Garden Notes From a Neighbor…


With fewer than  723,000 people spread over its roughly 586,000 square miles,  Alaska is the least densely populated state in the United States. However,  almost 388,000 folks live  in the Anchorage/MatSu region   , so most of the state has considerably fewer than the 1.2-1.3 persons/square mile so often quoted. 

We  think of ourselves as neighbors,  however far flung we are, and the internet has made visiting with  each other regularly a delightful reality not possible  before the advent of the “tubes” due to distance and dollars. When  weather and electricity cooperate, email allows for daily visits . Blogs by Alaskan neighbors expand the visiting  further and have become a wonderful way to peek in on projects , join conversations, and keep up with each other.

One of our favorite Alaskan blogs is Nasugraq Rainey Hopson’s Stop and Smell the Lichen .  Rainey lives in Anaktuvuk Pass , a village in the North Slope Borough, north of the Arctic Circle.

 Rainey’s art and blog reflect her love of her home and community. These works of her hands and mind are as meaningful as her home place is beautiful. It is always a pleasure to find a new post on her site , whatever the subject is!

Rainey plans  to learn  how to grow vegetables in her far north home . She has agreed to share her 1st year gardening adventure here with us at Anonymous Bloggers.

I asked her if she had “before” pictures of the to-be garden space  we could share here but, as it is apparently still buried in snow  , we’ll have to wait for “before” until “after”… :-)

Thank you for sharing, Rainey!

An Arctic vegetable garden….the details of stage one.

by Nasugraq Rainey Hopson

A while back I had a reader ask me if I was really going to be able to plant a garden here.  The answer is yes!Of course living where I am living poses some pretty big obstacles,  which meant that I did a lot of research and planning and general milling about in anxiety.  I thought I would share the beginning of this journey! 

Location.  The garden will be located behind our house.  I did find out that there was an elder that grew a  small vegetable garden here but she did it far out of town, to avoid the dust and exhaust.  We decided to use our back yard, which is protected by several buildings, some dense tall willows, and the luck of being shielded from the road by some neat tricks of the wind.  Since we have dried meat there we know that it gets good air circulation, sunlight galore, with very little contamination, which is a must.  Plus it will be closer to monitor and work on!

Cold.  The cold is probably the biggest barrier.  The permafrost layer is not far beneath our feet, and this chills the earth so much that it will prevent or hamper most vegetable plants from growing.  So I will be using above ground warming techniques.  My husband is building several raised beds from wood, in which I will fill with soil from a fertile spot away from town that I know has escaped being contaminated by human beings.  The beds will be taller than what you usually see in most areas, at least a foot high, and long and slim rather than more of a squarish bed.  Having the earth exposed to the warmer air temperatures will keep them warmer.  I also plan to use an army of plastic buckets and bins for the plants that can tolerate being in a container, this will give me the option of moving them inside to a more protected area (in the arctic we call this part of our homes the ‘kunnichuck’ or ‘vestibule’ in English.)  Since I plan to have a few water loving plants I am going to try and build a few self watering buckets.  I will also be using some plastic covers to warm the beds before planting and while the seedling are germinating, once they sprout then I will remove the covers.  The cold at the beginning and end of the season will be the problem, but in the summer the temperatures usually get to 80-90 degrees.  The date for the last frost here is June 1st, which gives you an idea of how cold it gets and how short the season is! 

Sun.  Believe it or not the 24 hours a day sunlight will be a problem.  Here the growing season is a very SHORT. And most of that season will include the sun never setting.  This limits the types of plants that I can grow, though I plan to experiment with one: soybean. Soybeans require nighttime, and I have researched several techniques that I am going to try and trick them into thinking it’s night time.  Hopefully if it works I can get a good harvest and start creating a plant that will do well here, I am starting with two types of soybean, one of which is a short season plant.  My husband, like so many Natives, is lactose intolerant so a ‘milk’ source for him would save us a ton of money.  The never setting sun will also make it so that we are watering more than usual. 

Plants.  This was probably the area I spent the most time.  Some of the plants I have chosen are known to do well here.  Some are just experiments. But I seriously think that people should warn you of the incredible urge to BUY.  I seriously think I over bought seed …but it was FUN.  Such an addicting FUN.  I did set myself a basic rule though: buy only heirloom seed, and buy a couple of really good seed saving guide books…so hopefully next year the seed buying spree will not be as …big.  I bought seed from several areas: Denali seed company (specializes in Alaska friendly plants), Etsy (some amazing varieties in there!), and a few here and there from more well know large online companies (if I couldn’t find the variety I was looking for at the first two places).  I  also bought a soil tester kit, a couple of good fertilizers, some seed starting kits and soil, silica gel packets, and some very cheap growing light bulbs (cause I found I can’t afford actual grow lights!).  So what seed did I get?  The list is embarrassingly huge, so I’ll try and be brief. 

Hulless Oats – I love oats and will be buying a ‘roller’ later in the season to make rolled oats to use for food and for my products I sell.  This plant will act as a barrier between plants that might try and cross pollinate.  It will also work to condition the soil, as I will be rotating this crop every year. 

Peas – I have two types: Green arrow and dwarf grey sugar. 

Cabbage – every Alaskan veggie garden has cabbage!  They love sunlight.  I also love kimchi and cabbage soup.

Calendula – works to help keep your garden pest free and I will use the petals in my products.

Onion and chives – evergreen bunching and Alaska loving chives.  Pretty much use onion in every meal. 

Sunflowers – cause OMG you can grow these here!

Spinach – Bloomsdale long standing – got these as a free packet so I will give then a try even though they bolt early in the Alaska sun. Hoping I can get a couple of quiches at least!

Leaf lettuce – grand rapids variety – Probably the plant I will love the most, getting a good salad here is a rare treat and much loved!

Winter squash – gold nugget – I am a bit afraid of squash in general but I thought I would give it a try.  I know I like eating them. 

Radish – oddly enough we love this in some seal oil. 

Herbs – i love cooking.  Love it.  I will be growing Cilantro, Sage, Basil, and Rosemary.  I will have to figure out how much I will actually use in the year and what space they will take to get a feel for this area.

Round carrots – a short cute carrot that I know will go well in seal oil and also the nephews will LOVE.

Peppers – hungarian sweet wax- seems to me that this plant will need to be babied but I want to see how well it will do!

Soybean – Butterbean and edible early hakucho – or experiment one and experiment two as I like to call them

Tomatoes – i fell in love with the idea of tomatoes.  Which is probably why I ended up with so many.  I bought ‘spoon’ tomatoes, which have a shortish season.  One called ‘early wonder’ which is also short season, and I received a free packet of a random variety which the seller told me contains several Russian and Siberian varieties. Who can say no to tomatoes?

Sweet corn – well I said to only buy heirloom but when I ran into this variety my curiosity wrestled me to the ground and put me in a headlock.  This variety is called ‘Trinity hybrid’ (sounds scary I know) and is a short season and short stature corn (it will grow only about 4-5 feet tall).  I am only going to try and plants one small bed with it to see how it does. 

Echinacea – Pretty, and extremely useful. 

Potatoes – cause it’s Alaska.  My husband is going to design a series of boxes that I can stack on top of each other to make a ‘potato’ box, to get the most yield out of them.  

So that’s the list!  I seriously think they should have a Seed Buyers Anonymous, because it took me a while to shake that seed buying fever.  I have every inch of my backyard planned out, and I plan to use some vertical space for my herbs.  So far I have mapped out my lay out, and started the tomato, peppers, and Echinacea.  They are pretty little plants sitting next to me here in my lab/office, under the cool light of a full spectrum light bulb.  The stevia did not germinate and I’m thinking it is because I could not get the soil warm enough.  Next year I will give it another try.  Next week I will be transplanting the seedlings to a larger peat pot as they have almost completely taken over the little peat pellet thingies.  At the end of this month I will be starting the Squash.  I have started keeping a journal for my garden and have kept good notes on what I am doing, because I plan to do this every year and I know it will pretty much be a ‘learning’ year for me.  I told my husband that I expected at least half of our plants to not do very well, he frowned a bit and told me that he will be helping too, which pretty much upped the percentage to at least 80%.  Out of the two of us he has the greenest finger whereas I rely on luck!

Hope this finds all of you warming up in the spring weather! 


12 Responses to “Garden Notes From a Neighbor…”

  1. fromthediagonal Says:

    You are an ambitious woman! You are planning upon such a wide variety, but of course, unless you try, you won’t know what will work.
    Best of Luck to you and your husband.

  2. Kelly in Haines Says:

    I don’t know how long it’s been since you took the picture of the sprouts, but if you put your light down really (crazy close) close to the baby sprouts, they’ll stay short and grow nice strong stalks instead of reaching for the light!

    I like your oats idea, I have a bare patch of ground that got mauled by a backhoe last winter, I should try oats in stead of clover to build up the soil.

  3. Rainey AKP Says:

    @fromthediagonal – thank you! We are definitely going to need all the luck we can get.

    @kelly in Haines – we eventually realized they were getting leggy and lowered the light! Oats are amazing things. We also plan to use the little bit of hay for our dog bedding, another high cost alaskan product!

  4. alaskapi Says:

    I remember how startled I was when you first mentioned trying to grow oats
    And then I found this:

    How Does Your Garden Grow?
    Article #204

    Thank you again for sharing your adventure with all of us !

  5. Rainey AKP Says:

    @Alaskapi Awesome! I hadn’t seen that one. I remember getting the idea from some online articles that UAF published….now that I think of it I think most of my plant choices came about from reading UAF publications!

  6. Kelly in Haines Says:

    I’m back again… I know Haines is an entire really big state away from you but it’s all about the gardening! I have a really sunny warm exposure, my neighbors across the road are still under a couple of feet of snow… I’ve got starts out in the wide open sun!

    I can’t wait to read more about your garden!

  7. alaskapi Says:

    Kelly- I’m near you. Anaktuvuk Pass is roughly 880 miles as the raven flies from me- We’re so big it boggles , doesn’t it?
    I wish we could find people from the Nome, Teller, Council area to talk about their garden and someone(s) from the Circle or Eagle area too.
    Then with Rainey to the north , our south Bristol Bay gardener, UgaVic, and us in Southeast , we’d have a first ” star ” in a map of Alaskan gardens :-)

    We’re lucky with resources from UAF and agricultural extension services here, aren’t we?
    We have an updated seed variety list for Southeast this year- developed from the successes of multitudes of gardeners’ experience with what will grow here.
    And there you are developing your own list!
    I so hope the oats thingy works out well.

  8. UgaVic Says:

    I will also be curious to see how things go in your garden, Rainey. I had heard in the past that only barley did well, as far as grains go, so I have never tired any. This year I too will give oats a try. So much, for our area, I think will be on how much rain we get and when.
    We too lack ‘straw’ for bedding or other uses and maybe this will help with this issue.
    People talk of ‘raking’ beach grass but given our time needs for things like putting fish up I can’t see us doing it without some type of mechanical cutting.
    Kelly…am interested in what you are doing too. There is so much to learn about gardening in Alaska!!

  9. jim Says:

    Rainey: I still love to garden in Anchorage but I had a much better location and environment in Fairbanks. Back in the days there I’d go to a friend’s house and load up a pickup truck with horse poop. I composted the stuff in a 4 foot X 4 foot X 4 foot plywood cube all summer, using worms in it. At the start of the next summer I’d spread a layer of this compost in the garden and then go get another truck load of fresh horse poop. Would it be possible to gather caribou poop near your place– perhaps using a 4 wheeler and a trailer, and bring it home for compost? Seems like this could be great stuff for the garden.

    The closest I’ve been to your home was Ernie Creek on the North Fork of the Koyukuk. Someone might be able to grow corn at Wiseman or Coldfoot, but it would be amazing if you could pull it off at Anaktuvuk Pass. Also I couldn’t get soybeans to grow in Anchorage.

    One thing I’ve used for extending growing seasons for stuff like beans or corn is I plant in 6 inch black plastic pots that have sufficient holes drilled through the bottoms for roots to grow through. I’ll start the pots up to 6 weeks before setting them out. Then I’ll just set them out on the ground, keep them watered, and let the roots come through into the soil.

    Wish you the best and I hope you will have a lot of success and fun with your arctic garden.

  10. jim Says:

    I forgot to ask, what about zucchini? You might be able to start them off in a pot and keep the roots warm under a plastic mulch. I don’t know if you’d like zucchini but they’re uniquely hardy.

  11. Rainey AKP Says:

    @jim I will need all the luck I can get!

    I have actually been contemplating using wild rabbit or ptarmigan poo for fertilizer. We have a massive abundance of both and all of the arctic plants and bushes thrive off the stuff. Anything like blood or fish will attract predators, something I’m trying to avoid! Zucchini is on my ‘next year’ list! i love zucchini though they are a bit intimidating to grow.

  12. jim Says:

    Please report back and let us know how the gardening goes. I’m delighted to hear you will grow a garden at Anaktuvuk Pass. The Continental Divide stretches from southern Chile and Argentina through Central America and the Rockies, through Canada and Alaska’s Brooks Range, finally to where you are. I doubt there are many gardens in this difficult terrain all along the route but I think there are especially few in the far north or south. As you know, you live in very unique country. You are special! Especially if you grow a garden.

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