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Alaska gardeners reap giant harvest

Craig Giammona | Daily Sitka Sentinel

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

Florence Wesh holds large heads of cauliflower and broccoli at her garden in Sitka, Alaska. The unusually warm summer weather so far this year has yielded a bumper harvest of unusually large vegetables.

Photo: James Poulson of the Daily Sitka Sentinel.
To learn more about the Sitka Local Foods Network, go to

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 lattter 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."

Last summer was cold and damp, and Welsh said the 2008 growing season was discouraging. Her lettuce didn't "head up," making it only about halfway toward fully formed heads. And her zucchinis — she described the vegetable as a good barometer of the success of the growing season — were few and far between.

But the worst of times turned to the best of times this year. Welsh said she'll have two or three lettuce harvests in 2009 and probably more zucchinis than she can handle.

"The lettuce is what's blowing me away," she said, examining red romaine and iceberg heads.

She explained that the key factor in the growing season is the heat of the soil.

A few sporadic nice days in the summer will not spur a good harvest. But extended stretches of warm weather make for good growing conditions, Welsh said.

MacLane and Merritt also complained good naturedly about having to do so much watering this year. MacLane, who is president of the Sitka Local Foods Network board of directors, was incredulous when a watering system had to be set up at the St. Peter's farm.

He said the farm was already on its fourth harvest of lettuce, but added there's still room to expand.

Even with the increased vegetable-growing around town, there still aren't enough local vegetables to supply Sitka's grocery stores, he said.

For that, the town would need community greenhouses, and the development of these facilities is a top priority for the Sitka Local Foods Network.

The group has also applied for a grant to study Sitka's "food security," which refers to the fact that Sitka depends on fresh produce brought in from long distances away, with typically only a few days' supply in the stores at any one time.

MacLane recently convinced the state to allow some vendors at the farmers market to accept WIC coupons. WIC is a nutrition program for pregnant and breast-feeding women, and their children, and the state has agreed to allow Sitka WIC participants to use coupons to buy produce from Gimbal Botanicals and the Sitka Local Foods Network.

MacLane also noted that the farmers market is looking for local musical acts to entertain at the upcoming markets.

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