Category Archives: gardening

Record fruits of their labor — Soldotna family sets new state tomato title

Photo courtesy of Patrick White. Patrick White, of Soldotna, and his grandkids, from left, Mackenzie, Ethan and Caleb, show off the biggest of the giant tomatoes they grew this summer. They set a new state record of 4.5 pounds with a tomato picked in early September for the Alaska State Fair, and entered these four in the world tomato competition.

Photo courtesy of Patrick White. Patrick White, of Soldotna, and his grandkids, from left, Mackenzie, Ethan and Caleb, show off the biggest of the giant tomatoes they grew this summer. They set a new state record of 4.5 pounds with a tomato picked in early September for the Alaska State Fair, and entered these four in the world tomato competition.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

It’s hard to say what’s most impressive about Patrick White’s record-setting giant tomato at the Alaska State Fair this year — that it crushed (diced, stewed, pulverized) the previous record, that this was his first year growing giant tomatoes, that this was his first year growing anything in Alaska, or that the biggest specimens of his crop this year went on to far outweigh his own new state record.

Look out, world, here comes Soldotna.

“A lot of people have this for a hobby. They just grow giant vegetables, whether that’s parsnips or whatever. And, of course, Alaska’s always been famous,” White said.

To understand how any of this is possible, one first needs to understand a few things about White. He’s an engineer, he’s an inexhaustible researcher, boredom will absolutely ruin his day, he doesn’t do anything in half measures and when it comes to his tomatoes, he’s got a particularly potent source of motivation — grandkids who think the project is incredibly cool.

“They’re over every night looking at the tomatoes, looking at the chickens and it’s just good for the kids, so that’s the reason we did it,” White said, scrolling through pictures of Ethan, Mackenzie and Caleb White, ages 10, 8 and 6, grinning while two-hand hefting bulbous green tomatoes that are bigger than their heads. “As you can see, they kind of really enjoyed the whole thing.”

White is from Idaho. By trade he’s a civil engineer, having worked on designing drinking water plants at Eklutna, Juneau, Fairbanks and across the country. He’s now mostly retired, though he still takes jobs occasionally when he runs out of other things to keep himself occupied. By lifestyle they were farmers, raising two sons along with a big garden, hay, cattle and hogs, and being active in the state fair. When he and his wife, Cindy, moved to Soldotna in 2012, following their son, Stephen, who bought the Soldotna Gentle Dental practice, White at first thought he’d be leaving agriculture behind.

But it didn’t take long to realize what was possible with the combination of Alaska’s long summer days, a little ingenuity and the amplification of high tunnels.

He bought his first as a kit out of Missouri, a 30-by-96-foot, 14-foot tall, 3,000-square-foot affair with a heater as well as fans and thermostatically controlled vents for air circulation.

Then he decided he could do just as well himself and for a fraction of the cost. He ought a couple of fixed-radius tube benders from outfit in Texas, a bunch of pipe from Home Depot and some 6-mil plastic sheeting and put up two, 20-by-88-foot, 11-foot tall, 2,000-square-foot high tunnels, copying the design elements he liked from the kit model and rectifying those he didn’t. The curved roof ribs on the smaller high tunnels have diagonal support struts, like their big brother, to brace against winter snow load, but instead of a helical anchoring system, White went with duck-bill anchors jackhammered down three 3 feet past the clay layer providing 3,000 psi of pullout strength to keep them secure in high wind events.

Photos by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Patrick White planted over 150 tomato plants in 14 varieties in his high tunnel this year. In his first attempt at growing giant tomatoes, he broke the state record and finished high in the world standings.

Photo by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Patrick White planted over 150 tomato plants in 14 varieties in his high tunnel this year. In his first attempt at growing giant tomatoes, he broke the state record and finished high in the world standings.

“No, they’re not coming out,” he said. “The parts and pieces on this is about $2,500, as opposed to that at $20,000. This is a very doable thing because you can make it at any length you want,” he said.

He plans to add a roll-up system to the sides next year to help with temperature control. One thing he didn’t expect growing in Alaska was it could get too hot.

“The problem is it can be 45 degrees out here and once that sun comes out in Alaska, it’s 80 degrees in there. Once it gets to be 50 degrees, it’s 100 degrees in there, and without the roll-up sides you kill everything,” he said.

Moisture management also is key.

“Every day I get up and come out here in the growing season and I roll up those side walls and turn on those fans for about two hours,” he said. “And the reason is that all that moisture accumulates in here and it’s very humid, and if you don’t vent your high tunnels every day and get that humidity out you’re going to have mold and mildew problems. You just have to do it.”

In the smaller high tunnels he grew berries, raised chickens and attempted a giant pumpkin, but went a little overboard in helping Mother Nature along. He installed fluorescent lights and a hot water system with a PEX loop to keep it warm.

“But I think I actually caused verticillium wilt to start because they do need a dark cycle,” he said. ‘It was like, ‘Oh my goodness, 250 pounds, that’s horrible.’ I didn’t even take it to the fair.”

It’s hard to imagine a linebacker-sized gourd being a failure, but when the state record is over 1,200 pounds, a mere 250 is a lightweight.

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Fall’s the time to cultivate love of garlic

Photo courtesy of USDA. Garlic is more diverse than just the kind available at most grocery stores in Alaska. Hardneck garlic is actually better suited to growing in cold climates.

Photo courtesy of USDA. Garlic is more diverse than just the kind available at most grocery stores in Alaska. Hardneck garlic is actually better suited to growing in cold climates.

By Joseph Robertia

Redoubt Reporter

With the exception of those planting bulbs of tulips, daffodils or other perennials, fall is a time when many gardeners are putting their planting beds to bed for the season. But on Saturday, green thumbs learned about one more option to nestle in the soil before winter snow arrives.

“Garlic takes time, so you plant in fall to get 6 inches of root growth before the ground freezes,” said Lori Jenkins, of Homer, who taught a garlic-planting workshop hosted by the Central Peninsula Garden Club.

Marion Nelson, club president, said that the workshop was organized in response to requests from the community.

“Garlic has always been a topic of interest. Years ago we had one in January, when it was 20 below, and the room was jam-packed, so there is definitely interest,” she said.

Fall is when garlic growers need to sow their crops, so this time of year is fitting to educate anyone who might never have tried to grow garlic— or tried and failed, as many of the two dozen or so participants admitted to having happen.

Hearing horror stories about garlic is nothing new for Jenkins. She has been a 30-year grower of garlic, considered a vegetable by some, herb by others and even medicine by a few. She and her husband, Wayne, and son Obadiah, founded the Alaska Garlic Project, the goal of which is to raise gourmet varieties of seed garlic to provide locally grown garlic starts to others around the state.

Jenkins has 12 varieties of garlic growing and attempts to cultivate them in various conditions, including indoors in a 72-foot high tunnel, as well as outdoors in raised beds.

“It’s really not difficult to grow, but it does take attention,” she said.

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Harvesting knowledge — Schools cultivate learning opportunities with gardening projects

Photos by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. Kindergartener Jaxson Bush is assisted by sixth-grader Emilie Hinz while digging up potatoes from a garden at Tustumena Elementary School on Friday. The garden was planted to give kids hands-on learning experiences with science and math, as well as teaching them about the origins of the food they eat.

Photos by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. Kindergartener Jaxson Bush is assisted by sixth-grader Emilie Hinz while digging up potatoes from a garden at Tustumena Elementary School on Friday. The garden was planted to give kids hands-on learning experiences with science and math, as well as teaching them about the origins of the food they eat.

By Joseph Robertia

Redoubt Reporter

Outside his classroom at Tustumena Elementary, sixth-grader Sam Booker dropped to his knees and began to claw at the soft, rich earth. His glasses slid to the end of his nose and dirt got under his nails, caked to his hands and stained the sleeves of his fleece jacket.

He was digging with the zeal of someone doing a task they want to do, rather than are told to do, but this was no recess game. It was part of a science lesson, learning in the most hands-on way possible. As the blond-haired boy plucked a small, round, red spud from the ground, a smile grew across his freckled face.

“I got one,” he shouted. Almost simultaneously, kids around him echoed similar sentiments as they, too, pulled up potatoes — reds, purples and Yukon golds in various lumpy shapes and sizes.

“It’s hard to imagine that, three years ago, there was no fence, no garden, nothing,” said sixth-grade teacher Shonia Werner.

The potato patch is in a 60-by-40-foot area adjacent to the school.

The kids planted it at the end of last school year, as part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Schoolyard Habitat program. The aim was to make school grounds more hospitable to wildlife while simultaneously providing a place for children to learn about and connect with nature.

Now in its second full year, the program is operating at Kaleidoscope School of Art and Sciences in Kenai, Sterling Elementary and Tustumena Elementary.

Part of the Tustumena habitat plot was planted with 200 felt-leaf willows, a hearty variety that’s often used for stream-bank restoration projects. Dan Funk, Schoolyard Habitat coordinator with the Kenai Soil and Water Conservation District, did the bulk of the willow planting, hoping the school could eventually sell clippings as a fundraiser, while the kids could learn about science, nature and ecology in the interim.

Wanting to ripen the area for learning opportunities while the willows matured, instructors at the school also decided to plant a small garden, primarily made up of potato varieties due to their ability to thrive with minimal care during the summer break. It was clear from questions asked by this batch of sixth-graders this fall that they were in need of some food-chain knowledge.

“Are those the potatoes?” said one boy, pointing to the willow trees when the class first got outside. But by the end of the day, every student, from the sixth-graders down to the kindergarteners, knew what a potato plant looked like, that potatoes grew underground rather than on a bush like fruit, and a little about the annual cycle of planting, growing and harvesting.

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Cultivating learning experience — Kasilof students digging the opportunity to grow

Photos by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. Students at Tustumena Elementary School spread soil, dig holes and plant willows and garden crops last week as part of Schoolyard Habitat project.

Photos by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. Students at Tustumena Elementary School spread soil, dig holes and plant willows and garden crops last week as part of Schoolyard Habitat project.

By Joseph Robertia

Redoubt Reporter

For some students, particularly those living in metropolitan or urban areas, learning about wildlife and wilderness habitats is an abstract concept learned from books or seen only by taking field trips. Not so for Alaska kids. They need only look out the window to see the woods and quite possibly a moose or some other wild animal.

Wanting to capitalize on the unique opportunities afforded students in this area, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service developed the Schoolyard Habitat program, which aims to make school grounds more hospitable to wildlife, while simultaneously providing a place for children to learn about and connect with nature.

Now in its second full year, the program has expanded to three peninsula schools — Kaleidoscope School of Art and Sciences in Kenai, Sterling Elementary and Tustumena Elementary in Kasiof, which took on an ambitious end-of-the-year project.

“It doesn’t look like much now, but come back in five years,” said Dan Funk, district Schoolyard Habitat coordinator, about the fenced-in, 60-by-40-foot area adjacent to Tustumena Elementary. Fifth- and sixth-grade students spread topsoil, dug holes and planted 200 willow saplings, as well as some garden foods, last week.

The bulk of the funding for the project came from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, augmented by in-kind contributions of materials and labor from the community, and a grant from the Scott Paper Company via the Department of Natural Resources.

“We ordered felt-leaf willow, which is a hearty variety and one often used for stream bank restoration projects,” Funk said, adding that currently, the demand for these willows exceeds the supply.

“The intent is, in a few years, these willows could be cut to be sold for those purposes, and in the meantime, the schools can pack in as much education around them as possible,” he said.

Marina Bosick, a teacher at Tustumena and one of the people who championed getting the program at the school, said the willow planting and eventual harvest would be in line with several objectives already taught.

“It’s our hope to be able to use cuttings from our willows to help with projects on Crooked Creek, where the sixth grade is already a part of the Adopt-A-Stream Program. There may also be other projects on the Kasilof we could help with in the future, as well. Hopefully, these activities will translate into good environmental stewardship,” she said.

The willow is only one part of the project. Some of the designated area will be used for a small garden.

“We didn’t want to do just willow. We wanted to do something annually, and a little more exciting for kids,” said instructor Shonia Werner, another key person in bringing the program to Tustumena.

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Harvesting growing demand — Growers find favorable conditions to scale up commercial agriculture

Photos by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. High tunnels extend the growing season, retain heat and help mitigate against the challenges of Alaska’s climate, meaning things like sunflowers can be grown successfully. And “easier” plants to grow, like cucumbers, can be done in greater volume.

Photos by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. High tunnels extend the growing season, retain heat and help mitigate against the challenges of Alaska’s climate, meaning things like sunflowers can be grown successfully. And “easier” plants to grow, like cucumbers, can be done in greater volume.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

Alaskans: If you like organic, locally grown, so-fresh-there’s-still-dirt-on-it produce, then put your money where you’d like your mouth to be — taking a bite of flavorful broccoli, stuffed with a mouthful of peppery salad greens, crunching on a crispy carrot or dribbling from a juicy tomato.

That’s the message local growers and agricultural supporters hope consumers are getting from events like the second annual Harvest Moon Local Foods Week, continuing through Saturday on the central Kenai Peninsula, and the summerlong farmers markets that are now winding down as growing season is coming to a close and the increasingly productive local garden beds are being tucked in for winter.

“If we’re serious about having a vibrant agricultural sector of our local economy, we have to be serious as consumers about putting our dollars in local agriculture high tunnel cucumbers copy 2products and local food. That’s what allows our local farmers to scale up,” said Heidi Chay, district manager for the Kenai Soil and Water Conservation District.

So far, so good on that front, as there’s been growth in consumers looking for locally produced agriculture — with more customers visiting farmers markets, buying directly from neighborhood farms or shopping the Alaska Grown sections of supermarkets, said Danny Consenstein, executive director for the Alaska Farm Service Agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“The number of farms in Alaska has grown. The numbers of farmers markets — we’ve got more than we’ve ever had. There’s more sales. Alaska is growing, it’s one of (the fastest-growing agricultural sectors) in the nation. And maybe we had further to go, but we’ve moved up,” he said.

But there’s also growth in types of consumers. There’s increasing value-added products being made using Alaska-grown ingredients, governmental agencies are procuring more from instate sources — such as school districts for lunch programs and the Department of Corrections for feeding inmates — and restaurants are sourcing directly from local producers, as well.

On the central peninsula, restaurant participation has been one of the areas of growth in the local foods week program from the first event last year to this year, the trend that Chay said makes her the most excited. Three restaurants participated in 2013, offering specials highlighting local foods. This year there were nine. Local restaurants in general are working more with local growers. Those relationships are crucial to local growers being able to scale up from gardening just for family and friends to having sustainable commercial operations.

“In talking to last year’s participants I’m discovering that relationships are growing between local farmers and restaurants that participated last year, so that’s really cool. Restaurants and farmers both are learning about each other and working together more, so that’s exciting,” Chay said. “If you can figure it out for one week then maybe next year you can plan in advance and actually talk with a farmer over the winter and actually plant what it is you’d like to be purchasing throughout the season next year.”

In Alaska, farming is small scale. It’s individual. It’s a couple with a couple of high tunnels, and couple-acre plots worked by the owners and maybe an employee or two brought on around harvest time. But there’s more and more of those setups every year, with production also increasing as new growers navigate the learning curves of agriculture in Alaska.

Happily for these small-scale producers, demand for locally grown products also has proven strong and still growing.

“I think the consumer side is actually what’s driving this. I’m not worried about the demand side drying up,” Consenstein said. “I think people are starting to choose local and I think that trend is going to keep growing. Particularly in Alaska, I think people understand the benefits of buying local, they understand the taste and health benefits of buying something that’s fresh. I think they understand the economic tradeoff of keeping dollars in your community.”

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Digging in to the growing food trend — Small agriculture continues to flourish on central peninsula

Photos by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Velma Bittick trims leeks at her farm plot on Echo Lake Road to take to the Farmers Fresh Market at the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank on Tuesday. It’s harvest time for gardeners, like Bittick and her husband, Tom Gotcher, and those selling their crops are finding an ever-growing demand for their fresh, locally grown produce.

Photos by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Velma Bittick trims leeks at her farm plot on Echo Lake Road to take to the Farmers Fresh Market at the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank on Tuesday. It’s harvest time for gardeners, like Bittick and her husband, Tom Gotcher, and those selling their crops are finding an ever-growing demand for their fresh, locally grown produce.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

Pilot bread is a point of pride in the heritage of Alaska food culture, but it no longer has to be a pantry provision. Powdered eggs, canned vegetables, dried fruit, wilted iceberg lettuce and other easily transportable, engineered-to-last food options are increasingly just staples of memory for Alaskans, rather than ingredients for today’s dinner.

In their place are locally grown, organic vegetables, varieties of produce that weren’t seen on the shelves of even the fanciest city stores a decade ago, and eggs so fresh the chicken hasn’t even missed them yet.

The trend toward agriculture continues to flourish in the state, expanding capacity to meet the growing demand of consumers for food that is fresh, organic and local. But that doesn’t mean more large-scale, 100-acre commercial operations. Rather, as with most things Alaskan, it’s individualized and localized, cultivated with equal parts ingenuity and I’ve-got-the-will-so-get-out-of-my-way determination.

“The growth in agriculture in Alaska is small farmers, that’s where it’s all happening,” said Danny Consenstein, executive director of USDA’s Farm Service Agency in Alaska.

Velma Bittick and Tom Gotcher transfer tomatoes to be taken to market Tuesday. They grow 31 varieties of tomatoes.

Velma Bittick and Tom Gotcher transfer tomatoes to be taken to market Tuesday. They grow 31 varieties of tomatoes.

It’s in backyards turned into raised beds. It’s in farmer’s markets. It’s in CSA — community supported agriculture — subscriptions for boxes of seasonal produce. It’s in farmers marketing directly to restaurants and other consumers. It’s in recreational gardeners scaling up from personal consumption to commercializing their harvest, and in more people giving growing a try.

“Maybe if this was Iowa it would be different, but that’s all we are is new farmers. We don’t have a long agricultural history and much of that generations of family culture of farming. And I think it fits us because Alaskans are, I think, kind of natural entrepreneurs, natural pioneers. We’re gonna do it, we’ll figure it out, we’ll clear that land and grow some potatoes,” Consenstein said.

It’s in people like Velma Bittick, of south Soldotna, who is working on scaling up to 2 acres in production at her place on Echo Lake Road.

“The last three to four years I told my husband I wanted to get back into my true love. I call gardening my drug of choice,” she said.

Fresh-picked bins of carrots, potatoes and green onions await transport to the market.

Fresh-picked bins of carrots, potatoes and green onions await transport to the market.

Bittick comes from generations of farmers, raised on a farm in Idaho. She and her first husband, deceased, worked in agriculture themselves until his respiratory condition required them to liquidate their farming operation in the Boise Valley and move to a colder climate. He’d worked on the oil pipeline, so they chose Alaska. They moved up in 1982.

Now 67, Bittick retired from catering work and jobs in retail management about 10 years ago. She and her husband, Tom Gotcher, traveled, fished and otherwise enjoyed retirement, and about four years ago Bittick got the itch to expand her home garden — berries, perennials and some vegetables — into something more substantial.

Thanks to the USDA National Resource Conservation Service’s grant program to help Alaska growers install high tunnels, which greatly lengthen the growing season and increase production, Bittick’s operation is flourishing. She put in a 64-by-30-foot high tunnel in 2012 and a 20-by-30-foot high tunnel this year and has used a 10-by-20-foot high tunnel for home production. About an acre of their 6-acre property on Echo Lake is currently in production, with another cleared and ready for production next year.

“When I first started gardening I gave a lot away — kept my family in vegetables and stuff,” she said. “My husband and I strive for 85 percent of our own food production — with hunting, fishing and growing. I haven’t figured out how to grow elbow macaroni yet. But we pretty much eat what we grow and try to market the rest of it.”

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Petal power — Kenai wildflower field in full bloom

Photos by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. The Buchholz-James family poses for family pictures in a field of wildflowers along the Kenai Spur Highway on Monday. Above, Carole Buccholz, of Soldotna, hoists granddaughter Olivia while photographer Shawna Shields of Narrow Road Productions captures the shot. Below, Kristina James coaxes her daughter to smile for the camera.

Photos by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. The Buchholz-James family poses for family pictures in a field of wildflowers along the Kenai Spur Highway on Monday. Above, Carole Buccholz, of Soldotna, hoists granddaughter Olivia while photographer Shawna Shields of Narrow Road Productions captures the shot. Below, Kristina James coaxes her daughter to smile for the camera.

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

To say there’s been an explosion in Kenai is, yes, a gratuitous use of verbiage to describe a field of wildflowers, but such is the force with which it has bloomed that the gentle terms usually associated with landscaping simply don’t apply.
The previously drab dirt pile along the Kenai Spur Highway across from the Welcome to Kenai sign has blasted forth recently with such a ruckus of color that it’s a veritable assault on the eyeballs.
But in the nicest way possible.
“It’s beautiful up here!” said Carole Buchholz, of Soldotna, who was wandering amid the riot of yellows, oranges, pinks, purples, reds and blues Monday with her family — husband, Curt, daughter and son-in-law, Kristina and Clint James, and granddaughter, Olivia James.
The Buchholz-James family was one of several groups posing among the poppies for a Kenai wildflowers baby photog momfamily portrait, with photographer Shawna Shields of Narrow Road Productions in tow.
With the landscape aflame in color it was impossible not to get striking shots, even if 2-year-old Olivia’s patience was quickly flaming out.
They tried bubbles. They tried tossing her in the air. They tried hiding keys and other personal effects for Olivia to find among the flowers — “OK, but I do need my credit card back,” Curt Buchholz said — hoping each tactic would elicit a smile to match the rapturous scene through which they were wading.
“I’d love to know how many seeds they used,” Carole Buchholz remarked, a little dreamily.
“I’d like to see the bees that come up here,” said Clint James, a little more pragmatically, as the toddler squirmed away from mom and made a beeline toward grandpa.
“No, she’s good,” Shields reassured the family. “I’m getting some good ones. This is such a great spot. It’s so neat they did this.”
“It seems like it’s very successful. People seem to really love it,” said Kenai Mayor Pat Porter.
The field was — pardon the 1989 Kevin Costner movie reference — one of dreams.
“It’s a project I’ve been working on for several years and it finally come to fruition. It’s always been a dream of mine to plant wildflowers on that hillside,” Porter said.

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