Gardening

Alaska Gardening - Strawberries

Story and Media by
Wendy Wesser
Media by
Cecil Sanders
Written by
Wendy Wesser

Last month I talked about how to create a hardy and productive Alaskan raspberry patch, but there are many other fruits and berries that are also great choices for your garden. My personal favorite is the strawberry. During my research for this article I’ve learned how little I actually know about growing strawberries in Alaska. I refuse to feel bad about my lack of knowledge though, because I do have a healthy 16 year old patch, even if I don’t know what kind strawberries they are. My research has inspired me to learn more about the history and future of growing strawberries in Alaska.

Strawberries in Alaska 

The wild and hybrid strawberries we grow in our Alaska gardens cannot be bought in grocery stores. Even if you were lucky enough to find ripe berries in a local farmers’ market, the sweet delicate flavor of a freshly picked strawberry would already be lost. The strawberry is a native plant here in Alaska and there are many places where you can find strawberries growing wild, like the town of Gustavus in southeast Alaska. When our family lived in Juneau we once spent a memorable weekend in the small community of Gustavus. The main purpose of our family trip was to take a Glacier Bay National Park day cruise, but we also spent a lot of time exploring Gustavus on our bikes. We were delighted to find fields of wild strawberries to enjoy while we took our breaks. Wild strawberries may be very small, but their unique and sweet taste makes up for their size. In northern Alaska, near Fairbanks, my aunt and uncle have found enough wild strawberries, in fields near their home, to make a batch of strawberry jam for the past two years. Here in southcentral Alaska I’m not aware of any large strawberry patches growing in the wild, but  you can easily and successfully grow them in your own yard.

Neighbors and friends are often willing to share strawberry starts from their gardens. Accept them ... even if they cannot tell you what type of strawberry they are. There are hardy strawberry plants that have been propagated in homestead farms and gardens throughout Alaska since the early 1900s. I have a couple types of strawberries in my yard that were given to me by my grandma and my great aunt years ago. No one in our extended family knows for sure what specific types they are, but they are at least forty years old and probably older. I have shared my strawberries with friends, family and neighbors and they report successful patches also.

When you buy strawberry plants from a commercial nursery you need to be careful to know what type you are buying. Several imported varieties are only good as annuals in Alaska. If you are fine with an annual strawberry some of these can do great in your gardens, pots or in hanging baskets. I would like to give you a list of varieties available, but I called several southcentral greenhouses and none offered the same varieties recommended by the cooperative extension service. Only two of the greenhouses I called were knowledgeable about strawberry varieties developed in Alaska. Ask your local nursery questions if you are looking for a perennial strawberry variety that will prove hardy and return every year. If you can’t find a local nursery selling a variety that will survive the winters in your area of Alaska, local garden club plant sales could be a good option. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Growing strawberries in Alaska has a rich history of experimentation.


Planting Strawberries

July is not too late to start your own perennial strawberry patch if you can find starts at a local greenhouse or from a friend or neighbor. Start your patch in a sunny south facing space if possible. My patch does well in partial shade, but I know I would have better results in a sunnier area of my yard. Give your new plants a fighting chance by starting them in a cultivated area as weed free as possible. When transplanting strawberry plants be sure to cover the roots and just the lower part of the crown when planting.  Water the transplants well with a water soluble fertilizer solution. Keep your new patch weeded. 

Strawberry Care

An established perennial strawberry patch is easy to care for. Most varieties generally need to be fertilized lightly with 8-32-16 in the spring. I weed my strawberry beds 2 or 3 times during the summer. I would have better production if I weeded and fertilized more often, but our strawberries are resilient enough to survive and continue to spread with minimal care. Strawberries do well with about 1 inch of water per week. In the late fall if your patch is exposed and snow has not fallen in time to do the job, protect your patch with straw. I will say I have never covered my patch with anything and it has done just fine. My patch is in a protected area that gets covered naturally in leaves however.

Consider strawberries for an edible ground cover. If I could talk my husband into it I would dig up most (if not all) of “his” lawn and a good portion of that space would be given over to strawberries. Their habit of spreading by runners allows strawberries to take over large spaces in no time. 

Rhubarb

Rhubarb, while technically a vegetable, is another staple in Alaska. It is easy to grow and is the first dessert “fruit” available to harvest in the spring. Rhubarb is good alone and mixes quite well with berries in cobblers, breads, muffins, crisps and pies. The rhubarb plant should be divided every four years so neighbors, family and friends are usually willing to share starts if they know someone wants them. I remember my mom was given a portion of a rhubarb root several years ago. She put the root portion in a bag in the refrigerator. Because her summer was quite busy, the rhubarb start stayed in the refrigerator for several weeks. When she re-opened the bag, expecting the rhubarb to be dead, she discovered it was alive and well. Into the ground it went where it survived the transplant and flourished. Red rhubarb stalks are generally preferable because they are not as tart as green stalk varieties. Both red and green stalks are good in all recipes calling for rhubarb, and rhubarb is excellent combined with strawberries.


If you want very large rhubarb plants feed and water them heavily and plant with southern exposure next to a deck or house. They will become huge and take over an area. I have my rhubarb on the north side of our home and they are smaller, but still tasty.

I recently learned that rhubarb leaves are not quite as poisonous as commonly believed. Rhubarb leaves are composed of about .5% oxalic acid. A 145 pound person would need to ingest 11 pounds of the rhubarb leaf to cause death. A few pounds would cause sickness. Knowing this I am not going to be too concerned if my dog or chickens decide to take a bite of a rhubarb leaf.

Lessons Learned the Hard Way

We all know that some of the best lessons are learned the hard way. For those of you who are new to gardening and would like to avoid those hard lessons, here are some I have learned over the years.

Lesson #1 - Do not plant Lily of the Valley under a crabapple tree.

The Lily of the Valley are blooming just about the time the crabapples are dropping their white petals. I love Lily of the Valley under trees, but under my crab apple tree was a poor choice.

Another lesson I learned concerning Lily of the Valley is they spread like crazy in the right conditions, which is actually what I wanted...I thought. I finally got my wish when I planted them next to my thriving asiatic lily bed. Now I have Lily of the Valley plants that are very happy and encroaching on my asiatic lilies. I was warned that Lily of the Valley can be invasive and I can tell you this is very true, so be careful where you choose to plant yours.

Lesson #2 - Rainy summers do not mean you don’t have to water your fuchsias. 

It rained pretty much every day our first summer we lived in Juneau. I bought my first beautiful fuchsia basket that summer and watched in dismay as it lost its fullness and stopped blooming. Fuchsias need a lot more than rain water and they appreciate a little fertilizer too.

Lesson #3 - It is okay to have ants covering your peony buds. 

My aunt next door gave me my first peony plant. I was so happy when the first buds showed up, but I was quickly dismayed when the buds were covered in ants. I dislike ants immensely. I tried every organic method to get rid of the ants because I was sure they would destroy my peony blooms. Turns out ants do not harm peony buds. Ants and peonies actually live in harmony. There is an old wives tale that ants are necessary for Peonies to bloom. While this tale is not technically true, many people swear that ants do help peonies bloom more consistently.


I would love to hear your stories of lessons learned the hard way. If you are willing to share you can send them to
wendy@alaskagardens.com.


Correction to May Issue: When I wrote the May article I mentioned using plastic sheeting for my new row covers. Upon the advice of a friend, Andy, I chose to use the breathable Remay cloth instead of plastic. Andy has used Remay cloth for years in his Anchorage garden with much success in reducing the bolting of his spinach and protection of other crops. The Remay cloth successfully protected lettuce and spinach I planted before our end of May snow storms and 20 degree temperatures. I also am using one solid sheet rather than two per bed. Some rain will get through the Remay cloth, but it will need to be removed for thorough watering periodically. The Remay cloth is light and easy to remove. I stapled the cloth on the windward side of the raised beds and secured the open sides with glacier rocks that grow in abundance from our valley soils.

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Alaska Gardening - Strawberries

Gardening

Author

Wendy Wesser

Writing, history, gardening, and traveling are a few of Wendy Wesser’s interests. She grew up in Alaska, living as far south as Metlakatla and as far north as Fairbanks. Her family’s history of six generations in Alaska reaches back to the Gold Rush years. She loves reading, hearing, and sharing Alaskan stories of newcomers and oldtimers alike—Last Frontier Magazine has provided her the opportunity to work in this very venue.Alternate bio for articles: Wendy currently resides in Wasilla, Alaska, but has also lived in Metlakatla, Ketchikan, Juneau, Anchorage, and Fairbanks. She enjoys sharing her life experiences of hiking, skiing, gardening, winter camping, etc…, as well as helping other Alaskans (old, new, current, or past) to share their own tales. Since she always says, “Yes!” to the next adventure, her backlog of stories is varied and almost endless. 


Last month I talked about how to create a hardy and productive Alaskan raspberry patch, but there are many other fruits and berries that are also great choices for your garden. My personal favorite is the strawberry. During my research for this article I’ve learned how little I actually know about growing strawberries in Alaska. I refuse to feel bad about my lack of knowledge though, because I do have a healthy 16 year old patch, even if I don’t know what kind strawberries they are. My research has inspired me to learn more about the history and future of growing strawberries in Alaska.

Strawberries in Alaska 

The wild and hybrid strawberries we grow in our Alaska gardens cannot be bought in grocery stores. Even if you were lucky enough to find ripe berries in a local farmers’ market, the sweet delicate flavor of a freshly picked strawberry would already be lost. The strawberry is a native plant here in Alaska and there are many places where you can find strawberries growing wild, like the town of Gustavus in southeast Alaska. When our family lived in Juneau we once spent a memorable weekend in the small community of Gustavus. The main purpose of our family trip was to take a Glacier Bay National Park day cruise, but we also spent a lot of time exploring Gustavus on our bikes. We were delighted to find fields of wild strawberries to enjoy while we took our breaks. Wild strawberries may be very small, but their unique and sweet taste makes up for their size. In northern Alaska, near Fairbanks, my aunt and uncle have found enough wild strawberries, in fields near their home, to make a batch of strawberry jam for the past two years. Here in southcentral Alaska I’m not aware of any large strawberry patches growing in the wild, but  you can easily and successfully grow them in your own yard.

Neighbors and friends are often willing to share strawberry starts from their gardens. Accept them ... even if they cannot tell you what type of strawberry they are. There are hardy strawberry plants that have been propagated in homestead farms and gardens throughout Alaska since the early 1900s. I have a couple types of strawberries in my yard that were given to me by my grandma and my great aunt years ago. No one in our extended family knows for sure what specific types they are, but they are at least forty years old and probably older. I have shared my strawberries with friends, family and neighbors and they report successful patches also.

When you buy strawberry plants from a commercial nursery you need to be careful to know what type you are buying. Several imported varieties are only good as annuals in Alaska. If you are fine with an annual strawberry some of these can do great in your gardens, pots or in hanging baskets. I would like to give you a list of varieties available, but I called several southcentral greenhouses and none offered the same varieties recommended by the cooperative extension service. Only two of the greenhouses I called were knowledgeable about strawberry varieties developed in Alaska. Ask your local nursery questions if you are looking for a perennial strawberry variety that will prove hardy and return every year. If you can’t find a local nursery selling a variety that will survive the winters in your area of Alaska, local garden club plant sales could be a good option. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Growing strawberries in Alaska has a rich history of experimentation.


Planting Strawberries

July is not too late to start your own perennial strawberry patch if you can find starts at a local greenhouse or from a friend or neighbor. Start your patch in a sunny south facing space if possible. My patch does well in partial shade, but I know I would have better results in a sunnier area of my yard. Give your new plants a fighting chance by starting them in a cultivated area as weed free as possible. When transplanting strawberry plants be sure to cover the roots and just the lower part of the crown when planting.  Water the transplants well with a water soluble fertilizer solution. Keep your new patch weeded. 

Strawberry Care

An established perennial strawberry patch is easy to care for. Most varieties generally need to be fertilized lightly with 8-32-16 in the spring. I weed my strawberry beds 2 or 3 times during the summer. I would have better production if I weeded and fertilized more often, but our strawberries are resilient enough to survive and continue to spread with minimal care. Strawberries do well with about 1 inch of water per week. In the late fall if your patch is exposed and snow has not fallen in time to do the job, protect your patch with straw. I will say I have never covered my patch with anything and it has done just fine. My patch is in a protected area that gets covered naturally in leaves however.

Consider strawberries for an edible ground cover. If I could talk my husband into it I would dig up most (if not all) of “his” lawn and a good portion of that space would be given over to strawberries. Their habit of spreading by runners allows strawberries to take over large spaces in no time. 

Rhubarb

Rhubarb, while technically a vegetable, is another staple in Alaska. It is easy to grow and is the first dessert “fruit” available to harvest in the spring. Rhubarb is good alone and mixes quite well with berries in cobblers, breads, muffins, crisps and pies. The rhubarb plant should be divided every four years so neighbors, family and friends are usually willing to share starts if they know someone wants them. I remember my mom was given a portion of a rhubarb root several years ago. She put the root portion in a bag in the refrigerator. Because her summer was quite busy, the rhubarb start stayed in the refrigerator for several weeks. When she re-opened the bag, expecting the rhubarb to be dead, she discovered it was alive and well. Into the ground it went where it survived the transplant and flourished. Red rhubarb stalks are generally preferable because they are not as tart as green stalk varieties. Both red and green stalks are good in all recipes calling for rhubarb, and rhubarb is excellent combined with strawberries.


If you want very large rhubarb plants feed and water them heavily and plant with southern exposure next to a deck or house. They will become huge and take over an area. I have my rhubarb on the north side of our home and they are smaller, but still tasty.

I recently learned that rhubarb leaves are not quite as poisonous as commonly believed. Rhubarb leaves are composed of about .5% oxalic acid. A 145 pound person would need to ingest 11 pounds of the rhubarb leaf to cause death. A few pounds would cause sickness. Knowing this I am not going to be too concerned if my dog or chickens decide to take a bite of a rhubarb leaf.

Lessons Learned the Hard Way

We all know that some of the best lessons are learned the hard way. For those of you who are new to gardening and would like to avoid those hard lessons, here are some I have learned over the years.

Lesson #1 - Do not plant Lily of the Valley under a crabapple tree.

The Lily of the Valley are blooming just about the time the crabapples are dropping their white petals. I love Lily of the Valley under trees, but under my crab apple tree was a poor choice.

Another lesson I learned concerning Lily of the Valley is they spread like crazy in the right conditions, which is actually what I wanted...I thought. I finally got my wish when I planted them next to my thriving asiatic lily bed. Now I have Lily of the Valley plants that are very happy and encroaching on my asiatic lilies. I was warned that Lily of the Valley can be invasive and I can tell you this is very true, so be careful where you choose to plant yours.

Lesson #2 - Rainy summers do not mean you don’t have to water your fuchsias. 

It rained pretty much every day our first summer we lived in Juneau. I bought my first beautiful fuchsia basket that summer and watched in dismay as it lost its fullness and stopped blooming. Fuchsias need a lot more than rain water and they appreciate a little fertilizer too.

Lesson #3 - It is okay to have ants covering your peony buds. 

My aunt next door gave me my first peony plant. I was so happy when the first buds showed up, but I was quickly dismayed when the buds were covered in ants. I dislike ants immensely. I tried every organic method to get rid of the ants because I was sure they would destroy my peony blooms. Turns out ants do not harm peony buds. Ants and peonies actually live in harmony. There is an old wives tale that ants are necessary for Peonies to bloom. While this tale is not technically true, many people swear that ants do help peonies bloom more consistently.


I would love to hear your stories of lessons learned the hard way. If you are willing to share you can send them to
wendy@alaskagardens.com.


Correction to May Issue: When I wrote the May article I mentioned using plastic sheeting for my new row covers. Upon the advice of a friend, Andy, I chose to use the breathable Remay cloth instead of plastic. Andy has used Remay cloth for years in his Anchorage garden with much success in reducing the bolting of his spinach and protection of other crops. The Remay cloth successfully protected lettuce and spinach I planted before our end of May snow storms and 20 degree temperatures. I also am using one solid sheet rather than two per bed. Some rain will get through the Remay cloth, but it will need to be removed for thorough watering periodically. The Remay cloth is light and easy to remove. I stapled the cloth on the windward side of the raised beds and secured the open sides with glacier rocks that grow in abundance from our valley soils.

No items found.

Author

Wendy Wesser

Author & Media

Wendy Wesser

Media Contributor

Cecil Sanders

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