Going Local

by Mary and Todd Logan

springnotfoundAnchorage in general is in a sulk. Three or nine inches of snow fell yesterday and today, depending on where you live in the Anchorage bowl. This snowfall gives Anchorage a new record for the longest snow season on record, 232 days long. Bike to Work Day on Friday was rainy and then snowy. The Nenana Ice Classic, Alaska’s biggest guessing game on when the ice goes out in the spring on the Tanana, was the latest breakup in recorded history. Gardeners are frustrated, and even the skiers are tired of winter. We seem to be experiencing a cooling trend for Alaska due to the Pacific Decadal Oscillation and changes in the winter ice patterns–more in the Bering Sea and less in the Arctic. Alex DeMarban at Alaska Dispatch summarizes the study:

BTW Day Anchorage AK May 17, 2013 photo by Loren Holmes
BTW Day Anchorage AK May 17, 2013 photo by Loren Holmes

“The state’s overall temperature dipped 2.4 degrees during the first decade of the new century, a notable shift from the previous 100 years, which had generally trended warmer, according to a study published last summer by the Alaska Climate Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The authors suggested that growing winter ice in the Bering Sea — the result of cooler surface temperatures — led to lower temperatures across nearly all of Alaska. Meanwhile, thinning ice in the Arctic Ocean led to warming in one slice of the state: the North Slope atop Alaska. Those trends are continuing, according to follow-up papers released by Wendler, Blake Moore and Kevin Galloway” (DeMarban, 2013).


Arctic Entries

An earlier post on community storytelling described Arctic Entries, a storytelling organization which is not only still going strong, but is now dealing with capacity issues. Arctic Entries has expanded this month yet again to Anchorage’s Performing Arts Center, and it still sold out in less than two hours with new online ticket sales. Todd even told a story this month, about an outing that “seemed like a good idea at the time.” Here are some recent 7-minute audio files from Arctic Entries, beginning with Saskia Esslinger’s permaculture talk on Eating Local in Alaska.

And here is Bree Kessler, who is pursuing a degree in environmental psychology, talking about going really local, in Bettles, Alaska, in I’m an Urbanist.

Here is Kyle Stevens on the adventures of just doing your job in Living the Dream is Chasing the Dream.

And Angela Gonzales on Growing Up in Fish Camp.

And SJ Klein on Building a House is a Neighborhood Affair.

And here is Todd’s story from May.

We had a lot of trees fall in several sequential storms last fall. Here’s Todd storing wood for  future winters.

Our chickens suffered through the long winter we’ve just had, henpecking each others’ feathers in a neurotic attempt to deal with their frustrations. Here’s Todd, or should I say Chicken Van Gogh, painting their rumps so that they’ll stop.

Growing things

Our vegetable garden and greenhouse are evolving. This is year number two for our greenhouse.  Lesson learned from year one–don’t over-plant!  We warmed up the greenhouse to 50F mid-March, put in lettuce starts, and began enjoying nightly fresh salads on April 25.  In mid-April we set the thermostat to 60 degrees and added tomato plants, peppers, squash, cucumbers, and egg-plant.  All are doing well. This year we are especially grateful for the greenhouse, and I’ve noticed many hits on the website from Alaskans and Canadians curious about how to build one.

GardenShovelingHere in Anchorage our average “last frost” date is May 4, and our “safe planting” date – when there is a 90 percent chance of no more frosts – is May 15.  Traditional knowledge dictates waiting until Memorial Day. And here we sit on May 19 with 3″ of snow on the ground and a temperature of 26F.  Fortunately, this cold snap and snow was forecast a week ago, so the garden was not planted last week as originally planned.  Next week we should be good to go.
Alaskan garden pest
Alaskan garden pest

While we haven’t planted the garden yet, we have gotten it ready.  This began by shoveling and snow-blowing 18″ of snow off of the raised beds and big garden (1200 sq. ft)  on April 22 so that the sun could start thawing the soil. The anti-moose electric fence had to be restrung.  Last fall a young bull moose apparently discovered that he could break the wires with his antlers and not get shocked.  He and a friend browsed garden residue repeatedly late fall.

GardenThis will be year number three for our main garden, and we are transitioning from full-till to minimum-till.  We rented a tiller and deeply tilled our raw rocky/sandy/clay soil the first two years to loosen it up, remove rocks, and add organic material and nutrients.  A soil test last fall was quite revealing.  We had achieved a good pH balance, good organic matter content, and best levels of phosphorous and potassium.  We now lack only nitrogen for good growing.  Previous seasons we fertilized with locally produced fish bone meal (5-6-1) and then added ash from the wood furnace for potassium.  This year we just hand tilled in some blood meal (12-0-0) and we should now be good to go.  Minimum till reduces disturbance of the amazing ecosystem of healthy soil.  We will rotate crops from last year’s locations, though it will be less than perfect in that so much of what we grow are Brassica (cabbage family) – broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, kohlrabi, cauliflower, and turnips.


Anchorage summers, at least at times, can be sunny and warm.  Gardens do need some watering. In years past we’ve put our garden sprinklers on a timer.  This works great when it’s sunny and warm, but you over water if you are not around and cool, cloudy rainy weather settles in.  Over watering has many downsides:  it leaches away nutrients, it encourages one of our few garden pests – slugs, it wastes energy, and it slows growth by chilling both plants and soil (our well water is 42F).  So as a pre-gardening season project, Todd assembled a more sophisticated timer system that includes a wireless moisture sensor.  With this new set-up, we’ll set the timer for warm-sunny conditions. A moisture sensor, with probes in the garden soil, measures moisture and cancels scheduled watering when moisture is good.  We expect this will be a better watering system.  Time will tell.

Here is a conversation on KSKA with the Anchorage Permaculture Guild on how to start growing vegetables in Alaska, with many local links.

  • Brian

    Mary, I get the myriad of personal reasons for having a greenhouse, like growing your own food, knowing where it is coming from, and the joys of gardening more often, but is there an Emergy basis for them? How do they fit into the prosperous way down? Are there specific uses/regions that are more Emergy profitable? I have been mulling building one, but have been wondering if I would just be building myself an SUV.

    And I can’t seem to use all the links, but it might just be safari.

    • Brian, thank you for asking this most pertinent question, which I was avoiding explaining. This is an expensive, permanent structure, with double paned windows and so on. If you build one of these to just grow some lettuce in the shoulder seasons, then, no, this is a ridiculous waste. You could put up a short term hoop house with some durable greenhouse plastic covering that you can even take down in winter. That is the path that I would generally recommend.

      That said, I feel that there is a very considerable risk in the relatively near future (decade(s))of serious continued meltdowns in the north middle latitudes. Our society demonstrates no awareness of the danger or the hazards of geriatric nuke plants in a collapsing society–if not in this country then some other country. What is the cost of uncontaminated lettuce and other greens that you know are safe, for a hazard that you can’t measure easily? How do you measure that in terms of personal and genetic health of your kids and grandkids? This is part of the legacy that of the emergy basis of nuclear that was impossible to measure. This is one of the hidden costs. My husband’s motivation was growing things, mine was for my daughter and her community’s health.

      Now you made me say it. Multifaceted adaptability will mean that more of our money goes to pursuing energy, but it also means more of our money goes to protecting our health from the waste impacts of that pursuit as we nurse decaying reactors and frack our aquifers. We’re pursuing the wrong things in our health care system these days. Genetics and body mutilation instead of ecological medicine. Angelina Jolie could spend more time advocating for a better relationship with Nature . . . .

    • Brian, you’ve asked the question that I didn’t really want to answer. You were supposed to read between the lines. There’s a real need for a greenhouse at this latitude if you want to grow starts and shoulder season greens, but greenhouses can be erected very cheaply with UV protected plastic, that you can even take down at the end of the season. Or you can use cold frames, which we started with. This greenhouse is permanent and it was expensive.

      We built this in the year after Fukushima. It seems very clear to me that we are going to have more meltdowns in the future in the north middle latitudes as nuke plants decay, the electrical delivery system gets more sketchy, and general system stability decays (security, backup systems, transportation, global supply chain for transformers, societal stability, and many other connected systemic contributors to a functional nuke plant). These all change as society decays. I see it so clearly. While my husband was for this greenhouse because he loves to grow things, I really build it for my daughter’s genetic heritage–something relatively permanent that has a chance of being very useful for the community in the future. Yes, we need a place for uncontaminated greens of known provenance. But what is the cost of a relatively unmutated and functional genetic lineage? These are the things that emergy could not measure. If net emergy for nuclear was about 4 in the 1980s, how negative is it now? As time goes on, more and more emergy is shifted into, yes, getting more energy out, but also into protecting us from the ravages of that effort to burn whatever is left with decaying resource availability, maintenance, and new construction.

      Our health science has failed us too. We’re focusing on genetics and anticipatory plastic surgery for wealthy movie stars when we could be focusing on environmental medicine for the community, which is a big blank spot in the knowledge base of healthcare. I don’t think we’ll remedy it either. There won’t be enough research capability left, what research there is will continue to be reductionist because that’s the only thing we know how to do, and the bureaucracy for what is will have too large a grip on things, with peoples’ livelihoods dependent on keeping the status quo. Don’t shake the apple cart, even as it loses its wheels, one by one.

      The climate study link (benthamscience.com) is a PDF, so you need to let it load if you have a slow connection. I use Safari by preference–the links worked for me, thanks.

  • We just skied from the trailhead that is 5 minutes from the house, on May 23rd, the latest that I have ever skied up here. We still have midwinter conditions at Powerline Pass, with really good snow. The birch in Anchorage are already two weeks late in leafing out, and the moose are late dropping their calves. The ptarmigan are still mostly white, with brown heads. The ground temperature in our garden is around 50 degrees. We appear to be skipping spring this year, and going straight to summer. And summer in the high country will be very late.

    We saw several dead ptarmigan without heads–probably raptor predation. What is the purpose of eating the head and neck but leaving the body (leaving food on the table)? Improved small mammal populations for snacks later in the summer for the raptors?

  • Jenny Price

    I was very excited to see your blog entry regarding your earth of beds. I live a few hours north of you, we are practically neighbors : ). I’ve used self watering containers for years in a pop up style greenhouse with great effect here in the interior. I’ve wanted to build a permanent greenhouse with self watering beds but couldn’t figure out what to use for soil/water separator. Can you tell me how you liked your beds? Does the screen and expanding metal hold the soil well? What did you use for wicking tubes, PVC pipes? Thank you for the info, we are rural and growing our own produce is so important. Unless we want to live off of canned and frozen food!

    • Hi, Jenny, yes, the beds worked really well. The screen and metal held the soil just fine, and we used PVC pipes for the tubes. We had tomato plants growing up to the roof, but they took up a lot of space that was probably better used for other vegies.