Gardening in Alaska Is Not Easy: I Learned the Hard Way
The unique challenges presented by the Last Frontier.
One summer, while working at a farm a few miles from my house in Ester, Alaska, I learned three gardening and farming tips that couldn’t be ignored. One: Compost! Good compost is the key to all success. Two: diversity, diversity, diversity. Three: Build tall fencing. Preferably tall electric fencing. Everything is bigger in Alaska—the state itself, the mountains, the wildlife—therefore, the fencing must be too.
That year was the first of several where I stayed put for a summer, with a home to call my own, and therefore a place to call my garden. I had big, bountiful dreams for that summer. The preparation began in March, indoors, when the days were still bitterly cold, well below freezing, but the sun was at least beginning to show its warm face again.
Gardening From Seed in Alaska Starts Inside
Growing and eating food—from seed to belly, completing the cycle—brings much satisfaction. Only, I had never grown anything from a seed in my life. Like many novice gardeners, I had purchased plants someone else had started. Determined to make it work, I read all of my seed packets, dove into internet holes about starting seeds and gardening in interior Alaska and carefully followed instructions.
Starting certain seeds can be difficult, regardless of conditions, but starting seeds indoors with only minimal true daylight takes effort, babying and attention. Each weekend, I planted a different round of seeds—dill, bell pepper, lavender, cabbage, tomato, calendula, comfrey, squash, zucchini, cucumber, the list continued—depending on how much time each needed for germination and when it should be planted. Each week, I rearranged all the small, compostable pots on the window sills to make room for the new.
Come April, it may have still been winter outside, but inside our household, green was sprouting up all around us. Each and every tiny little leggy and delicate sprout deserved praise. And I showered them all. “Dale!” I exclaimed to my husband each day. “Another calendula has sprouted!” Or, “Dale—my last tomato finally sprouted! Look, come look!” He didn’t quite care enough to look at every single sprout, but I forced it upon him. My babies needed to know they were loved.
Container Gardening in Alaska: Soil, Diversity and Companion Planting
By mid-May, all surfaces near windows were overflowing with young plant life. I was running out of room, and they were beginning to crowd one another. But the ground was still frozen outside, and snow still covered some areas. I had nowhere to put my seedlings. “Don’t worry,” I whispered to all of them, “you’ll grow big soon. The world’s not yet ready for you.” I prepared my seedlings for their life to come by placing them outside during the day and bringing them in each evening.
Toward the end of May, it was time. Dale built slightly raised beds, and I concocted a beautiful mixture of soil. “Good luck!” I told my little vegetables, “But don’t worry, I’ll watch over you!” I had all of my ducks in line, except for one. Compost—check. Diversity, diversity, diversity—check, check and check. I had my veggies and herbs checkerboarded and intermixed, complementing one another with grace. No fence yet. I told myself once they got bigger, I’d put up a fence. To provide nourishment for their journey of growth, I mixed some blood meal in the soil surrounding each seedling, more for the brassica family plants like cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli, which are heavy feeders.
Dealing With Furry, Four-Legged Alaska Garden Pests
The next morning, there were fox tracks in all of my raised beds, and one of my dogs had dug up a small area where I planted some flower seeds. Damn the blood meal. I told Dale we needed to build some fencing. I’ve never really been one for fences, artificial boundaries humans create to separate what shouldn’t be. But I needed to provide protection to my offspring, now at the whim of the external world.
We were proud of the scrap wood, chicken wire, chest-high fencing we built. At each corner of every raised bed, a wooden stake was pounded into the soil. The chicken wire, stapled to each post, was wrapped around the square, and the last flap was left un-stapled to act as a floppy door that could be opened and closed. It wasn’t electric. And it wasn’t very tall either—I needed to be able to bend over the fence and reach each plant for watering and harvesting.
The Joy of Eating From My Alaska Vegetable Garden
For a one-summer-only, non-permanent garden, we thought we did pretty well. The plants thought so too. The garden gave us salad for days, the pepper plants started to flower, the squash blossomed abundantly, the broccoli grew nearly as tall as me, the tomatoes taller and the cabbage—the first seeds I started indoors and a plant that is difficult to transplant—began to grow round and full. I had a green thumb, and I was proud of it.
Each morning, I walked to all of my various raised beds (they were spread around our cabin in different spots, wherever there was enough sunlight), checking on my veggies, herbs and flowers, greeting them good morning. Each evening, I did the same, walking through and harvesting what was ready for dinner, thanking the plant for all that it provided.
My Number One Gardening in Alaska Tip
One morning, I walked toward my favorite raised bed. This one was special. It had already given so much, and come this weekend, I would be able to harvest multiple cabbages—the ones I’d started in March—to make sauerkraut. I noticed the bed looked a bit different than the day before, more barren, and I wondered whether Dale had maybe harvested a few items.
I walked closer. I dropped to my knees. My jaw dropped too. My eyes swelled with tears. I screamed up at the sky, into the world, profanities shooting out of my mouth like a shotgun round, hands clutching at the roots of my hair. Deep, double-sided hoof prints surrounded the bed. And inside, a war zone. What was left of the broccoli—an inch of stem—lay lifeless and uprooted, clear-cut brussels sprouts sharply severed just above the soil, romanesco cauliflower carelessly consumed, the leaves broken off and trampled—and the cabbage, my poor cabbage, beheaded.
My babies, who had grown up so big and strong. My babies, who had graduated and gone to college. My beautiful babies were mauled by a moose. I assume they were tasty.
Lesson learned. The fencing should be high—and electric.