Lettuce From America

Worried about frost nipping at your nose? Let alone your precious flower buds. Try gardening in Alaska with Christine Bingham.

Words & Pictures: Christine Bingham

Greetings from Alaska, or as we like to call it, Far Northern Hawaii (without the chocolate-covered macadamia nuts and heat). I realize that some of you are shocked that people choose to live here, but it’s true. There are at least 27 of us at last count.

While I have your attention, I’d like to issue a public service announcement in order to dispel some of the quaint/egregious myths about the 49th state of the United States of America. (That last bit was for the 91.3% of Americans that don’t know Alaska is part of the U.S.)

Ten things that are NOT true about Alaska:

10. We live in igloos

This is only true if you are a Boy Scout on a winter camping trip. Say it with me, “igloos are old school.”

9. We can’t grow anything

This is only partly false. We cannot grow anything we want to grow. If seen in a seed catalogue and salivated over, it’s guaranteed to be zone 5 or higher. Drat! (Hence the presence of my beloved, giant squid-sized New Zealand flax overwintering in the living room. I have become quite skilled at locating my sofa under a press of purple leaves.) If inspiring a curled lip and feelings of disdain, then it’s going to grow like a weed here.

8. The bears will eat you

This only happens once in a while, usually to Boy Scouts on a winter camping trip (see number 1) or persons carrying a salmon in their back pocket. Fortunately, the bears usually stick to maiming.  Interesting aside: I’ve been scratched by a polar bear. It wasn’t fully-grown and was behind large iron bars at the time, but I don’t tell anyone that part. I was not eaten, nor even lightly gnawed. Bears will eat your vegetables and fruits, however.

7. The moose will eat you

No, they are too full from engorging their 450 kg selves in your vegetable garden to do that. They will just charge and trample you on their way to the ornamentals. It is a little known fact that the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse are actually the Four Moose of the Apocalypse. Primulas, gone. Peonies, zap. That crabapple sapling, snap. Your little dog, Toto, stomp.

6. We grow giant vegetables

That is true. It was just a test to see if you were paying attention. How about a 58 kg cabbage, a 584 kg pumpkin, or a 41 kg vegetable marrow? Our long summer days and short, cool nights work a bit of veggie magic.

5. Alaska is blanketed in snow all year

No. Summer is my very favorite season and lasts a full week. If I’m especially lucky, the temperature will reach 21°C for one blissful day. Fall is a close second with a ten minute golden shower of birch leaves sans snow. Spring is just awful and brown and dusty and lasts two years. Oops, I mean months.

4. The Abominable Snowman lives here

I think this story got started after some large-statured, hirsute Alaskan played a trick on a group of gullible Boy Scouts (see number 1 again) one evening around the campfire.

3. There is nothing to do

This too, is true, or so the children are always telling me. If you can’t ski, raft, ice skate, fish, row, hike, bike, camp, run, hunt, swim, or garden…there is nothing to do. Besides attend the opera, of course.

2. The preferred method of travel is by dog sled

I’m glad this isn’t true as we have no dog and Gilbert, the family goldfish, seems unwilling to be tethered to a sled. Some Alaskans enjoy mushing as a hobby but few use it as an actual mode of transportation. Most rural Alaskans in roadless parts of the state get around by snowmachine (that’s our word for it, you call it a snowmobile) in winter and four-wheeler (that’s our word for it, you call it an ATV) in summer.

1. The name “Alaska” translates as “why did we pick this cold place” from the indigenous Athabascan language

Not true. The genuine meaning is Yup’ik for “gardener’s bane.” Actually, that was just another falsehood. It means, “bring a jacket, fool” in Eyak. Okay, okay…the meaning of Alaska is “great land” in Aleut. Honest!

Hopefully I’ve cleared up a few misconceptions without derailing any dream vacation plans to the Last Frontier. It’s no myth that beautiful gardens, pristine views, wildlife encounters, and interesting people can be found here.

Just be sure and avoid the Boy Scout with a salmon in his back pocket.

Moose photograph by: Ruby Palmer