It is unquestionably a time of abundance for many in the Homer gardening world right now. A warm spring combined with our long days of sunlight have given even the most reluctant gardener a tinge of green on their thumb this year. Everywhere, there is talk of amazing salads, flowers and the impending stampede of zucchinis.
Ah, this is what we do this for. All that hard work, and now we can sit back and relax and eat the products of our labors, right?
Some people talk about creating compost like it is an obscure art form close to alchemy in its technically challenging process. Not Jodie Anderson, an enthusiastic soil scientist from Palmer who presented at the recent Kenai Peninsula Resources Conservation and Development District Agricultural Forum in Homer. Anderson talks about composting like people talk about their favorite movie.
Anderson said she’s on a mission to transform what she calls the “cold piles of goo” that pass as compost piles in much of Alaska. She’s spreading the word of the hot compost pile, encouraging people to use the resources right in their back yards to create compost to augment Alaska’s largely lacking soils.
“Alaska has all the sources it needs to make great compost,” she said. “We just need to use it.”
Homer doesn’t have a cast system like some countries that divide their people by characteristics like wealth and stature. Instead, we have altitude. If you are a gardener living near sea level this time of year, you are watching rhubarb push up ruddy red bumps and maybe even enjoying a crocus or two in a sunny warm nook. Up on the top of the bench? Not so much.
Up in the 1,000-foot-and-higher elevations, there’s still enough snow to make gardening seem months away, even though decades of experience has taught me that us hill-dwellers can and do catch up just fine. Nature figures it out in the end, balances things. We get more heat in the summer because we are farther from the coastal-influenced wind, and some of the best gardens I’ve ever seen are up here. But right now, it’s downright depressing.
Of course, if you have a high tunnel, a hoop house, a greenhouse or — like me — your entire dining room full of starts, there’s plenty of gardening to be done no matter where you live. In fact, it is truly time to get working. Alaska is unforgiving to the tardy gardener. My goal is always to get things in the ground as soon as absolutely possible — if you can move dirt around with your fingers, stick some peas in it. If not, start your peas inside. The trick to riding the fine line between winter and spring as a gardener in Alaska is knowing which plants are likely to make it and which are not.
It feels like no time at all since we packed up the last vestiges of the high tunnel and put the outside gardens to bed and here I am, dirt under my fingernails again. Sometimes, when I am traveling to warmer places where flowers bloom when we are still submerged in white, I think how nice it would be to live in a place where you can grow things all year round, outside, without plastic bubbles over them and black plastic beneath them to warm the ground. But I’m not sure if I could take it without those months off to recharge. Especially when those months fly by and before you know it, you are once again constructing an artificial sun-filled environment in your dining room.
My friend recently put in a new garden; a huge, 2,000-square foot expanse of fresh soil in the way only Alaska soil can be fresh — chickweed and nettles springing up between root wads. You can almost hear it screaming for lime as you walk over it.
A few weeks ago, I posted a photo on Facebook of my first eggplant successfully grown in my hoop house. To say I was proud of this eggplant would be a huge understatement. But rather than gushing praise from my fellow gardeners, I got a single comment from a growing sage. “Feed that plant,” she wrote. “It’s hungry.” I looked at the photo again. The lower leaves of the eggplant were yellow and spotted with brown. The entire plant was lackluster. The eggplant was lovely, but the observation was right on. This plant needed sustenance. Every year there are plants that for one reason or another fail to thrive. Each plant likes different soil conditions, moisture levels, etc. to do its very best, and despite our efforts to create the most nourishing soil, sometimes they just need more.
Truth be known, I was a pretty sub-standard gardener until plasticulture came into my life. But I don’t actually attribute my success to the plastic coverings despite the precious Alaska solar gain near my plants. I attribute the shift entirely to the watering system I installed the first year I put up a hoop house.
Here’s the difference. In the old days, I would use a hose to fill up a watering can and walk around for about a half-hour watering every little plant by hand. When I did it, it was pretty fun — kind of meditative and it kept me connected with my plants. The big problem, however, was how often I actually did it — that is to say, not nearly often enough.
Last week, I woke the morning after Memorial Day to a glittering, sunny day. A bit too glittering. The lawn was covered with frost. There went the idea that it was safe to plant outside after Memorial Day weekend.
We made it through with minimal plant loss, but not without quite a bit of manipulation. While it’s hard to predict what the rest of the season has in store for us, there’s this saying about the best predictors of future action being past action. After several cool spring and summer seasons, I’m going on the assumption that it’s going to stay that way.
It’s the same pretty much every year — the sun stays out longer, temperatures warm just a tad, and we get a chance to put our hands in the soil in those warm beds on the south side of our house.
But it’s just a tease. True gardening, and truly fresh, homegrown greens, are still a long way off for most of us, even those with a greenhouse.
So this year, I gave microgreens a try, and they made me a believer. Microgreens, like their name implies, are greens that are grown just beyond the very first stage of budding. You can grow all sorts of things as microgreens, and the flavors are fascinating. Peas, for example, beets, and itty-bitty basil and mustard greens are all wonderful. I find it amazing that the greens that eventually go on to produce something like a pod of peas actually taste like peas as a tiny sprout. As someone who was subjected to traditional sprouts as a child, microgreens are a whole new dimension, and a welcome option for those who are thirsty for greens long before Alaska’s soil is willing to produce them.
Three years ago, I heard through the grapevine that a friend had built an inexpensive quonset-hut like structure to grow things in out of PVC struggling to grow things on a windy spot on Diamond Ridge, I was all ears. A tour followed, and I was sold on the hoophouse idea. Within a few months, I had dug down four feet into the snow to construct my first venture into plasticulture.
Up on the ridge, we still have a lot of snow, but down in the lower elevations, the ground is appearing, and with it, the opportunity to improve your growing potential exponentially with relatively little investment. While metal-framed, gigantic high tunnels are springing up all over town, you don’t have to dive into that world to see huge benefits to your gardening world. A little pipe and plastic is all it takes.