Wrangell’s community garden, located at the old Lion’s ballfield.
(Sage Smiley / KSTK)

The weather outside may be frightful, but it is the perfect time of year to start planning a garden. Wrangell’s tribal government is hoping to revive the community garden over the coming year, with a new grant, the help of the community, and a spiffy new composting machine. 

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The Healthy Wrangell Coalition established Wrangell’s community garden in 2009, but it’s since fallen into disrepair. 

“Right now, the community garden is a pile of dirt and a sunken hole,” says Kim Wickman, the Wrangell tribal government’s Indian Environmental General Assistance Program (IGAP) technician. She says she got involved with the community garden in about 2014 with the children’s garden program and continued while working with Wrangell Parks & Rec. 

“It was a way for me to have my son interact with other children, and also have him get his hands dirty and getting in the dirt and having a good time,” she explains. But over the years, the garden started to languish. 

“By 2017, or 2018,” Wickman says, “I was invited to be on the committee. And at the same time, the committee kind of walked away.”

For a time, Wickman and Wrangell’s Parks & Rec director Kate Thomas made up the community garden committee. Over the last couple of years, Wickman says the Wrangell Cooperative Association has worked with the U.S. Forest Service and the city to take down the remnants of the previous garden beds, which covered about half of the old baseball field next to City Park.

“[The old boxes] were so overgrown and rotten that it was actually to the point where we were afraid somebody might get hurt by a side falling on them or something along those lines,” she says, “So all that got decommissioned.”

WCA tried to resurrect the community garden in 2020. But even though volunteers turned over garden beds and worked to clean up the area, it wasn’t enough to get the garden going again. Plus, Southeast weather came swinging. 

“It wasn’t a very good grow year after that, anyway,” says Valerie Massie, the tribe’s IGAP coordinator. “There was even more rain than usual, so some things grew and some things didn’t. And then it kind of went back to where it was before. But now we’re making some bigger moves.”

Wickman says the tribe donated 15 new garden beds at the end of last year. Two Wrangell high school seniors who graduated earlier this year donated standing garden beds and new compost bins as their senior projects. 

“There’s a lot of staged stuff just hanging out waiting for all of its new people,” Wickman says. “Once we have gravel put down, a new fence will be put up in a smaller footprint of the area, so that way, we’re not taking up the entire old baseball field, and it’s a much more manageable size.”

Massie explains that IGAP – a federal environmental initiative for tribes – limits what types of projects the office can oversee. But the tribe recently received a state-funded Rural Alaska Community Action Program grant for $17,000. 

“This was a way to kind of bring in another pot of funding that would also not have the same rules as IGAP,” Massie says. “So that’s why we have a bit more time to combine our work with compost and the garden together, since they are so close together in the first place.”

More than half of the grant – about $10,000 – will go towards purchasing a commercial composter. Massie says they’ll set it up in the old ballfield concession stand, and learn how to operate it this winter. That way, it will be ready to go to help produce compost for the garden this spring. 

“Our goal is to really just hold its hand, its little metal hand, and really make sure we know how to treat it well,” Massie says with a laugh, “So eventually, maybe it could be a public use kind of thing.”

Wickman says the tribal government has been involved with the community compost – which is located next to the community garden – since 2019, when the tribe conducted a solid waste survey in town. 

“We realized [after that survey] that about 50% of our trash is compostable,” Wickman says. “Those are some pretty big numbers – we’re literally throwing away what we need to build great soil. So that was about the time that we started to think ‘Okay, we should be really supporting composting.’”

The IGAP department took over the community compost that year. It’s a slow, cold-compost process. Food scraps – called “greens” – are put in a covered pile with an equal amount of “browns” – shredded paper or hay. Those sit there for about a year before they become usable compost.

“With the commercial composter,” Wickman says, “Those same products will go into a machine and instead of it taking a year, it takes 24 to 48 hours. And you’ll have a usable product. So we can expedite this by leaps and bounds, which means we can do more, and we can do more faster.”

Massie says speed was part of the draw — with speed comes accessibility, and hopefully community interest. 

“We want to change it from people thinking composting is a slow, kind of gross hippy thing, to a very fast and simple and easy and straightforward thing that you can put a lot more in than what we can now,” Massie says. 

The other funds will go to laying gravel to level the community garden site, paying for some of Massie and Wickman’s time at the garden, and new fencing around a smaller part of the original community garden plot.

The grant will last until September 2022, Massie adds: “So along with spending that money on what we’ve established we’re going to spend it on, we also want to breathe new life into the garden committee and the community garden so that it lasts way longer than this grant timeline.”

And so far, Wickman says there’s been strong community interest in revamping the garden – some from residents worried about a fragile global supply chain. 

“Especially after COVID, people are really realizing that we don’t have the ability to grow what we need here right now,” Wickman says. “We just don’t. We have a few small farms, and it’s something that we need to be working on – becoming a little bit more sustainable. We need to take care of ourselves, and we need to take care of the people who are in our community, and this is going to be a way that we can do that. We’re saving money and not shipping out so much waste. We’re using what we have here.”

Like many Southeast Alaska communities, Wrangell barges in the vast majority of its food. Wrangell residents fish and hunt, of course, but Massie says it’s an opportunity to beef up the veggie production, so to speak. 

And, she adds: “This is a great time to be working on a garden – way before the snow stops falling.”

There’s already been one garden meeting to bounce around ideas, although formal positions on the committee haven’t been set, Wickman says. 

“The one thing that was discussed by the committee that was said by everybody was the education piece of it: they really want to see some education coming out of the community garden, whether it’s for children, adults, everybody,” Wickman says, “So that way, anybody who wants to learn how to garden has the opportunity to do such.”

Wickman doesn’t mince words: reviving the community garden committee will involve a lot of paperwork at the start. A set structure will be an important part of  ensuring that the revamped garden won’t fall into disrepair like the last one did.

“It’s gonna be a lot of ‘Okay, we need to design rules for the community garden, we need to have some real structure in place to figure out: if somebody is going to step down, how do we invite new people in to be a part of this? How do we go about making a purchase? Does everybody decide on it, and who do we turn the receipts into?’ Some really just basic structures and rules that will go into place,” she says. 

But once those are in place, Wickman says, it’ll be time to dig into the dirt – literally – and hopefully get planting in the spring of next year.

Community members who are interested in learning more about the community garden can visit the Wrangell Community Garden Facebook page, or call the IGAP office at 907-874-4304.

Get in touch with KSTK at news@kstk.org or (907) 874-2345.