Gardening in Southeast Alaska
Guest Post By: LeAnn Edmondson, HomesteadDreamer.com
No matter where you live in southeast Alaska, gardening in southeast Alaska is a challenge. If for no other reason than the lack of sunlight year round, Alaskans have learned to adapt to their growing conditions and thrive. We have all seen the gigantic cabbage and pumpkins that are entered into the State Fair every year. The conditions are not quite the same when it comes to gardening in the southeastern part of the state.
I live in Ketchikan, the ‘tropics’ of Alaska. While not the southernmost community in the state (Adak has that title), we do have an extremely different climate due to being in a temperate rainforest. When I talk to people from the lower 48, I tell them we are just like Seattle, but it rains even more. A lot more. As in we have at least one month of solid rain per year, just with varying moods. Like the Alaskan Natives in the Arctic who have dozens of words for snow, we have dozens of descriptions for the mood of the rain. We get, on average…13 feet of rain per year.
Now, I don’t want you to think that all of southeast is like that. Just 20 miles away, as the raven flies, is Prince of Wales Island that receives as much as 40% less rain. As you can imagine, there are bonuses and frustrations that go along with gardening in all that ‘liquid sunshine.’ Being in the middle of a rainforest means we have mild year round temperatures and never really lack in water for the gardens. The flip side is it makes trying to open-field garden next to impossible. Besides the rain, there are the critters and naturally acidic soil we have to deal with due to the muskeg that is prevalent. Where there’s a will, there’s a way and I have been fortunate enough to learn from several successful gardeners who do everything from hobby farm to commercial farming on a small scale. There aren’t many large farms, at least not on this island that I am aware of.
The methods used to overcome and adapt to gardening here in southeast are pretty much the same as the ones used in the northern climates. We just use them for different reasons. Because we are warmer year round, we don’t really use greenhouses to deal with temperature (though it does extend the growing season by more than a month!). Instead, greenhouses, cold frames, and framed raised beds are used to keep the rain off and erosion down. The bottom line for gardening in rainy southeast Alaska? Have a way to cover it and contain the soil!
The average layer of topsoil on our rocky island is only a few inches. Yes, there are places where it is much deeper but for the most part, you will need to get soil delivered and even then, you will have a lot of work to amend it. To deal with the lack of good topsoil, we used a mix of bagged and local soils. Of course, removing a lot of the large rocks and adding sand and perlite to help with drainage was an absolute requirement.
Gardening in Southeast Alaska Tip #1 | Framed Raised Beds
How It Helps. All that rain will cause erosion, not to mention nutrient loss in your soil, as it drains away without it. Having a simple frame to keep the soil in one spot keeps the roots buried and the nutrients in place longer. Employing the “Square Foot Gardening” method is also much easier with a frame.
Challenges. Your soil will eventually lose the nutrients your plants need if left open to the elements, draining out the bottom of your frame. To overcome it, you will need to feed and fertilize the soil during the growing season. In the off season, mixing in compost or other organic material, along with some manure or fertilizer will help and should never be skipped. It just takes some extra attention due to all the rain. You also need to make sure there is drainage at the bottom so as not to drown the plants. Line the bottom with flat-ish rocks to help!
Gardening in Southeast Alaska Tip #2 | Cold Frames
One of my personal favorites because it is very useful in extending your growing season, cold frame gardening is a fantastic way to combat the deluge!
How It Helps. We crafted a simple hinged frame that was built with a 2 x 4, some 1/2 inch pvc pipe, and plastic sheeting. Due to the high winds, we also have a hook-in-eye latch to keep them down. The curved lid allows for taller plants such as garlic and onions to be grown in them, too. They keep the rain off of the plants so there is no nutrient loss or risk of drowning the plants. As a bonus, because it is a covered, raised and framed bed, the overall temperatures tend to stay 5-15 degrees warmer than the outside air! What this means is when it is 40-45 degrees at night, it is closer to 50 degrees inside the cold frames. If there was sunshine that day and you made sure to close them to trap in some heat, it may be even warmer. Cool loving plants can easily be grown well before and well after the regular growing season. Up to a month either way! One final bonus: Weeding is cut down to a minimum!
Challenges. You need to visit your cold frames every day during the growing season, unless you go to special lengths. If you are overly busy, this may be a problem. As a gardener, you pay more attention to the weather than most people. You need to open your cold frame during the day at least once to air it out.
Gardening in Southeast Alaska Tip #3 | Greenhouses
Truthfully, any covered area will do. I often see more high tunnels shown in the northern part of the state than down here. Either way, you need to protect the plants from the elements and both options will do the trick! These can be fairly inexpensive if you are able to recycle materials. Pre made kits or designing your own can get costly fairly quick so be sure to research different options before buying something new.
How It Helps. A greenhouse or other covered area is a controlled environment. You have contained an area to create optimal growing conditions for various plants. The rain will not be an issue, you control the water the plants get and as a bonus, it cuts down on weeding considerably.
Challenges. Overall, slugs have been the largest issue overall. Air flow was another issue that caused some fungus growth, specifically on our tomatoes. Weeds are easily dealt with when you employ the gardening methods talked about here. The time and money invested, even with recycling as much as we could, were paid in many weekends of construction and several hundred dollars.
It was worth it, of course. The first year, we harvested an estimated 25 pounds of carrots, 20 pounds of green beans, and 15 pounds of white onions. The second year, we got into potatoes and even though we didn’t get as much as we should have, we still brought in 8-10 pounds of large, beautiful russets.
LeAnn Edmondson lives in beautiful Southeast Alaska with her husband and fur babies. She dreams of the day when they can buy property and homestead it. Her blog is found at www.homesteaddreamer.com and focuses on working toward a more self-sufficient lifestyle while trying to be prepared for the unknown.