An unknown author reportedly said, “Gardening is cheaper than therapy and you get tomatoes.” I appreciate this because I am a psychologist, however, it is truly my goal to be a good gardener. I gardened with my father and mother when I was a child growing up in Colorado. We had a very large rose garden and I learned how to prune them and prepare the plants for the Colorado winter. My father taught me the basics of gardening vegetables. As a side note, my father just turned 84 years old and was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease a few years ago. He is my hero, for so many reasons, and I still ask him gardening questions. I was married very young and we moved briefly to my ex-husband’s home state of Kansas where we had an acre garden, a half-acre for fruit trees, chickens, pigs and geese. The geese turned out not to be so much fun and so we named them Thanksgiving and Christmas, if you know what I mean. We lived in a very small town with 9 houses, 3 churches, and a co-op. One summer, Kansas experienced such a heat wave that all of the gardens in town burnt up but ours. We would wait until the darkness of night and the onset of temperatures under 100 degrees, as it was running about 115 during the day, and then we would turn on the water and water until before the sun came up. We had a wonderful garden that year, but could not harvest it as fast as it was producing. We told our neighbors to help themselves to whatever they wanted as it was just too much for us and I was not good at canning. I had made crabapple jelly with my grandmother since I was young, but that was the extent of my canning experience. Nearly every day we would come home to a case of canned green beans, tomatoes, pickled watermelon rinds, and the like, on our Victorian front porch as our neighbors harvested the bounties of our garden and then shared what they had put up. We had a winter’s full of vegetables in our pantry, and I did not have to do a thing!
Other than that short stint in Kansas and my years in graduate school, I have spent over 40 years in Alaska. I have tried to garden every year. This year, on my small farm in Wasilla, I have about 8 raised beds and a small greenhouse that I manage and about 4 acres that I pretty much leave to Mother Nature and God. I used to grow the best celery. The stalks were a perfect size and they were tender and sweet. The past 5 or 6 years, my celery stalks are extremely thin. They taste alright, but I can’t get them to grow correctly. Last year I had gray mold in my greenhouse and only produced one tomato. In May of this year we removed everything from the greenhouse, bleached the entire house and all of the pots that were stored there and my tomato plants are pretty, but still the yield is poor. We have had about 20 tomatoes on from 5 plants. Last year my squash was beautiful and plentiful. Today, nearly the middle of July, my squash plants are smaller than when I first transplanted squash in the spring of 2015 into the garden. These tiny squash plants (zucchini and yellow squash) are producing flowers, but no fruit. I took the Alaska Master Gardener Online course in the hopes of knowing what to do when I have slugs, when my squash is tiny, when I have mold, etc. I have spent a lot of time guessing. The more I read, the more I research, the more ignorant I feel! However, when I take stock of the last 4 years that I have owned this property, I can honestly say that I have learned a lot. I only started this garden three years ago. And I’m satisfied with my progress so far.
What I have learned so far – in spite of myself
- In mid-August 2014 two moose ate my garden down to the nub, but they apparently do not like squash, and so that was saved. My children built me a fence the following year for Mother’s Day that is beautiful, Alaskan, and along with the Adirondack chairs, fire pit, whimsical decorations, and speakers that allow for piped music to enter the atmosphere, render my garden a wonderfully cozy and peaceful place to hang out.
- In 2013 I tried to grow corn. It was pathetic, never got more than a foot tall, and was essentially just a failed experiment. In 2014 I again tried to grow corn, and it was better, but no corn was produced. Last year I was so excited to see tassels, silks, and eventually ears of corn grow on the plants and we actually produced about 10 ears of very small, but flavorful, corn. This year the plants had a rough transplant. It took them about a month to recover. They look healthy at this time. I learned that corn has heavy nitrogen needs, so I added extra horse manure for nitrogen and sea weed to add other nutrients to the soil. I hope they make it! As a side note, my neighbor came over the last week of May and noticed the corn I had just transplanted to the garden. He was surprised. I told him that I always plant two seeds together in large pots so that I don’t have to touch the roots when I transplant and the two seeds help provide support and then I stake them for a month while they recover following the transplant. He thought maybe he would try growing some corn himself. I went over to his garden two weeks ago, and he direct sowed a dozen or so corn plants into his large hoop house and his corn is twice the size of mine!
- Last year I grew horseradish, which came back this year. I read about companion planting in the Mother Earth News and thought it was an interesting article since I wanted to move my horseradish because I did not like where I planted it. I looked it up in other companion planting guides and decided to try it. I moved the horseradish into my 3-year-old asparagus bed and planted strawberries in the bed, as well. It has done well and looks good. I can’t wait until next year to see how they will do living together!
- I also learned to keep my greenhouse clean and not to reuse my pots without washing them with bleach water. I talked to my local commercial greenhouses master gardener and read this article and followed their suggestions. I learned that more vegetables grow outside in Alaska than I thought, and that it is fun to try new things and ask people who know a lot more than I do about my gardening goals. I have found that every greenhouse that I visit has a master gardener willing to look at a branch, a leaf, or a picture, have a chat, and share their knowledge. I so appreciate that.
- I always thought carrots had to be one of the easiest vegetables to grow — but I have never produced one single carrot since leaving Kansas. I hate to say it too loud and to jinx it, but I might actually get a carrot to produce this year! I read an article on the UAF Cooperative Extension website about carrots and tested my soil. The bed the carrots are growing in is low in phosphorous and a bit low in pH, meaning that it was pretty acidic. I added horse manure and seaweed in the hopes of making more nutrients available to the carrots. This won’t change the pH level, but hopefully provide healthier soil. That bed had slugs, too, and the seaweed is supposed to deter slugs. This article from the University of Maine was helpful in explaining phosphorus fertilizers. I’ll take steps in the fall to try to correct this bed before I plant in it again in the spring.
Where to go from here
I have tried to grow fun, new types of produce this year. I planted a male and female Kiwi plant directly in my garden. I have a grape growing wonderfully in a container so I can easily move it into the garage, but no fruit this year. I planted artichokes and if I can keep the slugs off of them, they might have a chance to produce. They are in the ground and I’m trying to decide if I have to dig them up or if they will make it in the ground through winter. The trick will be how these new additions winter over and if I can use what I have learned to bring them back in the spring. So, although it is my goal to become a good gardener, I still feel very challenged. But I’m looking forward to what I can learn in the future. So, I don’t know if that unknown author got it right. I spend a lot of money on my garden. I may not have a bushel of tomatoes, but gardening gives me bushels of peace and satisfaction. A bushel of peace is a pretty good thing, in my book. In fact, I love gardening so much that next year I will be incorporating it in therapy for my clients.