Nothing beats a meal that includes home-grown vegetables fresh from the garden. But getting to that first harvest can seem a little daunting, especially when faced with the climate challenges in Alaska. According to the USDA, plant hardiness zones in Alaska can range from 1 to 7b, which is a very broad range. Similarly there are huge variations in the length of the growing season for different parts of the state. Fortunately you will find there's plenty of help available for novice vegetable gardeners.
Selecting a good location for your vegetable garden is the first step to assuring success. The site must be well exposed, preferably with all-day sunshine. On sloping land, try to choose a southern exposure to maximize sunlight and warmth. Your garden will also need to be within reach of a reliable water supply. Locating the vegetable plot close to your house is ideal as it will make maintenance and harvesting easier.
Most vegetables grow well in slightly acidic soil, ideally 6.0 to 6.5 on the pH scale. Since soil conditions vary widely across Alaska, it is well worth having your soil tested before planting. With this information, you can either raise the soil pH can using lime or lower it with applications of sulfur. Enrich your soil with plenty of organics to keep the vegetables well fed. Aged compost is the best organic material to add, but manure will work as well.
Extending the Season
Many Alaskan gardeners extend the growing season by using cold frames and hotbeds. Both are constructed as a frame set into the ground covered with a transparent lid such as an old window. Hotbeds also have a heat source underneath to warm the soil. Both methods allow you to plant seeds and seedlings well before the last frost and provide protection for rooted cuttings over the winter.
The University of Alaska Extension Service has established the Master Gardener Program to train and assist home gardeners in all facets of horticulture. Gardeners from all over Alaska have received training through this program and donate their time to educate local growers about plants, organic practices, soil amendment and many other horticulture-related topics. Contact your local county extension office for information on this program.
One of the surprising side effects of near round-the-clock sunshine is that many vegetables grow unusually large in Alaska. Farmer Steve Hubacek of Wasilla set a new world record at the 2009 Alaska State Fair with a 127-lb. monster cabbage. Other noteworthy vegetable records include an 82.9-lb. rutabaga, a 168.6-lb. watermelon and a celery that tipped the scales at a hefty 63.3 lbs. Clearly vegetable gardening is alive and well in Alaska.