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Okra, apple trees, outdoor tomatoes: Alaska gardeners have widening options in 2020

  • Author: Jeff Lowenfels
    | Alaska gardening
  • Updated: January 2
  • Published January 2

(Bob Hallinen / ADN file photo)

This time of year, I encourage you, gentle reader, to peruse gardening catalogs. This year I have finally fully transitioned over. While there are still lots of seed sellers that publish them, no longer do I suggest paper catalogs. “Webologs” are now the mainstay.

Online catalogs are easy to access and finally good enough to replace paper ones, which makes environmental sense. They use colorful, high-resolution pictures and are full of lots of information you wouldn’t find in a limited-number-of-pages, print edition. Some even employ video!

Lots of these catalogs still refer to that Department of Agriculture map showing the average, annual, extreme, minimum temperature. Many gardeners refer to it when ordering seed to determine what is hardy in their area of the state. You can look at the map online at to find out which zone your garden is in.

Note this map was published eight years ago, and, knowing how long it takes the government to do things, probably uses data compiled well before that. Anyone who gardens in the 49th state knows our climate has changed, even since 2012. Anchorage, for example, is shown on the map as Zone 4b or 5a, but I don’t think we have seen -25 degrees in some years.

As important as hardiness zones are, plants in Alaska are being affected by earlier thaws and later first frosts. What will survive here has to adapt to these changes, and the hardiness map does not address that.

So, is it time to simply admit that it is warmer and incorporate that into the growing calendar? My friends Erik and Naaq took advantage of last year’s warmth and successfully harvested okra from an outdoors-grown plant. We used to be the only state which could not grow them through the fruiting stage. And, we have had two summers in a row now where nights have been warm enough to set regular tomatoes, outdoors, without a greenhouse or cold frame. We now have enough frost-free days to grow giant, record-setting pumpkins, and more and more apple trees are surviving.

What these feats mean is the start date for outdoor gardening has advanced, and I am going to finally admit it openly. In Southcentral, I say you can plant the second week of May instead of the last week, Fairbanks a week to 10 days later and Juneau — well, wait until the legislators get out of town!

I also plan on encouraging Alaska gardeners to plant a second round of crops in July. We are able to get a second harvest of cole crops, at least. We are going to have to develop the traditions to incorporate into this practice, together.

My Greta sense is to encourage a limit on paper catalogs to one or two. That being my point of view, check out The Whole Seed Catalog from Baker Creek. It has Baker’s absolutely fantastic and horticultural photos of annuals and vegetables, all open pollinated, and lots of interesting reading to accompany the pics. It costs $9.95, but if you are into annuals and vegetables, this is one for you to have, and it should keep you occupied for hours.

Territorial Seed is a great free print catalog to get. These are great seeds people, and they grow stuff that works well in our warming, but still short growing season. You can order it online:

I will list a few catalogs in the upcoming weeks, but the best thing you can do now is use your search engine to explore your gardening dreams. This is what the dead time of winter is for. Go ahead. Type in dahlias, garlic, kale or iris, pumpkins or cosmos! The days are getting longer and it is time to start dreaming about this year’s gardens.

Finally, as I always note when I can, you needn’t buy anything from the sites you visit. In most instances our local nurseries are able to meet your needs. They are the best in selling what works here, after all, not some far-off seed house.

Jeff’s Alaska gardening calendar

Winter lights at the Botanical Garden: Enjoy 5-8 p.m., Wednesdays-Saturdays, through Jan. 11. Members $5, non-members $7, Children 6 and under are free.

Amaryllis: If you can find some for sale, buy and grow them. There is nothing easier or showier than these fantastic, self-blooming, just-add-water, bulbs.