[from the stabenow.com vaults, in honor of Memorial Day, aka Get-It-In-The-Ground Day in Alaska]
The good news was I bought a house.
The bad news was it had a yard.
Lots of things were growing in it. Dandelions. Old brambly Sitka roses. Dandelions. Shasta daisies. Dandelions. Rhubarb. Dandelions. Clover. Dandelions. Seven spruce trees, three birches, three mountain ash, one May Day, one tamarack, four lilacs, two honeysuckles, and did I mention the dandelions?
So I started pulling stuff up and cutting stuff down and yanking stuff out, and the good news was that after five years I was ready to start putting stuff back in.
The bad news was I had no idea what stuff, or where to put it. I put columbines in the sun and poppies in the shade and astilbe where it was dry and–surprise!–everything went sort of weak at the knees and started whimpering so loudly I heard them from inside the house.
At that opportune moment I heard about the Alaska Botanical Garden annual Garden Fair, held in June, at which they promised to have many people who knew what to put where.
I am there at 9:01am and mine is not the first $5 entry fee received by volunteers Dave and Sandy Harrington by any means. Up the gravel path and to the right and it begins, a relentless display of plants for sale, everything I could possibly want to fill in all the holes in my yard. It’s the names that get me. The roses have this explorer thing going on, like the John Cabot light red and the Martin Frobisher light pink, but the peonies outshine even them with names like Torch Song and Sea Shell and and Fairy’s Petticoat. There are columbine, hostas, ferns, kinnikinnick and, my personal favorite, pink pussy toes. From all around there are cries of discovery (“I found an echinecia!”) braggadacio (“My columbine are so huge this year I hardly know what to do with them”) and mysteries solved (“So that’s what that feathery thing is in my front yard, a Geranium sanguineum!”).
It’s barely 9:30am and Helen Bedder, an Anchorage anestheologist, is already paying for her haul, a Mandarin’s Coat peony, a Himalayan poppy and a maidenhair fern. “I’ll get them in the ground today,” she says.
“I’m a hardcore gardner,” says Shirley Larson, arms full of lupine, columbine, and frosted violet. Asked if she’s done shopping she looks appalled and says, “No, oh no, we have to go look a little more,” the we being her friend and neighbor Charlotte Jensen. “Most of the things you get here are locally grown and are going be hearty,” Shirley says. “And you have knowledgeable people you can ask questions,” Charlotte says.
And in fact a few feet up the trail master gardener Doug Tryck is answering Marguerite Barnard’s questions about a variegated maple he’s got for sale. “The guy next door chopped down all his trees and built a fence and we’re busily planting things in front of it,” Marguerite says.
At Sallyk Nursery’s booth Kathy Liska, standing between lilies taller than I am, is explaining that “the key to getting the clematis established is the first year. You need to go deep and keep it moist.” Her auditor nods solemnly, this is the sermon from the gardening mount, and says with resolution, “My flower beds are packed but I’m making room.”
At the Aurora Borealis African Violet Society booth Pat Addison is presiding over pots and pots of African violets in pink, purple, white, blue and maroon and mauve, some with trumpet-shaped blooms and others with feathered edges. “There are 14,000 different hybrids,” Pat says. “I only have 300.” Anna Webb buys a Ness Crinkle Blue, a tiny violet that looks more like a miniature rose. “I’ve got tons of African violets in my office,” Anna says, “but I always need more.”
“What’s hot today?” I ask Fritz Creek Gardens’ Rita Shoultz. “The Astilbe fanal,” she says, a plant with a bright red plume. “I don’t know why but we don’t have any left.” Her lythrum, also known as loosestrife, is going fast, too. “It’s a noxious weed in some states but not here.” Rita treks up from Homer for the fair because “We have a lot of Anchorage customers who always ask if we’re going to be here.”
I haven’t even mentioned the non-plant items, like the garden art featuring everything from cement benches inset with ceramic wildflower tiles to a metal high heel with a faucet handle rosette adorning the toe to a quilt woven entirely of dog hair. There are pottery bowls glazed with wildflowers, glass plates with wildflowers, paintings of wildflowers, and wildflower pillows. There are dragonfly suncatchers, willow picture frames, dried floral wreaths, birch screens, birch and willow tables, birdhouses, bird feeders and birdbaths.
Susan Lang is selling handmade soap. “I grow my own flowers and extract the oils,” she says. Her calendula soap is “an excellent moisturizing soap, and is also anti-fungal so it’s good for diaper rash and athelete’s foot. You can eat it, too, put it in salads.” The flower, I’m guessing, not the soap.
In the Herb Garden Nancy Darigo & Friends on fiddle, flute, guitar and tambor are finishing up a medley with “The Flowers of Edinburgh.” Time to sit down, and I grab a hot dog and head for the marquee tent set up next to the rock garden to listen to Jeff Lowenfels give his “Teaming With Microbes” talk. Jeff launches into an evangelistic evocation of compost tea and mulches both fungal and bacterial. He preaches redemption in shunning chemical fertilizers and embracing the true faith of organic compost. Go and Miracle Gro no more, and if you aren’t a true believer by the end of the hour then you just weren’t listening.
That year’s garden fair was attended by 3,576 people, according to special events coordinator Charla Jones. Then in its sixth year, the fair has been so successful that it has gone from a one-day to a two-day event. “We had fabulous weather, and the kids were so happy with their flower hats and painted pots and painted T-shirts. It really is a family outing, as well as a place where people can come for advice. I saw one woman carrying a baggie with some leaves in it, heading up to the master gardeners to find out what was wrong with her currants.” Himalyan poppies were that year’s best sellers, along with the Kay Gilmore-designed garden fair T-shirt.
At the end of the day I tottered home beneath the weight of accumulated information and looked at my yard. It looked back at me and said, “So, did you learn anything?”
Well, yeah. I’ve got a Costco-sized box of Miracle Gro that is now used as a doorstop.
Author’s note: My house in Homer is a Miracle Gro Free Zone. Nowadays I feed my garden on Redoubt ash and the pee and poop of red wrigglers.
Author and founder of Storyknife.org.