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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Celebrate local farmers and gardeners on Alaska Agriculture Day on Tuesday, May 2

Alaskans will celebrate Alaska Agriculture Day on Tuesday, May 2. On this day, Alaskans are encouraged to support local agriculture by seeking out and purchasing products produced in Alaska and educating youth about the vital role that agriculture plays in our economy. This is Alaska’s version of National Ag Day (which took place on March 21 this year, when many parts of Alaska were still thawing out).

Here are a few ideas from the Division of Agriculture on how to celebrate Alaska Agriculture Day:

In Sitka, you can celebrate Alaska Agriculture Day by starting a food garden (even a couple of containers on your deck can provide you with potatoes, carrots or greens). Teachers are encouraged to offer a lesson plan or two about the importance of agriculture in Alaska and in Sitka. Here’s a link to an article about how Sitka was Alaska’s original garden city back in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Also, the Sitka History Minute feature on KCAW-Raven Radio has had several episodes about agriculture in Sitka (click here to listen to a feature about the potato in Sitka, click here to listen to a feature about the Sitka Agricultural Station, and click here to listen to a feature about the cows of Iris Meadows).

During the growing season, please support the Sitka farmers and production gardeners listed in the 2016-17 Alaska Grown Source Book (chief contact in parentheses) — Anam Cara Family Garden (Lisa Sadleir-Hart), Blatchley Community Gardens (David Nuetzel, this garden closed in 2016 and there is a group seeking a new location for what will be called Sitka Community Gardens), Down To Earth U-Pick Garden (Lori Adams, switched to a CSA in 2017 and no longer is a public u-pick garden), Finn Island Farm (Keith Nyitray), Sprucecot Gardens (Judy Johnstone), and St. Peter’s Fellowship Farm (Laura Schmidt/Sitka Local Foods Network). There also are a few Sitka farms and production gardens not listed in the 2016-17 Alaska Grown Source Book, such as Humpback Farm (Peter Williams), Middle Island Organic Produce (Andrea Fraga/Kaleb Aldred), Sea View Garden (Linda Wilson), The Sawmill Farm (Bobbi Daniels), Sitka Seedling Farms (Matthew Jackson) and Welsh Family Forget-Me-Not Garden(Florence Welsh).

Many of these farms and gardens will be vendors during the Sitka Farmers Markets this summer. The Sitka Farmers Markets take place from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays, July 1, July 15, July 29, Aug. 12, Aug. 19, Sept. 2, and Sept 9, at the Alaska Native Brotherhood Founders Hall (235 Katlian St.).

Building a Local Food System: Florence Welsh of Welsh Family Forget Me Not Gardens

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Florence Welsh and her Welsh Family Forget Me Not Gardens occasionally host a booth at the Sitka Farmers Market.

(Editor’s Note: The Sitka Local Foods Network’s Bulldog on Baranof intern this summer, Claire Chang, is writing the Building a Local Food System series of articles about Sitkans working to improve food security. This is the second article of the series.)

FlorenceWelshGoing on a tour of Florence Welsh’s Welsh Family Forget Me Not Garden is a magical experience. Raspberry bushes teem with succulent, red berries. Flowers of many shapes, sizes, and colors draw the eye in all directions. Sea kale yields abundant, hearty leaves, and the squash plants have begun to fruit. A cascade of pink roses hangs over the fence that surrounds fennel and artichoke beds. Rubbing one’s hand through the copious lemon balm or mint is a wonderful, sensory experience. The branches of elegant trees near the border of the garden abound with small, round apples. With a dehydrator, pressure cooker stand, and freezers literally overflowing with frozen berries, her garage indicates that her household makes use of the growing season’s bounty throughout the year

Raised in Weymouth, Mass., Welsh grew up exploring the seashore, swamp, and woods with her large family. She came to Sitka in 1965 and immediately fell in love with the unspoiled nature that she could experience here. For many years, she worked for the Sitka School District as a guidance counselor and as an administrator. During her summers off, she and her family hunted, fished, foraged, and spent lots of time in the garden. Welsh explained that though her family did not have a garden when she was growing up, she has “felt compelled to have at least a little bit of a vegetable garden” wherever she has lived since college.

Florence Welsh with copies of her Sitka gardening book

Florence Welsh with copies of the first edition of her Sitka gardening book

The prolific space that is now Florence Welsh’s garden did not emerge overnight. Her success as a gardener required years of trial and error. Gardening, Welsh explained, “is always place-specific, and the maritime Northwest is rainier and cooler than elsewhere.” Even compared to conditions in Seattle, gardeners in Sitka must adapt to a cooler, wetter climate. As she honed her gardening skills over the years, Welsh developed her place-specific gardening knowledge. For example, she came to understand how to improve soil fertility with seaweed and herring eggs and when to start and transplant various plants.

Forget-Me-Not-Gardens_Page_01Welsh’s desire to share her gardening knowledge inspired her to try to write a book for children and others in the Sitka community. She quickly realized, however, that the highly visual nature of gardening made it difficult for her to share her knowledge in a book. About a year and a half ago, Welsh decided to start a blog, SitkaVores, which allows her to incorporate photographs and format the gardening and foraging information. At sitkavores.blogspot.com, one can read about growing a wide variety of vegetables and flowers here in Sitka, as well as about foraged items like beach asparagus and berries. The blog also includes photos at various stages of the gardening process and recipe ideas. Welsh hopes to continue to add to the blog so she can share as much of her knowledge as she can. “I don’t want people to have to reinvent the wheel when it comes to gardening here,” she says.

SitkaVoresBlogScreenshotAs much as she enjoys working in the garden, what Welsh really loves is “getting out there” and experiencing the surroundings. She fondly remembers her and her family’s many hunting, scuba diving, fishing, and snorkeling adventures. The weather in Sitka, especially in fall and winter, can make it difficult to “get out there”, but Welsh explained that creativity helps people get through the periods spent indoors. In addition to working on her blog, Welsh personally enjoys reading and making artwork, such as drawings on bracket fungus, also called bear bread.

FlorenceWelshNow that she is getting older, Welsh explained that she is in the process of downsizing her garden. She will grow more perennial plants and cultivate fewer beds of vegetables. When her kids lived at home, they both helped out in the garden and ate a lot of the produce. Now, they are all grown, and Welsh “does not have the energy or endurance that she once had.” Still, her years of hard work have most certainly paid off. Not only does Florence Welsh have a beautiful, productive garden, but she has also helped many other gardeners get started her in Sitka. Without her commitment to sharing her hard-earned knowledge, many local gardeners would not have achieved the success that they have.

To learn more about Florence Welsh and the Welsh Family Forget Me Not Gardens, go to http://sitkavores.blogspot.com/.

Celebrate local farmers and gardeners on Alaska Agriculture Day on Tuesday, May 3

AlaskaGrownImpact

AgDayProclamationMay32016Alaskans will celebrate Alaska Agriculture Day on Tuesday, May 3. On this day, Alaskans are encouraged to support local agriculture by seeking out and purchasing products produced in Alaska and educating youth about the vital role that agriculture plays in our economy.

Here are a few ideas from the Division of Agriculture on how to celebrate Alaska Agriculture Day:

  • Join the 49,005 people who “like” the Alaska Grown Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/dnr.alaskagrown and learn about the exciting things Alaskans are producing around the state.
  • Contact your local agriculture groups/chapters (such as FFA, Farm Bureau, Agriculture in the Classroom etc.) to see if they are hosting an event in your area.
  • Sign up for a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program at a local farm.
  • Buy and incorporate Alaska Grown products into your meals.
  • If you are a farmer, consider asking a local school if you can visit a classroom to educate children about your operation and Alaska agriculture.
  • Visit and thank a local farmer in person. To find a farm near you, check the Alaska Grown Source Book at http://dnr.alaska.gov/ag/sourcebook/sourcebookindex2014.html.

ak ag day flyerIn Sitka, you can celebrate Alaska Agriculture Day by starting a food garden (even a couple of containers on your deck can provide you with potatoes, carrots or greens). Teachers are encouraged to offer a lesson plan or two about the importance of agriculture in Alaska and in Sitka. Here’s a link to an article about how Sitka was Alaska’s original garden city back in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Also, click here to listen to a Sitka History Minute feature about the potato in Sitka from KCAW-Raven Radio).

During the growing season, please support the Sitka farmers and production gardeners listed in the Alaska Grown Source Book (chief contact in parentheses) — Anam Cara Family Garden (Lisa Sadleir-Hart), Blatchley Community Gardens (David Nuetzel), Down To Earth U-Pick Garden (Lori Adams), Finn Island Farm (Keith Nyitray), Sprucecot Gardens (Judy Johnstone), and St. Peter’s Fellowship Farm (Laura Schmidt). There also are a few Sitka farms and production gardens not listed in the Alaska Grown Source Book, such as Sea View Garden (Linda Wilson), The Sawmill Farm (Bobbi Daniels), Sitka Seedling Farms (Matthew Jackson) and Welsh Family Forget-Me-Not Garden (Florence Welsh). Many of these farms and gardens will be vendors during the Sitka Farmers Markets, which start on July 2 this summer.

• Celebrate local farmers and gardeners on Alaska Agriculture Day on Tuesday, May 5

04.22.15 Alaska Agriculture Day

Alaskans will celebrate Alaska Agriculture Day on Tuesday, May 5. On this day, Alaskans are encouraged to support local agriculture by seeking out and purchasing products produced in Alaska and educating youth about the vital role that agriculture plays in our economy.

Here are a few ideas from the Division of Agriculture on how to celebrate Alaska Agriculture Day:

  • Join the 34,278 people who “like” the Alaska Grown Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/dnr.alaskagrown and learn about the exciting things Alaskans are producing around the state.
  • Contact your local agriculture groups/chapters (such as FFA, Farm Bureau, Agriculture in the Classroom etc.) to see if they are hosting an event in your area.
  • Sign up for a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program at a local farm.
  • Buy and incorporate Alaska Grown products into your meals.
  • If you are a farmer, consider asking a local school if you can visit a classroom to educate children about your operation and Alaska agriculture.
  • Visit and thank a local farmer in person. To find a farm near you, check the Alaska Grown Source Book at http://dnr.alaska.gov/ag/sourcebook/sourcebookindex2014.html.

In Sitka, you can celebrate Alaska Agriculture Day by starting a food garden (even a couple of containers on your deck can provide you with potatoes, carrots or greens). Teachers are encouraged to offer a lesson plan or two about the importance of agriculture in Alaska and in Sitka (also, click here to listen to a Sitka History Minute feature about the potato in Sitka from KCAW-Raven Radio).

During the growing season, please support the Sitka farmers and production gardeners listed in the Alaska Grown Source Book (chief contact in parentheses) — Anam Cara Family Garden (Lisa Sadleir-Hart), Blatchley Community Gardens (David Nuetzel), Down To Earth U-Pick Garden (Lori Adams), Finn Island Farm (Keith Nyitray), Sprucecot Gardens (Judy Johnstone), and St. Peter’s Fellowship Farm (Lisa Sadleir-Hart or Laura Schmidt). There also are a few Sitka farms and production gardens not listed in the Alaska Grown Source Book, such as Sea View Garden (Linda Wilson), The Sawmill Farm (Bobbi Daniels) and Welsh Family Forget-Me-Not Garden (Florence Welsh). Many of these farms and gardens will be vendors during the Sitka Farmers Markets, which start on July 4 this summer.

• Florence Welsh releases free update of her popular guide for Sitka gardeners

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Florence Welsh with copies of her Sitka gardening book

Florence Welsh with copies of her Sitka gardening book

One of Sitka’s best known gardeners is Florence Welsh, who heads up The Welsh Family Forget-Me-Not Gardens. The Welsh family has been gardening in Sitka since 1984, and the garden on Davidoff Street has been used to teach other gardeners what works in Sitka. Several years ago Florence wrote a guide to help other gardeners take advantage of her family’s experiences trying to grow edible and ornamental plants in Sitka using organic methods. This past winter, Florence updated her book and today she released the new version of the guide as a PDF file (see link below), and she is starting a blog about local food from Sitka called SitkaVores.

“We are sharing this gardening guide with the hope that it will be of some use to other gardeners in this challenging environment,” Florence said.

The book includes information about how to prepare your garden for Sitka’s short growing season, including how to set up your home for plants you may need to start inside. She talks about using sand and seaweed in the garden to help with drainage and fertilizer. The guide also lists many of the plants, bushes and trees the Welsh family has grown in its garden, including the specific varieties that did best in Sitka. There also are several photos from the garden.

Sitka Farmers Market Co-Managers Debe Brincefield, left, and Ellexis Howey, right, present the Table Of The Day Award to Florence Welsh and her daughter Cory Welsh of Welsh Family Forget-Me-Not Gardens at the sixth and final Sitka Farmers Market of the 2014 summer on Saturday, Sept. 5, at the Alaska Native Brotherhood Founders Hall in Sitka. The Welsh family has one of the larger gardens in Sitka, raising a variety of veggies including cabbage, carrots, zuccini, potatoes, greens, and more. Florence received a gift bag with fresh greens, fresh carrots, fresh rhubarb, and a copy of the Alaska Farmers Market Cookbook. This concludes the seventh year of Sitka Farmers Markets, hosted by the Sitka Local Foods Network. While the Sitka Farmers Market is over for the summer, we will host a produce table at the 20th annual Running of the Boots, with registration at 10 a.m., costume judging at 10:30 a.m. and race at 11 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 27, near St. Michael of the Archangel Russian Orthodox Cathedral on Lincoln Street. For more information about the Sitka Farmers Markets and Sitka Local Foods Network, go to http://www.sitkalocalfoodsnetwork.org/, or check out our Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/SitkaLocalFoodsNetwork. (PHOTO COURTESY OF SITKA LOCAL FOODS NETWORK)

Sitka Farmers Market Co-Managers Debe Brincefield, left, and Ellexis Howey, right, present the Table Of The Day Award to Florence Welsh and her daughter Cory Welsh of Welsh Family Forget-Me-Not Gardens at the sixth and final Sitka Farmers Market of the 2014 summer on Saturday, Sept. 5, at the Alaska Native Brotherhood Founders Hall in Sitka. The Welsh family has one of the larger gardens in Sitka, raising a variety of veggies including cabbage, carrots, zucchini, potatoes, greens, and more. Florence received a gift bag with fresh greens, fresh carrots, fresh rhubarb, and a copy of the Alaska Farmers Market Cookbook.

The Welsh Family Forget-Me-Not Gardens is one of Sitka’s most productive gardens when it comes to producing food, and Florence occasionally has a booth at the Sitka Farmers Market to sell her produce. The garden grows berries, fruit trees, herbs/mints, and a wide variety of vegetables. She includes some instructions with the vegetables, and the guide also includes a timeline for seed starting so you know when to plant. The guide ends with information about invasive plants, insects and slugs, and a list of useful seed catalogs and websites.

The homemade booklet, which Florence used to print out herself, now is available posted online (see link below). It also will be posted in the Documents section of this website.

• February 2015 update of Florence Welsh’s Forget-Me-Not Gardens gardening guide for Sitka

• Rabbit, goat highlight Sawmill Farm’s farm-to-table dinner at Ludvig’s Bistro

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Locally raised rabbit and goat meat from Ketchikan were the highlights of a fundraising farm-to-table dinner for the Sawmill Farm on Jan. 31 at Ludvig’s Bistro.

In an effort to raise seed money for her Sawmill Farm project, Bobbi Daniels worked with Ludvig’s Bistro owner/chef Colette Nelson to create a five-course meal featuring locally sourced food from Sitka and Southeast Alaska. Tickets were $75 per plate for the function.

Bobbi already is raising rabbits in town, and she said goats also do well in Sitka. Bobbi hopes to find a large enough lot so she can grow enough rabbits to supply local stores with meat. She said rabbit meat is one of the cleanest meats as far as toxins, and it only takes 10 weeks to raise a rabbit to harvest size. The Sawmill Farm was one of 12 semifinalists in the recent Path to Prosperity economic development contest sponsored by the Nature Conservancy and Haa Aaní Community Development Fund, and now is competing for the people’s choice award.

Working with local farmers and gardeners, Bobbi and Colette created five-course meal that featured:

  • rabbit terrine with farm egg, beach asparagus and mustard;
  • leek, heirloom tomato, zucchini and rabbit consommé with sprouted wheat bread;
  • Moroccan goat stew with ginger, preserved lemons, potatoes, dates and almonds, served with white satin carrot salad and balsamic beets;
  • grilled rabbit thigh served with aioli, Inca Bella potato purée and sautéed garlic kale; and
  • Russian pavlova with huckleberry, rhubarb, currants and Sitka rose sugar.

A variety of gardens and farms provided the food used for the meal. The Sawmill Farm supplied the rabbits and wheat berries, Sivertsen Farm in Ketchikan provided the goat, Lori Adams of Down-To-Earth U-Pick Garden supplied winter kale, Sara Taranof provided farm eggs, Linda Walker provided garlic, huckleberries, rhubarb and currants, and Florence Welsh of Forget-Me-Not Garden supplied white satin and orange carrots, heirloom tomatoes, red rose potatoes, Inca Bella potatoes, leeks, zucchini, beets, raspberry preserves and beach asparagus.

Scenes from the meal are in a slideshow below:

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