Moby the Mobile Greenhouse to spend rest of year at Pacific High School in Sitka

Pacific High School gardening class teacher Maggie Gallin, center right facing camera, shows Moby the Mobile Greenhouse to her students during Friday’s class.

During the Pacific High School gardening class last Friday (Feb. 15), school social worker Maggie Gallin, who teaches the class, was showing the students around Moby the Mobile Greenhouse when she asked the students to visualize what they wanted to grow in the greenhouse this year. Moby arrived in Sitka earlier in the week, just in time for the Southeast Alaska Farmers Summit.

The students already have raised garden beds outside the school where they grow more traditional food crops for Sitka, such as lettuce, kale, potatoes, carrots, etc. So the students were a bit more daring in their choices.

George wants to try growing citrus. Hannah wants to grow peppers, Doug wants to grow bell peppers, while Karl and Jayvan want to try growing corn. These are crops that need a greenhouse to grow in Sitka, and they won’t grow well outside. Our climate isn’t hot enough.

“Our culinary program is really strong,” Gallin said. “But we have a garden program and a subsistence program that we want to get stronger. This will be a mini-learning lab for us on a small scale, and the students want to experiment.”

Pacific High School gardening class students discuss what crops they want to grow in the garden beds inside Moby the Mobile Greenhouse.

Pacific High School is Sitka’s alternative high school, which promotes different styles of learning and more personal attention. Principal Mandy Summer, who taught gardening classes before she became principal, said the school built its first raised garden bed in 2010 after Phil Burdick’s English class read the Paul Fleischman novel Whirligig, and the garden bed served as a place to put the whirligigs the class made where they could catch the wind. To supplement the novel, the class read articles about how to grow plants.

Over time the project grew into two classes, including one on how to build things such as more garden beds, a composter, a sifter and other items for the garden. There now are about a half-dozen raised garden beds behind the school.

The addition of Moby the Mobile Greenhouse will elevate the garden class project at Pacific High School. Moby the Mobile Greenhouse is a tiny house greenhouse project that travels to different schools in Southeast Alaska by Grow Southeast in partnership with the Sustainable Southeast Partnership, Spruce Root and the Southeast Alaska Watershed Coalition. It was built with support from the University of Alaska Southeast, the Juneau School District, the Nature Conservancy and the Sitka Conservation Society. Before coming to Sitka, Moby spent a year each in Kake, Hoonah and Yakutat.

“Our (Pacific High’s) theme this year is growth and legacy, and Moby fits our theme,” Gallin said. “The students will be leaving something behind, and they’ll be contributing something that’s individually fulfilling.”

Moby is the size of a tiny house, and it can be pulled behind a pick-up truck. There are six small garden beds inside about waist height (three on each side), plus there are places for hanging baskets. In addition, there are rain gutters to catch rainwater to use in the garden beds. The program’s link includes a handout about Moby and a downloadable curriculum for the teachers to use.

The Pacific High School garden program already has several student-built raised garden beds, a composter, a sifter, and a small older greenhouse (from a kit) behind the school.

“Part of having Moby here is for our partnership with Baranof Elementary School, where our kids can be mentors,” Summer said, adding that in time the school hopes to grow enough food for the school lunches at both Pacific High and Baranof Elementary. There is a plot of land behind the school where Summer, Gallin and others at the school are hoping to expand the garden program, and that includes having a greenhouse or high tunnel to extend the garden season. “The plan is to have a more permanent structure.”

“Moby the Mobile Greenhouse travels to a different rural Southeast Alaska community, each growing season to kickstart interest in growing local produce, especially among young people,” said Jennifer Nu, a local foods director for the Southeast Alaska Watershed Coalition and a community food sustainability catalyst for the Sustainable Southeast Partnership. “We hope that the greenhouse inspires a new wave of vegetable gardeners, builders, local food system advocates in Sitka and beyond. Pacific High School was chosen for strong leadership, commitment to hands-on, place-based, project-centered learning that also has wellness and community at the heart of its mission. Students at Pacific High will share their learning experience with children at Baranof Elementary school and possibly students even younger. Moby will mobilize a longer-term vision as a local food system learning center for educators around the region.”

Pacific High School garden class students and class teacher Maggie Gallin (in stocking cap with back to camera) check out Moby the Mobile Greenhouse during their class on Friday, Feb. 15.

Pacific will have Moby through October, when the garden season ends. The students will still work through the summer, even though school won’t be in session. While Moby is in Sitka, the students discussed dressing up the mobile greenhouse with Native formline drawings.

“I’m excited for more fresh produce in lunch, and working with kids,” sophomore Melissa Gibson said.

“I want to grow stuff and take care of it,” sophomore George Stevenson added.

While in Sitka, Claire Sanchez of the Sitka Spruce Tips 4-H program will work with Gallin. There also will be other gardeners who might help with the class. The staff at Pacific hopes having Moby in Sitka will encourage more people in town to garden.

“One of the stats Sustainable Southeast Partnership wants us to track is how many gardens are inspired by Moby,” Gallin said.

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Sitka Tribe of Alaska receives EPA grant to study microplastics in subsistence foods

Sockeye salmon hangs from racks in the smoker.

The Sitka Tribe of Alaska (STA) has been awarded a one-year, $30,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency‘s Environmental Justice Small Grant Program. The grant project, “Microplastics in Tribal Subsistence Foods In Southeast Alaska,” will include the University of Alaska, Mount Edgecumbe High School, the Southeast Alaska Watershed Coalition (SAWC), and Sitka Conservation Society as partners.

Esther Kennedy of the Sitka Tribe of Alaska Resource Protection Department samples water near the Starrigavan Recreation Area dock for marine biotoxins such as paralytic shellfish poisoning. (Photo by Emily Kwong, KCAW-Raven Radio)

“STA will collect water and subsistence food samples from four locations within STA’s traditional territory to test for the presence of microplastics and associated toxins,” Sitka Tribe of Alaska grant administrator Rachel Henderson wrote in an email. “These results will be compared to commercially purchased foods and safety standards. These results will be shared with the public so they can make informed decisions about harvesting traditional foods. Local students will assist with the sampling of local food and water.”

Henderson said Jennifer Hamblen is the project manager for the tribe, and she is working with Jeff Feldspaugh of the tribe’s resource protection department and the tribe’s partner agencies.

“Part of STA’s mission is to help ensure that subsistence resources for STA Tribal Citizens are available and safe,” Hamblen said. “In recent years, there have been many studies and publications from other places, such as British Columbia, about microplastics and their associated toxins having devastating consequences on animals, and potentially affecting the people who consume them. This is a pilot project to see if there are microplastics in subsistence foods in our area and comparing locally collected seafood to seafood available at supermarkets.”

Microplastics, aka phthalates, found at low tide. There are concerns microplastics are getting into subsistence foods and that will impact people’s health. (Photo courtesy of

University of Alaska Southeast was written in as a project partner and the UAS conference in July is one of the places that STA will present the results, Henderson said. The Southeast Alaska Watershed Coalition (SAWC) has done microplastic water collection on behalf of salmon in the past, and Sitka Conservation Society (SCS) is very invested and knowledgeable about microplastics and their effects on the environment.

“We’ll be collecting shellfish from the Starrigavan estuary to process for microplastic consumption. We will also collect water samples using the methods already established by SAWC,” Henderson said.

While the project is just starting to launch, it has had one setback, Henderson said. “When we wrote the grant, we were going to send the samples to a certified, plastic-free laboratory, such as the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Applied Science, Engineering, and Technology Laboratory. That lab ran out of funding and is no longer operational, so we’re looking for another lab. Right now Jenn’s writing the QAPP (an EPA requirement before an sample collection that has to be approved before we can start work) so we can collect samples and we’ll look at presence/absence of microplastics with students from Mount Edgecumbe High School. We’ll save samples in case we get an opportunity for a larger project and find an appropriate lab to run phthalate samples. There will be photos with MEHS collecting samples and processing samples after the QAPP is approved.”

• Tlingít potato makes a comeback in Juneau

(Photo courtesy of Klas Stolpe/Juneau Empire) Bill Ehlers, assistant gardener at the Jensen-Olson Arboretum in Juneau, holds a Tlingít potato next to some borage plant flowers.
(Photo courtesy of Klas Stolpe/Juneau Empire) Bill Ehlers, assistant gardener at the Jensen-Olson Arboretum in Juneau, holds a Tlingít potato next to some borage plant flowers.

There was an interesting article in Wednesday’s edition of the Juneau Empire about the revival of a Tlingít potato that was a staple in Tlingít gardens for hundreds of years (Click here to read the Juneau Empire article by Kimberly Marquis).

Tlingít and Haida gardeners grew their own vegetables more than 200 years ago, and potatoes were one of their most important crops. In an article in the Winter 2008/2009 newsletter for Alaska EPSCoR (Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research), University of Alaska Southeast social science/anthropology student Elizabeth Kunibe said residents of many Southeast Alaska villages planted gardens of root vegetables — such as potatoes, rutabagas and parsnips — on neighboring islands in the spring while they headed to their fish camps. They harvested them when they returned home in the fall (Click here to read the article on Pages 4-5).

Kunibe said many of these gardens disappeared over the past century, especially as the U.S. Forest Service parceled out some islands for homesteads or fox farms. She said Tlingíts in Sitka lost their island gardens in World War II when the government forbade private water travel. The increasing availability of imported food and other disruptions, such as tuberculosis outbreaks, also sped up the demise of the individual and community gardens found in many Native villages. Kunibe said in 1952 they grew 4,000 pounds of potatoes in Angoon, but the gardens disappeared and Angoon was without a garden until the last year or two when there was a movement to start a community garden.

The Tlingít potato is a fingerling potato with a yellowish skin and somewhat lumpy shape. They do not do well mashed or fried, but taste great in soups or roasted, said Merrill Jensen, manager of the Jensen-Olson Arboretum in Juneau where they expect to harvest about 1,500 pounds of the potatoes next month. The Tlingít potato also is known as “Maria’s Potato” in honor of the late Maria (Ackerman) Miller, the Haines woman who in 1994 gave Juneau’s Richard and Nora Dauenhauer their first seed potatoes. Miller, who died in 1995, told the Dauenhauers the potatoes had been in her family for more than 100 years.

According to Kunibe, who sent samples to a plant geneticist for DNA testing, the Tlingít potato is a distinct variety among potatoes, but they are very similar to two other varieties of Native American potatoes — the Ozette or Makah potato from Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula and the Haida potato from Kasaan on Alaska’s Prince of Wales Island. In a June 7, 2007, article in the Chilkat Valley News (click here to read it), Kunibe said potatoes arrived in Southeast Alaska aboard Spanish ships as early as 1765. She said the three Native American varieties are closely related to potatoes grown in Mexico and the Chilean coastal areas. (Most modern domestic potatoes are descended from species native to the Peruvian Andes.) The Tlingít potato grows well in our rainy climate and keeps a long time in a root cellar. Kunibe said the potatoes became a prime Southeast Alaska commerce item in the early 1800s and the Russian fleets contracted with the Tlingít and Haida tribes to grow them.

Bob Gorman, a master gardener who works with the Sitka office of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service, said off the top of his head he didn’t know of anybody growing the potato in Sitka right now, though he did suggest several longtime gardeners who might know if people grew them in the past. Maybelle Filler, a master gardener who works with the SEARHC Diabetes Program, said they are looking to bring some seed potatoes to give to Sitka gardeners, but she had been told the potatoes can’t be sold at local markets (though they can be given away).

(Photo courtesy of Klas Stolpe/Juneau Empire) Bill Ehlers, assistant gardener of the Jensen-Olson Arboretum in Juneau, tends to a Tlingít potato plant on July 27, 2009. The potatoes will be used as seed stock to be distrbuted to people interested in growing the variety.
(Photo courtesy of Klas Stolpe/Juneau Empire) Bill Ehlers, assistant gardener of the Jensen-Olson Arboretum in Juneau, tends to a Tlingít potato plant on July 27, 2009. The potatoes will be used as seed stock to be distrbuted to people interested in growing the variety.