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She’s a gardener now, and has the Croc tan to prove it

  • Author: Alli Harvey
    | Alaska Outdoors
  • Updated: July 18, 2020
  • Published July 18, 2020

Before and after photos of a new Butte neighborhood garden in the summer of 2020. (Photos by Alli Harvey)

I’ve become a caricature of a gardener this summer.

Messy bun, knotted and piled on top of my head? Check. Canvas gloves stiff with mud baked in by the sun? Yes.

And the real kicker — something I didn’t even know was possible until this summer — I have a Croc tan. No, not just a leg tan that ends at my ankles. I mean there are actual visible dots on my feet from where the sun has shone through my go-to shoes.

That’s a new low, even for me.

I’ve been auditioning for the part of gardener for a long time, but never quite felt that I had what it took. In retrospect, I can see the pieces coming together.

First, it was a love of being outside. Then, it was an admiration for growers and a strong conviction that eating regional foods and investing in those local food systems is the foundation for building a better world. What brings people together like food? (Alcohol, but food is healthier).

I tried growing things myself, in fits and starts. When I lived in New York City, I killed many house plants. I left windowsill herbs hanging long after they were brown and crinkly. I hoped maybe they’d return? That there was something I was missing?

No, they were dead. I stopped trying to grow things for a while after that.

Still drawn to this idea of learning how to grow, years later I volunteered on a farm in exchange for room and board as part of the Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms program in Reno, Nevada. (Yes, things grow in Nevada. No, they are not slot machines or radioactive/alien tomatoes.)

I think I got the better part of that volunteering exchange. I’m an earnest volunteer, but inefficient. The farm manager cackled at me one day as I hacked away at the ground, trying to break up an earthen bed of organic material to soften it. He showed me a much more efficient way to use this thing called my “body weight” to conserve my energy.

Who knew?

During my time at this farm, I watered tomatoes, turned compost, dead-headed flowers, ran irrigation tape — a helpful water-saver in the high desert — and created gigantic salads. I woke up every morning on this urban farm by the river, slathered on sunscreen for my day out in various plots of land around the city, and went to bed every night with the sharp, cool air descending over twinkly lights on a front deck.

I didn’t feel like I learned anything conclusive about growing food, but I enjoyed taking a backseat to a trade. I liked the mindless yet soothing feeling of physically working hard every day.

When I became a homeowner in Alaska, I tried my hand at gardening yet again. Friends were helpful and generous, giving me vegetable and perennial starts, tips and tools for composting, and even donating sweat equity by helping me lay down garden beds that first season.

Again, my efforts petered out. Most summers until this one I’ve weighed going up the mountain versus hanging out in the yard, and that’s how the chickweed and slugs took over.

Enter: 2020. In April, approximately 1 million days ago, my husband and I talked over our summer plans. We decided to go big on the garden, beginning with a fence imposing enough to keep the moose away from this year’s cabbage.

We know our projects trend toward the unwieldy. Maybe this is the case for every couple, but it seems like every tiny house thing we try to do requires 10 trips to the hardware store and 50 YouTube videos. FenceGate required all of that, plus a couple treks to the outer reaches of the sprawling Mat-Su Borough to source spruce fence posts, plus schleps to the rental store for the rototiller and auger, plus a borrowed farm truck to pick up a ton — a ton — of compost.

No, we’re not magically pandemic-rich. We are lucky to both have our jobs. But this is how we invested much of our stimulus checks: straight into the ground.

We were late in planting, because the fence needed to be done. I decided to lay an entire gravel pathway down in the garden area before bothering to Google it — how hard could it be? I spent a day wheelbarrowing gravel, depositing it, raking it, repeat. That night a friend came over to check out the progress and asked if I’d put down plastic beneath the gravel.

She was enthusiastic when she said, “Well, it’s beautiful right now!” The weeds lurked below.

The next day I picked up ground cover fabric and stakes, raked up the entire gravel pathway and spread it all back out. This garden is going to give me really, really nice arms.

And, as it turns out, the garden is giving us beautiful plants. I borrowed seeds, accepted gifts of starts, and bought cheap nursery annuals from a place next door that had such great business this season it shut down early. I lay down the compost and the soil and dug up the beds to keep them airy — using my body weight, like the farm manager taught me.

Now, I wander around the garden daily, taking it all in, noticing the colors and the new developments, excited about what’s next. My Croc tan gets deeper day to day. Really, all that’s left is getting a straw hat.

Alli Harvey works in Palmer and plays in Southcentral Alaska.

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