Growing An Alaskan Garden From Seeds
Seeds: Starting, Hardening Off and Planting
by Wendy Wesser
My husband and I are blessed to live on a portion of property my great-grandparents, Alice and Gerrit ‘Heinie’ Snider, lived on in the Matanuska Valley. My great-grandparents did not have the convenience of a local grocery store. With ingenuity and plenty of physical labor they had to plan and work with their community to feed their family. They grew crops, fished, hunted, and raised chickens and other farm animals. In the early 1900s life in Alaska was about survival. I often marvel at how our lives are so different from when my great-grandparents immigrated to Alaska from Holland.
Many of us today are becoming so far removed from where our food comes from that we have lost touch with some of the basic skills needed to sustain ourselves. One of my goals in retirement is to re-learn these skills and become as self-sufficient as possible when it comes to feeding my family. I still imagine we will have our weekly trips to the grocery store. Why ignore such a great resource full of variety and fresh items? What I want though, is to be able to provide enough fruits, berries and vegetables through efforts in our own garden to not only supplement our own table throughout the year, but to have enough to share with family and friends. We are fortunate to live in a location where our weather and long days of sunshine are ideal for growing healthy crops of broccoli, cabbages, peas, carrots, potatoes, etc… My great-grandparents grew enough to help sustain their family on the very plot of land we now live on, so why can’t we? My husband and I intend to try.
Most of my mail-ordered seeds from Anchorage based, Denali Seed Co., are already sprouting and maturing in flats in my greenhouse. Broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage, chives, cilantro, kale, kohlrabi, lettuce and onions. I now have a heated greenhouse to start my seeds in, but in the past grow lights set up in our basement worked just fine. Around the first of May I started cucumber, zucchini and other squash seeds inside in individual pots. Some of our favorite seeds will be sowed directly into the garden such as beets, carrots, peas, spinach and radishes.
Hardening Off Seedlings
Once the snow is gone and the ground finally thaws enough to work we can start thinking about hardening off our seedlings. The hardening off process takes a week to 10 days of taking plants outside to gradually expose them to the outdoor elements. It is especially important to be careful when exposing your tender seedlings to the sun. At first set them outside in the shade for a few hours a day. Increase the amount of time spent outside until they are strong enough to spend the entire day and night outside.
The general rule of thumb I follow is when the birch leaves are the size of a squirrel’s ear it is safe to plant hardened off seedlings. The proper time to plant outside varies widely by up to two weeks depending on your location. We must be careful and realize we risk losing our tender seedlings to frost or sunburn if we plant too soon. It is best to start planting your more hardy seedlings that can handle a light frost and wait until all danger of frost is gone before planting more tender seedlings. The safe planting date for most areas is generally June 1st.
I like to use row covers on our garden beds to extend our season and productivity which consist of flexible PVC piping attached to the raised beds with pipe brackets and covered with Remay cloth. When I first started using row covers I had intended to use plastic until, upon the advice of a friend, Andy, I chose to use the breathable Remay cloth instead. Andy has used Remay cloth for years in his Anchorage garden with much success in reducing the bolting of his spinach and protection of other crops. The Remay cloth successfully protected lettuce and spinach I planted before our end of May snow storms and 20 degree temperatures we had a few years ago. I also am using one solid sheet rather than two per bed. Some rain will get through the Remay cloth, but it will need to be removed for thorough watering periodically. The Remay cloth is light and easy to remove. I stapled the cloth on the windward side of the raised beds and secured the open sides with glacier rocks that grow in abundance from our valley soils. Because I have row covers, this year I plan to try some squash and bush bean types that normally don’t do well in our cool summers.
These days we have many local commercial greenhouses to choose from if we don’t have the space, time, or inclination to start our own seeds. There is absolutely no shame in buying starts from our many local nurseries and supporting our economy. I love browsing our local plant nurseries every spring, and I can rarely resist buying something for our home garden. But for those who love a challenge and want an extended gardening season, starting seeds will do just that. For me, one of the most satisfying parts of gardening is watching the miracle of seeds I planted sprout and flourish.
Wendy Wesser is a certified master gardener living in Wasilla, Alaska. She and her husband, Ralph, raised their 3 daughters on a portion of land her great-grandparents originally homesteaded in the 1930s. She has enjoyed Alaska gardening for 29 years in Anchorage, Juneau and the Matanuska-Susitna Valley.
From the May 2013 issue of Last Frontier Magazine