Gardening is an endeavor many Alaskans have enjoyed since the days it became a United States possession.
Our long daylight hours in summer offer us an advantage over friends and relatives in the smaller states. We can boast not only of oversized vegetables but flavor that is unmatched.
Neophyte green-thumbers today have a wide array of resources available to give tips on methods to insure top-notch crops. Countless gardening books are available at the library and bookstores. Jeff Lowenfels, an Anchorage lawyer with a passion for plants who has authored three books, has a 41-year string of weekly columns on gardening advice to his credit.
Lowenfels recently told readers not to worry about the geographic zone in which they live. The main thing to know, he indicated, is that in most local neighborhoods, the growing season averages about 130 days. He advises checking the label on the package of seeds that interest you to see the germination time from planting to bloom or ripening of fruit. If it fits within 130 days, you will likely have success. Those who have spent several Alaska summers tilling, planting, weeding, fertilizing, watering and waiting will add from personal experience that seasons differ year-to-year—some are good for crops, some are not, and most are somewhere in between.
An official resource is the Cooperative Extension Service, a program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that is coordinated in Alaska by the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Information specific to Alaska is available through them. They even offer a course that trains people to become Master Gardeners who in turn advise and educate amateurs on the finer points of horticulture.
A computer search can lead to more sources than the average gardener could ever need.
Gardening is not new to Alaska but definitely has changed over the years. People have learned more about the science of agriculture as applied in our place on the planet.
Soon after the United States purchased Russian America, missionaries went north to spread the Gospel. Some sowed seeds along with Scripture. The Catholic mission at Holy Cross, for example, produced enough milk, eggs, potatoes and other vegetables to sustain its residents. They even harvested enough potatoes to have a surplus to sell.
As the world’s attention turned to the Yukon Gold Rush, Alaskans were growing both vegetables and flowers. Skagway, the gateway to the Yukon, had flowers in the garden at the home of Capt. William Moore, who founded the town in 1897. When Harriet “Ma” Pullen bought his house at the turn of the century, she raised both flowers and vegetables for use in her hotel. Some people believe that colonists relocated to the Matanuska Valley in 1935 first brought agriculture to that fertile area. That would be incorrect.
In 1915, 150 settlers filed for homesteads up to 320 acres in size in the area west of Cook Inlet around Knik Arm and the Matanuska and Susitna rivers. Homesteads for agricultural purposes were allowed by Congress in an Act signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1862. The Act was extended to Alaska in 1912 after the district became a Territory. Homesteading on all federal lands ended Oct. 20, 1986.
Knik was the biggest settlement on the west side of upper Cook Inlet in the early part of the Twentieth Century.
The town and port located on the arm of Cook Inlet was founded in 1903 and previously was known as Palmer’s Store. At the dawn of the Twentieth Century it was a major stopping place for travelers on the Iditarod Trail. By 1915 Knik had four stores, two hotels, two freight companies, two bakeries, one law office, a billiard hall, a candy store, a barber shop, a newspaper, three doctors, two dentists and a U.S. Commissioner. It gained a post office the following year.
The Knik News of April 10, 1915, reported that 53 people attended a meeting of the newly-formed Matanuska Farmers Association.
Among those early homesteaders were people whose names are recognized today. They included John Springer, M. D. Snodgrass, W. D. Bogard and Max Sherrod.
The trader who was appointed as Knik postmaster was George W. Palmer, a Pennsylvania man who had migrated west, then headed north to Alaska in 1893 at age 38. He prospected various streams without encountering any of the type that generated the Gold Rush four years later. In 1898 he was testing the area around upper Cook Inlet when he found good color on a creek near Sunrise. He filed claims on the stream he named for himself. From Palmer Creek on the eastern shore of the Inlet he crossed to the other side a few years later and settled in Knik. There he managed the Alaska Commercial Co. store until the company closed it down. He in turn took over the building and operated the store as his own.
Palmer was one of the Alaska traders to whom Charles C. Georgeson sent packets of seeds. Georgeson was agent in charge of the Sitka Experimental Station established in 1887 by the Department of Agriculture.
A horticulturist, he was anxious to have people in various parts of Alaska experiment with plants and report their experiences back.
In regard to the seeds I planted last spring, will state that my knowledge of gardening is very limited, but have had very fair success so far. I have less than an acre in cultivation.
Parsnips are the finest and largest I ever saw, and the first I have heard of raised in the vicinity.
Turnips grow to an enormous size, and of fine flavor. (Captain Glenn took a sample of my turnips last year to Washington.) This year my seeds were bad in some way, as most of them went to seed. I don’t know the reason why.
The Scotch Kale is a perfect success here. Two men who came here from where it is raised extensively say it was the finest they ever saw.
Cabbage is small, but heading fast at present. They have heads about the size of a pineapple cheese, and are of a fine flavor.
Rutabagas are large and fine; have just taken mine into the root house. I had some so big that three filled a 30-pound candy pail.
Lettuce, peas, radishes, cauliflower, and potatoes are a success.
I made a failure of cucumbers, tomatoes, spinach, and parsley, and a partial failure of onions, but I think they could be grown from seed.
Yours, truly, G.W. Palmer.
The “Captain Glenn” mentioned by Palmer was Capt. Edwin F. Glenn, the leader of an Army detail exploring various routes throughout South-central Alaska.
The Sitka Experimental Station was one of many established by the Department of Agriculture in 1887.
Extension Services for each state were funded in 1914; Alaska was included. The Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines was established in 1917, the first buildings located on the Fairbanks Experimental Station grounds that were set aside 11 years earlier. Now the University of Alaska, it works closely with the Department of Agriculture to foster agriculture and experimental endeavors aimed at improving the process.
While agriculture flourished in the Matanuska Valley in the late 1910s, it suffered significantly after the outbreak of the World War.
Men went off to fight in Europe and material was difficult to get. Fuel, fertilizer and equipment were very expensive—even if available. Things picked up again in the 1920s.
The Matanuska Colony was one of several projects undertaken by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” administration. Its aim was to relocate families devastated by the Great Depression of the1930s. Farms in the Midwest were particularly hard-hit. Two hundred families were selected to relocate to the Matanuska Valley. They were loaned money to purchase 80 acres of land and the house and barn built by the government. The loans were to be repaid from their farm’s produce which would be sold through the project’s cooperative where all shared alike. A company store was provided, along with a hospital and school.
The Alaska project was estimated to cost $986,000.
The taxpayers ended up spending five times that amount. Within five years, fewer than half the original colonists remained on their farms. Despite the early problems, the Matanuska project fared far better than the scores of others around the country. Hundreds of people found work getting it ready. Facilities remained and some are still in use.
The project is still looked upon as an important part of Alaska’s history.
Lee Jordan has been an Alaskan since 1949, moved to Chugiak in 1962 and in 2016 moved back to Anchorage. An Alaska history buff, he enjoys writing about the place where he did not want to be sent, but came to love. He has written four books on Alaska history and has a blog at www.byleejordan.com. To reach Lee Jordan, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.