While the snow has been piling up this winter, the Tribe’s greenhouse has been piling up the produce.
Jeff Swan, the Greenhouse Coordinator – or as he jokingly refers to himself, “Plant Manager” – spent this winter applying the lessons learned from last winter. The name of the greenhouse, Ch’k’denłyah yuyeh, means “we grow something inside” in Dena’ina. The many pounds of fresh tomatoes, kale, lettuce and other produce have been provided to the Tribe’s Elders program. Elders staff use the produce in salads, soups and even some main dishes.
“I’ve been trying to keep a crop growing all winter,” Swan said.
Swan was harvesting tomatoes well into December, at which point the focus turned to different types of greens. From January into March, the greenhouse was producing several varieties of kale and lettuce, and Swan was preparing some spring crops as well.
In one corner of the greenhouse, some “true seed” potatoes are growing. True seed potatoes get their start from seeds that come from the blossoms of last season’s crop. Swan said true seed potato plants can be somewhat unpredictable in the variety of potatoes they produce.
Some of the other raised planting beds contain several varieties of tomatoes, good for salads, sauces and everything in between.
Another bed contains cauliflower and broccoli. Swan said he wanted try growing the cold-weather crops over the winter when the greenhouse stays a little cooler, but is worried that it’s already getting too warm with the spring sunshine. Swan does have some cauliflower and broccoli starts ready to go for people interested in growing them at home.
One crop where Swan is seeing a big improvement over last year is corn. Last year, Swan said, he tried growing eight or 10 corn stalks, but they didn’t do well. However, he saved an ear of corn, and got 100 percent germination from the seeds for this year’s crop – 48 stalks in all.
Emerging from other beds are onions, pumpkins, zucchini and cucumbers. There’s also several pots of nasturtiums to go outside of Tyotkas Elder Center when the weather allows.
Some tweaks to the building also helped with this winter’s production. The base of the structure received some extra insulation, and the many vents were closed and insulated. The interior of the greenhouse got a third layer of 4-millimeter plastic to retain heat. Swan also put together a system of gutters to collect condensation, which he uses to water the plants.
Swan said he’s looking forward to doing some gardening and growing workshops, especially for children in the Tribe’s Education programs.
“They can plant something that grows fast, so they can see it grow. My mother started me out that way,” Swan said.
Swan said people of all ages can reap the benefits of the greenhouse, especially in light of the food supply chain issues exposed by the pandemic.
“Our goal is to produce organic, fresh food for our Elders, and also to help educate the upcoming generation, or anybody who would like to learn to grow something,” Swan said.
Greenhouse open hours are 10 a.m.-noon on Mondays; 12:30-2 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays; and 3-5 p.m. on Wednesdays and Fridays. Stop by to help with plant care, share tips on growing, or just enjoy some greenery.