This is my final column for the season and the last gardening column I will be doing for the News-Miner. I wrote my first piece, about potatoes, over 30 years ago; except for one year off, I’ve been writing about local gardening ever since. There are only so many ways to talk about seed starting and shutting down the garden for the winter, and I think I have exhausted all of them. I have grown old writing this column and it is time for a younger, fresher voice to take over.
At that time there was only one credible book on gardening in the Interior, “A Beginner’s Guide To Successful Gardening In The Fairbanks Area” by Eloise De Witt, which came out in 1985. Eloise, now gone to that great garden in the sky, would have been gobsmacked to hear that there is a copy of her book available through Amazon and that it sells for $299.99, plus shipping. It is horribly outdated now, but opening the thin volume and seeing her hand-drawn pictures instead of photographs (which would have made it too expensive to print) still makes me smile.
That was about it, except for the local Cooperative Extension office, which was not very good at reaching out to the home gardener. At that time, the perception of the public was that they existed to help farmers, so gardeners seldom thought to avail themselves of the staff expertise and the many publications. That has changed dramatically, thank heavens.
This also was long before people could increase their knowledge and skills through the universities of Google and YouTube. We have come a long way from those days, when there was no internet (which had been in research since the 1960s but only became widely available to the public in the early 1990s), and so no email. I had to hand deliver or fax my columns into the editor.
Originally called The Greenhorn Gardener, the column was intended to focus on helping complete newbies learn the basics. I have been fortunate in that all of the editors I have been assigned to over the years have let me also babble on about anything else I wanted, as long as it was tangentially related to gardening.
Thus, forays into composting human remains, fertilizing with human urine, composting dog poop and how my various hobby farm animals (chickens, geese, a feral Russian boar and miniature sheep) impacted my gardening.
My favorite thing by far, besides feeling like I helped some people learn to love gardening, was trying out various gardening gadgets. I had over 30 years of the perfect excuse to buy whatever took my fancy. Mail carriers have brought to my door composting tumblers, an electric indoor composter, worm composters, glass cloches, plastic gardening umbrellas, and Grow-Goyles (made from 100% cow poop that slowly fertilized your garden as the rain and watering broke it down. It had eyes made of dried beans.) Alas, I never got my $77,000 Bobcat Compact Track Loader, but no one gets everything they pray for, I guess.
I am very thankful to the readers who contacted me over the years, with comments, questions, and, sometimes, fair and unfair criticisms. In my columns and in email, phone and in-person interactions with readers, I have tried to give the accepted information, as well as what I really do at home. Sometimes the two did not coincide.
And, as with pretty much everything in my adult life, I have to thank my husband, Ted. He built me five greenhouses and countless raised beds, hauled manure and heaved it into those beds, installed grow lights and figured out how to make it so I could raise and lower them with no effort during spring seed starting, and peed in dozens of bottles after I read a BBC Gardening article on how they use urine for composting in their national gardens. He also helped me gather poop from the homes of friends, during a time when we didn’t have a dog, so that I could spend a summer following the directions for composting dog poop. (If any activity deserves the label “Don’t try this at home,” it is weeks of shoveling up dog waste and then a summer of hand turning it every 10 days.) And this was all done by a guy who hates any vegetable that is not a deep fried potato; I’m serious, he doesn’t even like baked potatoes.
I leave you for good with two pieces of advice. First, if you are new to gardening, or gardening in this part of Alaska, take advantage of one of the two greatest local gardening resources: the Cooperative Extension Master Gardener course or Terry Reichardt’s vegetable gardening series. The latter will be offered 6-8 p.m. Mondays at First Presbyterian Church, 547 Seventh Ave., starting on Sept. 30. The fee is $20 for the eight-week series. To register, contact Terry at 452-2406. If Terry is an unknown quantity to you, you can read more about her at bit.ly/2lGERPK. You can also look her up on YouTube.
If you prefer reading, there is the “Alaska Gardening Guide” by Anne D. Roberts. However, it appeared some 19 years ago so some of the information now is outdated; at the time I could not recommend it often enough. I wish Anne would update it or someone would write a new book for this part of the state. At this point, you might be better served by consulting the Cooperative Extension for topic-specific publications.
No matter what course you take or which publication you read, remember that part of the fun of gardening is experimenting. I do things that horrify the hard core (like not using seed starting soil or composting in carefully calibrated amounts and layers) but it works for me. That is what counts: what works for you. Develop a good knowledge base and then become your expert in your own garden.
My second piece of advice is this: No matter how perfect your seeds and transplants, if your soil sucks so will your garden. Consider not rototilling, which destroys the microorganisms that keep your soil healthy (to find out more about soil, read any of the books by Anchorage gardening guru Jeff Lowenfels). Rotate your crops so that pests are fooled and the soil is not continually depleted by the same vegetables pulling out the same nutrients. Don’t fertilize your patch to death; if you take proper care of it, your garden will do fine with compost and some fish fertilizer at the time of transplant. And don’t use commercial weed killers, which are not as benign as advertisements would have you believe. Worse, they don’t stay put, they are dragged into the house by kids, pets, and your own shoes and clothing.
That’s it. I am off to try and deal with the green tomatoes harvested yesterday. If you have a similar glut, whether they are ripe or not, go to the website Food in Jars. There are literally dozens of recipes for how to preserve your harvest.
Thanks again, readers, for the memories.
Linden Staciokas has gardened in the Interior for more than two decades. Send gardening questions to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.