Alaska is cold. With temperatures below freezing from October to April, it has some of the longest winters in the country.
And the terrain can be challenging: rocky islands with scant soil. Tundra — soggy on top and frozen a foot down.
On the other hand, summer days are long. In the land of the midnight sun, the sun doesn’t set for weeks, making gardening in Alaska a unique experience.
With greenhouses to get an early start and raised beds to warm the soil, Alaskans are able to plant flourishing gardens and raise record-breaking vegetables despite the obstacles.
At the start of the growing season in May, the Alaska Native Media Group launched the Garden and Gather initiative, to encourage Alaska Natives to practice local gardening, and to empower them to share their planting stories. They are partnering with several statewide groups as part of the program, including Alaska Village Initiatives, the Intertribal Agricultural Council, and the Alaska Native Village Corporation Association.
“It's about celebrating the action around growing our gardens, and going out on to the land and practicing subsistence,” said Tikaan Galbreath, an Athabascan technical assistant on the Intertribal Agricultural Council of the Garden and Gather program. “It's about creating pride and removing some of the barriers people might have with gardening.”
Alaska imports around 95 percent of its food from outside of the state. The process is often expensive — shipping to rural villages can double the cost of produce. Homegrown gardens offer a local, sustainable alternative to outside vegetable imports. This has been especially relevant throughout the coronavirus pandemic, when transportation complications have stalled the food supply chain in parts of rural Alaska.
“My hope is that Indigenous people of Alaska will reduce the entire state’s dependence on food coming from outside the state, contributing to a more sustainable Alaska,” Galbreath said in an Intertribal Agricultural Council report.
The Garden and Gather initiative follows a recent increase in community-focused gardening efforts throughout the state. From the icy tundras in the north, to the rough island terrain in the southwest, Indigneous communities in Alaska have been finding ways to grow plants and crops in their backyards.
In Anaktuvuk Pass, a remote Arctic village, the community created a for-profit agricultural program called Gardens in the Arctic. Their long-term goal is to be able to provide produce for the 335-person community, removing the need for external food imports.
Similarly, the Native Village of Tyonek and the Tyonek Tribal Conservation District established Tyonek Grown in 2010, a program which seeks to “[enhance] food security and [provide] fresh organic vegetables to community members.”
Ten years later, their garden has grown to 1.5 acres, complete with high tunnels (temporary greenhouses), an irrigation system, and hydroponic methods that enable them to grow vegetables in the winter. The garden produces around 1,000 pounds of vegetables per year, including cherry tomatoes, onions, potatoes, and carrots.
“The first priority for the community garden was that the food would be given to elders through the elders lunch program,” said Christy Cincotta, executive director of Tyonek Tribal Conservation District. “And then from there, it's about having fresh vegetables available in our village.”
Students at the local school regularly interact with the garden, and around six student interns work for Tyonek Grown each year. It has become a central part of the Tyonek community.
“I would say almost equally important for this program has been the youth involvement. The teachers have told us that they think the kids' involvement in this program has really given them extra confidence in pursuing their goals,” Cincotta said.
Beyond creating a more secure food system and bringing communities together, local gardens can also have important cultural significance.
Some view gardening as a revival of older Alaska Native traditions that are in danger of being forgotten.
“Plants were a big part of the diet, and it's a knowledge that I think we’re at a higher risk of losing,” Galbreath said, describing a traditional Alaska Native subsistence diet.
“Parts of [the gardening] culture were lost along the way. My grandma used to have a garden down at fish camp, because that's where they were all summer. She tried having one outside the house when she got older, but it just didn’t work,” said Gwen Chickalusion, Tyonek Grown’s garden supervisor. “So it's like it skipped a generation, and now it's coming back to us.”
Gardening can also be seen as an extension of other subsistence practices, such as hunting and fishing.
“The Tyonek garden and the vegetable produce are intended as a supplement to subsistence and as part of that overall food picture,” Cincotta said. “And so each year we have pretty important events that I think are tied into that.”
These events include a garden blessing in the spring and a harvest celebration in the fall, where the community is invited to bring various forms of food obtained through subsistence.
“In my opinion and understanding, Alaska Native people were always stewards of the land and cultivating the abundance around them. They were very integrated into the landscape, helping to create and nurture the bounty that is still present here in Alaska,” Galbreath said. He explained how gardening was one way he could continue this tradition while living in urban Anchorage.
In recent years, other communities have approached Tyonek to learn how to create their own gardens.
Chickalusion says her advice depends on what part of the state the aspiring community gardener resides in. Recently, a resident from Saint Paul Island attended Tyonek’s gardening class to learn how to plant crops back in his village. He first had to address the island’s lack of soil.
“Since they’re on an island with almost no dirt, he’s got to build his soil first. So he had to learn to compost from us,” she said, referring to the student from Saint Paul Island.
There are often unique obstacles for the more remote communities. For example, it can be difficult to transport the necessary infrastructure needed to create a larger garden to villages that aren’t connected to roads or waterways.
Additionally, many villages in Alaska don’t have running water, which can make maintaining a garden more challenging.
“Where will you get your water? How will you get it? Because before we got this water tower, they were hauling buckets of water from the lake,” commented Chickalusion. The water tower, which Tyonek added a few years ago, has allowed them to implement an irrigation system. They have since been able to expand their garden.
While larger community gardens might be slightly more challenging to create, Chickalusion said individual gardens can be easier to manage.
Their advice for gardening beginners? Start simple.
“I think the main thing is just being willing to try something even if it doesn't work. You go back to the drawing board, and try not to tackle too much at once,” Cincotta explained.
“Ask other gardeners what works for them, you don’t have to reinvent something that already exists,” Chickalusion said. “And get your soil tested, because it will tell you what amendments you need to add to your soil.”
“In Alaska, with the climate and the weather, it can be pretty challenging to grow some things, so it's best to start with crops that are a little more likely to achieve success. I would recommend starting with brassicas such as broccoli, cabbage, and kale, or to try growing potatoes,” Galbreath suggested.
“It’s important to recognize the work that goes into it and also the joy,” he said. “At a time when we're being asked to stay home and practice social distancing, gardening is a really meditative and healthy activity to engage with.”
Meghan Fate Sullivan, Koyukon Athabascan, is a Stanford Rebele Fellow for Indian Country Today. She grew up in Alaska, and is currently reporting on her home state from our Anchorage Bureau. Follow her on Twitter: @mfatesully
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