By Jenny Neyman
In 30 years of gardening on the central Kenai Peninsula, Bobbie Jackson has cultivated a bounty of agricultural knowledge about what works and what doesn’t. She’s used that experience to grow Jackson’s Gardens into a several-acre spread with lush lawns, vibrant flower beds, greenhouses, vegetable plots, berry patches, freezers and a root cellar swollen with enough food to nourish her large, multigenerational family, and then some, throughout the year with homegrown vegetables, herbs, berries and even peaches, pears, grapes and kiwi fruit.
She’s happy to share her knowledge, but like an overripe tomato vine, the harvester needs to pick fast in order to not miss out on a juicy tidbit:
Yellow zucchini can be grown successfully on the peninsula if it’s started early in a greenhouse, but butternut squash isn’t worth the greenhouse space required to grow it.
Don’t believe plant salesmen or printed labels that say fruit trees only grow to 6 feet tall. Alaska’s endless summer light keeps them growing to 14 feet or taller, even if they’ve been pruned at the start of the season.
Most books are overcautious with blanching instructions. Peppers, onions and chives don’t need to be blanched before being frozen, but other veggies — including peas, no matter what else you might hear to the contrary — only need to be in hot water just until the pot comes to a boil again. Then drain, put in cold water, dry and freeze. But use an older, manual-defrost freezer, since an automatic defroster will suck moisture out of the food.
And so on. A tour around the gardens with the gray-haired, springy-stepped Jackson results in a bumper crop of tips, tricks, tried-and-true techniques and wisdom, presented in the grandmotherly, “You don’t have to listen, but you will if you know what’s good for you” vibe. The sheer volume of information was probably more than most listeners could soak up in one shot, plucked from Jackson’s vast mental stores of experience, which dwarfs in capacity even her five freezers, roomy root cellar and three, 8-foot walls of cookbooks.
But the overall point of the tour Saturday, and the potluck feast which followed, took root among the participants — that local food production needs to flourish.
“You can grow a garden, freeze it and be as healthy as if you bought everything at the store,” Jackson said. “To make young children think they have to buy expensive food that they can’t afford is wrong because it bankrupts them. We have to teach them how to help themselves.”
Jackson and husband, Harold, hosted Saturday’s Peak of the Season Festival at Jackson’s Gardens on Johns Road south of Soldotna, put on by the Kenai Resilience organization, which formed last year to encourage a more sustainable community. Participants were encouraged to bring a locally produced dish to share, recipes to swap and to tour the gardens, listen to live music and visit with others interested in local food production.
About 60 people attended the gathering, in overcast yet dry-for-the-most-part skies. The idea for the festival came from a potluck Kenai Resilience held last winter, with the idea being to demonstrate the sometimes surprising volume and variety that can be produced locally at the height of the growing season.
“The purpose was to celebrate local foods and encourage people to be aware of and eat local foods and grow local foods and appreciate what we’re able to grow,” said Heidi Chay, a Kenai Resilience organizer. “The reasons to promote your local food system are to strengthen your local economy, create jobs, you get healthier food and you benefit the environment by not transporting your food from the other end of the country or other continents. By focusing on local food, we imagine we can get a lot more of it produced.”
Food producers come at the activity for several reasons. For some, it’s a business venture, with a wide range of definitions of business success. Jackson, for instance, said she only sells the flowers she grows to get money to pay her grandkids to help around the gardens.
Others garden for heath reasons, to know and control how their food is produced.
“I’ve always been into the natural foods,” said Molly McNally, who practices homeopathy in Soldotna. “I grew up on a farm so, for me, this is first nature. Some people say second nature, but it’s just normal to me. I feel weird when I go to the grocery store and buy groceries.”
To many, cultivation and harvesting are relaxing, rewarding experiences in self-sufficiency.
“Someone made the comment that, ‘I don’t do it because I have to do it. I don’t do it out of fear. I do it out of the joy that we can do it.’ I think that’s part of it for me, too,” said Lee Coray-Ludden, who usually is a food producer, except her goats recently ate her garden so she stopped at Alaska Berries Farm on the way to the festival in order to bring something locally grown to the potluck, even if it wasn’t from her garden. “I believe in Alaska. I believe in the fact that we can take care of ourselves.”
Coray-Ludden is a member of Kenai Resilience and works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural
Resources Conservation Service in Kenai. She said she’s exasperated by the statistic that only 2 percent of the food Alaskans eat is produced in the state.
“We need to support our local producers and we need to eat locally. We can do it. We have tremendous potential to do it, but I don’t think we’re maximizing it as much as we could. A lot of people don’t realize how many producers there are. We don’t have to go to Safeway or Fred Meyer for all of our food. We do have other choices,” Coray-Ludden said.
For Jackson, gardening is a mixture of all of the above, plus a desire to be economically self-sufficient, both as a family and a community.
“How many of you think they’re going to ship food to Alaska if there’s a major terrorist attack, earthquake or war? Are they going to bother shipping food to 600,000 people in Alaska when there’s 30 million in New York City? You’re not going to get it, so you better take care of yourself,” Jackson said.
She produces and stores enough food each season to feed her family throughout the rest of the year without having to visit the grocery store. Some of it is economical shopping — buying bulk at frozen meat sales and stocking up and storing other foods when they’re on special. The rest is growing economically. For Jackson, fresh and healthy food isn’t enough. It has to be cost-efficient, as well.
“The whole idea is to save money. Anybody can have a greenhouse if they throw lots of money at it. People build a greenhouse and heat it and it’s $10 to heat a day to get a $1 tomato, so you need to learn how to do things cheaply,” she said.
It’s a practice she’s perfected over decades of trial and error, after experiencing the sometimes-harsh reality of the challenges inherent in gardening on the central peninsula.
“I was 27 with five babies and I needed some flowers to keep from going crazy. So we ate beans for a month to save money — my husband was a little tired of beans. I went and bought $100 worth of perennials, and everything died. I was so mad that I spent 30 years finding out what will live here,” she said.
The answer of what will grow here is sometimes surprising, especially when walking into the Jacksons’ fruit greenhouse, with peaches, plums, apricots, pears, nectarines, cherries, apples and even kiwis.
The greenhouse cost $20,000 in materials, with labor by Harold Jackson. That’s something you build “if you’re crazy, not to save money,” Jackson said, but it does actually pay off in the long run, depending on your overall lifestyle.
“A snowmachine is $10,000 or $15,000. Or a new car — we drive all junky cars. A trip can be $10,000. So it just depends on what you want to do with your money,” she said.
They started their gardening operation on a far less lavish scale, with one greenhouse attached to the back of the house. In spring when she’d start her plants, she’d set her alarm for about 3 a.m., get up and dry the family’s laundry, venting the hot air from the dryer into the greenhouse to keep the plants from freezing. She also uses low-cost heater coils, meant to unthaw frozen gutters, with layers of folded Visqueen on top to keep her plant starts requisitely toasty.
“For two weeks it’s heating that soil with the cost of a light bulb instead of $5, $10 a night with propane or whatever,” she said. “Start small with whatever you can afford.”
That’s the idea behind home gardening that Jackson and the Kenai Resilience group most wanted to take seed: If everybody does a little, we’ll all be a lot better off.
“In some cities in the United States, 80 percent of the people are on food stamps. That is unsustainable. We are bankrupting America,” Jackson said. “Each one of us has to take care of ourselves, take care of our children, take care of our extended family and then help those who cannot help themselves. But we shouldn’t help those who can help themselves. We need to train them and teach them to grow themselves.”