Gardeners line up for Bragaw community plots

Devin Kelly
Bob Hallinen

Anchorage's newest community garden kicked off its second year of operation Saturday with promises of fertile soil for the growing season.

Even before registration started at 11 a.m. at the Mountain View Library, about a dozen people lined up to reserve a plot at the Gardens at Bragaw, located behind green fencing at the interchange of Bragaw Street and the Glenn Highway. About 20 of the 44 plots had already been secured by returning gardeners but the rest were available to the public.

At the very front of the line, Judy Bachicha, museum manager at the Alaska Museum of Science and Nature in Mountain View, stood waiting with her 4-year-old son, Christian.

Bachicha first heard about the gardens during a "seed swap" event hosted at the museum last year.

"I said, 'Where can I get a plot?' " Bachicha said. She pledged she'd be first in line for the sign-ups in 2014, and was true to her word. Her family lives on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and doesn't have space for a garden, she said.

"I'm just excited to do something outside," Bachicha said, adding that her son had already picked out stakes at a garden store.

In 2012, the Anchorage Community Land Trust, a Mountain View-based community development organization, took over the management of the 11,000-square-foot property after a years-long holdup caused by a legal knot between the state Department of Transportation and the municipality. For the grand opening last year, volunteers painted colorful signs and built a gardening shed.

The 13-by-16-foot plots are spaced among four raised beds, and the gardeners have access to water.

Gardeners pay a $25 plot fee, which goes into an account used by the entire group, said coordinator Radhika Krishna of the land trust. After Memorial Day, the ground will be thawed enough to allow for planting.

Saturday's sign-up event was quieter than last year's kickoff but the gardeners were no less enthusiastic.

Mai Yang, 18, said she's looking forward to planting carrots and tomatoes. The East High senior said she and her family decided to sign up for a plot after seeing a sign advertising the community garden.

Yang and six other members of her Hmong family live in a mobile home near Bragaw, and like others signing up for a plot, they don't have a place to plant seeds.

During the first year of the garden's operation, gardeners had to battle tough growing conditions. The site once held high-density apartment buildings, torn down to make way for the overpass connection between Bragaw Street and Mountain View. The raised beds, built by the state in 2009, were full of construction fill soil that then went untouched for years.

After obtaining the garden space from the municipality, the land trust tilled 4 inches of compost into the plots in 2012 and 2013, Krishna said. Last summer, the organization brought in additional compost and fish meal for gardeners to use, she said. The land trust also runs annual tests to check the quality of the soil.

"Compared to established garden sites, the soil was not quite as fertile," Krishna said. "But it should be this year." People working their gardens will help improve yields over time, she said.

One returning gardener, Krishna Kafle, tried to grow potatoes, mustard seeds and lettuce on her plot last year. But because of a lack of compost, the plants didn't survive, she said.

With high hopes, she and her husband, who moved to an apartment in Mountain View from Bhutan about five years ago, have reserved the same plot this year, noting that they've been told to expect better conditions.

Kafle's husband, who declined to give his first name, said that growing their own organic vegetables is a taste of home. They used to grow the same vegetables -- potatoes, radishes, cauliflower, cabbage and cilantro -- but it's hard to find the same flavors in markets here, he said.

"It's more hybrid here," he said.

For Anchorage's immigrant populations, farming and gardening hold deep associations with cultural identity, said Leisiva Maka, the director of marketing and PR for the Pacific Islanders Center in Anchorage. Maka came Saturday to preserve a plot for the center, which opened last February.

In June, Maka and her uncle started a plot in the backyard of her parents' home in South Anchorage. With a plot on Bragaw, the center will now have farming operations on both ends of the city for members of the Pacific Islander community to garden and pick up organic fruits and vegetables, Maka said.

"Back home, for us, that is the way of life," said Maka, whose parents immigrated to Anchorage from the South Pacific nation of Tonga in the 1980s. "Growing our own food, sustainability."

She said the center's goal is to sell the produce at local farmers' markets and also help promote a healthy lifestyle to families.

At least for Mountain View, more gardening plans are in store for the future.

In the coming months, the land trust plans to launch a pilot project for raised beds that can be placed in residents' yards. The organization hopes to work with landlords to make raised beds available to people in apartment complexes, and is starting to get the word out to interested community members.

The goal for this summer is 20 raised beds, Krishna said.