How on earth did someone from the mountains of Kentucky end up planting a garden on the Kenai Peninsula in Seward, Alaska? Well, there are some similarities: Alaska does have mountains, great glorious ones that are barren on top except for the goats and bears that live there. Here is the story of my incredible visit to Alaska, and what I found in that harshly beautiful land.
"No man is an island entire of itself." ...John Donne
I don't know that John Donne was ever in Alaska, but he could have been talking about that great and glorious state. I recently spent eight days there, not as a tourist, but as the guest of a most gracious family. I learned many things, but the most important in my opinion is the fact that the people just naturally help others.
My visit took place in Seward, Alaska, on the Kenai Peninsula, and my friend's home is nestled snug in a canyon surrounded by mountains. At night the mountains reminded me of huge chocolate mounds topped with melting whipped cream. I kept a journal while there, and this is my story as I wrote it on the night of Summer Solstice.
I sit now at midnight, on the day of Summer Solstice, watching as the midnight sun sets like a giant cherry sliding down the side and soon to the back of the chocolate mountain. I have no need for lights in my room tonight, because the setting sun lights my page with a golden glow.
I grew up in the mountains of southeast Kentucky, and I am quite familiar with mountains and the golden glow of the setting sun, but never at midnight. Everything in Alaska is BIG! The dandelions run a close second to my daylilies back home. The pansies are huge and only four of them would fill up the hanging baskets on my deck, with no room leftover for a trailing vine.
I would love to go outside in this glowing midnight hour to take pictures, but the woods surround us, and the creeks are overflowing with spawning salmon; the woods are alive with bears just out of hibernation, looking for those salmon and probably for women who are out in the middle of the night taking pictures.
No man is an island, but tonight with only the sounds of Salmon River, chattering birds, and splashing salmon, I feel very alone; surprisingly enough, it is a good feeling. I was invited to Seward to plant a Memory Garden for our Dave's Garden friend Carol Eads who passed away in May, 2008. It was her wish that all the plants she had lovingly treasured and nourished for many years be transplanted from her garden to the home of her sister, Ava.
When I arrived, the garden plot had been cleared, the soil loosened, and large rocks had been placed around the area. Inside the garden, the rocks create a terrace. All things in Alaska being large, the garden is no exception. Tall thin alders reaching for the skies provide a garden backdrop, and the garden faces one of Carol's and Ava's beloved mountains. I have no adequate words for the beauty of the setting.
I had studied the soil conditions and the climate before beginning my journey, I also had gathered some information regarding the type of plants that thrived in the climate. I thought at the time I was confident enough to do justice to the garden, but when I saw it, I seriously considered turning around and heading back to Kentucky. The soil is very rocky. The hottest days might be in the high 70's. There is little humidity compared to Kentucky, and there are no bugs, just tiny little mosquitoes (the only tiny thing I could find there). I was seriously overwhelmed. But Ava knows her native plants, and she was a tremendous help to me. She took me around to show me hundreds of them, and I looked carefully to see how they grew. The first thing we did was to add top soil and Carol's own compost to each level of the garden. I began to feel right at home.
Truthfully, though, I was really excited right along with being overwhelmed. Planting a brand new garden in an unknown territory is truly a gift to a gardener. It was almost like Christmas! With the help of Carol's son John, and Ava, we brought the plants from Carol's to their new home.
There was Carol's collection of blue Himalayan poppies, her wild geranium, her chocolate lilies, wild blue flax, Alpine Veronica, Alaska violet, Siberian aster, wild iris, Jacob's ladder, Alpine forget me nots (Alaska's state flower), common fireweed, salmon berry, saxifrage, Eskimo potato, silver berry, potentilla, lovage, Arctic daisy, Northern yarrow, Watermelon berry, wild columbine, and her miniature larches that she was growing into bonsai. Even the names were foreign to me.
Ladies from the Garden Club came to help dig holes for some of the larches, then John dug even bigger holes for some of the larger trees. Finally I recognized the red twigged dogwood. Another small blooming tree was her Siberian pea, a lovely plant. She has blooming apple trees in her yard, but this was not the time to try to transplant huge blooming apple trees.
So the garden was planted over a four day period, and I have added many new words to my plant vocabulary. Surprisingly enough the plants never wilted, and those already in bud simply opened their sleepy eyes and are blooming for us. The garden now is complete, and even more plants line the sides and the back of the garden, with the trees flanking its entrance and baskets hanging from the limbs of the alders.
Carol had made many hypertufa planters, and had hollowed out logs. I didn't change them since they were growing so beautifully, I simply placed them as they were, around the garden. It was really nice that I saw in her plants and planters the influence of Dave's Garden and her connections to so many people from so many states. She had been an active DG member for a long time.
No man is an island and when more than 200 of her friends gathered with her family and me to celebrate her life in front of her new garden, my ears were tuned to all the "Remember whens." There were hair-raising tales of avalanches and floods, tsunamis and moose and bears. And through it all, it was neighbor helping neighbor. Those same neighbors came bearing gifts of food and flowers, and they also brought tables and chairs and set them up in front of the new garden. Crab cakes, smoked salmon, shrimp slaw, crab dip, all were gifts from the sea. Jams and jellies were brought, gifts from the land. Circling above us silently on air currents throughout the afternoon were bald eagles who were searching for salmon or ducks in the river. They entertained us with a grace that can only exist in nature.
Blue jays with their tufted heads and navy iridescent feathers swooped back and forth chasing golden brown hummingbirds. The lovely little grosbeak who adopted me as soon as I arrived stayed close by. I wonder now if she has been watching for black bears or moose, so that she could warn me, since she has hardly left my side. I will miss her lovely rust colored head when I leave.
With all that beauty, all the help with the garden and the celebration of Carol's life, all the gifts of food, all the tributes to that family, all the friendly respect shown to strangers, I left knowing for sure that no man is an island.
Thank you to all my friends in Alaska. It was a most wonderful trip.
This article is especially for my friend Ava Eads, a true Alaskan whose friendship is a treasure.
You can see more photos from this trip including wildlife, wildflowers and the celebration by going here:
Photos in the above thread also include those taken by Soulja, another DG'er from Louisville who also attended the celebration.
About Sharon Brown
I am a retired high school art and humanities teacher. I grew up in the Appalachian mountains of southeast KY and now I live with my two rescued cats, Jazz and Daisy, in far western KY. I am an artist often doing commissioned work, and in addition to writing articles for Dave's Garden, I also write boating stories for a nautical magazine as well as other venues. My greatest loves are writing, painting, my 5 year old grandson, then learning the history of our numerous wildflowers in Kentucky. And, of course, there's gardening.