In the mood to experiment? Try loofah, pawpaws or artichokes in your Alaska garden this year

pawpaw plant

I am hoping that by now the loyal reader views the topics I choose for these columns the same way I approach flying. My assumption is that the pilot doesn’t want to die either and will get us where we need to be. You, I suspect, want advice that is guaranteed to be successful.

Now, I could simply repeat past columns and give you reassurance. I could dig back 25 years and who would know? Ah, but that isn’t me. Still, I don’t give advice I wouldn’t follow myself, so you can at least trust me that far!

I bring up the question of expecting my words to lead to success because last week’s mention of the possibility of a successful okra crop in Alaska brought several requests for new plants to try. I will give you some of my suggestions, because I do believe things are warming enough to warrant trying new stuff (as long as it doesn’t escape and cause problems). Be forewarned: these may succeed up here or they may not.

Let’s start with okra. There are several varieties from which to choose. The trick has to be an early start, container growing and a warm summer like last year’s. Salmon and halibut gumbo could be the new Alaska dish.

Next, how about growing your own loofah? These are in the gourd family. They grow on 10- to 20-foot vines, so they will need some support and room. They also need great warmth and a bit more sunshine than what we traditionally expect (and hope is part of our climate change). Loofah, or luffa, are edible when young and produce the familiar scrubbing sponge when more mature.

How about a fruit tree? Forget the moose, for moment. Pawpaws are the biggest native American fruit. What catches my attention is that they ripen off the tree, so perhaps they will now fruit here. Even if the season is not long enough, they can ripen off the vine, so to speak. They are hardy to minus 25, just like Arctic kiwi, which do grow and produce here.

Watermelon radishes and black radishes are two large fruit, heirloom radishes that take a bit more time than the 25-day wonders that are the fare of novice gardeners. They also do better if they ripen as the days get cooler, so will be perfect to start along with the second crop of kohl crops I am encouraging this year.


Muni gardens often feature artichokes, and I have grown them myself. Many don’t bother because a cold, rainy summer means you really have to carry them over to get good chokes. Put them on this year’s list if you have room to start them; they can get to 2 feet tall before it’s hardening-off time. Perhaps now the warmer season will mean going outdoors sooner, i.e., smaller. A good second best is cardoon, a quicker-growing ornamental that is edible.

I am sure I will come up with more and will pass my thoughts on. Two things you can do, however, if you want to experiment: first, keep an eye on the numbers of days to harvest listed. It used to be 90 to 100 days was the most you could go if you didn’t want to have your crops cut down by frost. Now? Consider some things that take more days.

Second, if global warming is here (and there is no reason to think it isn’t), we need to get a hold of soil temperature data. Lot’s of stuff requires warmer soil than, say, peas, and can’t be planted until the soil really warms up. Peas can go into the ground in April. Would that the rest of seeds could as well.

Jeff’s Alaska garden calendar

Alpar Christmas tree recycling: Ends Jan. 15. All Anchorage, Eagle River and Palmer Carrs stores have special areas to drop off trees, but only if they are free of all decorations and lights. No plastic bags, and no wreaths please! This is a great service: Please do not abuse it.

Recycle Christmas string lights and bulbs: There will be free drop-off at the Anchorage Recycling Center (6161 Rosewood) or Total Reclaim, (12050 Industry Way #10).

Alaska Botanical Garden: The annual, not-to-be-missed Spring Garden Conference will be held at the Benny Benson Secondary School on Saturday, Feb. 22. (

Jeff Lowenfels | Alaska gardening and growing

Jeff Lowenfels has written a weekly gardening column for the ADN for more than 45 years. His columns won the 2022 gold medal at the Garden Communicators International conference. He’s authored several books on organic gardening, and his latest book, "Teaming With Bacteria," is available on Amazon. Reach him at