SOLDOTNA — Patrick White's high tunnels here this summer seemed more like a mad scientist's lair than a home veggie patch. The sound of bubbling carried over the metallic whir of fans. Daylight filtering through the plastic shell took on an industrial hue. The air was thick with the concentrated smell of growth, as if a salad bar had been put in a stockpot to simmer.
Everywhere you turned were White's experiments. Stalks of short, fast-growing, double-eared sweet corn — yes, sweet corn in Alaska — with a modified genome to better suit a colder climate. Honeycrisp apple trees. Bushel gourdes plumping like water balloons. Long gourdes stretching 5 feet and still growing. Leafy tentacles of robust berry branches.
"Everybody knows you can't grow blackberries in Alaska, but I'm going to grow blackberries," said White, lifting a thriving branch. "The ones I grew in Idaho were bigger than your thumb — they're huge. They're really a Southern crop but they're doing fine."
Most of the growing space is taken up by more than 14 varieties of tomatoes, from bite-sized grapes and rotund cherries to softball-sized beefsteaks and bigger. Much bigger.
White's gardening endeavors are partially about fresh produce for the family, partially about having an activity to do with his three grandkids and partially a way to keep the mostly retired, endlessly restless civil engineer busy.
But more than that, it's about world domination.
White is determined to grow the largest tomato on the books and is cultivating contenders for a few other records, as well.
That level of optimism sounds a little Dr. Frankenstein-esque. Giant tomatoes? In Alaska's cool, abbreviated growing season? Especially considering that White has only been at this two years?
The crazy part isn't thinking he can do it. It's that he almost has.
"We had the state record at 4.5 pounds last year, then grew four tomatoes over 5 pounds. Last year only 10 in the world were over 6 pounds," White said.
High tunnels take off
He and his wife, Cindy, moved to Soldotna in 2012 to be closer to their son — Stephen White, who bought the Soldotna Gentle Dental practice — and his family. Back home in Idaho, they'd had a big garden. White figured Alaska would chill his gardening hobby. But he soon realized the potential of high tunnels. The plastic-covered structures amp up temperatures, extend Alaska's growing season and are generally cheaper than greenhouses, which have floors and are fully enclosed.
The popularity of high tunnels across Alaska is growing along with the produce within. Kathy Liska, crops superintendent for the Alaska State Fair, says the fair doesn't track how many of its exhibitors use high tunnels like they do with greenhouses — though it might in the future. But anecdotally, she's noticed an increase.
"More and more people are using them. It's been a big push for extending the seasons, both on the spring side and then going into fall," she said.
The results can be seen in the variety of submissions the fair now receives. It used to be mostly cabbages, root vegetables and other crops suited to being grown outdoors in Alaska.
But warm-weather items have hit the scene — fruit trees, peppers, even corn, thanks in part to high tunnels. The fair has been adding new categories of produce every year, Liska said.
"A lot of it has been the tomatoes and the peppers," she said. "They used to all get thrown into one group, because that's all you saw was one type. Now we've got lots, so every year there's something added."
Liska said gardeners are willing to try anything for better results, and high tunnels have proven successful.
"They're great. They do what they're supposed to do," she said.
Wally the giant squash
White is a believer. He built three high tunnels by 2015 and dug into full-scale production. There were the crops for consumption — potatoes, tomatoes, raspberries, rhubarb, squash, broccoli, etc. — and then there were the big guys. A giant pumpkin last year didn't quite measure up to massive standards. This year there was Wally the giant squash, meant to break the state record of 569 pounds. It started off looking promising, but the sun and warmth of early summer turned into clouds and cool by the end of July. In August, Wally was 108 inches in diameter, but "only" made it to 477 pounds.
"He's a nice squash but as soon as the sunshine quit, he just quit growing," White said. "When you lose half your sunshine for the summer it's a little depressing, right?"
The turn in the weather squashed more than just White's hopes for Wally. His meticulously tended tomatoes slowed down, too. White grew them hydroponically this year, planted in pearlite in Dutch buckets piped with tubing that circulates water and nutrients — hence the bubbling. The plants were strung up to pulleys so they could be raised and supported as they grew. When they sprouted fruit, he wrapped each tomato in a mesh bag also strung to a pulley, so the weight didn't break it from the vine.
He planted last year's tomato crop June 1 and realized too late that was too late. They were still growing come weigh-in time. His 4.5-pounder was the biggest available at state fair time, still plenty big to crush the previous state record of 2.52 pounds.
Among top 30 worldwide
After that, he took his world-record contenders to official scales at Fred Meyer and Safeway and sent the results off to the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth, or GPC, which tracks giant produce records worldwide.
The four tomatoes that White and his grandkids submitted weighed between 5.16 and 5.66 pounds, enough to place them 14th, 16th, 24th and 28th in the world but not nearly enough to topple the previous record of 8.41 pounds. This year, the record edged up to 8.61 pounds.
The next year would be better, White vowed, with thwarted mad-scientist zeal. He saved the seeds from his best-performing tomatoes last year and planted them at the beginning of May. By August, they were looking both promising and heartbreaking. They'd grown incredibly well until the weather changed.
"This has been my big disappointment, losing the light. I had 21 tomatoes I thought could be over 6 pounds. Last year only 10 in the world were over 6 pounds. They had a lot of potential but they have been ripening and haven't been growing very fast," he said.
[Midwinter dreams of giant veggies]
[Prize-winning Alaska fruit and veggies]
White had his hopes pinned to one tomato in particular.
"That tomato right there is the third-largest ever grown in the GPC in the world right now. If it grows 2.5 more inches in circumference it will be first 10-pound tomato ever grown in the world," White said.
That proved to be a disappointing "if." White can control every factor in the high tunnel, but he can't increase the amount of sunlight outside. His biggest this year weighed in at 7.15 pounds, landing him third in the world.
At the state fair, though, his 7.15-pounder smashed his previous record of 4.5 pounds. He also delivered a record cucumber at 20.2 pounds, more than doubling the previous record of 8.8 pounds set in 1990. And his best bushel gourd weighed in at 37.42 pounds, beating the 2006 record of 21.53 pounds.
‘A big hitter’
Liska said only a handful of Alaska growers focus on giants, and she's happy to see a new contender among the ranks.
"That's a whole other level of gardening. That's a full-time job," Liska said. "The dedication is unbelievable when it comes to what they do. They have studied everything in regards to these plants and they're constantly getting more information. They're on many forums, they talk with other growers all over the world. It's quite a group."
She said she's looking forward to seeing what White does in the future.
"He's what I call a big hitter. They get this bug in them, that's all I can say about the giant growers," she said. "There's a group of them, and they're very competitive with each other, and it's fun to watch."
White intends to continue putting on a good show.
"We had a wet and cloudy August, which really limited our results," he said. "With the bad weather, three state records was OK. We will do better next year."
How much better?
"Break the world record tomato. Break the world record cucumber. Break the state record long gourd and squash. And grow a big pumpkin," White said.
Jenny Neyman is a Soldotna-based freelance writer who edited the Kenai Peninsula newspaper Redoubt Reporter for many years.