Gardens and Greenery in Alaska

 By Rita Lynn

During my tour of our incredible state of Alaska last summer, I kept at least one eye open at all times to gardens and vegetation. I wanted to know what grows there, and how Alaskans use their “green thumbs.” I didn’t get to the coldest parts of the state, but I got as far north as Fairbanks and as far south as Sitka. My travels took me to the tundra areas of Denali National Park and to the temperate rain forests of the southeast coast. No matter where I was, the flora offered beauty and bounty.

As is the case everywhere else, weather is a big factor. In Fairbanks, the growing season in the past 20 years or so has lengthened to about 105 days, although killing frosts as late as June 5 and as early as August 19 have occurred in that same time span. Wilderness areas show the characteristics of the boreal forest. Only six species of trees – spruce, poplar, larch, birch, aspen and tamarack – survive there. In the understory you find such plants as equisetum, commonly known as woodland horsetail, and bunchberry, a dwarf dogwood. For the home gardener, starting seeds indoors in flats or buying seedlings is necessary to grow most flowers and vegetables. On the other hand, garden plants can bask under the midnight sun. Once in the ground, plants have the benefit of daylight up to 24 hours a day, allowing them to grow quickly while they have the chance, and encouraging the development of brilliant blossom color. I spent several hours at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Georgeson Botanical Garden. It was July, but peonies, among a healthy array of other flowers, were in full bloom and absolutely stunning. Other exhibits spotlighted vegetables which, with the long days, grow to phenomenal size. Informative signage noted that a cabbage grown in an area near Anchorage, for example, weighed in at 127 pounds. (That’s a lot of sauerkraut!) Researchers associated with the garden are experimenting with the use of black mulch to warm the soil, allowing earlier planting and growth, thereby extending the growing season. Could such a technique be of use here in Iowa in years when spring takes its good old time, like it did last year?

Vegetation in the southeast coastal areas is affected by conditions quite different from those further north and inland. This is a temperate rainforest, so the problem isn’t temperature as much as it is available sunlight. Temperatures are actually more moderate than ours in Iowa – cooler in the summer, and not as cold in the winter. With all the moisture, wilderness vegetation is lush. Forests are dominated by the Sitka spruce, Western hemlock and red alder. The understory sports such plants as ferns, blueberry and salmonberry shrubs, and the dangerously thorny devil’s club. Within the cities of Juneau and Sitka I was particularly impressed with the displays of flowers. Perhaps the colors seemed more brilliant because the weather was so drab when I was there, but it was as if residents, after their long and dark winter, defy the often dreary weather by putting color in every available space. City parks were showcases of flowers, and flowers lined the sidewalks and filled people’s yards. People who have vegetable gardens have best success with cooler season varieties such as lettuce, plants in the cole family, and root vegetables. Warm season crops such as tomatoes require protection and usually do not produce well, because they just can’t get enough warmth and sunshine. Southeast Alaskans also harvest from the sea, incorporating seaweed and coastal plants such as beach asparagus, along with lots of fish and other plentiful seafood, into their diets.

If we moved to Alaska, our houseplants would need artificial light in the winter (as would we), and we’d have to make significant adjustments to our gardening practices. But, like the folks who live there now, if we wanted a garden, we could certainly have a bountiful one. And if we were in search of awesome natural beauty, we would find that in abundance, even though it comes in forms much different from that in Iowa.

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