By Joseph Robertia
With the days getting longer and warmer, it’s nearly time for the trowels and tools to come out for gardening season, and green thumbs planning for another year’s bounty from the garden and beautiful bouquets in the flower beds met this past weekend to share their knowledge with each other and those interested in learning how to grow their own.
“Spring is always a time when people start getting incredibly anxious to get their hands in the dirt,” said Marion Nelson, president of the Central Peninsula Garden Club, which held a Get Ready for Spring event at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center on Saturday, which was attended by several hundred people over the course of the day.
Nelson said the garden group felt something formal was in order to share how-to knowledge with people who become interesting in home gardening each season.
“Each spring it increases by 200 percent,” she said. “So we decided to move to a larger venue where people could take in more information easier.”
On Saturday there were dozens of stations, covering an array of gardening topics —starting seeds, composting, building raised beds, growing potatoes and organic gardening, just to name a few — with professionals at each station to discuss information and answer questions. Many also brought with them physical setups to demonstrate the gardening principles they were discussing.
“People interested in plating this season need to get their seeds growing, so a lot of the focus was how to get started now,” Nelson said.
The boom in new gardeners each year is a trend garden clubs across Alaska and the Lower 48 have been seeing in recent years.
“People are becoming more interested in growing their own food for cost savings, health and self-sustainability, a little like with the victory gardens of long ago,” she said, the latter point referring to gardens planted in private residences and public parks during World War I and II to reduce pressure on the public food supply.
“People also don’t want pesticides and chemicals on their food, so we’re seeing a resurgence in organic gardening, and how to store the food grown in various ways, like root cellars,” Nelson said.
Judy Fischer, of Kasilof, led the organic gardening station, and while many people look to make changes to what they eat by boycotting Monsanto or not buying products with genetically modified organisms, like hybrid seeds, she said a great way to begin eating healthier is to start in your own backyard.
“New people with new beds want to start in the right path, and it’s important they know how to do that,” she said.
Fischer reviewed topics such as how to make compost, and use natural materials to fertilize plants as well as fight pests and weeds.
“Food grown this way has fewer pests, is healthier and tastes better — it just makes sense,” she said.
In addition to growing better, many people were interested in growing more crops and for longer durations, and one of the ways is with high tunnels, which are becoming more popular each year in Alaska due to cost-sharing programs to purchase them.
“This will be our third year with a high tunnel and they’re unbelievable,” said Bill Lynch, of North Kenai, who along with his wife, Liz, led the discussion on this subject.
“We used to be limited to the usual Alaskan crops: cabbage, carrots, broccoli, etc. But now I grow fruit, like melons and blackberries; and artichokes and tomatoes,” he said.
Having high tunnels increases what he grows, and it also increases how much and for how long.
“It used to be all the produce we grew would come ripe all at the same time, but now we can harvest fresh produce year-round. We got three full crops of carrots last year. We planted tomatoes by April 15th and by the first of May we were already harvesting. We ended up getting 400 pounds of tomatoes and 2,000 pounds of produce total last year from our unheated high tunnel. It would be 10 degrees outside, but inside the plants were fine,” he said.
Lynch said that the high tunnel was responsible for much of his success, but he also learned about using smaller low tunnels, within the larger one, to exponentially increase solar heat to plants. He said the concept is one that should be familiar to many Alaskans — dressing in layers to stay warm.
“Studies have shown the more layers, the more heat is retained,” he said. “Each tunnel over a plant is equivalent to moving one and a half zones warmer, or 500 miles south. This means a high tunnel will bring you to a growing season equal to northern Kansas, and adding a low tunnel in the high tunnel will move you to a growing season similar to Oklahoma.”
Drew and Alison Kramer, of Kenai, recently moved to the area from Anchorage. With a fair amount of property and a greenhouse, they wanted to attend Saturday’s meeting to get growing ideas for the coming year.
“We learned a lot,” Alison said. “We want to sustain our family — two kids and one on the way — on what we can grow ourselves. We have chickens already and saw it can be done with them, so it was great to get ideas on using their poo for compost. I’m looking forward to gardening. It will be good for my kids to see and learn and it will be nice for us to know exactly what’s going into what we grow and into them when they eat it.”
For those who missed the weekend event, the Central Peninsula Garden Club meets regularly to discuss these and other topics. They can be reached at http://www.cenpengardenclub.org, or contact Marion Nelson at 283-4632 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
“We’re knowledgeable at solving a lot of the old problems and we keep up with new and developing gardening technologies,” Nelson said. “There’s always something new to learn.”