• Check out the May 2015 edition of the Sitka Local Foods Network newsletter

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The Sitka Local Foods Network just sent out the May 2015 edition of its newly launched monthly newsletter. Feel free to click this link to get a copy.

This edition of the newsletter has brief stories about how Sitka was Alaska’s original garden city back in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, an update on upcoming Sitka Local Foods Network education programs, an update on the Sitka Farmers Market’s new manager, and a reminder about the Plant a Row for the Hungry program. Each story has links to our website for more information.

You can sign up for future editions of our newsletter by clicking on the registration form image in the right column of our website and filling in the information. If you received a copy but didn’t want one, there is a link at the bottom of the newsletter so you can unsubscribe. Our intention is to get the word out about upcoming events and not to spam people. We will not share our email list with others to protect your privacy.

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• In the 19th and early 20th Centuries, Sitka was Alaska’s original garden city

The 1900 potato harvest in the Sitka garden of Gov. John G. Brady. (Photo courtesy of Alaska State Library Historical Collections)

The 1900 harvest of potatoes and other vegetables from the Sitka garden of Gov. John G. Brady. (Photo courtesy of Alaska State Library Historical Collections)

Sitka cattle on the beach in 1887 (Photo courtesy of Alaska State Library Historical Collections)

Sitka cattle on the beach in 1887 (Photo courtesy of Alaska State Library Historical Collections)

Even though Sitka doesn’t have much in the way of commercial agriculture and gardening these days, at one point in the 19th Century and early 20th Century Sitka was Alaska’s original garden city.

Sitka has a unique history that includes the Tlingít, Russian and American cultures. Even before the first Russians arrived in the 1700s and made Sitka (or New Archangel, as the Russians called it) the capital of Russian America in 1803, the Tlingíts had simple gardens for potatoes and other crops they’d received from Spanish and other explorers. The Tlingíts would plant potatoes and other root vegetables before they headed out to their fish camps, then they’d harvest the gardens as they made their way to their hunting and winter camps. In addition, the Tlingíts in Shee Atiká (Sitka) were constantly gathering roots, berries, and other food and medicinal plants that grew in the area. The Tlingíts also created an early form of mariculture, creating clam gardens by creating rock-walled beach terraces at low tide to keep clams and other shellfish in certain areas for easy growth and harvest.

produceWhen the Russians arrived in Sitka, they were fur trappers and not colonists. However, the Russian czar required all land patents to have gardens, and that established the first formal vegetable and fruit production in Sitka. The Russians (along with the Finns and Swedes who served as indentured servants to the Russians) maintained several large gardens until 1867, when Russian America was sold to the United States.

Among the first Americans to arrive in Alaska were missionaries, including Dr. Sheldon Jackson who established a school for Native Americans in Sitka that eventually became Sheldon Jackson College and also served as Alaska’s Superintendent for Indian Education with the U.S. Department of Interior. In 1891, Dr. Jackson lobbied Congress to create a U.S. Department of Agriculture experimental farm in Sitka to see if agriculture had any potential in Alaska. It wasn’t until 1897, when Congress acted, passing a bill that in 1898 created USDA experimental farms in Sitka and Kodiak. Over the next few years, more USDA experimental farms would be established in Kenai, Rampart, Fairbanks, Copper Center, and Matanuska (Palmer).

ccg2Many details about the USDA experimental farm in Sitka can be found in an article in the Spring 1998 issue of Agroborealis (Pages 7-11), celebrating 100 years of agriculture research in Alaska. The article includes information about some of the experiments run by lead horticulturist Charles Christian Georgeson, who later moved to the Fairbanks experimental station and now has a botanical garden named for him at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. One of Georgeson’s first experiments involved growing potatoes, and he noted how well the local seaweed worked as a fertilizer. He also developed the Sitka hybrid strawberry in 1905, combining a wild beach strawberry from Yakutat with a commercial variety of unknown origin (see Pages 30-32).

Ph 2824Unfortunately, many of the experimental farms were closed, except the two in Fairbanks and Palmer. The Sitka experimental station closed in 1931, and much of the land was converted to other uses. Until he retired in 2014, Bob Gorman, a longtime University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service employee, maintained a few small garden plots on the former Sitka experimental farm site where he conducted a few experiments (including growing corn in a high tunnel). Some of the fruit trees planted by Georgeson more than 100 years ago still produce fruit.

A photo gallery of historic Sitka gardening photos is below, followed by a photo gallery of more recent photos of the former Sitka experimental farm taken during a September 2013 tour for the International Master Gardeners Conference Cruise when it visited town. The historical photos were provided to the Sitka Local Foods network in 2008 by then-Sitka Historical Society and Museum curator Ashley Kircher (now Ashley Oliphant) and intern Amy Thompson.

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• Bob Gorman to lead garden tour on July 31 as part of Sitka Seafood Festival

Bob Gorman, Extension Agent of the Sitka office of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service, shows some germinating seed starts during a free garden workshop on March 11, 2009.

Bob Gorman, Extension Agent of the Sitka office of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service, shows some germinating seed starts during a free garden workshop on March 11, 2009.

University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service Professor Emeritus Bob Gorman will lead a walking garden tour at 6 p.m. on Thursday, July 31, as part of the Sitka Seafood Festival.

The tour should last about 90 minutes, and participants should dress for the weather and be prepared for a walking tour with several stops. The garden tour will feature visits to a mixture of ornamental landscapes and food gardens in the downtown area.

Many of these gardens on this tour are private, home gardens, so no public map will be released for privacy reasons. However, last September when a cruise was in town with participants in the 2013 International Master Gardeners Conference, there was a similar tour of public gardens in town and there was a map (PDF document) provided to participants (note, the USDA Experimental Farm site in Sitka usually is closed to the public).

The event is free, but pre-registration is required and can be done by calling UAF Cooperative Extension Service Sitka District office at 747-9440 or emailing Jasmine Shaw at jdshaw2@alaska.edu by noon on July 31.