Gardeners share tips for getting plants growing

Posted: Sunday, April 11, 2004

As springtime brings longer days and warmer temperatures, gardening enthusiasts in many parts of the country look out their kitchen windows at the plot of spare ground that soon will become this year's garden.

They're already planning which vegetables to plant, whether rows of flowers will be interspersed among them and the more adventurous are envisioning rows of herbs for salads and cooking.

Here on the Kenai Peninsula, though, the enthusiasts look out and see a foot or more of snow still covering the solidly frozen ground.

Yet something deep inside that stirs the passion to incite the growing process within each dormant little seed pushes the Alaska gardener out into the greenhouse where heaters and a variety of plastic and treated-glass panels maximize the benefit of the sun's heat, keeping temperatures at a warm 70 to 75 degrees.

The customary little noises that gardeners make while dutifully filling each tiny seed cup with regular soil, an organic soil known as perlite or some other suitable base for life's beginnings, emanate from within the handy fortresses that protect the seedlings while waiting for Mother Nature to catch up to the northern reaches of gardening's muse.

Carolyn Chapman, who's been gardening in Soldotna since 1977, also enjoys a bit of recorded light classical music as she toils.

She and her husband, Jerry, began gardening in Alaska in Anchorage in 1972 when Jerry was assigned there with the Air Force.

Because they choose to grow everything from seeds rather than from purchased starter plants, and because Alaska's growing season is short compared to most areas of the United States, the Chapmans' greenhouse allows them to jump start the process.


Rows of Cracker Jack marigolds grow up from seeds in plastic trays inside the Chapman's greenhouse. Once the ground thaws, they'll be transplanted outside.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"Now we grow everything from seed, unless things fail. Then we run into town to get plants," Carolyn Chapman said.

When she starts depends on what she starts.

"Every year in Alaska is different," she said. "It's a learning situation every year.

"One year, our sunflowers did better than any I had ever grown," said the North Carolina native, who has been growing things most of her adult life.

Her advice is for people to read each individual seed packet to determine the length of time it takes specific seeds to germinate, when seedlings should be transplanted outdoors and how long it takes for plants to reach maturity.

As a general rule of thumb, she said the ground should be warm and clumps of dirt should be able to be crumbled in your hands before you plant things outside. Then the garden plot should be rototilled several times, again with the goal being to put warmth into the soil.

Chapman lists five things to remember for successful Alaska gardening

"Number one is warmth. Plants need warmth," she said. "On average, Memorial Day is a good time to begin moving things outdoors. Rototill three or four times and make the soil warm.

"Then condition the plants from greenhouse to ground. Put them outside for a while each day and take them in at night when the temperature drops," she said.

Number two on her list is sunlight. For germination, some seeds need a lot of light, while others need nearly opaque mesh blankets to keep light out.

Third on the list is water.

Read the package, she said.


Blooming marigolds provide motivation for Chapman and her greenhouse full of seedlings. "I got these at Kenai (River) Nursery so I'd have something to look forward to," Carolyn Chapman said.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Instructions for the frequency and amount of watering varies for each type of plant.

Fourth on the list is air circulation.

"In the greenhouse, it's important to keep the air moving around the plants," she said.

And lumped together as number five are food, love and care.

"I'm an advocate for teaching gardening to children," she said. "I tell them plants are just like children. There's a baby in every seed."

When reminded that a fellow Soldotna gardening couple, Clayton and Juanita Hillhouse, place a moose-proofing fence at the top of their tip list for Alaska gardeners, Chapman nods and smiles.

She grows an assortment of vegetables, greens and herbs and adds flowers, but only to the betterment of the vegetables or if the flowers are edible. She's also successfully grown cantaloupe and watermelon in the greenhouse.

"People shouldn't be afraid of gardening," she said. "No one knows everything. Gard-eners learn from each other."

Chapman recommends visiting the Soldotna Farm-ers' Market, which sets up every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. from the second week of June until the second week of September at the Soldotna Elementary School bus turnaround.

Area gardeners offer their produce for sale there all summer and can be depended on for some good, solid local advice.


A tiny chef's thermometer helps the Chapmans monitor the temperatures of the soil in their greenhouse.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Part of the group that started the market in the summer of 1992, the Hillhouses currently work out of three hothouses in the Mackey Lake area, including two relatively high-tech hydroponic greenhouses, allowing them to keep crops such as basil going year-round.

Juanita Hillhouse starts the basil plants in perlite, and after a good root system is established, transfers them to the hydroponic system a series of cups seated in holes cut into the top side of long pipes carrying nutrient-enriched water.

Despite what the weather's like outside, the hydroponic hothouse, heated by two self-contained natural-gas heat-ers, already has allowed the Hillhouses' basil to begin sprouting.

"The three main nutrients are nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous," Clayton Hill-house said.

Although he built the watering system with its web of plastic piping that runs throughout the 16- by 20-foot hothouse, the couple refers to this building as Juanita's.

Another, two-story greenhouse with an unusual spiral staircase in the center leading up to a breakfast deck, also is referred to as hers, and a third, 35-by-55-foot greenhouse is Clayton's.

"Just like a garage, no matter what size greenhouse you build, it's never big enough," Juanita said.

The couple moved to Soldotna 27 years ago and began gardening two years later. What began as a love for watching life unfold has turned into a business venture, though Clayton retains his mainstay business as an electrical general contractor.

In the 16-by-16-foot, two-story greenhouse, which is attached to the couple's home, Juanita already has red sails lettuce, rocket arugula, leeks, dill, parsley, cilantro and garden crest seeds sprouting.

Always a debatable date among Alaska gardeners, Clayton figures transplanting to the outdoor garden should occur during the first week of June.


Carolyn Chapman prepares a tray for transplants.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Some plants that won't leave the protection of the tall greenhouse are Cuban or-egano, sage, garlic chive and tomatoes all in hanging baskets.

While the couple has had past success growing such rare fruits in Alaska as papayas, things aren't looking too promising for a lone banana tree they've been nurturing along.

In "Clayton's Greenhouse," the focus is on tomatoes. Again using a hydroponic system for delivering nutrients to the plants, tomatoes are started and grown in perlite.

"When they get second, true leaves, and they have a good strong root system, it's time to move them to the larger, three-gallon bags filled with perlite," Clayton said.

There the plants remain until maturity.

When in full swing, that means 1,000 tomato plants.

This year, Clayton is planning to grow 300 tomato plants in a tube system similar to Juanita's basil plant setup and anticipates vines reaching 30 feet in length.

The couple sells many of their plants at the farmers' market and to area stores and restaurants, as well as providing crops to WIC, the emergency food assistance program for Women, Infants and Children.

The crops provide for the expense of heating and lighting the greenhouses and for supplies and required business liability insurance.


Photo by M. Scott Moon

Carolyn Chapman displays a photo of herself that was made last August following a successful bean harvest. She and her husband shelter their beans by planting them between rows of peas.

Photo by M. SCOTT MOON

The Hillhouses' advice to beginning gardeners: "Put up a fence."

Once the moose are removed from the garden's picture, the couple recommends starting broccoli and cauliflower in the house and planting seedlings outside when it's warm.

Carrots and peas do well if started from seed outdoors, they said.

If the budding gardener leans toward having a greenhouse, their advice would be to have a big one.

Next door to the Hillhouses lives another gardening couple Pat and Dewey Halsey.

Their specialty is potted flowers, mostly petunias.

Grown in three hothouses, the newest of which sports ultraviolet coated polycarbonate panels that resemble a lightly tinted glass window, all the flowers are sold at the farmers' market and the proceeds go to buying Christ-mas gifts for children in the community.

They get names of needy kids from the Birch Ridge Community Church, Pat Halsey said. Last year they gave gifts to 58 kids.

"Each one got a new jacket, two changes of clothes, two games, two toys, a school-supply box and books."

The couple has been doing the charitable gardening work for 15 years.

"It started as a hobby when I had some physical problems and I couldn't sleep," Pat said.

Though the couples seldom agree on what plants to plant and just when to plant them, the results of their labor make it apparent they share a love for watching things grow from seed to beautiful and often tasty products.

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