Planet Alaska: Pandemic gardening follies

Mistakes or “learning experiences?”

Food sustainability is a frequent topic among Alaskans lately so this year we decided to try growing our own veggies. However, everyone who knows me knows I’m a wild harvesting educator and not a gardener. Yes, I’ve sat on a food sustainability board and community garden boards and even helped build gardens and fruit tree orchards, but still, I’m not a gardener. I can even help write and manage grants for a community garden, but, from experience, I can also tell you creative ways to kill everything you grow.

This is how my relationship to gardening usually works: You grow the carrots and I’ll pickle them for us with fireweed shoots I harvested. You grow the zucchini and I’ll get you 200 recipes to make yummy goodness, and I’ll tell you what wild Alaskan foods go great with zucchini. You grow broccoli, and I’ll blanch and freeze them for us. We can eat them in a white sauce pasta with morel mushrooms I harvested from the woods and dried for winter.

[Planet Alaska: We’re in this together]

My relationship to gardening is based upon previous follies. While living in Palmer, where people can grow just about anything, my mother-in-law razzed me out the back window of our house saying “How’s the gardening going Farmer Vivian? How many slugs you got today?”

The answer was probably 2,000.

I’m pretty sure the species of slugs growing in the Matanuska Valley drink beer and appreciated the beer pools I made for them. Ironically, we rented a house Palmer with a huge spot in the backyard where someone had grown vegetables successfully. That’s how I learned I never want to rototill again and I’m too old to weed anything on the ground. I am not a gardener or a farmer.

When we lived in Sitka on our boat, we had no way to garden. On the internet we saw creative and delightful ways people gardened on their boats. Luckily, we decided not to try. I’m pretty sure we would’ve failed. Our boat grew enough unwanted green slime on the deck that I didn’t need anything more on my to-do list.

When I was younger I naively assumed I could garden because I love food. I love to eat fresh vegetables from the garden. Growing up in Wrangell all of my Elders had gardens. I helped Great-Uncle Luke weed his carrots when I was just 7 years old. I spent hours and hours on my knees with my little hands in the dirt learning the names of all the weeds I pulled. To this day, they’re the best carrots I’ve eaten. My Great-Grandma Betty’s garden tires were full of the sweetest wild Alaskan strawberries and I grazed to my heart’s content, picking bowlfuls for her. I’m fortunate to have grown up with people like Uncle Luke and Grandma Betty who lived here long before there were airlines or ferries. Here in Southeast, we’ve always been a barge shipment or two from having no veggies on the shelf that so many people had gardens.

Springing into action

For some gardening is easy. For me, I’m stubborn and love fresh food so every now and again I give gardening a try. So why not this spring?

After all, we’re in a pandemic and many of us are trying to be more self-sufficient. Food security is a major issue. The problem is we have a tiny house, a tiny yard, and tiny porch. Our porch is 9 feet by 9 feet while our yard is 8 feet by 7 feet and void of any dirt to grow anything. So, I looked to the internet for ideas. Despite Pinterest being around since 2010, I haven’t tried it until last month. Now, I have a Pinterest problem, and I’ve found too many tiny home creative gardening projects. My partner is less enthused about this, but is a good sport.

[Planet Alaska: Your field guide to hope]

I’ve filled my spring days with mistakes, or “learning experiences.” I learned making anything out of pallets is a pain. I also learned to consider location and weather in a new place. The sun sets earlier on Douglas, so I had to prepare for it and this spring is colder and windier than last spring. Half my veggies, those precious little zucchinis and pea starts I diligently cared for in the limited window space of our 11-foot-wide house, snapped in half one day when they were outside to harden off.And my zucchini starts were getting root-bound while waiting for it to be warm enough at night to plant outside. Even last night the temperature outside fell to 38 degrees.

Raising up to meet the challenge

Eventually, my gardening friends’ advice and online investigations led me to conclude when it comes to tiny homes with limited land space, it’s all about raised beds, container planting, and vertical growing. No rototilling for me and the best part is fewer weeds. But then came the next dilemma: finding planting containers. Like so many others, during this pandemic we’re struggling financially and we’ve looked for every opportunity to find free containers. We lucked out and found free pots someone was giving away, but to grow enough vegetables we still needed more containers. The cost of containers adds up, and if I’m going to spend money on anything it’ll be good soil.

With every step we’ve improvised.

A couple of metal shelves that previously held tools are shelves for potted veggies. Plastic thrown over the shelves are a makeshift greenhouse to save the starts while we finish building the “greenhouse,” though we still haven’t figured out if we’ll put the greenhouse on the tiny deck or the tiny yard. We have grandiose dreams of someone swooping in and enclosing our entire tiny deck as a greenhouse. Are there superheroes like that?

My first crazy Pinterest idea was to repurpose a dresser we assumed was made from wood. After bringing it home and painting the front we discovered the drawer bottoms were particle board so we replaced those with wood. Eventually we found only two-thirds of the dresser’s large frame was wood and the rest was particle board. Sadly, our deep raised bed dresser idea went out the window.

The current operation

Now, we have a few heat-treated pallets we’re using to grow vertically and someone was giving away an old kiddie pool that’d been used as a garden bed so we didn’t even have to drill the holes in it. We scored an old picnic table needing a little support and a good scrubbing. We’ll use this as our platform for the raised garden bed. For the raised bed frame we purchased four cedar boards for about $16 at Home Depot. We’re using castaway old tires for our potatoes. Plus, a local restaurant gave us 5 gallon buckets to make sub-irrigated planters. These planters were much easier to make than I thought and I’m hoping they’ll save my tomatoes from my inconsistent watering habits. If you don’t know what a sub-irrigated planter is and you’d like to grow food without watering every single day you should really look these up. I’m hoping these are a game changer for me in the world of growing vegetables — I hope.

We are trying to be self-sufficient, limiting our social bubble, staying home, staying healthy. But it takes an effort. Gardening is a lot of work I’m not really suited for and we haven’t really started growing anything yet. I’m determined, though, to grow enough food to supplement us. And today, when I took a break from planting my carrots in the kiddie pool, I sat on our tiny deck and all I could think about is if the entire village of Angoon wanted to eat one carrot a day for the year they’d have to grow 127,750 carrots and that’s a lot of land just to grow carrots. Even though it’s work, I’m taking more steps towards food sustainability 1 container at a time.

• Vivian Mork Yéilk’ writes the Planet Alaska column with her mother, Vivian Faith Prescott. Planet Alaska publishes every other week in the Capital City Weekly.

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