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 provides advice 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 4 of the Wednesday, March 28, 2012, edition of the Daily Sitka Sentinel.)

GARDENING IN SITKA

By Lori Adams

TAKE MY ADVICE

Your best resource for gardening advice is from experienced, successful Sitka gardeners. Ask them a lot of questions, but be ready for an interesting anomaly … they will give you different answers.

Don’t be confused and get discouraged, and DON’T think that one or both of them is wrong.  Most likely they are both right! They have each been successful and truly believe that their method is the reason why. What you need to do is gather all the information you can and then decide what is the best method for you to try. If that method doesn’t work then you can try one of the other suggested methods.

The one thing you don’t want to do is say something like, “Well, Lori Adams says that you have to raise your beds.”  This is a sure way to irritate them and they may stop offering you advise!  It would be better to form your statement into a question, “Do you think it is important  to raise your beds?” Ask lots of questions and be sure to take notes.

It is also a good idea to have some gardening resource books in your library.  The problem is finding ones that are actually helpful. Sitka has such a unique climate that we just don’t fit into any of the zones addressed in their charts and graphs.

Why are we so different?  For one thing we have a maritime climate. The ocean keeps us warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Our rainfall is 100 inches a year, and the winter is usually just a series of freezes and thaws. We get plenty of daylight hours, but since it is often cloudy we don’t get much sunlight. These are all unique characteristics, and when you put them together it makes gardening difficult. I recommend the following books:

  1. Gardening in Southeast Alaska by the Juneau Garden Club. This is the absolute Bible for gardening in Sitka. Although Juneau is warmer in the summer and colder in the winter than Sitka, this book is full of fabulous information! I try to read through it once a year.
  2. 3-Step Vegetable Gardening by Steve Mercer. This book tells you in simple terms just what you need to know about planting, growing and harvesting most types of vegetables and herbs.
  3. The Welsh Family Forget-Me-Not Gardens by Florence Welsh.  Florence has gardened on their property here since 1984.  In this booklet she generously shares information and seed varieties for successful Sitka gardening.

These books are available in Sitka stores and you can contact Florence for her booklet at florence.welsh@acsalaska.net

It’s also helpful to get a few magazines for information and inspiration.  I recommend Organic Gardening and Mother Earth News.

Next week’s column will address SLUGS!

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

2103 Sawmill Creek Road

Open June-August / Mon-Sat 11:00-6:00

747-6108 or 738-2241

http://downtoearthupick.blogspot.com/

• Daily Sitka Sentinel features Running of the Boots preview, plus other news about local foods from around the region

Celebration_Logo-forever

Runners hit the trail during the 14th Annual Running of the Boots race on Sept. 27, 2008, in Sitka.

Runners hit the trail during the 14th Annual Running of the Boots race on Sept. 27, 2008, in Sitka.

The Friday issue of the Daily Sitka Sentinel featured an article and photo previewing the 15th annual Running of the Boots on Saturday (Page 9), which is a fundraiser for the Sitka Local Foods Network. Unfortunately, the announcement did not make onto the Sentinel’s Web site. The Running of the Boots starts at 11 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 26, at the Crescent Harbor shelter (registration opens at 10 a.m.). The entry fee is $5 per person, or $20 per family, and there is a lip-synch contest after the race that costs $10 to enter. Click here for all the details about Running of the Boots.

In other news about local food around the region, the Juneau Empire ran several stories in its Outdoors section on Friday.

Click here to read the On The Trails column by Mary Willson, who writes about picking berries this late in the season.

Click here to read a brief item about some gardening presentations hosted by the Juneau Garden Club from 1-4:30 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 26, at Centennial Hall in Juneau.

Click here to read a story by Kwame Diehl about a fishing trip in Juneau to catch some halibut.

Click here to read a story by Abby Lowell about where to catch silver (coho) salmon in the Juneau area.

Click here to read Anchorage Daily News photographer Fran Durner’s “Talk Dirt To Me” garden blog, who writes about growing organic produce and a potato dig in Palmer this weekend.