How does one get their gardening fix during an Alaskan winter? One way to do this is to attend a gardening class. Today I attended my first class in the Alaska Master Gardener course. The course is approximately 40-45 hours long plus 40 volunteer hours sharing what I learn.
Even though I have been gardening in Alaska for more than forty years, I learned several things today. Since I will be doing a lot of reading for my class, I plan to share what I learn with my readers.
What did I learn? I have known for years that straw was a good insulator to keep plants from freezing during our long, cold winters, but I never knew the “scientific” reason for doing so. Today I learned why winter mulch should be straw and not hay. Straw is the remains of the wheat, barley, and other grain plants. Once the grain has been harvested, the farmer mows the remaining plants and usually bales it just as he does hay. The straw is hollow and has few if any seeds remaining on it. On the other hand, hay is a combination of alfalfa, grass, and other grass-like plants. Seeds remain on the plant even after it is cut and baled it. Straw remains the better choice for mulch because (1) it is hollow and air adds insulation and (2) it will not plant any grass in the gardens.
What else did I learn? I learned that people are growing their own vegetables and fruits more now than in recent years. Gardening has become very popular in the world of hobbies because more people are growing their own food. This must be the reason why there is difficulty enrolling in the Master Gardener course. Numerous students commented about wanting to take the class for years and finally being able to do so. The class is limited to fifty students, and about forty-five are enrolled in this class.
The class is all about sustainable gardening. The manual for the class - Sustainable Gardening – The Alaska Master Gardener Manual - states, “Gardening in the past century focused on producing the largest possible pest free crop, sometimes disregarding soil health and vegetable quality. Conventional methods may have produced good results, but they were not the best for long-term management. Gardeners and crop managers are moving towards sustainable gardening methods as science has learned more about the environment and the consequences of practices.
“Sustainable gardening is a whole system approach that is good for the environment, good for families and good for the community. It takes minimal input of labor, water, fertilizer and pesticides while building the soil into a healthy living system. A thoughtful balance is made between the resources used and the results gained.”
You may ask how this is done. That is a good question and deserves a good answer. I learned in my reading that there are several ways to do sustainable gardening: (1) use mulch to add nutrients and reduce weeds and water loss, (2) Use certain plants to feed both the soil and the farmer, (3) Compost garden waste and add it to the soil to reduce the need for fertilizer and to feed the microorganisms in the soil, (4) plants flowers around the vegetables to attract beneficial insects that eat pests, (5) use a mulching lawn mower to mulch the grass clippings and leave them on the grass to make it healthier while using less water and less fertilizer, (6) use techniques to warm the soil to allow for the growing of warm weather crops, and (7) leave some pests in the garden to increase the numbers of parasitic insects.
Of course gardening in Alaska means that one must take care in choosing what to plant. A wise gardener will plant only those varieties of crops that can tolerate the cold Alaska soils while at the same time maturing during the short growing season.
Today was the introduction to the course. More information will come later as I learn more new information about sustainable gardening in Alaska.