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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• Lori Adams says it’s time to start planning for garlic in her latest Daily Sitka Sentinel garden column

(Lori Adams, who owns Down-To-Earth U-Pick Garden and is a frequent vendor at the Sitka Farmers Market, will be writing a regular garden column in the Daily Sitka Sentinel this summer. The Sentinel is allowing us to reprint the columns on this site after they first appear in the newspaper. This column appeared on Page 3 of the Wednesday, July 25, 2012, edition of the Daily Sitka Sentinel.)

GARDENING IN SITKA

By Lori Adams

IT’S TIME TO START PLANNING FOR GARLIC

Garlic is the most rewarding thing I’ve grown yet in my garden.  It is amazingly delicious, easy to plant and does so well here in Sitka.

Even though it’s too early to plant garlic right now, the stores are starting to sell it and the catalogs are arriving in the mail. It’s good to buy now because garlic is a hot seller and everyone is usually sold out by October when you need it. Do not buy garlic from the grocery store to plant even though it is cheaper. It won’t do as well as stock bought from a nursery. In fact, many farmers spray the garlic with something to keep it from sprouting during storage.

Our local garden stores sell garlic and Penny Brown at Garden Ventures has been keeping track of the local gardener’s favorite varieties so be sure to talk to her. All garlic varieties fall under two basic categories — hard neck and soft neck.

Soft neck plants have soft stalks at harvest time that can be braided together. The cloves run on the smaller, milder side but have a long shelf life. Most of the garlic you see on the grocery store shelves is soft neck.

Hard neck plants have very rigid stalks.  The cloves run on the larger, more flavorful side but do not have a long shelf life. Hard neck garlic plants send a flower stalk out of the top of the plant in July that needs to be cut off so that all of the energy goes into producing large cloves. This flower stalk is called a “scape” and it’s not only edible, it’s delicious. Just eat it raw or chop it up and throw it into your stir fry.

All of the information I’ve gathered says that hard neck garlic is the best choice for Sitka.

The best time to plant garlic is in the fall. Some stores sell it in time for a spring planting and it works, but your garlic won’t reach its full potential. Preparation for the garlic bed should take place this September.

Remove all the existing plants in the bed, and till or loosen up the soil with a trowel.  Amend with fertilizer (or seaweed and compost), lime (or seashell sand) and bonemeal (or starfish). Be sure the bed has good drainage — if the garlic sits in a puddle all winter it will rot. Planting should take place mid-October.  Separate all the cloves of your garlic, being sure NOT to remove the individual papery covering over each clove. If the covering is accidentally removed plant the clove anyways.

Plant each clove about 2 inches deep and about 9 inches apart and then mulch the entire bed with a thick layer of seaweed to protect it from the winter weather. Mark your bed clearly so you remember where they are planted next year.

Next spring, green blades will start to appear that look like saw grass. Each blade indicates one clove. Fertilize or mulch with seaweed or compost when all the garlic has emerged. Harvest the scapes in July while they are tender before the flower develops.

During July the blades will start to turn brown from the bottom up.  Although garlic is edible at any stage, usually by early August half of the blades have turned brown and it is time to harvest. If you harvest too early it won’t store well and if you harvest too late the cloves will separate from the stalk and the flavor diminishes slightly.  Use a trowel to harvest instead of pulling the stalk to ensure that the garlic stays intact.  For storage just wash off the dirt, cut off the stalk to about an inch and let the garlic dry completely using a fan.

Save your largest cloves to plant for next season, eat the rest of the large cloves and save any tiny or misshapen cloves to plant an inch or two apart in a separate bed to use in the spring as “garlic greens.”  Garlic greens look like green onions but taste like garlic.  If you save and replant your own stock each year the garlic plants will get more adapted to our climate and will get better and better.

Garlic is so delicious, you just HAVE to try it.

Brought to you by Down-To-Earth U-Pick Garden

2103 Sawmill Creek Road

Open June-August / Monday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

747-6108 or 738-2241

http://downtoearthupick.blogspot.com/

• Sitka Local Foods Network gets mentions in Juneau Empire, Daily Sitka Sentinel, Capital City Weekly and on APRN’s Talk of Alaska show

The Sunday edition of the Juneau Empire and Monday edition of the Daily Sitka Sentinel (Page 4) both featured a press release about a Sitka Local Foods Network-hosted presentation about “Growing in Sitka and Southeast Alaska: The Food of Today, Tomorrow and 200 Years Ago” that takes place at 5 p.m. this Friday, Oct. 16, at the Kettleson Memorial Library. The presentation is by UAS anthropology student Elizabeth Kunibe of Juneau, who has spent the last six years researching traditional gardens in Southeast Alaska. The presentation also received a write-up in this week’s issue of Capital City Weekly that came out on Wednesday.

Monday’s issue of the Daily Sitka Sentinel also featured a press release about a put-the-garden-to-bed work party the Sitka Local Foods network is hosting from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 17, at the St. Peter’s Fellowship Farm.

On Tuesday, the Alaska Public Radio Network’s statewide call-in show “Talk of Alaska” was about food security and during the show the work of the Sitka Local Foods Network was mentioned. The Talk of Alaska topic on food security was a preview of the Bioneers In Alaska conference this weekend (Oct. 16-18) in Anchorage where food security will be one of the topics. Kerry MacLane, president of the Sitka Local Foods Network, is supposed to travel to Anchorage to participate in the conference.

In addition to the Sitka Local Foods Network mentions, there has been a lot of other local foods news around Alaska this week.

In Sunday’s Juneau Empire, Ginny Mahar (a chef at Rainbow Foods) wrote a column featuring a mac and cheese recipe with king crab. Ginny also writes the Food-G blog, which features a lot of local foods recipes for Southeast Alaska.

Also in Sunday’s Juneau Empire was an article about the Alaska Native Brotherhood/Alaska Native Sisterhood Grand Camp meeting in Juneau and discussion about subsistence fishing rights following the recent arrest of Sen. Albert Kookesh.

In this week’s Capital City Weekly, there is an article from Carla Peterson about the chocolate lily and how to prepare this edible plant for food.

In the Alaska Newsreader blog Wednesday on the Anchorage Daily News Web site was a link to a feature from TheDailyGreen.com, which listed Anchorage ninth among U.S. cities in per capita space given to community gardens. The list (opens as PDF document) was compiled by the Trust for Public Land, and it had a distinct Northwest feel with Seattle ranked No. 1 and Portland, Ore., was No. 2. Click here to learn more about Anchorage’s community gardens program.

In his Anchorage Daily News garden column last week, Jeff Lowenfels wrote about planting garlic now for spring flowers and an August crop.

The Mat-Su Frontiersman recently ran an article about a sustainability project at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Mat-Su College where students were gathering organic spuds.

Finally, while this isn’t about Alaska, you might want to read an article about efforts to preserve our biodiversity so we don’t lose more food plant varieties and why these efforts are important.