Gardening's gifts endure across time and place
July 1, 2023 | View PDF
One spring morning during breakfast, back in 2003 when we lived in Slana, my husband Gary said, "I turned the oil stove on out in the greenhouse. Let's move plants today." "Fine," I replied, glad to get the seedlings in the upstairs room and the front porch out of the house. This was our second season to have a garden and greenhouse in Slana. The greenhouse was his domain and the vegetable and flower gardens were mine. We didn't plan it that way; it just happened.
When I was a kid growing up in Glennallen, Dad grew potatoes and carrots most every summer. Some years there were other vegetables as well. Weeds always grew with gusto. One summer he built a little "bubble" greenhouse off the dining room windows and grew some Alaska State Fair prize-winning cucumbers. He later built a real greenhouse out of wood and glass. When I was 16, I bought one of those ready-made seed trays of snapdragons for the windowsill in my bedroom. Those beautiful blooms lasted almost up until Christmas.
After Gary and I got married, it was two years before we grew a garden of our own. We started from scratch clearing the willow brush and then turning the ground over on our 10 acres at 23½ mile on the Chena Hot Springs Road. Gary even fashioned a small greenhouse attached to the south side of our trailer house. Neighbors bought the extra tomato plants we started. Our tomatoes never did much because once the willow and aspen trees leafed out, they shaded the greenhouse too much. Since we hauled our water, we only grew edible plants with a few marigolds strategically located for pest control.
Although we were pleased with the results of the garden, we ended up selling out and moving to California that fall. That decision was spurred on by Gary's longing for the fresh fruit he grew up with in California and the negative changes we saw in the Fairbanks area as the oil pipeline was being built. The year was 1975.
Supposedly, we would have an even better garden in California, where we bought 20 acres in the foothills of the Sierras. As it turned out, between the rocky soil, scorching heat, lack of running water, and the gophers, after two months, we only had three hot pepper plants left. After some wandering cows passed through and ate the pepper plants, we gave up.
The next summer Gary helped his mother improve her little garden on the foggy coastal mountains in the San Francisco Bay area, which was another totally new gardening climate for me. The next year we returned to Alaska.
Settling in the Cooper Landing area of the Kenai Peninsula, we reclaimed a garden spot that had not been used in over 20 years and built a little makeshift greenhouse. I took a gardening class from the Cooperative Extension Service in Soldotna to learn about the local techniques. I especially wanted to learn how to combat the cooler soil temperatures compared to interior Alaska. We had lots of vegetables for eating fresh, freezing and canning. I also started experimenting with different types of flowers for the first time.
Five years later we moved to Palmer and it was time to start over again. We bought a 10-year-old house that had a nice greenhouse attached. We received permission to plant the greenhouse before closing on the June 1 purchase, just so we wouldn't lose a good growing season. That greenhouse provided all-we-could-eat tomatoes and cucumbers for seven years. The vegetable garden had to be developed from scratch, though.
When we moved to a smaller house in Palmer, Gary built a greenhouse for the tomatoes and cukes, but this time I concentrated on flowers rather than vegetables. I had become acquainted with several farmers in Palmer, from whom I could buy vegetables at reasonable prices.
For the next six years, I worked at Bushes Bunches Greenhouse and Gardens for three months every spring and could purchase wonderfully healthy six-packs of flower starts at employee discount. I greatly enjoyed watching the growth and blooms of annuals and perennials, and heartily endorsed my employer's philosophy that flowers are food for the soul.
Then we moved to Slana – an area where some locals warned us that a garden would not grow. While that is not true, I will be the first to admit, it was rather difficult. Especially the year we experienced a killing frost June 11 and then the first frost of the fall August 14! That is an impossibly short growing season. Only die-hard gardeners will understand our behavior to keep going under those circumstances. In Slana, Gary built our nicest and biggest (12'x20') greenhouse and we reclaimed a garden spot that hadn't been used in 10 years.
After breakfast that spring morning back in 2003, we moved all the plants out to our heated greenhouse, where we spent several hours transplanting, puttering and dreaming. The previous fall we'd harvested over 50 pounds of green tomatoes, and although I had successfully experimented with more than one green tomato recipe, I was hoping the new season would produce more vine-ripened.
With our 2011 move back to Palmer, we started from scratch again. The greenhouse didn't get built until 2016, but it produces enough wonderful tomatoes and cucumbers to share with family and friends. I do not have a large vegetable garden, just a carrot patch in a raised bed – a nod to the fact that my aging body can no longer do the physical work my younger body could. Any extra energy and time is spent on flowers (mostly perennials) enabling the enjoyment of numerous and beautiful cut flower bouquets.
Here's wishing tasty produce and fragrant blossoms to all my fellow gardeners this 2023 growing season.
Maraley McMichael is a lifelong Alaskan currently residing in Palmer. Email her at email@example.com.