One of the most important choices you make in your garden each year is what to grow. More than any other choice, this can make or break your garden.
How do you choose from the many varieties available? Do you grab whichever seed packets happen to be staring at you in the grocery store? Or do you grow the same things every year that have worked for you in the past? Short of turning your backyard into an experiment station, how do you determine which varieties will do best where you live?
Descriptions on the backs of seed packets and catalogs provide some insight, but remember seed companies are not an objective party. Ultimately, they want to sell seeds. Practically speaking, they likely have not tested their varieties as far north as Alaska because we are a small market.
There are several basic criteria to consider when choosing varieties — yield, taste and ease of growing. Yield and how easy a variety is to grow are highly specific to where you live. Taste is going to be less location specific, although Alaska-grown vegetables tend to be sweeter.
There are a couple of unbiased resources for determining what grows best where you live — variety trials and a new mobile app. Historically, as many as 100 different cultivars were tested each year at the Georgeson Botanical Garden, which is part of the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station in Fairbanks. Some of this valuable information can be found at www.georgesonbotanicalgarden.org under “Research and Education.” After a several year hiatus, we are reviving the variety trials and testing as many varieties as possible given labor and space limitations. We will share what we learn in the Extension publication, “Recommended Variety List for Interior Alaska,” which is available at http://bit.ly/2rHN5bS.
Variety trials, if conducted where you live, are the most rigorous source of information about what grows where you live. But because they’re expensive and there is limited funding for this type of research, variety trials are rare in Alaska. This was a big motivator for me to create the Grow & Tell mobile app, which was released this spring. Gardeners and farmers are constantly trying new varieties and, by sharing that information with others, can help each other determine which varieties grow best in their location. It’s basically Yelp for gardeners. In addition to helping others, another great reason to use the app is because it’s an easy way to keep a garden journal. At the end of the season, you can download everything you’ve entered into Excel from http://growandtell.us.
As plant breeders innovate new varieties, tried-and-true varieties may be discarded or consolidated. Unfortunately, how a variety performs in Alaska is not a big driver in this process and so sometimes we lose high-performing varieties. However, some of the newly developed varieties will perform great here — it’s just a matter of determining which ones. The more people in Alaska that contribute knowledge to the Grow & Tell app, the information we’ll have to choose the best varieties for where we live.
Heidi Rader is a tribes Extension educator for the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service and the Tanana Chiefs Conference. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org