Growing A Perennial Edible Food Forest In The Subarctic


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At least in the interior of Alaska, it’s still too early to be planting things just yet.  But, it’s a great time to be thinking about what perennials you might want to acquire this year.

One of the best investments you can make in gardening is planting perennial fruits and vegetables.  Fortunately, there are a surprising number of food bearing perennials that you can grow in the subarctic!

Read on for dozens of perennials you can use to build out your own subarctic food forest!

What Is A Perennial Food Forest?

The term food forest is concept based in the practice of permaculture.  It basically involves having a perennial, low maintenance and sustainable plant based food garden.  At an advanced level, it involves a number of concepts that you can read about here.  At a basic level, though, building a food forest involves intentionally planting food bearing perennials.

The food forest is usually separate from your normal garden, but may also feature some annual plants that complement the perennials.  A food forest also doesn’t have to be a single, dedicated space.  It could simply be a number of edible plants growing across your yard.

In either case, it is typically a much longer term gardening technique as the plants may not produce for several years.  But, once it gets going, you’ll have a very easy access to food, with very little effort, over the growing season.

The USDA Zone System & Perennial Plants

You’ve probably heard about the concept of “zones” or “hardiness zones” when it comes to gardening.  This is especially important when we start talking about subarctic perennials.

These zones are essentially the dividing of various climates into thirteen unique classifications based on the most extreme minimum winter low temperatures.  Each zone also features a “subzone” (A or B) that defines the upper and lower temperature range of each zone.  These zones are then applied to geographic regions based on where those extreme minimum temperatures are expected to be seen.

Perennial plants have a minimum temperature at which they will no longer survive the winter.  Thus, all perennial plants will also have a USDA zone rating, indicating the regions where it could be expected to survive the winter in that area.

For our international friends, other countries also have similar zone systems!  For example, there is the “Canadian Plant Hardiness Zone system” and also the “European Hardness Zone system.”  These zone systems tend to be a bit smaller in scope than the US system.  Simply, these regions don’t have as much latitude as the US does, meaning a smaller temperature differences from the most northern to southern extremities.

Demystifying Your Personal USDA Zone

Most of the interior of Alaska is considered somewhere between zone 1 and zone 3.  Whereas, much of south central Alaska can reach zones 4 or 5.  The southern tips of Alaska, including the Aleutians and southeast, can get all the way up to zones 6 through 8!

Here’s the thing.  These zones are general, but also specific.  While there are guidelines as to what can be expected in your area, the exact zone you are in depends on exactly where you are at.

For example, our community garden is a zone 1b.  Whereas, the city of Fairbanks is generally recognized as zone 2a.  Our home is closer to zone 3a!  These three places are at most 15 miles apart, so just looking at the USDA zone map is not always sufficient!

The exact zone your specific yard is in will vary based on your elevation, general exposure and even variable voodoo like micro-climates.  Learning your exact zone may take some experimentation with plants to actually determine!

Additionally, while plants are rated for specific zones, particular plants may be slightly more or even less hardy than they are rated.  It can also be that a given plant may do well in a certain area of your yard, but might not survive in another place.  Sometimes, the snow load will also help protect plants from the real bitter cold, adding even a whole zone for the plant.

What Are Some Subarctic Perennials For Zone 2 and 3?

There is a fair bit of information out there on cold hardy perennial plants that do well in the subarctic climate.  It can be difficult, however, to find a comprehensive list of these plants.

Here we detail almost every commonly available perennial fruit or vegetable that we are aware of.  These all come in at USDA zone 3 or lower, or hardy for the subarctic.  Our friends in south central and southeastern Alaska have a lot more options out there, but it’s a lot more difficult to find perennial lists based on USDA zones 2 and 3.

There are a number of fairly common garden perennials that will do well, even in the interior of Alaska.  Some of these include:

  • Rhubarb [Zone 2]
  • Strawberries (Toklat variety recommended) [Zone 2+]
  • Chives [Zone 2]
  • Raspberries (Boyne, others do well in the subarctic) [Zone 2]
  • Asparagus [Zone 3]
  • Horseradish [Zone 3]
  • Mint (Variety specific) [Zone 3]
  • Bee Balm [Zone 3]

Beyond the common garden perennials, there are a number of more obscure food bearing perennials that will do very well in the interior of Alaska.  Examples of these include:

  • Honeyberries (aka Haskaps) [Zone 2-3]
  • Manchurian Crabapples [Zone 2]
  • Manchurian Apricots [Zone 3]
  • Nanking Cherries [Zone 2]
  • Saskatoon Serviceberries [Zone 2]
  • American Cranberry (aka Viburnum trilobum or high brush cranberry) [Zone 2]
  • Lingonberry (aka low brush cranberry, wild, some cultivars available) [Zone 2]
  • Echinacea (aka Purple Coneflower) [Zone 3]
  • Fiddlehead Ferns [Zone 3]
  • Sunchokes (Be careful, invasive, aka Jerusalem Artichoke) [Zone 3]
  • Bearberry [Zone 2]
  • Russet Buffaloberry [Zone 2]
  • Walking Onion (aka Egyptian) [Zone 3]
  • Sorrel [Zone 3]
  • Siberian Pear [Zone 2]
  • Currants (Golden, others) [Zone 3]
  • Birch (Sap turned into syrup, catkins are also edible) [Zone 2]
  • Gooseberry [Zone 3]
  • Goji Berry [Zone 3]
  • Asiatic Plums (aka Prunus salicina) [Zone 2]
  • Aronia (aka Chokecherry) [Zone 3]
  • Elderberry [Zone 3]
  • Wintergreen [Zone 3]
  • Arctic Raspberries (Rubus Arcticus) [Zone 2]
  • Cloudberries (Rubus chamaemorus, usually wild, rare cultivars available) [Zone 2]
  • Crowberry (Empetrum nigrum, usually wild, rare cultivars available) [Zone 2]
  • Seaberry (aka Hippophae or Sea Buckthorns) [Zone 2]

Some good food forest plants aren’t necessarily perennial in the subarctic, but they are good at re-seeding themselves.  Each year, they will drop next year’s seeds and you have a very good chance of it growing back in the same location.  Examples of these are:

  • Strawberry Spinach
  • Cat Mint (aka Catnip)
  • Almost any plant that can successfully seed in ~3 months

A Word About Wild Cultivars

As you might have gathered, we included some plants in our list that are usually found in the wild.  Alaska and the subarctic has a surprising number of food bearing native plants, typically berries, that grow in the wild.

These can be harvested from the wild, of course, but you have to know where to find them.  However, with the listed species, there are sometimes cultivated varieties available.  This simply means that people are growing these particular varieties, by seed or other form of replication such as cuttings or rhizome division.

These wild, but cultivated, varieties are usually somewhat difficult to find.  Nonetheless, they can be found.  Often, due to their rarity, the price is often quite high as well.  It is also possible to cultivate them yourself, but that’s well beyond the scope of this post.

If you think about it, almost all the fruits and vegetables available out there, most started with some sort of wild variety of that plant.  Most of these have been cultivated for so long that we have been able to breed them with specific, beneficial characteristics.  This happens less so with subarctic varieties, simply because there is less overall demand for them.

We would suggest starting with some of the more common varieties that are out there.  If you become particularly advanced in your perennial game, however, there are plenty of plants you can grow into.

Setting Your Subarctic Perennial Food Forest Up For Success

You could just willy nilly go out and plant these perennials in your yard.  For best results, however, there are a few good practices you should use.

Mulching your plants is almost always a good idea.  This will help reduce competition from any nearby native plants.

We like to use wood chips in a layer of at least 4 to 6 inches around the plants.  If your yard is particularly heavy with native plants, a layer of weed fabric or cardboard underneath the wood chips is also a good idea.  This mulch layer will also help keep the root system warmer over the winter, allowing your plants a better chance at survival.

It’s also not a bad idea to get some good quality soil in the ground for your perennials.  This might be some home grown soil, some potting soil or perhaps just some compost.  This will help the plant transplant well and get going in your yard.

For trees in particular, they are susceptible to moose eating their tops in the early winter.  At least until your trees are substantial in size, it’s not a bad idea to surround them in either hardware cloth or chicken wire.

Caring For Your Subarctic Perennial Food Forest

The whole point of the food forest is basically a perpetual garden on autopilot.

For the most part, you don’t have to worry too much about your perennials.  They are hardy for the winter conditions and many are often accustomed to growing in less than ideal soils.

When you are planting perennials, it’s worth a little bit of effort looking into the variety that you are trying to grow.  What type of soil does it like?  Is it drought tolerant?  Does it prefer shaded or sunny areas?  Does it like to be companion planted with other perennials, like it might find in nature?  You do want to try and offer the plant the environment that it likes, as much as possible.

That said, you can improve results by using products like slow release fertilizers, or even adding them to your regular fertilization routines you might use on other plants.  This will certainly give them access to more resources, which will ultimately help them grow faster and in better health.

As for regular watering, that’s up to you.  It’s always a good idea to water for the first month or so after transplanting, at least until the plant is able to establish its roots.  When we experience drought conditions or extremely warm temperatures, we do try and water our perennials at least once a week.

An advanced goal would be to add your perennial garden into an existing irrigation system.  This would obviously ease your labor efforts significantly.  If you have, or plan for, an irrigation system it might be wise to also consider how you might handle your perennial food forest as well.

Strategically Starting A Subarctic Perennial Food Forest

The thing about perennials is that they are often expensive.  It wouldn’t be a good idea to buy a bunch of them, plant them out and ultimately have them not survive.

When we started our subarctic food forest, we purchased a number of different perennials the first year.  We wanted to see what worked and what didn’t work in our specific yard.  We knew our zone fairly well, but there are a number of factors that can influence plant survival.

Once we established what worked, we have focused on adding a more sizable quantity of each variety to our food forest.  We try to focus on just one or two varieties each year so we can build up a meaningful supply of that variety.  This usually means we are now planting a half dozen, or more, of a specific variety that we know does well in our yard.  Our ultimate goal is to have a meaningful supply of each plant that will produce every year for us.

We also continue to experiment with new varieties each year, again only planting one or two of each for the first year.  We usually set a budget each year for both the expansion of successful varieties as well as a few new introductions.

Go Forth And Grow Your Subarctic Perennial Food Forest!

We hope that our research and experience with subarctic perennials has helped you.  We definitely found some difficulty in locating a comprehensive list of zone 2 and 3 perennials that are great for growing in the subarctic.

Did we miss anything?  We probably did!  Slap a comment below!

2 comments… add one
  • Rhonda Van Zandt Apr 11, 2020 @ 11:32

    Hi from zone 1/2 Tok Alaska. On your fruits list you can add Seaberrys! They have been growing and fruiting for over 14 years now. Wonderful substitute for oranges and higher in vitamin C!

    • Jeff Apr 11, 2020 @ 12:06

      Good catch! We did miss that one, I’ll get it added right away here. Good looking out, thanks!

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