Raspberries and strawberries are ubiquitous in Alaska gardens and I, for one, never tire of eating them.
But there are other lesser known types of berries that also thrive in Interior Alaska that are worth trying. You might even find a new favorite.
Berries in general are high in antioxidants and fiber.
Saskatoons (or serviceberries), haskaps (or honeyberries), currants and gooseberries are well adapted to Interior Alaska growing conditions. Saskatoons and haskaps are incredibly prolific and productive. They can be eaten fresh or in baked goods or preserves.
Haskaps have the added benefit that they mature earlier than other berries, which extends the time you can be eating fresh berries. I love the tart flavor of currants, which is excellent when made into syrup or jam.
Growing berries is not as straightforward as growing lettuce or carrots. But at least you don’t have to plant them every year since they are generally perennial. Most berries benefit from full sun, mulching, compost, weed control, disease prevention measures, plentiful pollinators, good drainage and consistent watering. But berries vary substantially in their day/night length requirements, fertility needs, ideal pH, cold tolerance, required pruning regime and pollination strategies.
For example, haskaps are self-incompatible, meaning you must plant two different cultivars for cross-pollination to occur and those cultivars also need to bloom about the same time. Alaska Berries Farm (www.alaskaberries.com) is a good source for haskap plants, and they’ve even bred some of their own varieties.
Cultivation requirements don’t just vary between, say, strawberries or currants, there are even different requirements for different types of currants or strawberries. For example, black currants and red currants require different pruning regimes, while how you grow wild, everbearers, June-bearers or day-neutral strawberries varies substantially.
Summer bearer, floricane fruiting, primocane fruiting, everbearing, June-bearing and day-neutral are all terms that either describe when a cultivar fruits, which is usually linked to its response (or lack thereof) to day length. These terms can be confusing because they’re not consistently used among nursery owners and cultivars likely will perform differently in the land of the Midnight Sun than their name might indicate. It’s important to understand which of these types will grow in Interior Alaska. I explored this topic with strawberries previously here, bit.ly/2OJKa9X. All that to say, growing berries is not as simple and straightforward as growing vegetables.
You might even want to consider cultivating native berries. Even though they grow wild throughout Alaska, sometimes getting to the nearest berry patch might require more time and energy than we have. Consider how convenient it might be to “manage” a wild stand on your land or cultivate berries in your gardener or yard.
If you’re lucky, maybe you happen to have native berries like high bush cranberries, low bush blueberries or lingonberries (low bush cranberries) already growing on your property. If not, you can always plant them and cultivate them like you would non-native berries. Unfortunately, cloudberries do not thrive in cultivation.
The accompanying table gives you an overview of growing characteristics for various berries in the Interior. The table was compiled from the comprehensive chapter on the topic in “Alaska’s Sustainable Gardening Handbook,” bit.ly/2zSTZ06, Pat Holloway’s excellent class on berries and other University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension resources on berries. You can find many of these berries at the Georgeson Botanical Garden. You can even purchase berry plants at the garden. Berry plants can be purchased locally, but to find a specific variety, sometimes you need to search online. Unfortunately, many nurseries do not ship to Alaska. UAF Extension’s “Using Alaska’s Wild Berries and Other Wild Edibles” is an excellent resource for recipes for both native and cultivated berries in Alaska.
Heidi Rader is the tribes Extension educator for the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service and the Tanana Chiefs Conference. She can be reached at 452-8251, ext. 3477 or firstname.lastname@example.org.