Small potatoes? Cool and wet summer not all bad for growers

Posted: Friday, September 10, 2010

A cool, wet summer wasn't all bad news for Kenai Peninsula gardeners and growers, but weeds, trees and grassy lawns were some of the biggest benefactors of the inclement weather.

Photos By M. Scott Moon
Photos By M. Scott Moon
Heidi Watkins hoists a potato from the ground while helping her mother, Chris, at left, in their plot in the Kenai community gardens Thursday afternoon. Chris Watkins said this was a good summer for their garden. "I think this has been our best year ever," she said. "Normally we've had to come over nearly every day to water. This year it took care of itself."

Marion Nelson, of Ridgeway, president and program chair of the Central Peninsula Garden Club, said she didn't have to do much watering of her numerous container plants thanks to all the rain.

"The hoses were shut off, that was the upside," she said this week.

That was echoed by Tom Jahns, an agriculture and horticulture agent for the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension based in Soldotna.

"In many cases the garden finally got watered adequately, if not excessively," Jahns said.

Nelson also said that the garden tours her clubs does through the summer all shared a recurring phrase.

"Without exception everyone we visited was making apologies for how their garden looked," she said, explaining that some plants just didn't mature and blossom like growers hoped.

According to Jahns, plants were generally late to mature this year, however growers who were vigilant and took care to remove the diseased ones from their plots generally did OK.

"From the cool season point of view we had some excellent crops," Jahns said.

He noted that vegetables like broccoli, zucchini, carrots, Brussels sprout and potatoes all did well, though some were delayed.

Nelson also reported that rhubarb growers had more than enough to go around.

"If you want to do something well year after year it's rhubarb," Nelson said of the hardy plant. "It's tough as nails and grows well in Alaska."

Warm weather plants however, such as tomatoes and cucumbers, even when grown in the shelter of greenhouses, still struggled to get the heat and sunlight they needed, Jahns said.

"We've seen these plants getting taller, lankier and weaker because they're reaching for the sun and the sun has been behind the clouds," he said.

Along with fungal diseases that dogged plants this summer, Jahns said many area gardens were under constant attack from slugs, which also thrive in damp conditions.

"Like weeds and everything else, regular monitoring can help reduce their numbers, especially for a small home garden," he said of the slimy gastropods.

For larger scale Peninsula producers like Brian Olson, who primarily grows berries along with some vegetables for his business, Alaska Berries, he saw some crops flourish while others struggled.

"Our strawberries usually ripen during July," he said, "But this July was cold and wet so they were a disaster basically just because they would sit in the field with no sun."

He also said his yield was down for tomatoes and cucumbers.

On the other hand, he said this was a bumper crop year for raspberries.

Additionally he said they had good crops of gooseberries and currants.

The wet weather didn't just affect the plant growth, he noted. Aside from making outdoor work unpleasant, it hindered traffic to his business.

"This summer was an impact on us financially compared to other years," he said, "And we've had two of the coldest, wettest summers on record in the last five years. That's an impact."

Jahns reported that haymakers were also affected by weather.

"They didn't until recently have a chance to harvest their hay," he said. "It takes about a week of warm weather and dry ground to dry that hay properly so there's been tremendous concern about the hay crop."

It was also a tough year for beekeepers.

"The bees have suffered," Jahns said. "Every beekeeper, unless they harvested honey early on, they've pretty much lost both their bees and their honey this year."

Despite the ups and downs Nelson, Jahns and Olson harped on a recurring mantra.

"It's all part of farming in Alaska," Olson said. "The optimism is that next summer is going to be better."

Additionally, he said this was a good year for growers like himself to establish new plantings that need a year to get their roots settled.

And while the leaves are fast changing colors and fall is in the air, there's still hope that the recent bout of sun, with more in the near forecast, could help end the season end on a bright note.

"These sunny days are very important for maturing, and there's still growing to be had if we don't get a frost," Jahns said.

Dante Petri can be reached at

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