Understanding Anchorage’s desire to grow

by Jamie Gonzales  |   


Donovan harvest

Fresh veggies from Shannon Donovan's garden. A little guidance and education goes a long way toward fresh, affordable food on the table. (Photo courtesy of Shannon Donovan)

Never mind that Alaska is a deep-frozen wonderland this time of year, Anchorage's green-thumbed types are already visualizing their spring and summer plots, bristling with carrots and cabbage and other fresh veggies. It's that desire to get outside and grow things that Assistant Professor Shannon Donovan wants to parse. Is Anchorage ready for some gardening innovation?

Donovan's research project, "Sowing Seeds and Harvesting Community: Increasing Food Security in Anchorage by Expanding Community Gardens," was one of 10 faculty proposals to receive a 2015 INNOVATE Award from UAA's Office of Research. INNOVATE Awards provide up to $10,000 for individual projects and up to $25,000 for inter-departmental collaborative projects. For Donovan, the INNOVATE seed money (yep, intentional gardening pun) allowed her to employ two undergraduate student assistants to help study Anchorage's need/desire/capacity for community gardens. Through a partnership with the Municipality of Anchorage, they'll create a strategic plan for the city that lays out a way forward-smart ways to expand community gardening and create infrastructure lessens the burden of crazy produce prices on Alaskans.

A New Yorker tries out this gardening craze

This is Donovan's sixth year in Alaska and she's quick to admit that she isn't a gardening expert.

Shannon Donovan garden

Shannon Donovan's shared garden at home. She shares her gardening chores and her harvest with Anchorage's Yarducopia. (Photo courtesy of Shannon Donovan)

She laughingly admitted, "I'm actually from New York City and never gardened. I'm a terrible gardener, truth be told. So I really need assistance and education."

A few years ago, she started to explore the idea of community gardening. Then she was tapped by UAA's Sustainability Club to help them establish a student-run community garden on campus, eventually taking on the role of club advisor and helping them navigate the logistical hurdles.

"There was a pretty big education component associated with the student-run garden. Every week we would get together to do things in the garden-weeding and things-and we also brought in gardening experts and learned how to make compost, what should be planted together, that kind of thing," she said. "I was working with them here and then I'd go home and do the same thing in my own garden."

Donovan's own garden has turned into a community affair, too. It's located in her front yard-a choice dictated by the sun-and any activity in her plot, particularly when she's joined by her toddler, invites questions from neighbors and passers-by. Realizing that her garden had a greater chance of success if she called in reinforcements, she connected with Yarducopia, an Anchorage yard-sharing group facilitated by Alaska Community Action on Toxics (ACAT). Homeowners with potential garden space can connect with Yarducopia and enjoy visits from their educators and volunteer gardeners to help plant, tend and harvest. At the end of the growing season, they're invited to share in the bounty, whether or not they assisted with the gardening chores. A great opportunity, said Donovan, for Anchorageites who travel-maybe Outside for a month in the summer, or those who do the two weeks on, two weeks off schedule on the North Slope.

UAA Student Garden

Students work in UAA's student-run garden, a project of the Sustainability Club. (Photo courtesy of Shannon Donovan)

Those experiences, with UAA's student garden and her own Yarducopia garden, made her realize that regardless of space or knowledge, "Gardening shouldn't be a limited privilege opportunity, because the expense to get some seeds and put them in the ground really isn't that much."

Now, everywhere she looks in Anchorage, whether it's the city's greenbelts, parks or college campuses, she sees opportunity. As an academic, she's willing to contribute her expertise to understand the degree to which Anchorage wants to expand its capacity for community gardening.

Beyond the C Street gardens

Community gardening isn't a new concept for Anchorage. In fact, it's such a popular idea that the Municipality of Anchorage maintains a long waitlist for the garden plots available in their C Street community gardens.

But Donovan has some important questions to ask. Who is using the gardens? How far do they travel to tend their plots? Would they prefer another location? Are they open to education, in search of more expertise? How does maintaining a garden impact their grocery bill?

Donovan garden helper

The secret to Shannon Donovan's gardening success? Helpers like her son. (Photo courtesy of Shannon Donovan)

"I'm excited about developing a more concrete partnership with the municipality," she said. "There are so many long-term opportunities and we should be partnering with our city."

This month, Donovan's student assistants are scouring the published literature on community gardening and taking a careful look at what's working in other communities.

"Places like Portland are doing really interesting thing, which isn't very surprising," she said. "But Minnesota and other North country areas are doing a lot of things, too. It's not just Florida or California."

Ultimately, Donovan hopes the finalized strategic plan will help with secure funding to build more plots and, eventually, lead to bigger, more creative solutions to address food security throughout the state.

"It's not just a matter of putting in plots and saying, 'You're on the list. Grow your food.' To achieve larger goals, I see this as a potential stepping stone."

Written by Jamie Gonzales, UAA Office of University Advancement

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