as tomatoes, peppers and eggplants) in either containers or raised beds.
- Mulching Is A Great Idea! Mulching is basically the process of covering the ground around your intentionally grown plants. You can use weed fabric, IRT plastic, bark chips and other organic materials to mulch your plants. This will make your life better in the long run and is worth the cost. It will save you a lot of time from weeding. Covering your garden will also help warm the soil more quickly, helps with moisture retention and helps dissipate water more evenly. It will also deter a number of diseases, pests and other problems.
- Consider A Greenhouse. A greenhouse not required for subarctic gardening, but it can be very helpful. They are great for early season preparations and can greatly increase your growing capacity. These don’t have to be the large semi-permanent structures that most people think of. There are many DIY hoophouse plans out there which could be heated and cooled. You can also find relatively inexpensive plastic greenhouses that provide the same basic function at a fraction of the cost. They will last a year or a few, but eventually will degrade. These relatively inexpensive solutions can also be temperature controlled fairly easily as well. With both greenhouses and hoop houses, temperature control can be important.