Alaska has some of the world’s largest vegetables. The Alaska State Fair hosts several large vegetable competitions including largest cabbage and pumpkin. We’re talking world record breakers. For people not familiar with the state, that may come as a surprise. “I thought Alaska was always snowy,” is one we hear a lot. While it is true that Alaska’s winter season may be longer than the Lower 48, the state also experiences longer summer days than anywhere else in the U.S., hence the moniker “Land of the Midnight Sun.”
Wondering how Alaska gardeners manage to produce beautiful gardens and giant veggies in such a short growing season? While not every Alaskan sets out to grow ginormous pumpkins, many take advantage of the longer daylight with backyard gardens and flowerbeds. Keep reading for tips from an expert Alaska gardener on how to grow award-winning cabbages (or anything, really).
Patrick Ryan has spent the last 20 years working at the Alaska Botanical Garden where he is now an education specialist. Pat’s day-to-day work includes traveling to schools to teach children about herbs and plants, hosting classes for adults on container growing and educating visitors at the Alaska Botanical Garden in Anchorage.
How did you get into gardening?
My dad brought home a Burpee windowsill garden when I was little. One of my favorite plants was a Mimosa pudica, a sensitive plant, that folds to the touch. I was just so excited by it. Ever since then, I’ve always kept a garden.
How has gardening in Alaska made you a better gardener? How can others apply that where they live?
Because Alaska has a shorter growing season than most places in the Lower 48, gardeners are forced to adapt, change and try new things. That’s been my biggest takeaway – adapt and look at failure as an opportunity to try something different.
Are there any Alaska plants that grow well in other regions? How would you suggest someone who travels to Alaska brings home Alaska plants or produce to plant in their own gardens?
Basic annuals do well most anywhere. We’ve had great success with primrose in particular at the Garden. Seeds are a great way to purchase and bring back a piece of Alaska. You can either head to a local nursery, or you can purchase a postcard that’s made of wildflower seeds at most souvenir shops. If you’re traveling through Canada on your way back home, be aware of phytosanitation rules. And before you plant your seeds, do a little research so not to plant a species that is invasive to your region.
What makes Alaska vegetables so huge?
Our abundant sunshine is the main reason. But those massive cabbages you see at the fair? Those are a variety of OS cross cabbage which are known for their large size.
What plants grow best with lots of sunlight?
Almost everything grows well with lots of sunlight. But plants who have been raised in a greenhouse will not do well in lots of sunlight since they’re not used to it. Vice versa, seeds who “grew up” in the sun would not do well in a greenhouse. “Hardening off” or easing them into the sun is important. Too little sun can create leggy plants that outgrow themselves and eventually topple under their own weight. Sun works both ways.
What plants do best with little sunlight?
Ferns are the best. Icelandic poppies also do well. Hostas and Bleeding Hearts are great for the shade too. That’s why they’re often planted around the foundation of houses.
Plants in Alaska need to be hearty, right? What are your favorite, hearty plants to grow?
The primroses in the Garden are doing really well. Poppies and rock garden plants are also fairly hearty.
Do you have any favorite resources you go to for gardening tips?
But, generally, your local cooperative service through the USDA is a great resource. Don’t forget to look at plants that are native to your region and are associated with pollinators. Those will be the easiest to grow, will do the best and are beneficial in many ways.
Best fertilizer life hack?
Organic fish or kelp-based fertilizer is best for things that you plan on eating. When you’re looking at fertilizers, check the primary NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) ingredients. Here’s how I learned to remember what each does: up for nitrogen, meaning leaf growth, down for phosphorus, meaning root growth and around for potassium for all around plant health. Up, Down and Around!
What is your favorite plant or crop that you’ve ever grown?
Poppies are my favorite flowers for my garden, in addition to coleus. It grows into a big, colorful, leafy plant. It’s a relatively easy plant to maintain and is easy to propagate. It does well outside and is easy to bring inside in the winter.
Favorite house plant for sunny spots?
Cacti and succulents are my favorites for inside. Anybody can grow succulents and they’re super easy to propagate. One single leaf can grow a whole new plant. Besides, kids love them.
Mulch or no mulch?
Trick question! It is usually recommended. “Nature abhors a vacuum,” as they say. But my advice would be to make a choice based on where you live. I always recommend wood over rocks. But whatever you choose, it’s important to remember that all mulch will eventually need to be replaced. It is not maintenance free. At the end of the season, I mulch leaves with my lawnmower and use that in my gardens. It’s natural and easy to do.
Annuals or perennials for home gardens?
Both! A mix is fun. Foodscaping is a newer trend that I really like. Try a mix of kale and swiss chard or beautiful trout back lettuce. Blending them all together in a container or a garden is not only delicious, but colorful and different.
Ready to get started on your garden this summer? Whether you’re planting giant cabbages or an herb garden, we hope you can use some of Patrick’s Alaska expertise to help your garden flourish.