Local planter makes use of Juneau's rain

Posted: Sunday, May 25, 2003

JUNEAU (AP) The fact that bears got into Joe Orsi's garden last year and ate some of his fruits wouldn't shock most Juneau residents. What would shock some, or at least those who have tried their hand at gardening here, are the fruits the bears ate.

''They ate all of my currants,'' Orsi said. ''... They climbed my apple trees and pulled the apples off of them.''

Apples? Currants? In a town where most gardeners feel lucky to harvest a few potatoes, peas and carrots, Orsi has succeeded in growing almost 20 different types of fruits and vegetables in his back yard.

''He's been with it a long time, and he's lived here a while, so he's learned a lot about Southeast Alaska,'' said Ed Buyarski, who has known Orsi since 1992, when the two began a friendly apple-growing competition. He described Orsi's gardening style as active, innovative and experimental.

Orsi has been gardening since he was a kid in Southern California.

''You can grow anything down there,'' he said.

When he moved to Alaska 23 years ago, he found he had to work out a new gardening style.

''It's a lot more challenging, and you've got to be creative,'' said Orsi, a member and past president of Juneau Master Gardeners. He's learned by talking to other gardeners, reading up on early Alaska pioneers who succeeded at growing nonnative crops, and reading books.

''It's a lot of trial and error,'' he said.

Because Orsi, a fish biologist at the Auke Bay lab, has learned from his trials, he enjoys helping others with their gardening problems.

''I know he has helped a lot of people ... particularly in fruit growing,'' said Buyarski.

Orsi advises beginners to start with plants that grow well here such as peas, rhubarb, raspberries and carrots. He also tells all gardeners to grow what they like to eat.

''One year I grew collards, and they grew great here,'' he said. ''But I just couldn't handle them. There's really no point growing something you don't like to eat.''

Location is important, as well.

''It really helps to be in an area around here that has a more favorable microclimate,'' Orsi said of his Auke Bay neighborhood. ''We're out the road, a bit closer to the water, and it's warmer out here.''

Orsi doesn't get much help in the garden from his three children or his wife, Julie, but he gets their support, he said.

''They let me do it, at least,'' he laughed.

His daughter Allison, 21, is attending school in Washington, and Nicholas, 16, and Stephanie, 18, are busy with high school sports. His wife Julie works in the accounting office at Bartlett Regional Hospital.

Dwarf apple trees soak up the sun near the Orsi home's front windows, while white, black and red currants blanket the slope of his front yard. Cherry trees blossom on one side of his house ''they're pretty sour,'' Orsi said rhubarb hugs another wall, and strawberries, raspberries, peas, beans and carrots occupy framed raised beds next to the rhubarb.

In the backyard, cauliflower, potatoes and Jerusalem artichokes are covered in plastic in raised beds. Near them, 800 garlic sprouts shoot out of four long rows of soil.

When the green sprouts above ground begin to die, Orsi will know that the pugnacious underground garlic bulb is ready to harvest, then eat.

''I love garlic,'' Orsi said. He cooks with it himself, gives it to friends and brings it to the Glory Hole, where he cooks a monthly meal of pizza with his church, Chapel by the Lake, using some of his harvest when he can.

''I think that that's something we're called to do as Christians is to serve others and to share our faith in God,'' Orsi said. ''... gardening's a way for me to share some of God's talents through me.''

Gardening can be spiritual before the harvest as well, Orsi said. ''It's good therapy, just to get out and lose yourself in the garden,'' he said. ''It's a good time to pray and think about your life.''

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