by Jennifer Dillard, An Alaska Master Gardener North of the Arctic Circle!

New to Alaska, my husband and I moved to Bettles Field, a remote Interior Alaska community, ready to embrace a new way of living. Having lived in Wisconsin and Illinois where I had my own garden and participated in a community garden, I felt confident in my gardening skills but translating these skills into Arctic conditions was a completely new and challenging journey for me. Fully aware that I lacked even the basic knowledge of how to garden in the land that boasts both permafrost and the midnight sun, I signed up for the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service’s Alaska Master Gardener Online Course. Course completed and one full year of living north of the Arctic Circle under my belt, I embarked upon the daunting task of helping a friend in my local community, build, design, plant and maintain a garden from scratch.

Eager to apply my new found knowledge, skills and abilities to a local gardening project I began talking to local community members about the possibility of starting a community shared garden. After a very insightful conversation with a long term resident, I decided that my best course of action would be to start small and he suggested that I begin by helping him set-up a new garden plot on the property he is living on. Excellent suggestion – let the planning begin!

 

To-do List

Finally the time had come for us to celebrate the break-up of the Middle Fork of the Koyukuk River and as we patiently waited for the snow to completely melt we spent some time assessing the garden area and coming up with our game plan. Here is what we came up with:

1. Get the water pump working again so we have a watering source for the garden

2. Rototill a large plot of his land so we could plant potatoes and have some additional soil to use in our raised bed

3. Build a raised bed

4. Use both seeds and starter plants

5. Purchase and use only organic fertilizer

6. Share the responsibility of maintaining the garden and harvesting

7. Plan an end of season harvest celebration

8. Share the responsibility for clean-up and winterization

 

Rototilling

 
The last week in May 2011 marked the beginning of this community garden project as we dusted off the rototiller and set to work getting our thumbs green. Using the rototiller proved to be quite an experience. It was brand new, but for some reason we had a really tough time getting it running properly. The earth was so dense and compact that we literally had to force it to run through the soil. After 2 days of back-breaking work, we decided to scale back the size of the space we were rototilling to accommodate a small plot for potatoes and additional soil for our raised bed. Incidentally, we found out later that we weren’t properly engaging the self-propelling mechanism on the rototiller’s wheel – making our muscles the only things moving this machine in the earth…uggh!

Soil

Earth moved, we quickly assessed the quality of the soil and realized that it was unsuitable for planting a garden. Why, you ask? Because the earth was full of fertile soil but it was bound together in large clumps by extensive plant root systems. I knew that we were going to have to contend with the effects of permafrost on the soil, but we didn’t even think about the fact that we would have to further process the soil before we could use it. My very creative and astute friend remembered seeing a neighbor use a homemade sieve in her garden and thought we might be able to do the same. Luckily, we had all the supplies to build a mesh sieve that worked like a charm.

We
took the large clumps of matted soil and grated it along the mesh until
enough useable soil piled up under the sieve. Because of this very
time consuming process we were able to come up with enough soil to fill
our raised bed, but the garden bed we were going to use to plant
potatoes never came to fruition, oh well something to aim towards for
next year’s garden. Thrilled that we had averted our first of many
obstacles we set our sights on our next task at hand — building a raised
bed!

Building a Raised Bed

Finally, a raised bed!

Building the raised bed was a much bigger job than we had initially thought it would be. We picked out the perfect spot, right next to the well house.  We measured out the space and then realized quickly that we had neither enough wood nor soil to make our raised bed as big as we wanted to. So we scaled ourselves back and set our sights on building a raised bed that worked within our constraints. The end of the day brought us an immense amount of satisfaction as we imagined what our garden would look like within this new wooden framework we had just built.

Planting the Garden

Planting day had arrived, we gathered up all of our supplies (i.e., gardening tools, gloves, watering cans, seeds, starter plants etc…) eager to get something in the ground we had so lovingly prepared. Because we had to change the size and scope of our raised bed, we had to spend some additional time re-designing our garden layout. This was the fun part, since now we could move around our little pots of plants to make sure we had enough space for everything to have adequate room to grow. Being that we are novices at this, we overestimated everything — we bought way too many starter plants so in the end we had to put some of them in pots and wooden planters.

Caring for the Garden Together

Mental notes made, we saturated our newly planted garden with a big drink of water and mapped out who would be responsible for garden maintenance (i.e., watering, weeding, thinning of plants, etc…) on our calendar. We agreed to share these chores equally, I would do all of June and half of August and he would do all of July and the other half of August.

Mosquitoes, Snowshoe Hares, and Puppies!

The summer season went along with the regular cast of characters: mosquitoes, snowshoe hares as well as many other pests and critters, affecting our garden and us as we tried to maintain it. We were well-prepared to deal with some of the regular factors involved in growing a garden in the Interior, but something new came into play that is an experience perhaps unique to Alaska — rambunctious sled dogs. My friend has over 20 sled dogs and added 4 furry, bundles of joy to his kennel over the winter. The adult dogs didn’t seem to be too interested in the garden when they got off their harnesses, but the puppies ran through the soft dirt collected in a big pile under the mesh sieve and tore through the garden on several occasions. One particularly ornery female puppy, named Sweet Sugar, loved to dig around in the garden. After one energy filled race around the yard, she promptly decided to uproot one of our lettuce plants. She spent the rest of the afternoon tossing it around, eating it and rubbing herself all over it. I couldn’t be upset with this young, curious pup, so instead I sat on the ground and tossed the lettuce carcass around the yard so she could hone her retrieving skills. I did feel good at the end when I spied her gnawing on the lettuce during one of her rests between play, I figured at least it wasn’t totally going to waste.

Harvesting

Harvesting was the pinnacle of success in our mind. We ran around congratulating each other the first day we saw something green sprouting or saw evidence of our starter plants growing. But when we made a salad with our first fully grown head of lettuce, we smacked our lips, smiled and beamed with pride over what we had accomplished. My friend continued to enjoy the fruits of his labor as his new garden provided him with fresh produce (i.e., different varieties of lettuce, kale, onions, spinach, herbs) throughout the entire season.

The end of the gardening season came much too fast; Fall was slowly but surely creeping in as we ushered in the month of September. As luck would have it my in-laws were in town during our end of the season harvest and we were able to put out a spread of fresh goodies from our garden to share with them and everyone who wanted to join us for our celebration. Around the table we shared stories of our gardening mishaps and successes; we solicited input and advice from my father-in-law who is a lifelong gardener with one of the greenest thumbs I have ever seen and most importantly we started to make plans for the following year’s garden. Despite having to contend with some of the unique challenges that
come along with the Alaskan gardening experience like permanently frozen
ground and sled dogs, the forgiving presence of sunshine as the
perpetual garden food source made us look as if we were seasoned
gardeners. We plan on writing a new chapter in this Bettles Field
adventure, we promise to keep you posted as our garden continues to grow
and we share our new found knowledge with others in our community.

Nothing beats fresh lettuce! Photo by Heidi Rader.

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