A Q&A about growing garlic in Sitka with Andrea Fraga of Middle Island Gardens

In recent years, Andrea Fraga and her partner, Kaleb Aldred, have been growing garlic at Middle Island Gardens, which they sell at Sitka Farmers Markets and on Sitka Food Co-Op pick-up days. They also are selling some of their garlic to local restaurants. Recently, Andrea responded to some questions about Middle Island Gardens.

Q: What prompted you to start Middle Island Gardens? Also, please tell me some of the basics about how you started the operation.

A: Kaleb and I began gardening as a means to be more self-sufficient, and after finding it immensely satisfying, we expanded our efforts into every semi-flat, semi-sunny spot. We even got away with growing unfenced potatoes before the deer developed a taste for them. So, one garden became two, then three years ago we were able to expand our efforts to a third, much larger and sunnier spot, and the idea to grow food commercially naturally arose. The hard work that stood between us and our goal was encouraged by the excitement of a shared vision to grow lots of local produce in a place where food security is a real consideration. At the same time, we got to create an artistic edible space together that we are both rather addicted to spending time in, and when someone eats our produce they get to share in that beauty a bit.

beach garden

Q: Did you have much of a farming or gardening background before you started Middle Island Gardens? If not, how did you learn about growing garlic in Southeast Alaska?

A: We both come from grandparents who worked the soil, though Kaleb took to fishing the seas as a young adult. Meanwhile, I was dabbling in gardening down in southern Oregon, and working on a few farms as well. When I moved to Sitka I was eager to continue in this vein, which seemed especially important considering how far fruits and veggies have to travel to get here. Kaleb likes to be helpful, so he whacked together a couple of raised beds, and we were off. Luckily there are some great local resources for a gardener adapting to Southeast Alaska’s soggy climate, and I remember reading Juneau Garden Club’s Gardening in Southeast Alaska and discovering Juneau master gardener Joe Orsi’s article Growing Garlic in Rain Country, as well as Florence Welsh’s excellent blog “Sitkavores.” She very generously donated some planting stock to us after I asked her which varieties she recommends (Georgian crystal and Persian Star, a.k.a Samarkand).  Washington grower Ron Engeland also wrote the very informative book Growing Great Garlic.

Q: What types of garlic do you grow, and what are the differences?

A: There are two main types of garlic. The softneck, or non-bolting type, and the hardneck type which produces a flowering scape.  We grow hardneck garlic, as it is hardier, more delicious, and produces those tasty scapes too. Among the hardneck garlics there are several subcategories — rocambole are most sought after for flavor; porcelain types have fewer, but larger cloves (2-6); then there are the purple-striped. We grow Killarney red, German red, Russian red and carpathian (rocambole), Georgian crystal, music and Russian giant (porcelain) chesnok red (purple stripe), and purple glazer (glazed purple stripe), as well as elephant garlic.

Q: What other crops do you grow and how have they done?

A: We grow just about everything that can tolerate this cool, wet, short season climate — potatoes, kale, carrots, peas, parsley, fava beans, broccoli, beets, lettuce, raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, gooseberries. We have also planted hardy kiwi vines, apple, plum and cherry trees, but they are still in their unfruitful adolescence at this point. One challenge I have noticed in the past couple of years is the arrival of a few different defoliating caterpillars. They seem to prefer berry bushes, especially raspberry canes, but will also eat apple leaves and even kale. It’s been a challenge that we have been dealing with by squishing them so far.

Q: Do you have any secrets for growing garlic in Southeast Alaska you’d like to share? (Andrea taught a growing garlic class Sept. 14 and her handout is linked at the bottom of this Q&A.)

A: We have had such wonderful results by using IRT (infrared-transmitting) plastic. Because garlic spends 10 months in the ground, many of which involve torrential rains, planting through this plastic mulch protects the soil from erosion, while also suppressing weed growth and warming the soil.  We’ve also increased the plant spacing from 4×4” to 6×8” and noticed a major increase in bulb size, which could also be a result of planting a couple of weeks earlier …. in late September. Mixing a nitrogenous cover crop such as vetch into the soil may also help, as it provides slow-release nitrogen and a loose, fluffy soil environment for bulbs to grow in.

Q: How hard is it to make a small garden/farm work in Southeast Alaska? What kinds of barriers and rewards are there?

A: The climate is by far the most challenging aspect of growing food here, but the landscape is also rather unsuitable. As many Southeast Alaska gardeners know, it can be difficult to come up with enough soil to get started, and then this soil must be heavily amended every year to counteract the incredible rinsing it receives. Kaleb and I are constantly carrying loads of seaweed and shell sand uphill to gardens, but the rewards are well worth it – nutritious food, lovely gardens, mandatory exercise, and spending time in beautiful places.

Q: You are growing garlic on one of Sitka’s barrier islands? Does that help give you better sun exposure, soil, etc.? Does it also make things harder when you need to bring product into town?

A: I think Middle Island may be just a couple of degrees warmer than Baranof Island at times.  Other than that, we are just fortunate to have the majority of our growing space be in a rather sunny spot, though we did work hard clearing trees to achieve this. We are also fortunate in that we don’t have any farming neighbors to compete with when it comes to collecting seaweed off the beaches after a storm. As far as bringing produce into town, I do often envy the farmer who’s able to park a pickup in the field, fill it up and drive it directly to the market. Lately I have made sure to provide a sort of mattress pad for the garlic to sit on in its tote as we skiff to town over autumn’s bumpy seas.

Q: Do you have any mentors who have helped you in your business?

A: Speaking of bringing produce to town, Bo Varsano and Marja Smets of Farragut Farm (outside Petersburg) have a much more challenging situation to overcome.  They live and farm up a tidal slough, and sometimes have to get up in the middle of the night to load their boat for the four-hour journey to Petersburg.  Those folks have definitely been an inspiration to us, as have Sally Boisvert and Rafe McGuire of Four Winds Farm in Haines, Joe Orsi of Orsi Organic Produce in Juneau, and of course Florence Welsh of Sitka, who is so incredibly generous with both her knowledge and her plants. Keith Nyitray of the Sitka Food Co-Op has been very encouraging and helpful, providing us a space to sell veggies and promoting our produce to boot. And, of course, we appreciate the Sitka Local Foods Network doing the same.

Q: How large is your operation and what is your ultimate goal?

A: We have approximately 4,500 square feet in production, minus paths, and are definitely eying every reasonable area for expansion. Though this is ridiculously tiny for agriculture, for Sitka we feel blessed to have so much space, and while we may not be able to ever make our entire living off of it, we’re going to try our best and just have fun along the way, meanwhile providing Sitkans as much nutritious food as the land and our efforts will allow.

Q: Do you have any other comments about Middle Island Gardens you think might interest others in Sitka and Southeast Alaska about your business?

A: I urge everyone to read the incredibly eye-opening book Eating on the Wild Side by Jo Robinson. The premise of the book is that modern-day produce varieties, which have been bred primarily for storage, shipping and appearance, have inadvertently become less tasty and nutritious. In fact, some veggies, such as broccoli, lose a lot of nutrients in transit. This great book recommends specific varieties of plants to grow to maximize your nutrient intake, and Middle Island Gardens will be selecting next year’s varieties with this in mind. Also, when you eat local produce, grown with the seaweed, sand, fish and rain of this place, you are yourself made of this place, which is a really cool thing.

• Growing Garlic In Sitka handout from Middle Island Gardens

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• Southeast Alaska Commercial Growers Conference to take place Feb. 27-March 1 in Petersburg

FarragutFarmFields

Bo Varsano and Marja Smets of Farragut Farm in Petersburg will host the inaugural Southeast Alaska Commercial Growers Conference from Feb. 27 through March 1 in Petersburg. This conference is made possible by the USDA Farmers Market Promotion Program and the Petersburg Economic Development Council.

FarragutFarmProduceStandatIngas“The Southeast Alaska Commercial Growers Conference is an opportunity for the commercial vegetable and flower producers of Southeast Alaska to get together and exchange ideas and techniques, with the purpose of improving and expanding local agricultural production,” Bo Varsano said. “Commercial agriculture in Southeast Alaska is still minimal, but is rapidly expanding with new growers starting up every year. While there are many uniquely specific challenges to growing in our region, few fully developed and publicized strategies currently exist for the new grower to follow. In light of this, gathering with other growers to share our experiences and ideas may be the best way to aid the growing agricultural movement in Southeast Alaska.”

FarragutFarmMarjaInGreenhouseIt’s not too late to sign up to participate, so please take a look and let us know if you have any questions or if you are interested in joining the fun. If the travel and lodging costs are dissuading you from participating, please remember that we can arrange a home-stay for anyone (contact us by Jan. 18 to arrange home-stays) and we still have one travel stipend ($200) to hand out to someone in need.

A few things to consider:

  • This conference is open to commercial farmers, aspiring farmers, as well as anyone in the general public who is interested in the local agriculture industry.
  • Participants are responsible for their own breakfasts and lunches.
  • Friday’s dinner will be prepared by KFSK, our local radio station. This meal is a fundraising event for the station, and a suggested donation will be requested.
  • Saturday’s dinner will be a communal dinner, jointly prepared for and shared by all conference participants at the venue.
  • There is no fee to attend, however, we will be asking for a minimal donation from each participant to cover the cost of venue rental and Saturday evening’s dinner.

Several regional farmers and industry specialists have volunteered to give presentations relevant to the issues and challenges faced by Southeast Alaska growers.  The following topics will be addressed:

We will begin the conference with a brief “show and tell” session. All conference participants will be asked to give a short (under 10 minutes) introduction including a description of their farm, their farming aspirations, or their involvement in the farming industry.

We especially encourage sharing photos of your operation. If you choose to do so, please bring those photos on a memory stick in JPEG format (in the largest original format). That is the ONLY photo format that we can guarantee will work with our computer.

We hope to see you all in February, and again, please do not hesitate to contact us with any questions. The best way to reach us is by email, at farragutfarm@gmail.com.

Please print up the attached documents (which include a conference agenda and a map of Petersburg showing the locations for the conference) and bring them with you when you come.

• 2015 Southeast Alaska Commercial Growers Conference Agenda

• Map of Petersburg

• Buying local food during a Southeast Alaska summer

Sitka Local Foods Network Board Vice President Cathy Lieser distributes "Alaska Grown" bumper stickers during the July Fourth parade in Sitka (Photo by Heike Hüttenkofer)

Sitka Local Foods Network Board Vice President Cathy Lieser distributes “Alaska Grown” bumper stickers during the July Fourth parade in Sitka (Photo by Heike Hüttenkofer)

By CATHY LIESER
Sitka Local Foods Network Board Vice President

I am cooking on a boat throughout Southeast Alaska this summer, so on May 5, I planted seeds in my garden, covered it with bird netting and wished it well until my return. The text from my friend read, “the weeds are winning,” luckily I have an herb garden on the boat.

I have been on the hunt for local food in the towns where we provision. It was a late spring, so early on I watched plots greening up and took mental notes. There was kale and rhubarb in Tenakee, with one grower who sells on Friday — The Party Time Bakery — which uses local produce for delicious meals. We bought a rhubarb-berry pie fresh out of the oven and took it back to the boat.

In Juneau, we stocked up at Pinkies Fish Market where the mission is to create a local food economy by sourcing local seafood and other farm fresh items. I toured the Jensen-Olson Arboretum (click here for Facebook page) with Merrill Jensen while he shared about their process toward having a certified virus-free Tlingít potato. The Wild Oven sourdough bakery found me sampling chewy and flavorful loaves that I found out got better with age. At the Second Saturday Market, I bought greenhouse-fresh basil picked that morning.

I barely missed the first Sitka Farmers Market on July 6, but did raid my garden for spinach, kale, lettuce, corn salad and miner’s lettuce. I thank those who watered for me during the hot month of June. Our next boat destination was Petersburg, where I finally arrived on a day where two growers were selling.

The Garden, which participates in the Alaska Grown program, is an abundant oasis of organic produce in the middle of town. Tonna Parker has turned a family lot into a production powerhouse using French intensive methods. For the last four years she has sold direct to the community, just stop by on a Tuesday or Saturday to see what she has available. I bought cucumbers and snap peas that did not make it home, I snacked while Tonna gave me a tour. She has beautiful raised beds, chickens, ducks and compact greenhouses where she is able to grow an astounding variety. Winter squash, pumpkins, tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, bok choi, kale, corn salad, arugula, carrots, beans, peas, berries, eggs, the abundance went on and on.

I was incredibly inspired by her approach toward finding varieties that thrive in her micro climate, ones that are tough and aggressive growers. She trials open-pollinated varieties and saves her own seed for many of her plantings. Freely sharing her knowledge, Tonna said she would happily work herself out of a job, she just wants folks to grow local and reap the benefits.

Farragut Farm makes the trip into Petersburg by boat to sell direct twice a month. Marja Smets and Bo Varsano had beautiful, tender and sweet produce for sale. Radishes nearly the size of golf balls, collards, kale, chard, green onions, carrots, garlic scapes, edible flowers, pea shoots, peas, Napa cabbage, turnips, beets, and lettuce. Wow, to have root crops and full-sized heads of Romaine lettuce and cabbage this early on is a testament to dedicated growing. I had heard that Farragut sells to charter boats and indeed I can place an order via email to be picked up one hour on either side of the high tide in Farragut Bay. They will row and deliver to the boat.

If you love fresh flowers, Craig Olson and Deb Hurley of the Flower Farm run a flower CSA.  For a $100 subscription they deliver six bouquets a summer.  Stunning dahlia, snapdragon, campanula, linaria, veronica, delphinum, and ageratum to name a few.  They grow in three hoophouses and three heated greenhouses that were funded with a $20,000 grant from the Petersburg Development Fund. Planting starts on Jan. 9, and 60 percent of their sales are in veggie and flower bedding plants.

Inga’s Galley (click here for Facebook page) is the Petersburg reinvention of Sitka’s late-but-beloved Two Chicks on a Kabob Stick food cart. Amyee Peeler (one of the Two Chicks from Sitka) sources local produce whenever she can, and of course all of the seafood is local.

Unfortunately, the The Market In Petersburg was not happening on the Friday while I was in town, but I hope to hit it on July 19.

I’ll keep looking over the next two months wherever we dock, I am heartened to see folks committed to growing and sourcing the best food in Southeast. If you know of anyone that I’ve missed leave me a note at sitkalocalfoodsnetwork@gmail.com (put “Attention Cathy” in the subject line).

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