Nailed to the old log cabin at the Southeast Alaska State Fairgrounds are some metal plaques, rusted and faded with age and weather. The small plaques are nearly the color of the graying logs and the names etched on them are difficult to read. But look closely and you’ll see evidence of a labor of love that began 10 years ago this summer - the Haines Community Garden.
Members are celebrating the 10th anniversary of the garden at 4 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 4, with a harvest festival.
The membership is a loose association of gardeners, some longtime, some with novice green thumbs who pay to keep plots at the site at the fairgrounds. There is no board of directors or voting committee and rules have long been honor-based: keep your plot weeded and tended, help with other groundskeeping chores, pay your membership.
Former Haines resident Kim Burnham, who now lives in Skagway, spearheaded the garden in 2001. Burnham said when she arrived in Haines in the mid-1990s she was concerned about the proliferation of genetically modified food and the corporate-run food system in general.
"In looking for a way to escape that legacy, I embraced organic gardening almost immediately upon my arrival in Haines," she said.
Burnham taught herself the basics of organic gardening and created an extensive home garden. In the process, she said she developed an "incurable obsession" for gardening.
"I immediately recognized the need to share this information and experience with others as a way to promote sustainability within the community," she said.
Burnham took the Master Gardener’s course offered by the Alaska Cooperative Extension. Part of the course required students to become garden educators and to volunteer. Burnham said creating a community garden seemed like the perfect idea.
"Eventually a small, but excited and optimistic group formed," she said. She remembers several folks from the initial steering committee included Mark Fontenot, Erika Merklin, Vivian Menaker, Andrea Nisbit, Megan Sherman, Kate Harrop, Herb Van Cleve and Fiona Campbell.
Burnham said the fairgrounds seemed like a natural choice for the garden site because of the agricultural emphasis of the fair mission, and because several raw materials from the fairgrounds could help in establishing the garden and compost, including horse manure and spent grain from nearby Haines Brewing Co.
Initially Burnham said she remembers there being some resistance or apathy toward the creation of the garden. She said some people would ask her, "Why create a garden, what for?" and she said it was hard to understand the negativity.
"Fortunately, once the project took shape and progress could be visualized and community participation could be documented, many of the same skeptics either became supporters or at least became indifferent," Burnham said.
In 2004, shortly before leaving Haines, Burnham received an Environmental Stewardship Award from the Haines Borough for her involvement with the garden.
At its best, Burnham said she remembers fondly the dynamics of the garden – both the ecosystem and the people involved. She said people of all ages and backgrounds and different gardening abilities used the garden.
"My fondest memories are made up of the feedback I got from the members and gardeners," she said. "I loved seeing new gardeners get excited about something they grew successfully."
The garden physically hasn’t changed drastically since its beginning. This year the fair, which is the parent organization of the garden and owns the property the garden sits on, removed a greenhouse and lowered a fence surrounding the area. Garden coordinator Leslie Evenden said those changes improved the layout and visibility of the garden, especially for visitors to the fairgrounds.
"It just opened the whole thing up," she said. "People feel more invited into the space. They walk in there and cruise around."
Member Andy Hlavacek this year also helped create new raised beds for most of the plots. Hlavacek is a "dedicated and daily" member, according to Evenden, and spends countless hours helping with grounds maintenance, composting and general upkeep. Strolling around the garden with Hlavacek, he pointed out the wide variety of produce, herbs and flowers that members attempt: strawberries, potatoes, leafy greens, sunflowers. Hlavacek is even attempting purple asparagus in one of his plots this year. However, the hot, early summer weather followed by cool rainy weather was not kind to his basil.
This year Hlavacek worked to edge the entire garden space with perennials and prune back the raspberry bushes along the fence to spruce them up. Joe Poor also donated two multi-graft apple trees that are planted along the fence.
For some members, the garden offers growing space they may not have at their house or apartment. For others, like Hlavacek, they garden some at home but are enticed by the sunny exposure and healthy soil of the space at the community garden.
"It’s a great spot out of the trees," Hlavacek said.
He said the garden is "traditionally organic," though no one monitors each member’s practices.
Hlavacek said he hopes the garden someday creates a more cohesive group of members who meet often and becomes a voting body or more decision-making group on how to make improvements or changes to the space. But for now, Hlavacek and the other members keep toiling away, growing and experimenting and continuing a 10-year-old tradition of community gardening in Haines.
"It’s still a work in progress," Hlavacek said.