In the early years of Juneau's community garden, the earth was rocky and hard, full of tree roots, packed down by years of use by motorcyclists and golfers.
But thanks to loads of sand, mulch and a healthy dose of brewer's grain from Alaskan Brewery, the soil grew rich. Today, flowers and vegetables spill out of plots, tumbling over the sides of raised wooden beds in explosions of color.
On a rainy Saturday, several gardeners scattered throughout the rows, ignoring the gray sky and the pestering insects. Chris Bauman, who has rented a plot in the garden since it opened in 1993, pulled weeds with a sure hand, glancing at them briefly, then setting them to the side in a rapidly growing pile.
She comes to the garden about once a week, Bauman said. In her 10-by-20-foot plot - divided, like most of the other plots in the garden into a number of raised wooden beds - she grows "salad stuff" and medicinal herbs, including catnip for her pets.
"They love it," Bauman said. "The fresh stuff is so much more potent.
"You can make tea out of it too, drink it yourself," she added with a laugh. "But when I make it, my cat tries to come and play in my tea cup."
Nearby, Jane Edwards trundled a wagon from the storage shed of community equipment toward her plot. She and Bauman are located in the organic section of the garden, where only natural fertilizers and supplements can be used to encourage plant growth.
"I'm just returning," Edwards said. "I've gardened in the past here when it first started." She left because, she said, "I live downtown, and it was just a long way to drive."
But she has only a porch garden at home, so the promise of space - and of community - brought her back.
"This is a really nice place," Edwards said. "Even on a rainy day, there's people here, working the soil."
Today, the garden is blossoming and expanding to fill its parcel of land, which is on the Montana Creek turn-off on Montana Creek Road.
However, it wasn't always clear where the garden would be, said Jim Douglas, resource development and youth agent for Alaska Cooperative Extension Service. Three or four sites were considered, with the land near Montana Creek winning out when it became clear that the city was willing to turn it over for the project.
"They said, 'Here's something you can't do too much damage to,' " Douglas said with a laugh. "At one time I think it was a gravel pit. Then for a while it was a race course. The first time I was ever out on it, it was a driving range. When we got it, I'm guessing it had about a total of an inch of soil and a whole bunch of scrub alders."
Cleaning up the site took some time, said Ed Buyarski, a member of Southeast Master Gardeners and the Primrose Society. Volunteers removed "dump trucks worth of cars, old refrigerators (and) engine blocks." They diligently mixed donated soil materials in an attempt to reach a healthy nutrient balance.
"The brewery was very slowly growing and had been dumping its spent brewer's grain out there," Buyarski said. "We got dish cleanings from the Back Loop Road, and we've had contractors dumping loads of muskeg out there to mix more organic matter with the sandy soil ... That's what people have made gardens from."
The garden grew quickly, adding plots to form a long, rectangular planting area in the middle of the clearing. Smaller plots for tall plants and large homemade greenhouses have been added closer to the tree line; rules forbid structures more than 3 feet high in the main plot.
"There's a lot of gardening and a lot of love that goes into (the garden)," said Douglas. "Anywhere else in the world, you'd say they were nuts, and here I'd say the same thing - they're just nuts about gardening."
Some people are drawn to the garden by the prospect of experimenting with plants they can't grow in their own yards. Others - like Bauman, who lives on a boat - have no other options for "playing in the dirt."
"Out of the woodwork people suddenly came," Douglas said. "This is one of our best years. There's at least 100 people in the garden."
Rather than operating through Alaska Cooperative Extension Service, which sponsors local programs such as 4-H, the community gardeners formed their own nonprofit organization. Plots rent for $35 a year, with proceeds going to garden upkeep and projects such as a new shelter.
"It's going to offer a place where we can have picnics and people can gather," said Linda Mosher, president of the Juneau Community Garden Association. "It's a place that allows us to have family activities outside and yet out of the rain at the garden."
Additionally, the shelter will accommodate events such as the annual Harvest Fair, which this year will take place on Sept. 1. Gardeners gather to show off the fruits of their labor and compete for ribbons and prizes.
"It's a real start - at least from the agricultural standpoint - of having a real fair here in Juneau," Douglas said.
Mechanics of gardening
In their adjacent plots, Bauman and Edwards are facing a similar problem - one that has plagued many of the gardeners.
In Bauman's beet patch, some stems have been trimmed down to the nubs, despite their protective covering of Reemay, a white, gauzy wrap that promises to ward off bugs and pests.
Bauman lifted the rocks weighting down the wrap and gestured at the damage. The bright green of the bitten stems stood out next to the rich, purplish-red of the healthy beet plants beside them.
"The porcupines are brutal. That's why a lot of people have fences or things covered," she said. "(The plants) just stop growing."
Nearby, Edwards noticed a similar situation.
"There's a problem here in the carrot patch," she said, bending down to lift neatly bitten-off stems. "I just noticed that some of the tops of these are off."
She also comes out to the garden once a week, Edwards said absently, continuing to inspect her vegetable patch. But during the middle of the season, "things generally take care of themselves.
"Or," Edwards added wryly, "animals take care of everything."
Like any other area in Juneau, the community garden presents gardeners with a unique set of difficulties. Although plants get a lot of sun, their caretakers must fend off a number of animals - including deer, beavers and porcupines - and deal with the potential for plant diseases spreading quickly in the confined space.
Michael Angelo, who joined the community garden about five years ago, dealt with the animal problem by building solid, well-gated and fenced shelters for his plants. The effort has paid off, he said. Beavers no longer sneak in and shred his carrots, and his lettuce has never been a brighter shade of green.
"We did talk about fencing in the whole area," said Angelo, historian for the community garden. "It was Ed Buyarski who was spearheading the effort, but eventually we decided it would be too much hassle and too expensive."
Today, many of the other gardeners have fenced their plots with a variety of materials, including delicately handmade wooden gates and lengths of plastic tubing.
They turn out plants that seem almost antithetical to Juneau's typically rainy weather, such as sunflowers, artichokes and peppers.
Most of all, they form a community, said Buyarski, who maintained a plot in the garden for a number of years and still volunteers on occasion.
"Especially on a nice day when there's a bunch of other folks around, people are visiting with other gardeners and talking," Buyarski said. "People are helping each other, very often sharing seeds, sharing plants, sharing knowledge. All of that's important."
New gardeners are always welcome, Bauman added.
"I think a lot of people have been frustrated with the cold summers and porcupines," she said. "A lot of people don't have places to garden (and) some new energy would be good."
Genevieve Gagne-Hawes can be reached at email@example.com.
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