People grow their own food (I’m also including chickens here) for a number of reasons. It can be self-sustaining, at least to a degree. It can be more economical than buying certain things at the store. It is usually more flavorful. And it is for you. Those are some of the reasons why many Kodiak residents have taken up growing at least some of their own food.
The degree of local effort is as wide as the Gulf of Alaska: from a single halibut tub of salad greens to 60 hoophouses around the island, some as long as 100 feet. But whether you grow in a high tunnel or a low raised bed, trying to maximize your efforts is the primary challenge. All growers should ask themselves, “Why put forth the energy and time if you’re not doing efficiently?”
Thanks to modern materials and methods like sheets of plastic draped and clipped onto PVC pipe and fleece fabric to ward off the worst of rain and wind, Kodiak growers have a leg up on the elements. Gone are the days when you looked out your window to witness dozens of broccoli plants being topped by a NE’ly blast.
Since most folks tend small gardens, here are a few tips to you help your garden be all it can be:
Protect your plants
This spring is one of the mildest in recent memory, which has many gardeners scrambling to get the garden in. If you want to extend your harvest by planting early and harvesting past the first frost, make low tunnels to create a warm environment to protect plants from wind and weather. Remember to allow the tunnel to breathe, lest you cook your seedlings. If your radishes and turnips are prone to root maggots, cover your crops with fleece to protect the root maggot fly from laying eggs. June and July are the prime target months.
Grow high-value crops
If you have a hoophouse or greenhouse, grow things that are expensive to buy, such as fresh herbs, tomatoes, cucumbers and squash. If you drink a lot of kale smoothies, then by all means, grow your own. Some locals will argue that potatoes and cabbage aren’t worth the effort; and if you have a small garden, you might weigh the pros and cons.
Grow shoulder season crops
There’s no reason to think that August’s arrival means the season is nearly over. Pull out tired lettuce and bolting kale and sow seeds of cold-hardy crops like spinach, mustard greens, turnips, radishes and more lettuce to grow into the fall. Think of it as “hopscotch gardening.”
Is your garden in Arizona?
Of course not! But it’s a waste of time and energy to try growing novelty items like watermelon and bananas. Sure, you can probably grow anything here if you have the time and money. But why waste either one? If you’re having difficulty growing potatoes in your garden but carrots thrive for you, then sow more carrots. Crops that are easy to grow in one microclimate might be a struggle in another. Learn what works for you and your family. Seek the wisdom of your neighbors and gardening friends. Talk to gardeners at the June 7 plant sale.
Pick things at their peak. Don’t wait for the lettuce to bolt into 3-foot, bitter and inedible columns. Efficient harvesting means going around with your colander and picking a few leaves from each plant. Try it with kale, Swiss chard, spinach, broccoli leaves, cress, mustard greens and lettuce. And when the plant is expired, yank it and incorporate it into the compost pile.
Train cucumbers and zucchini (Tromboncini is a great climber) up a pole, stake your tomatoes and plant snap peas, fava beans, climbing nasturtiums and runner beans—with support, of course.
Mix it up
Here’s where the honeyberry comes in. Mixing edibles into your landscaped beds makes life more interesting. Edible flowers and herbs like parsley, thyme, sage and calendula add color and texture between fading primroses and tulips. Kale is a handsome plant, and what a surprise to have a clump of potato flowers blooming next to blue poppies.
Go cruisin’ around your garden
If you want healthy crops then you need to practice offensive gardening. In other words, prevention is the best way to stay on top of pest problems. Slugs, gray mold and aphids don’t just appear out of thin air (well, gray mold does). Make a point to inspect your plants daily. Doing so will help nip problems in the bud. No pun intended.
Grow cut-and-come-again crops
Swiss chard is the best example of a veg (an efficient term for vegetables adopted in the UK) that bounces back each time you harvest a handful of stalks and leaves. But given a second chance, many vegetables will come back after you cut them. Broccoli, if cut high, will grow small, secondary side shoots. Look for these varieties when you are seed shopping. And not everything needs to be transplanted as seedlings. Lettuce, mustard greens, kale, spinach and many other salad ingredients can be sown directly into the soil and grown as gourmet (baby) greens.
Make your own fertilizer
Compost is the one-stop answer to all soil deficiencies and garden problems. On Kodiak Island, we are blessed with a large variety of compost and mulch materials. I’ll cover this more thoroughly in future column, but for now, put your compost “treasure hunting” mind to work.
Learn how to can, dry, pickle and freeze
One of my favorite resources these days is the New York Times bestseller, The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz. Get a copy.
What to do with extra produce?
Service to others is the highest form of giving. If you have an extra row of carrots or a few more potatoes than you expected, donate them to the food bank at the Kodiak Baptist Mission or the Brother Francis Shelter. They are grateful for donations of fresh produce.
When you put all that effort into growing a bunch of carrots or a bowl of tomatoes, it gives you a new-found respect for farmers. It can also stimulate demand for locally produced fresh food. Many communities are recognizing the value of growing food locally. Governments are starting to look at how to improve the local food system. This ranges from reducing food waste that ends up in the landfill and tackling obesity rates to establishing farmers markets. Bottom line: growing local is a good thing, and worth the effort, no matter how small.
Meanwhile, I’m watching those honeyberry blossoms and hoping for good pollination.