• Sitka Local Foods Network education committee seeks new families for garden mentor program

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For a third straight year (2015-16), the Sitka Local Foods Network (SLFN) education committee wants to help families in Sitka learn how easy it can be to grow some of their own food. We are looking for up to three families who would like to learn about and try vegetable gardening in their own backyard through our Family Garden Mentor project.

Through a series of six workshops to be held at the families’ homes, Sitka Local Foods Network education committee volunteers will help the families:

  • Choose a location for a vegetable bed (learning about sun, drainage, etc.),
  • Build (or find) a planter/container or raised bed, and acquire soil and soil amendments,
  • Learn about soil and prepare the soil for planting,
  • Plant 2-4 easy-to-grow plants — specifically potatoes, lettuce, kale, and maybe a perennial edible such as rhubarb or fruit bushes,
  • Learn to take care of their plants over the summer — teaching how to care for and pick the vegetables (without killing the plant),
  • Harvest potatoes, and
  • Cook a meal using the vegetables they have grown.

IMG_0005The Sitka Local Foods Network will provide all materials — soil, lumber, seeds, etc. — free to the participating families. Families will be expected to provide the labor, enthusiasm for gardening, and healthy appetites to eat the vegetables they grow.

The requirement to own your property or home was dropped in 2015, and people who rent now are participating through container gardening. Interested families must meet only three requirements:

  1. They must be first-time vegetable gardeners (this project is meant to help people who are just starting to garden, not people with previous experience, even if it was not in Alaska),
  2. They must want to try vegetable gardening and be committed to participating throughout the summer, and
  3. They must agree to let others come and attend classes at their property.

Other criteria, such as availability and interest in a second year of mentoring, will also be used to help select the final three families. Families that are not selected will be placed on a waiting list in the hope of future continuation and expansion of this project.

IMG_0751The Sitka Local Foods Network has expanded the program this year to include more families and to include at least two households living in rental housing that will garden in portable containers or planters appropriately sized for their space (in case moving is necessary). We also will offer a second year of mentoring to previous participants, so families can expand their knowledge and try growing more “difficult” vegetables, such as carrots, green onions, chard and peas.

IMG_0022Workshops may start as early as this fall or winter with selecting the garden site, ramp up in the spring of 2016 and run through September’s late harvest. First-year classes will focus on the easiest-to-grow vegetables (and fruit) in Sitka — potatoes, lettuce, kale, and rhubarb.

Families interested in participating in the 2016 program should contact Michelle Putz at 747-2708 before Jan. 15, and provide a name, address, and contact phone number.

A slideshow of scenes from our first two years of the family garden mentoring program is posted below.

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• Final classes set for 2015 Sitka Local Foods Network garden mentor program

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Tammy O’Neill shows off her garden from the Sitka Local Foods Network’s garden mentoring program. After growing in just one garden bed last year, she added new garden beds this year for her second year of the program.

Tammy O'Neill with her first carrot

Tammy O’Neill with her first carrot.

The 2015 gardening season is coming to a close, and the Sitka Local Foods Network garden mentor program is scheduling its final classes of the season to teach novice gardeners how to harvest their produce and winterize their gardens so they are ready for next spring.

So far classes have been set for four of our six garden mentor program students, with the other two TBA. Our four first-year students (A.J. Bastian, Rebecca Kubacki, Breezy and Josephine Dasalla) have been growing lettuce, kale, potatoes and rhubarb, four crops that grow well here in Sitka without a lot of fuss. Our two second-year students (Tammy O’Neill and Anna Bradley) have grown carrots, chard, green onions and peas, four crops that can grow well in Sitka but need a bit more loving care.

In addition to having experienced gardeners mentor them, all six students agreed to allow the classes taught at their garden plots be open to the public. The classes scheduled so far are:

  • A.J. Bastian, 207 Brady St. — noon, Wednesday, Sept. 23.
  • Rebecca Kubacki, 1202 Halibut Point Rd. — noon, Tuesday, Sept. 29.
  • Anna Bradley, 4764 Halibut Point Road, 1 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 29.
  • Tammy O’Neill, 2309 Merganser Drive, 1 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 8.
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Rebecca Kubacki and her family with their garden.

Our two second-year students had never gardened for food before they started the program. They said they learned a lot and recommend the program to other new gardeners.

“I have so much more confidence and appreciate all the hands-on (help) I received,” O’Neill said, adding that her garden helped her save a lot of money on vegetables. “I don’t think I would have done it without the help and encouragement I had. I now have a network of people I can call to help with any questions or concerns I may have. I love eating local, fresh organic produce.”

After having a successful growing season last year, our returning students and a couple of the new ones had some soil problems this year. The gardens grew well in May and June, but in mid-July the plants seemed to stop growing even though the plants were well-formed. After some soil tests, it was discovered that some of the purchased compost was lower in nutrients than listed and the soil was more alkaline than normal (most soil in Sitka tends to be acidic).

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A.J. Bastian and her family with their newly planted garden.

“I learned that mostly the grade of the soil is important,” Bradley said. “We did a lot of work gathering the soil and beach herring, only to have maybe not enough fertilizer. The only thing we did different this year is not put in store bought soil. I look forward to gathering my potatoes and plan to read up more on gardening. Hopefully next year we will be more successful.”

Michelle Putz has been contracted to coordinate the program and design lesson plans, after the Sitka Local Foods Network received a community development grant from First Bank. We also have about a half-dozen experienced Sitka gardeners who serve as mentors for the program. Also, we have started to recruit for 2-3 participants to join next year’s first-year program.

For more information about the garden mentor program, please contact Michelle Putz at 747-2708.

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Garden mentor Linda Wilson with Anna Bradley and Anna’s daughter in 2014.