Gardeners in Sitka reap giant harvest

Heat encourages healthy crop of various vegetables

Posted: Friday, July 24, 2009

SITKA, Alaska - The notion that it's impossible to grow vegetables in Sitka falls away quickly when you visit Florence Welsh on Davidoff Street.

James Poulson / Daily Sitka Sentinel
James Poulson / Daily Sitka Sentinel

Cabbages the size of bowling balls line one side of the her driveway, and giant cauliflower ears, lettuce beds and broccoli are just a few steps away.

Next to her garage, up a slight hill, are fresh flowers, with pink and purple canterbury bells and delphiniums growing under the protection of a roof that keeps the rain off and shields them from the wind.

Growing beds are around every corner with potatoes, zucchini, carrots, chives, mint, basil, chard, rhubarb and fennel - the list goes on, and a good deal of what Welsh is growing, including fresh cut flowers, will be available at this year's Sitka Farmers' Market.

Besides Welsh, market co-coordinators Kerry MacLane and Linda Wilson said, there are two other main vegetable providers who will operate tables at the market: Gimbal Botanicals, which is run by Hope Merritt, and the Sitka Local Foods Network, which has been tending to the St. Peter's Fellowship Farm.

All three operations are completely organic, grown with post-spawn seaweed as the primary fertilizer.

It is a technique that Welsh has advocated since 1984, when she began her growing operation in Sitka.

She avoids chemicals and uses lightweight, gauzelike row covers to keep bugs off her developing plants.

The same is true for Gimbal Botanicals. Merritt grows culinary herbs in her greenhouse and tends the growing beds outside Judy Johnstone's house, an arrangement that has been in place for two seasons now.

Last year, Johnstone "got religion" and ripped out the ornamentals that had long grown outside her Peterson Street home. She replaced the flowers with vegetables, a trend that has taken hold in other Sitka gardens.

MacLane said the Sitka Local Foods Network has taken over four or five former ornamental gardens at homes and converted them to growing food.

This is exactly what members of the local food network envisioned when they launched the Sitka Farmers' Market last year.

The Sitka Farmers' Market grew out of the 2008 health summit, where concerns about local "food security" and healthy eating options were front and center.

After participants identified the formation of a farmers' market as a top priority, the Sitka Local Foods Network got to work and ultimately held three markets.

The impetus for the farmers' market was twofold: provide fishermen and growers with an opportunity to sell local food, and also expand the local food movement by showing, firsthand, that it was possible to grow food crops in Sitka's northerly latitude and damp climate.

Organizers said last year's markets were a success on the latter count. "I think the 'food, not lawns' fever is spreading through Sitka," MacLane said. "I think it's mushrooming and spreading all over town. Because of the market a lot more people are growing a lot more food."

Some local restaurants have also gotten on board, with both the Larkspur Cafe and Ludvig's Bistro taking regular deliveries from Merritt and Welsh.

The recent weather has clearly helped the Sitka growing season and gardeners are complaining about what might be described as a good problem: too much sun.

Welsh said that the recent warm and dry weather had exploded her organic garden and forced her to spend more time than usual watering her plants.

"It's amazing this year with the heat," Welsh said. "I've just been watering for a month."

As she took a Sentinel reporter and photographer on a quick tour of the grounds, Welsh marveled at the size of some of her vegetables.

"I've never seen one this big," Welsh said as she harvested broccoli for the market. "It's scary, it's bigger than a head."

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