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

2011 Annual Report for SW10-901

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

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


The Building Alaska Garden Soils from the Ground Up project saw both outreach and research completed this year. The outreach component had the project team travel to two eco-regions of Alaska for soil workshops, classes and filming for the soil video production. The research component had collaborators sending in homemade soil samples for analysis, planting and growing potatoes in homemade soils and local, synthetically fertilized soils, and sending soil samples for analysis from both plots. This growing season also proved to be a challenging summertime for collaborator activity, as two of the collaborators did not follow protocol, and one kept their soil samples warm and we were unable to analyze them. All in all, this year’s progress followed the project timeline and the final soil production video is in progress from all the footage filmed out in the two villages we visited during our soil outreach.

Objectives/Performance Targets

Many Alaska communities have stated an interest in food production, but perceive that a lack of adequate soils inhibits gardening. Most Alaskan producers confront related soil problems, such as thin root zones, nutrient-poor soils with low organic material contents and some issues with permafrost. Despite the high cost of shipping, some producers actually import all of their garden soils from the continental United States on a barge, unaware that many of the necessary soil components can be found locally.

• This project will address these concerns and perceived gardening barriers during the two community workshops and the subsequent video produced.

Many Alaskans interested in food production have little gardening experience, therefore are unaware of the benefits of compost. A successful garden should provide the appropriate materials and motivation to create compost.

• Through this project, information about the use of local resources as a way to build soils or raised-beds, and as an organic nutrient source, would be dispersed. Furthermore, analysis of local organic resources should result in nutritive information that is applicable to soil building and amending and to providing future compost feedstocks.

The research component of the project will focus primarily on soil improvement methodologies in two different ways.

• First, the research component will compare the nutrient availability throughout the growing season in locally built and amended soils, with locally built and synthetically fertilized soils.

• Secondly, it will compare the vegetable yield grown in both types of soil, using potatoes as the common crop.

Producers in five different locations, representing each “region” of Alaska, will build four raised-beds and will fill them with locally manufactured soils (with technical guidance). Two beds will be fertilized with local organic nutrient sources and two beds will be fertilized with conventional fertilizer. Using potatoes as an indicator crop, biweekly soil samples will be evaluated for nutrient availability and potato yield data will be collected. After soil data is analyzed, recommendations for further amendments will be given to the producers so they have a guideline for improving crop yields the following growing season.

The outreach plan of the project will be more involved than creating a bulletin or providing web-based information. Because of the diversity of Alaska’s climate and cultures, face-to-face workshops in all interested communities would need to occur; however, the high cost of travel makes on-site workshops in every community impractical. A good solution for this issue is to hold two soil-building workshops in rural communities that will give credibility to the project and result in better acceptance in other rural communities. These workshops would be filmed, and a video created, which would be available on CDs, the Internet (in focused segments on a site like YouTube), and delivered to agriculture professionals as a teaching tool. The video product will promote greater distribution to communities where budgets do not allow face-to-face interactions.

• The outreach component of this project will also meet the Western SARE Subregional Conference goal: the need for education and outreach to producers.


Research accomplishments:

Analysis of the homemade soil found each collaborator used local resources to build well-balanced garden soils (see the attached document: homemade soil analysis). We also found each collaborator went about their soil-making in different ways, from using all natural, local amendments to using a combination of local resources and compost.

Outreach accomplishments:

We visited Angoon, a southeastern Alaska village located in a temperate rainforest, marine ecosystem, to hold a soil-building workshop and film local soil amendments for use in garden soil building. The project team gave the community selection to the local CES agent, as we felt they were the best resource to identify a community with gardening needs. Upon arrival, we found an amazing organic soil that needed little amendments but sand for drainage. This soil did not require much work, but we helped the community build up the soils at a garden site formerly used by the school that was being used for the new community garden. The evening prior to the garden soil workshop we held a gardening question and answer community meeting with twelve attendees. Aside from the wonderful soil conditions, lots of marine resources were filmed and discussed as potential soil amendments for use in soil building.

We visited Bethel, a community on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in western Alaska that is classified as a wet tundra eco-region on the northern banks of the Kuskokwim River. We collaborated with the Bethel CES agent to hold a workshop at the Bethel Community Garden, present to a soils class at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Kuskokwim campus, record a garden chat on KYUK (Bethel’s local radio station), and participate in a talk show on soils at KYUK. While in Bethel, we were able to meet and learn from a gardener working on developing his own homemade soil and his own homemade planting medium with only local components. We also were able to film and discuss many tundra and river resources available for use in garden soil building.

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

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 but could easily be applied to any stakeholders in the Western region. The research component will determine the nutrient availability in the local materials in five distinct ecosystems from around the state. 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 healthy foods and promoting preservation of the natural environment. Furthermore, the process of building and maintaining soil in river and coastal ecosystems will be visually documented and made available to various agencies and communities, all of who can benefit from the information as a template for local garden soil development. All of these concepts are applicable to not only Alaskan communities but also other communities within the Western region of SARE.


Paul Apfelbeck

[email protected]
Participating Producer
PO Box 5
Galena, AK 99741
Office Phone: 9076562380
Mary Stalker

[email protected]
Participating Producer
PO Box 317
Kotzebue, AK 99752
Office Phone: 9074423208
Dr. Jeff Smeenk

[email protected]
Assistant Professor
University of Alaska Fairbanks
533 East Fireweed Avenue
Palmer Research and Extension Center
Palmer, AK 9964-6629
Office Phone: 9077469470
Rick Bellagh

[email protected]
Participating Producer
137 Behrends Ave
Juneau, AK 99801
Office Phone: 9073215933
Leif Albertson

[email protected]
Bethel Agent
Cooperative Extension Service
PO Box 368
Kuskokwim Campus
Bethel, AK 99559
Office Phone: 9075434553
Patrick Smith

[email protected]
Participating Producer
PO Box 67
Minto, AK 99758
Office Phone: 9077987355
Dr. Mingchu Zhang

[email protected]
Associate Professor
University of Alaska Fairbanks
172 Arctic Health Research Building
PO Box 757140
Fairbanks, AK 9977-7140
Office Phone: 9074747004
Darren Snyder

[email protected]
Assistant Professor
Cooperative Extension Service - UAF
1108 F Street Suite 213
Bill Ray Center
Juneau, AK 99801
Office Phone: 9077966281
Izetta Chambers

[email protected]
Participating Producer
PO Box 1070
Dillingham, AK 99576
Office Phone: 9078428323