JUNEAU, Alaska - These days, gardens are cropping up everywhere, from community plots to school yards. Harborview Elementary School recently harvested its first batch of potatoes and invited the community to taste and learn along with them.
Thursday saw Harborview's first Harvest Fair, where students, teachers, parents and volunteers came together to treat community members to an edible and educational evening.
Juneau Alaska Youth for Environmental Action chose a garden at Harborview as their pet project last year, a project that was on the minds of others at the same time. JAYEA president Ruby Steedle said the group, with about a dozen members at Juneau-Douglas High School this school year, spearheaded the project, built the garden boxes and applied for a number of grants, none of which panned out, and welcomed help from parents, Harborview teachers and other community volunteers. JAYEA's other good works have included taking care of the high schoo l's recycling and establishing the idle-free zone, among other projects.
At the school, faculty and staff were enthusiastic, with Zach Stenson and Annie Caulfield taking leading roles in the program. Parents Amber King and Jen Laroe stepped in to help - really getting their hands dirty at harvest time - and community volunteers and partners.
Last school year, the garden boxes were built, proper soil brought in, and potato seedlings were planted by kindergarten students. Over the summer, Discover Southeast participants, who also had a box at the school, took care of the Harborview garden vegetables, so this school year the now-first graders could harvest the crop with the help of adult volunteers.
At the Oct. 4 Harvest Fair, Darren Snyder with the UAF Cooperative Extension Service, serving Southeast Alaska, brought a clump of soil with Tlingit Potatoes still rooted for interested guests to see, feel and disentangle. Snyder had helped with the design of the garden, c hoosing the location and crops, and helping with the harvest.
"A couple fridays ago we scheduled a harvest and all three of the first grade classrooms participated, and I came in the classrooms and told them how potatoes grow and some of the protocol for harvesting, and went out there, had a great harvest - I think a total of 95 lbs. of potatoes, I think four big 5-gallon buckets, and they're beautiful. There are multiple varieties and the potatoes were donated through the plant materials center in Palmer."
Kids seemed to really enjoy getting hands-on with the sample potatoes, indicative that the actual harvest must have been a real hit.
Snyder is a great person to see about not just cultivated harvesting but also wild harvesting and other sustainable practices in Southeast. He is currently really excited about a program in Angoon where Juneau outdoor skills leaders have partnered with the Forest Service to offer outdoor skills programming.
Another friendly f ace who has helped with local garden projects is Rick Bellagh, who has an organic farm on Shelter Island. He had a demonstration of composting set up that included examples from the whole decomposition process.
Attendees were encouraged to really breathe in the aroma of the rich soil that is the by-product of effective composting, then take a whiff of the earlier stage, with still discernible vegetable scraps, earth worms and a pungent odor.
Bellagh also showed step by step how to layer compost with carbon layers and kitchen scraps. Adults were as hooked as kids at this display.
Kids also had the opportunity to suggest names for the garden or guess how many potatoes were harvested at a table in the common area. Amber King let me in on the secret - there were more than 1,300 potatoes harvested. Most of which were prepared that night to be served to guests.
A large crowd gathered and had halibut chowder, made with halibut donated by Zach Stenson and the potatoe s the students had planted and harvested. Other potatoes found purpose as stamps for an art project or heated up for a large game of hot potato.
"We saved some for seed and gave some to the classes to do projects, some made food, some made art projects with them, whatever they wanted - we offered to have experts come into the classrooms. We harvested them and counted them all, they counted every potato. there's a guessing game and there's a special prize for the winner." King said.
"The best part was harvesting," King said, "They were so excited. You pull them out of ground, it was like digging for gold."
"When they cook with the food, when they home grow it, they are so much more invested in eating it. And now that the state Farm to School program is actually able to reimburse us for this, all that money can go back into growing next year." King added.
The Montessori Borealis school that shares the Marie Drake-Harborview building is working on some garden r elated projects as well, which King said is nice since the two schools don't often interact.
She also said that since the program has been taken over in large part by the PTA, it can have a lifespan longer than one school year, without burning out faculty and staff. They'll be applying for grants and expanding the garden to include some other easy plants like garlic, perhaps kale and cabbage.
King is also trying to get a fish-to-school program going, like the one in Sitka, and is working toward getting more local and organic vegetables into school lunch. She'll be trying to get the word out next summer to fishermen where they can go to donate fish. And a local elementary school's salad bar was featured on the Let's Move website.
"My goal is to get the kids more involved, more connected to earth, how the food grows, where it comes from, and then how can we eat it and get it in the meals. For most of us growing up in Alaska, we don't see cows and we don't have any ag riculture in Southeast, so food comes from the store, but as gardening picks up, we get more people involved, then hopefully it will keep building and growing." King said.