Growing up in Ohio, Utah and California, Becky Mears always had gardens around her. "My grandma and aunt were big gardeners and we would eat out of their gardens all summer long," says Becky.
It was years later, when Becky and her husband had moved to Anchorage, Alaska, and bought a home with a 1-acre lot, that the gardening bug bit her. "I started growing a vegetable or two just to see what would happen," she says. She quickly found out that gardening in Alaska is very different from gardening in the continental United States. But by adapting her techniques to the Arctic climate and wildlife, she’s learned how to produce an abundance of fresh food for her family.
Because the weather in Anchorage is so cold, Becky grows primarily cool-season vegetable crops in her 2,000-square-foot outdoor garden. "Further up the Matanuska Valley it’s a bit warmer and that’s where they grow the famous Alaskan giant vegetables," says Becky. "But here I stick with normal-sized, cool-season varieties of crops such as broccoli, peas, onions, beets, carrots and lettuce," she says.
Seedlings for Becky’s cool-climate crops get started in mid-March, inside her 300-square-foot greenhouse. She also uses the greenhouse to grow her warm-season crops such as tomatoes, peppers, beans and cucumbers, using a combination of hydroponics and beds in the earthen floor. Sodium lights to help the plants ripen faster. The warm-season crops go into the greenhouse beds in May, so they can grow and mature indoors during summer and fall. Cold winter temperatures mean it isn’t cost effective for her to grow vegetables through the winter.
Gardening this far northat 61 degrees latitudethe growing season comes and goes very quickly. "I generally plant my seedlings in the ground around Memorial Day and we can get a killing frost by early September," she says. "But because the days in midsummer are 19 hours long, everything grows fast."
Though Becky doesn’t even plant her garden until Memorial Day, she still has to use season extenders to protect her crops. "Garden Quilt row covers provide protection from late frosts and keep the air temperature warm enough for the plants to grow quickly," she says. Becky has discovered a creative use for old, worn out, row covers. In the fall while cleaning up the garden, she lays the old row covers on top of garden beds planted with garlic. When she cuts back all the flowers and vegetables, she lays the garden debris right on top of the row covers to create an insulating winter mulch for the garlic. When spring comes, she just rolls up the fabric, leaves and all. "It’s easy to move the rolls and I stack them in the backyard, creating a "Great Row Cover Wall of China" to help keep neighborhood dogs out of my yard," she says.
Another Alaskan gardening tip is to always buy seed varieties that are suited to the area. "I buy as much seed locally as I can," says Becky. "I had an experience a few years ago using seed from a non-Alaskan company and a few of the varieties just didn’t mature fast enough for our climate," she says. That’s important because Becky doesn’t have much room for error in her vegetable garden. "Because the season is so short, if I have a crop failure it’s often too late to start replacement crops," she says.
One of Becky’s biggest (literally and figuratively), and uniquely Alaskan gardening problems is moose. On average, she can have 15 to 25 moose visits to her garden each summer. "It can be even more if the calves are born nearby and they learn about the garden when they're young," she says.
To deal with these 800- to 1,000-pound pests, Becky grows lots of vegetables that moose don’t like, such as onions, rhubarb and garlic. She fences and covers everything else. Moose are strong and very persistent when they find something they like to eat. "I’ve built removable wire fences that I drape over the vegetable beds, and secure them with Earth Staples," she says. "I also place cages over the broccoli and Brussels sprouts to keep the pesky moose away."
Becky also uses Garden Quilt row cover to protect the seedlings she hardens off in the cold frames around her deck. "I use the row covers to protect the seedlings from cold temperatures and create a visual barrier from the moose," she says.
The types of flowers Becky grows are also determined by the moose’s palette. For annual flowers, Becky grows salvia, nasturtium, poppies, marigold, daisies, snapdragons and cosmos, all of which moose avoid. She also grows perennials such as delphiniums, ligularia and, surprisingly, hostas. "Even though I hear deer love hostas, the moose leave them alone," she says.
Flower supports are essential for keeping her tall annuals and perennials upright. "We can get a lot of rain in summer, so the ground is soft and tall flowers tend to flop over," says Becky. The Linking Stakes, Grow Through Supports, and Support Rings all do a great job of keeping my plants vertical," she says.
Even with the difficult climate and oversize garden pests, Becky has learned how to garden successfully in Alaska. She’s now ready for the next challenge. "The weather seems to be changing and getting warmer in summer, so next year I’m going to try growing sweet corn in the greenhouse," she says. Hearing how successful her other garden projects have been, we expect she’ll be eating sweet corn next summer.
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