Starting an Alaskan Garden

by Evan Sterling, An Alaska Master Gardener in Ester, Alaska


Well, this is my very first posting on the Alaska Master Gardener blog, but I certainly hope it won’t be my last. I’m a newly minted Master Gardener working on completing my volunteer hours, and to tell you the truth, I do not feel like much of a “Master!” Yet, anyway. I’m 28, almost 29, and just starting out with my partner, Shannon, on our own piece of land in Ester, Alaska. We don’t have any plans of becoming farmers of any sort like some of our neighbors in Ester, but we certainly have a dream to grow most (if not all!) of our own vegetables. Combine that with some subsistence hunting, fishing, and berry picking and it seems like we could just about feed ourselves, save the odd dairy delight and of course baked goods made with yummy Delta barley. It may sound like a young, idealistic dream, but we’ve met many people throughout our travels so far in life who are doing just that, and our goal is to join their ranks.

Learning to Garden

Neither Shannon nor I grew up in families that had vegetable gardens, so the learning curve as young adult gardeners feels quite steep. We spent one year “WWOOFing” volunteering for the organization Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms) in New Zealand before moving to Fairbanks two years ago. During that year we learned most of what we now know about growing food, along with many other things about horticulture, permaculture, and ourselves. The challenge begins now, as we are starting out with a garden of our very own in the interior of Alaska–quite different from New Zealand. Of course, we have picked up tons of information and knowledge about gardening from a wide variety of sources in other parts of the United States in our travels and from our families, who are spread out throughout the country. Last summer I completed the coursework for the Alaska Master Gardener program and have that knowledge in my back pocket as well. But again, I am here to tell you that despite all of that learning and preparation, it still feels really overwhelming to have your own piece of Earth to care for and encourage to grow food for you!


Part of the challenge, we’ve discovered, is that everyone seems to have their own specific approach that works for them but won’t necessarily work for you. Now, I genuinely believe that is also one of the beautiful things about gardening–there is no one “right” way to do anything–but it does make the decision-making process rather daunting when you’re trolling through a heap (compost-sized) of information from different sources and individual accounts from gardeners around the world. Of course, incorporating a wide variety of ideas and specific approaches from various people should make for a wonderfully diverse and resilient gardening approach, but how to pick and choose is a little tough. Here in Fairbanks, there are loads of wonderful people doing amazing things in horticulture and agriculture, and it seems that there should be a wealth of knowledge to go around. But tapping into that treasure trove is not always easy either. I believe this may stem from our short and incredibly intense growing season, followed by a long period of exhaustion and recovery (a.k.a. “winter”). Everyone is in such a frenzy during the time when gardens are growing that it is hard to take time to teach and learn during the summer, and when winter rolls around it is easy to forget about gardens.

Choosing a Location for your Garden–the Power Line!

Okay, enough analyzing. Let’s get into the good stuff. Some more background on where we are gardening. We live on a small 3-acre lot with a cozy little dry cabin for our shelter and a power line easement along the road at the front of the property. As we quickly learned from many people throughout Fairbanks in our two years here, that clearing for the power line is often an ideal place for a garden. And so it is for us. GVEA has kept the trees and brush low for years, and they even support the creation of gardens along these easements since it saves them work clearing the area again in the future. They do kindly ask that if you fence in your garden (which we all know is practically a necessity in Fairbanks unless you prefer to grow moose in your garden instead of vegetables) that you construct a 12-foot wide gate on both ends of your garden fence. Yikes! Needless to say that doesn’t always happen, and it may not happen in our case either. The gates are meant to provide access for GVEA in case of any emergencies with the power lines, but here’s hoping there is never an issue! And so it is that our garden is being developed along the power line clearing at the front of our property. We’ve never been sure about how we feel about growing our food under power lines in terms of electromagnetic activity, but we do both believe in taking what you get and always assuming the best!

Evan stands at site of new garden along the power line

Clearing Land for the Garden

To start to give you a timeline on our gardening progress, we bought our place last May (2012) and starting digging spaces for beds almost immediately. We chose to use our own sweat as fuel, grubbing out willow, rose, and fireweed roots from the clearing with a mattock instead of burning gasoline in a rototiller. Possibly the first of many silly, idealistic choices to come, but hey, when you’re young and feeling strong why not capitalize on it? Our garden space is on a really nice south-facing gentle slope, and so the beds that we have dug have to run parallel with the slope so as not to lose soil downhill. This is all well and good and we think will look very nice, but it does mean a slightly less efficient use of the space.

First Year Garden

We managed to get five beds dug with the mattock in a pretty short time, which was good because we spent most of last summer house-sitting. This meant that we didn’t have much time to invest in being at our place and really gardening properly. We didn’t do anything to the soil last summer, and grew some potatoes and cover crops (annual rye and clover) in the silt. We received a very modest potato crop from the silty Cripple Creek soil, but we know the cover crops helped build our soil. All things considered, we thought it was a very good start for our humble garden. For the sake of keeping the first post from getting too long-winded I think I’ll wrap it up there. That should catch everyone up fairly well so I can share what we have done with the garden since last summer, now that we are living in our home full-time and ready to grow our garden.                                                      
                                     Full steam ahead! 
Year one garden

About Heidi Rader

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