Celebrating 25 years of Garden Gate columns

Gardeners showed for Saturday’s cleanup party at the Community Gardens to spruce up raised beds and compost bins. Everyone agreed that gathering together outside under the sun was divine! 

It was a cool day in March when I donned a warm jacket and walked up Ole Johnson Street to the Kodiak Daily Mirror office for my appointment with then-publisher Nancy Freeman.

We sat in the conference room and talked about my new idea, a weekly gardening column for the newspaper. And I would write it.

We talked about the coming spring: daffodils that would soon be blooming, how to grow seedlings under lights, sparrows that dig up pea seed,  making compost ... all manner of garden topics. Including earthworms.

Even though I was accustomed to pitching ideas to editors, having freelanced for Alaska Magazine for almost 10 years, I was nervous and felt like a car salesman.

Nancy, a tall, animated lady with bouncy hair, looked at me and asked, “Earthworms are good for the garden?”

Right then and there, I realized that I had, at least, an audience of one.

That was 25 years ago ... and today’s column is number 1,300.

I dedicated my first column to Kodiak Island’s gardening cheerleaders, for if it weren’t for gardeners, our front yards would still be populated with crab pots.

In that inaugural column, I wrote about three things to help us get through a period quite similar to what we are experiencing today: a cool spring.

First, prepare your soil.

“Kodiak’s soil is mostly volcanic in origin,” I said, “which means it has a low (acidic) pH, doesn’t drain very well and contains little or no organic matter.”

“To the novice gardener,” I continued, “this may seem like three strikes against even trying to grow peas, but the solution is simple: Make raised beds and add plenty of organic matter to your soil.”

Plenty of organic material. ... In 1986, I built my first compost pile, basically following a technique perfected by Sir Albert Howard in the 1920s while he was stationed in India. Two months later, I turned the finished compost into new raised beds, and by June I was eating my first homegrown salad greens.

Over the years I came to appreciate how organic materials in general, and compost in particular, are the organic gardener’s first answer to almost all shortcomings of an existing soil.

“We are very fortunate here because Kodiak is blessed with copious quantities of organics,” I said.

“Tides deposit windrows of kelp on the beaches, leaves gather along roads and under trees and many folks who raise chickens, horses, goats and rabbits would probably love to have their ‘stable scraps’ hauled away.”

Incidentally,  May 2 to 8 is International Compost Awareness Week. This year’s theme is “Grow, Eat .. COMPOST.” On the website (compostfoundation.org) you’ll find educational activities galore for individuals, families and teachers. Speaking of teachers, check out the annual poster contest.

For the second point, I outlined the basics of raising your own seedlings.

“It’s not as hard as you think,” I wrote, adding my own cheerleader touches. “Keep the soil moist — but not too wet — and make sure they get enough light.”

Then I listed some of my favorite plants:

• Herbs: dill, parsley, sage, wormwood, chamomile , fennel, oregano and thyme.

• Annual flowers: poppies, calendula, baby blue eyes and nasturtiums. 

• Vegetables: broccoli, cabbage, lettuce, mustard spinach, bok choy and red kale.

For the third tip, I introduced care of hand tools such as trowels, rakes, cultivators and pitchforks.

“Now’s a good time to pull out those hand tools,” hoping to give gardeners something constructive to do on a rainy day.

“Look them over, clean them up and replace handles and other parts if necessary. Give unfinished wood handles a coat of oil and scrape off old soil and rust.”

Most weeks, I simply wrote about topics I’d researched out of curiosity or to solve a garden problem I was dealing with. And I was determined to keep my tone and delivery out of the clouds (as in too stuffy) as a way to encourage new gardeners to enter the growing fold.

Near as I can tell, a year after COVID hit, the popularity of gardening has not waned. In fact, suppliers and growers alike speculate that the demand for seeds, plants and garden tools may well outpace 2020.

No one knows how long the pandemic will continue, so people around the U.S. have created outdoor havens populated with patio furniture, above-ground swimming pools and backyard gas fire pits. In Kodiak, while we’re not installing swimming pools on each block, we are seeing new hoophouses go up and raised beds being built. And the Kodiak Growers Facebook page continues to be sprinkled with how-to questions from first-time gardeners.

And that’s a good thing because we know what it’s like to go to the grocery store and find the produce section depleted of our favorite fruits and veggies. We’re better off, in so many ways, by growing at least some of our own vegetables.

Twenty-five years ago, I ended my first Garden Gate column by saying, “Until next time, think spring, talk to your plants, and share a garden tip with your neighbor.


Garden job jar:

This year’s plant sale will be held May 8 as a fundraiser for KMXT. We are taking plant donations starting Monday, May 3. Bring your donations of rhubarb, clumps of raspberries, gooseberries, currants, perennials, indoor plants and seedlings to 1223 W. Kouskov St. The May 8 sale begins at noon at the same address.  For more information: mygarden@alaska.net or 907-539-5009.


To join my Garden Shed newsletter, which is all about organic gardening with a few recipes and photo tips tossed in, visit my blog at MarionOwenAlaska.com. You can also find me on Facebook and Instagram. To get in touch by email: mygarden@alaska.net.

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