Unicorn Gardens faces challenges of Alaska weather, wildlife

Jun 16, 2017

Patricia Treydte has been working on Unicorn Gardens for 35 years, and takes great pride in supplying fresh local produce all summer long.

Dillingham is known more for its fishing than its farming. But some local growers and gardeners make a good livelihood out of their efforts, even in this challenging clime. Patricia Tredyte is one, and before she's seen twice weekly at the downtown Farmer's Market, she invited KDLG's Allison Mollenkamp over for a tour of Unicorn Gardens.

Patricia Treydte’s masterpiece, Unicorn Gardens, is an island of organization in an otherwise unruly sea of dandelions. The neat rows house all sorts of fruits and vegetables. When I arrive she’s planting.

“Mostly the cold crops, trying to get the last of those in. Broccoli and cauliflower I got in a couple days ago.” 

Those cold crops are just part of the vast garden. There’s an entire small field of potatoes, two apple trees, two greenhouses, and assorted fruits and vegetables squeezed around the edges of it all. It didn’t happen overnight. Treydte’s been building this garden for a while.

“35 years maybe? So the greenhouse is new, though. It’s, I think this is its seventh, eight, seventh year?”

The greenhouse looms large over the garden and Treydte had help to get it there.

“It’s through that Department of Agriculture program. That they partially subsidize it. This one, they pay bythe square foot and I wanted something a little sturdier than… Some people claim to have made money on the program by buying cheapo ones, but those aren’t working any more either so…”

The interior of the greenhouse.
Credit Allison Mollenkamp

The greenhouse lets Treydte control the environment for her plants better. It’s allowed her to expand what she sells.

“Anyway, this has made a whole difference in what I grow and… it’s made it possible to produce more starts, so I sell garden starts now. That I really couldn’t have produced that many before this was available. So I can get them out here and even when it’s still freezing in here I got that box I can put them in that’s insulated and one of flaps down and I’ve got a heat mat in there that I try not to have to plug in but do if it’s gonna freeze at night. And then I can do all my starts.”

In Dillingham, it’s hard to know when plants may be safe from frost.

“I won’t say there’s ever a last freeze or a first freeze, but usually you can count on nothing hard in June and July. I start getting suspect in August, it’s, starting first of August. But we’ve had years recently where you can get clear through August without a, without a frost which is, makes a huge difference.”

From a combination of climate change and El Nino, summers have been getting warmer and longer in Southwest Alaska lately, which means Treydte is finding more is able to grow in her garden.

“I keep having to remind myself that yeah, things that wouldn’t grow here thirty years ago might now and... Or ones that barely survived then might survive better now, so I, I try to keep trying new stuff.”

She’s even started trying apple trees, but was recently reminded the weather isn’t the only hazard out there.

“A little bear got in here, well I don’t know if it was a little bear or a big bear, but anyway it broke this branch clear off. It was just kind of hanging by its bark, so… I don’t know, you know." Carscallen indicated a spot on the tree.

Credit Allison Mollenkamp

"Is that what the tape is?" I asked.

"String and duct tape.” Carscallen confirmed.

Bears aren’t the only unwelcome visitors to Treydte’s garden.

“See that big broken down part of my fence there? Yeah, a moose walked through there the other day. There’s a matching broken down fence over there." Carscallen pointed.

While Treydte perhaps wishes the local wildlife wouldn’t enjoy her vegetables so much, she appreciates watching the impact of her garden for the area’s human population.

“Really does my heart good. I’ve got kids that came out here on field trips in the second grade and got introduced to fresh vegetables and now they’re bringing their kids to farmer’s market. Which is just, you know, it makes me feel really good.”

Some of those kids may not have known about fresh vegetables because gardening is more difficult here in Alaska. Towards the end of my visit Treydte reminisced about easier days of gardening.

“When I was growing up we lived about half a mile from a dairy and you could get all the free cow manure you wanted and for five bucks they’d bring you dump truck full of it and dump it in your garden for you! I think about that now and go ‘Oh please!’”

With no cows in Dillingham, Treydte has learned to be creative.

“Oh I’ve got my secret ingredient this year too. Two big feed sacks full of… porky poo! A cave that’s got porcupine, porcupines frequent it. I’m not sure if they winter in it or if they just pup in it or what but they’ve been pooping in it for about a century or so from the looks of it.”

A summer spent gardening in Alaska won’t be an easy one, but like her fishing neighbors, Treydte will muster up plenty of elbow grease. That effort will pay off to make Unicorn Gardens a patch of paradise this summer.

Contact the author at allison@kdlg.org or (907) 842-5281.