This story was originally written for The Northern Light.
Living in a housing complex or a highly condensed area of Anchorage can make it difficult to garden without the extra yard space. Yarducopia is a project of Alaska Community Action on Toxics that connects individuals who aspire to garden but have no place to do so with those who have the yard space. This is Yarducopia’s fifth season facilitating the program.
Michelle Wilber is the organic gardening coordinator for the program and has lived in Spenard since 2008. From matching volunteers to landowners and giving advice to gardeners about weeds, Wilber is a teacher to those who have yet to explore the gardening world.
Wilber sets up volunteers and landowners based on location to one another. Individuals can sign up to offer their yard, volunteer or to seek garden space via yarducopia.org. Once a successful match has been made, she begins building the gardens from the ground up. Typically, gardens take two to four hours, depending on how many individuals are volunteering. Gardens are made with cardboard boxes, horse manure and dried leaf or grass mulch and are 100-square-feet in size.
Yarducopia’s website provides step-by-step video tutorials on how to manage your garden and potential problems you might face. Wilber also makes at least two official visits to plots during the season to help gardeners be more successful and to answer any questions they might have.
“‘Oh, maybe you should water more, maybe you should water less. Oh, there’s a caterpillar there, this is what you can do,’ that kind of thing,” Wilber said.
The end result splits the produce between the yard owner and the gardener, and 10 percent is to be donated to a charity of their choice.
“We really set people up for instant success in this program. You’re going to get something, you’re going to get leafy greens if nothing else,” Wilber said.
The program was started several years ago with five gardens created the first year and eight gardens the second. Working with private individuals and non-profits, there are now 33 gardens this season. Growth is not necessarily Wilbur’s mindset, though. She believes more in permaculture, sustaining and maintaining gardens throughout the city, having individuals learn from Yarducopia and eventually moving on to creating a garden by themselves.
Each summer, there are interns for ACAT; typically, there are two. Maddy Poehlin is this year’s only summer intern, who is currently attending school at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. Since ACAT is a non-profit, Whitman College funds the internship.
“Working with the gardening is pretty fun. It breaks up the day, and you get to go outside. It’s pretty rough to sit in the office all day,” Poehlin said.
Poehlin assembled a harvesting cookbook for all the starter veggies and edible flowers that Yarducopia offers to plant, so gardeners know exactly how to harvest and what to do with their bounty, which can be found on their website.
Starter veggies and edible flowers are commonly found in Yarducopia gardens, but some gardeners think outside of their 100-square-foot box. Ryker Kotelman had taken a summer farmer training program at Calypso Farm and Ecology Center in Fairbanks. He signed up for Yarducopia this spring and has a garden sprouting with greens: broccoli, Chinese cabbage, chives, butter lettuce and Swiss chard, to say a few.
“I hadn’t really gardened much or anything before that [program at Calypso]. I would really love to have my own farm one day, that’s kind of the three to five-year plan. I really just wanted to learn,” Kotelman said.
The passion that gardeners have for getting their hands dirty is what makes Wilber love her job.
“I love facilitating community. I love teaching people new skills and how easy it can be to build a garden out of waste materials. I get people all the time who participated or heard about the program who go off and get their own load of horse manure or bags of grass and leaves and make an instant garden where there wasn’t one before,” Wilber said.
On July 22, Yarducopia will be hosting a garden bike tour for the public. The event begins at 10 a.m. at the Spenard Farmers Market and will go through the Spenard neighborhood to see five Yarducopia-made gardens, ending at 1 p.m. The tour is free, but donations are encouraged.