Building Alaska Garden Soils from the Ground Up: Local Soils Research and Demonstration Projects

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2010: $48,497.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2011
Region: Western
State: Alaska
Principal Investigator:
Dr. Stephen Sparrow
University of Alaska Fairbanks

Annual Reports


  • Agronomic: potatoes


  • Crop Production: nutrient cycling, organic fertilizers
  • Education and Training: demonstration, extension, farmer to farmer, on-farm/ranch research, workshop
  • Soil Management: soil analysis, nutrient mineralization, soil microbiology, soil chemistry, organic matter, soil physics, soil quality/health
  • Sustainable Communities: local and regional food systems, public participation, sustainability measures


    Poor nutrition, partially as a result of lack of fresh, cheap vegetables, is common in rural Alaska. Many Alaska communities have stated an interest in food production but perceive that the lack of adequate soils inhibits gardening. Importing soil amendments and fertilizers is often prohibitively expensive. We were able to demonstrate, through work in a coastal community and a riverine community, that it is possible to easily and cheaply build high quality garden soils using locally available materials. We hosted workshops on soil building and construction of raised beds for vegetable gardening in Alaska. A DVD which demonstrates soil building and raised bed construction was produced and is available on-line. We are now getting the information we generated out to agricultural professionals, communities and gardeners throughout Alaska.

    Project objectives:

    1. Determine the nutrient availability in local materials from distinct ecosystems in the state. Building Alaska Garden Soils from the Ground Up is primarily concerned with using local mineral and organic components to make and enhance garden soil for various communities throughout the state. The goal of the research component was to determine the nutrient availability in the local materials from distinct ecosystems around the state and examine the edible vegetative yield from these locally-produced soils. Educating communities about creating and maintaining soil with local components establishes a sustainable source for gardening in the community, thereby enhancing the local diet through affordable access to healthful foods and promoting preservation of the natural environment. Furthermore, the process of building and maintaining soil in riverine and coastal ecosystems will be visually documented and made available to various agencies and communities, all of whom can benefit from the information as a template for local garden soil development.

    2. Demonstrate garden soil building techniques using local materials in two common ecosystems throughout Alaska: a riverine ecosystem and a beach ecosystem. The ability to create and maintain garden soil will potentially increase the availability of quality food in the community. This will help to address many of the nutritional issues plaguing Alaska communities, such as diabetes and obesity. The production of fresh, local vegetables will also allow the growers to keep much of their produce and decrease family food costs. Furthermore, gardens would promote the historic, community-strengthening act of sharing food resources with elders and other community members, thereby promoting health all around. Finally, the gardens could potentially increase employment if the community decides to dedicate more resources to local food production and hire a local gardener to care for the community vegetables, which would improve local economic structures.

    3. Optimize locally available resources to build and amend soils for use in gardens. In general, the few gardeners in smaller communities do not consider amending their garden soils because of the high cost of shipping chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. Teaching community producers how to amend soils with local organic materials will provide an increased yield for existing gardens and promote environmental conservation. Furthermore, as part of the project, the available nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium in local organic soil amendments will be documented and made available to other producers in the state. Analysis of the soil will be accomplished through collecting soil samples from each research site every two weeks during the growing season. The results will provide a view of the optimized nutrient release through the biological processes in the soils.

    4. Promote crop diversification by supporting local soil production for growers in areas that currently do not generally have gardens. Increasing the number of producers at the local level will diversify community food sources and specifically help those who have never grown food. In communities existing primarily on subsistence foods, supplementing the diet with a stable, locally grown food source not only diversifies the diet, it should also contribute to local food security.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.