Jane Madison and her husband missed the taste of Midwestern tomatoes.
Store-bought vegetables don’t taste that great, she said. To remedy the problem, they constructed a greenhouse. Their basement is also used to start growing vegetables while snow still blankets the ground outside.
“We grow (tomatoes) for us and to give away to friends and family,” Madison said. “And in order to grow tomatoes here, you almost have to have a greenhouse, and you have to heat that greenhouse at night ... That means not only are you spending money on construction but you’re spending money on heating, lights and so forth.”
Madison is one side of the gardeners-of-the-Kenai-Peninsula coin. One camp conserves resources in the pursuit of sustainable lifestyles; the other pours money into the hobby, or lifestyle choice, investing in a pastime. Both impact the Central Peninsula’s community, but the latter impacts the economy as well.
According to local horticulture enthusiasts, gardening has been a staple in the areas for years, if not decades.
The area’s largest commercial greenhouse is Trinity Greenhouse on Kalifornsky Beach Road. The greenhouse’s owner Ron Sexton began by selling residential greenhouses in 1974. A year later, he began expanding the business — it now includes a 25,000 square foot indoor greenhouse and 15,000 square feet outside.
When Trinity began, there existed a need for vegetable gardens rather than simple a want for them. No big-box stores meant no locally-available produce. Landscaping wasn’t a priority for residents. They wanted starter plants like cabbage, lettuce and potatoes, Sexton said.
Then, as the years passed, hanging flower baskets took off in popularity, and residents started grooming their lawns more, he said. Sexton estimates about 15 percent of his current business is vegetable-related.
Some residents buy a few plants a year, spending no more than $20. But the greenhouse caters to a dozen or so diehards who spend upwards of $5,000 each year; not just on vegetables, but on all products.
Avid horticulturalists travel from as far as Anchorage to buy Trinity’s potting soil, which is made at the greenhouse. It takes a lot of energy and effort to produce the high-quality products, Sexton said.
Every spring, Madison buys 30 to 35 bags of Trinity potting soil. The blend is the best, she said. She also invested in a large number of pots from Trustworthy Hardware in Soldotna, but those are cleaned and reused every season. Other items on her yearly, must-have list include flowers, Miracle Grow tomato food and pesticides.
Horticulture has a large impact on the statewide economy, said Janice Chumley, a cooperative extension service IPM research technician for the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
“Gardeners purchase large quantities of seedlings and seeds and fertilizers and all kinds of aids used for growing things,” Chumley said. “With the new high tunnel program through (the Natural Resources Conservation Service), folks have purchased those ... and everything that goes along with that.”
All those economic activities are in pursuit of providing food and flowers throughout the limited summer months. The impact is huge, she said.
The Cooperative Extension Service provides research-based information to the public. It offers materials at its K-Beach location and online. People who move to Alaska from Outside often use the service to learn about what can be grown in the colder climate, as well as how to deal with wildlife and bugs unique to the state, Chumley said.
A 4-H agent works for the service, too. So, kids’ interest in gardening starts out early and continues into adulthood.
The members of the Central Peninsula Garden Club reflect the high number of avid gardeners in the area. The club maintains a membership of about 200 people, said club president Marion Nelson. About 50 to 100 people on average attend the meetings.
The amount of square footage dedicated to gardening at stores like Home Depot and Fred Meyer is a testament to the area’s interest. Trinity and Fireweed Herb Garden in Kenai have held up throughout the years, Nelson said, providing residents with an abundance of supplies.
There are gardeners who are thrifty about how they manage their small or large gardens, she said.
“Thrifty is the way to go for a lot of people that garden,” Nelson said.
A certain message sticks with the group of self-sustaining gardeners: If Alaska were cut off, its food supply would only last a couple days. An increased level of food security is sought after. Other than that, why not grow vegetables, Nelson said, they taste better.
Small scale organic farm Fischer’s Fresh Farm Produce sells produce at local markets and Mermaid Café. Owner and operator Judy Fischer’s first priority is providing for her family.
She manages a modest operation, she said. Fischer attempts to use as little land as possible. She begins the growing season outside in early April with row covers, which helps warm adolescent plants.
Spending less than $100 per month, Fischer creates a cycle a production.
“I use what’s available to me then I put it back into the ground,” she said. “It doesn’t cost a lot. People misunderstand organic as being expensive.”
Fischer hopes to start a collective farmer’s market in the near future at the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank. Bringing a consistent cache of produce to one location rather than the scattered affairs currently held in parking lots across the area, which keeps people from returning, she said.
“People who grew up on good tasting vegetables always want to have that. I think people are catching on,” she said.