Growing Alaska’s big vegetables

Photos Courtesy of Pat Holloway, Georgeson Botanical Garden, University of Alaska , Fairbanks.

Alaska, with a land area of 570,374 square miles, is the largest state in the United States, equal to twice the size of Texas and one-fifth of the continental United States. Its coastline is longer than all of the other states’ coastlines put together. Alaska’s known for its big mountains, with Mt. McKinley in Denali National Park, the highest peak in North America reaching 20,320 feet, and thousands of tourists cruise by the big glaciers each summer near Skagway. Animals such as polar bears, elk and moose roam the tundra in search of tender plants. But there’s more. Vegetable growers in Alaska are setting records in the Guinness Book of World Records for their giant produce.

Alaska, also known as “The Last Frontier,” is becoming known as a land of big vegetables. This is due to the long daylight hours during the summer months, as well as new techniques that produce giant veggies and an abundant bounty.

Weather and moisture-related challenges

Weather and climate in Alaska affects growers in unique ways unrelated to those in other zones. Due to permafrost—a process where the soil freezes and thaws—growers must wait until late May to start their gardens in Alaska. With the brief growing season and undependable climate, planting and harvesting is always a challenge.

Farmers in Alaska start their seeds in greenhouses because of the short growing season. Corn, string beans, squash, pumpkins, sweet potatoes and artichokes can be successfully started early and transplanted when the soil warms. Common vegetables that adapt well to transplanting include green peppers, jalapenos, cucumbers, zucchini and tomatoes. Check with your Cooperative Extension Publications for seeds or plants that grow successfully in Alaska’s climate.

If the weather remains cool, cold-weather crops grow well into the summer. However, if days become too hot or dry, spinach, beets and lettuce go to seed, similar to those plants in the lower 48 states.

In cool weather, less water is lost through evaporation and transpiration, reducing the need for irrigation. Additional moisture is required for hot, dry, clear or windy weather. Irrigation is often provided through well water or river water piped in. Watering earlier in the morning, before the sun shines bright and while the temperature remains cool is recommended. Afternoon watering causes leaves to hold moisture before night, encouraging fungal diseases. For level garden spots where there is no run-off, furrow irrigation works well. For acreage on a slope, a sprinkler system is recommended.

Heavy rainfall and hailstorms mayoccur, which beats the plants into the soil, but drought is a constant problem most summers.

Challenges of insects

Growers in Alaska must keep a close watch on their gardens and apply the right controls at the right times. The state is relatively free of insects that attack most vegetables, but two primary insects that present a problem are the cutworm and root maggots.

According to a report by Michele Hébert, land resource agent with the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, “16 Easy Steps to Gardening in Alaska” states:

“Cutworms are the larvae of small moths. Many species are found in Alaska. Color and markings are variable. Cutworms often chew off newly set garden plants, particularly cole crops, at the ground level and eat holes in the leaves of other plants. Most damage is done from late may to mid-June.

“Root maggots, often referred to as onion maggots, seed corn maggots and turnip maggots, are the larvae of small flies and are common in Alaska. The last is most widespread and usually does the most damage. They attack turnips, radishes, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and rutabagas from late May throughout the summer. All members of the cabbage family are attacked by root maggots.

“With climate changes and warming, Alaska is seeing other insects appear. One is slugs, especially around the coastal areas of Alaska. Excess rainfall also provides an environment where slugs, up to 2 inches, flourish. Growers should check and be aware of any insects when purchasing plants imported from other states. Otherwise, farmers risk introducing new problems into the growing area.

“Keep a close watch on vegetables and apply the right controls at the right times. Preventive measures and treating the problem early brings results. Check with your local Cooperative Extension Service for recommended control.”

Challenges of wild animals

In many areas of the United States, deer compete with vegetable and fruit growers for food. Here in Alaska, it’s the large moose and calves. Raspberries thrive if the moose don’t nibble the canes to the ground during the late fall and winter. Strawberries present a challenge to grow and some varieties can freeze out.

According to some Alaskan farmers, the nature of a moose is to check out a garden spot, take a snack and return to finish off the plants during the night or the next morning. It isn’t unusual to see a cow moose and her calf grazing near homes and feasting on rows of produce in small villages. Peas, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, greens, kohlrabi and peas are favorites, but potatoes are usually avoided. Sturdy fences are the best protection against moose.

Metal cages and netting are often used around the base of fruit trees and vines to deter the moose. However, when snow piles up, moose can simply climb higher and eat the top. New bark is especially vulnerable.

Other critters that invade vegetable plots are squirrels and birds. Crows consume their share of the fruit grown in Alaska.

Becoming part of the Alaska Grown program

Farmers who participate in the Alaska Grown program assure quality in Alaska agricultural production. Only produce that meets the top two USDA ratings qualifies for the coveted Alaska Grown logo, which guarantees that products have the finest flavor, freshness and appearance. Only products produced in Alaska are eligible for this classification.

The Alaska Grown logo is used frequently in advertisements, retail markets and food shows around the state. Posters, stickers and labels help consumers identify the products.

Every year, farmers grow a wider variety of an increasing volume of products. The program assures the future availability of high-quality farm products throughout the state as more produce reaches the grocery shelves.

Growing the “giants”

John Evans of the Alaskan outback in Palmer understands what it takes to grow the giant vegetables. The Guinness Book of World Records has visited him nine times due to his huge veggies. In an article by Home & Garden Television, he discussed his methods for raising “Super-Sized Veggies.”

Evans has grown a “Stone Head” variety of cabbage weighing about 35 pounds. To grasp the size, think of approximately 66 grocery store cabbages to equal the one Evans grew. His Brussels sprouts grew the size of apples. Then, there was the 35-pound zucchini. He credits the success of this monster from being grown in its own contained, raised area, which retains moisture and warmth. Plus, he allows only one zucchini per plant. This method allows all the nutrients to go to one vegetable.

The Alaska Grows logo guarantees quality.

Does Evans have other secrets to growing the giant vegetables—that are not stringy and still taste delicious? One reason is almost two months of nonstop daylight. During the summer, darkness never comes. About two hours of dusk settles in after midnight—then the sun appears for a new day.

Keeping his plants free of insects allows the energy to go into growth, instead of resisting pests of disease. A type of wax keeps the leaves glossy and thwarts bugs from eating the foliage.

However, like other vegetable growers, Evans relies on compost and credits a secret compost tea for bigger vegetables. After the compost has aged for 24 hours, he mixes one part tea to 5 parts water. This is applied to both the plant’s foliage and the surrounding ground beneath the plant. Evans believes this process protects the plant from diseases and pests. Healthy soil is stimulated by all the microorganisms and they give the plant the maximum food for growth. When the soil receives food,it in turn produces bigger, tastier and healthier vegetables.

It isn’t always “bigger” that counts. Bounty is also a measure. A potato plant is an example of the effects of the tea. Usually, seven to eight spuds are produced by one plant. Evans’ plants yield about 40 potatoes each. This prize-winning grower credits the tea and Alaska’s rugged climate, plus a bit of hard work, in growing super-sized vegetables.

Long daylight hours during the summer months, plus growers using new and improved methods, are changing the face of this once barren land.

The author writes from Jackson, Tenn.

Alaska State Fair Winners

The Web site for the 2006 Alaska State Fair lists the following giant vegetable winners:

  • 23-foot, 3.5-inch cornstalk
  • 4.702-pound parsnip
  • 1,019-pound pumpkin
  • 17.195-pound yellow zucchini
  • 67 1/8-inch-long gourd
  • 55.15-pound blue Hubbard squash
  • 21.530-pound bushel gourd

Cabbage was in a separate category with the top weight at 73.4 pounds.

For More Information

Check the following resources for more information on growing produce in Alaska.
Cooperative Extension Service Web site:
This site lists the different Cooperative Extension Service districts in Alaska.
State publications and Distribution Center: 877-520-5211