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North-end Ketchikan gardening: Davidshofer talks gardening in SE Alaska
Charles Davidshofer uses a fork to aerate a planter box for vegetables on Saturday at his property near Point Higgins. Staff photo by Dustin Safranek

Daily News Staff Writer

Charles Davidshofer’s garden at his north-end home was lively with bees, birds and fruit trees, vegetables and berries springing to life this past Saturday.

A professional landscaper, Davidshofer said his love of raising food and plying the soil was a natural part of growing up in Oregon with his garden-loving parents.

His home garden is anchored by a tall hoop house, which, like a greenhouse, traps heat for tender young plants as well as heat-loving vegetables. Two large fans, activated by thermostats, keep the air at the perfect temperature, which on Saturday, Davidshofer said was 70 degrees.

A tall apple tree was attracting bees to its blossoms in an area near a raised bed hemmed in by large rocks. More apple trees grew nearby, as well as a young pear tree, a long raised bed with raspberries, beds with gooseberries, blackberries, black currants, a gooseberry/currant cross and espaliered apple trees, which are trained to grow on supports.

Davidshofer was planting young beets in raised vegetable beds Saturday afternoon. The beds are protected from deer by a wire fence.

The sounds of foraging chickens from a nearby pen mixed with the sounds of the bees pollinating the young blooms on the berry bushes and fruit trees.

Davidshofer explained that in Ketchikan, utilizing raised beds is critically important, due to the lack of naturally fertile, well-drained soil.

“I do three untreated 2 by 12s,” he said, adding that using untreated lumber is important, because, when raising food crops, it’s not wise to risk the chemicals from treated lumber leaching into the soil. He uses two full 12-foot boards for the sides, and cuts the third in half for the ends.

Although early in the season, Davidshofer pointed out the many vegetables already thriving in the beds, including hardneck garlic, sorrel, perennial green onions, a Korean green called “meowi,” lovage, chards and lettuces.

Once raised beds are built, Davidshofer said a Ketchikan gardener must then build quality soil — which he said was the biggest challenge for local gardeners.

He recommended that people use a mix of one-third topsoil, one-third sand and one-third compost to create the ideal soil. The first layer that he lays down in his beds are alder branches, inspired by a German gardening method called Hugelkulture.

The alders bring in fungi, bacteria and mycorrhizas, Davidshofer said.

“You want some fungi in your soil,” he added.

He also said that the microorganisms in the soil are beneficial to the gardener. The more beneficial bacteria and fungi that a human or a garden hosts, they less room there will be for harmful organisms.

“The more friends that I have helping me in my garden, the better — the easier — my gardening becomes,” he said.

He also explained that the commercial farms have created problems by ignoring the importance of biodiversity and planting only monocrops. They are forced to use chemicals to control the harmful organisms because they’ve lost those that are beneficial.

For the next layer, topsoil and compost should be added — it doesn’t need to be finished compost — and sand stirred in. The final layer is finished compost.

“I don’t till it in or turn it in,” he said, explaining that this prevents weed seeds from the sand and topsoil getting stirred into the top layer of finished compost.

“In the beginning of the year, before I plant, I tine and till it all, but I don’t ever take it and invert it,” he added.

He demonstrated how he just cracks the top layer of soil with a sharp shovel, instead.

“That brings in the air and the oxygen, and then I throw on blood meal, bone meal, alfalfa meal — any kind of organic material fertilizers,” he said.

Every year, as the bed sinks lower, he said he adds a new clean compost layer on top of the bed, then rakes it smooth for the new season’s plantings.

Davidshofer grows seedlings inside the house, using fluorescent grow bulbs in common shop light hoods to provide the light they need. For more tender plants, he then moves them to the hoop house before transplanting them to the outdoor raised beds.

The pests that Davidshofer said causes him the most problems are root maggots, which attack brassica plants such as kale, broccoli and collards. Other pests, such as slugs, he said he simply plucks and squishes.

His advice for people with weed-choked beds was to pluck the weeds out, then re-start with a new layer of clean compost. Short-rooted weeds like chickweed can sometimes just be scraped off, he added.

The best time to address weed problems is in the winter, or early spring, he advised. At those times, the soil is more moist and the weeds are smaller and easier to remove. Another benefit to tackling weeds early is that the gardener then is free to enjoy the garden in the height of summer, rather than wrangling problems in the peak growing time.

“You’ve gotta know that whatever you’re doing right now is making it easier for the future,” he said.

Another preparatory chore that can boost garden productivity later is to gather seaweed in the fall to use as mulch.

Davidshofer also uses chipped alders to start planting areas. In areas where his property used to have only grass, he laid down two layers of cardboard, piled up chips and let them sit for awhile.

“This way, you can start to plant in here in like three years,” he said. “Once it turns black, then you’re good.”

The yield from his home garden is enough that Davidshofer has sold garlic at the Blueberry Festival in August, and sometimes he will trade vegetables and fruit for fish, or simply share his excess bounty with neighbors.

His advice for growing productive fruit trees focused mostly on using good root stock, proper pruning and providing the correct combinations of trees for successful pollination.

He said when he finds an excellent apple producing tree, for example, on a friend’s property, he’ll offer to prune it in the winter. He saves a few cuttings and stores them in his refrigerator until April, when he then grafts them onto a rootstock, which he said dictates the size, vigor, disease resistance and all other characteristics of the adult tree.

An apple tree he recently grafted was flowering prolifically in a corner of his hoop house. He demonstrated how he hand pollinates the self-pollinating variety with an electric toothbrush fitted with a cotton swab.

“The sound and the vibration actually releases the pollen,” he said, as he tickled the blossoms with the swab, and delicately transferred the pollen to nearby flowers.

He discourages deer browsing by pruning the lower branches of his fruit trees, as well as installing motion-detecting sprinklers.

A tree’s canopy is closely married to its root size, Davidshofer said, requiring the gardener to pay attention when they prune or transplant the tree.

He explained that pruning a tree’s canopy in the winter creates a smaller dripline, setting the tree on a mission.

“it wants to grow vigorously because it feels like the canopy is too small,” Davidshofer said. “That’s the way to shape the canopy.”

When transplanting a tree, “you just want to take a little bit of the root ball,” he said. He added that it wouldn’t hurt the tree to cut some of the roots as long as the main root ball is intact. When planted, he said it’s wise to trim the canopy to match the roots.

Plum trees are unique in the fruit tree family, as they are the only ones that require pruning in the summer, rather than the winter, because they are incredibly vigorous growers.

“Winter pruning makes vigor for the tree,” he said. “In the summertime, it retards the tree, so it makes it less vigorous.”

Another important aspect of growing productive fruit trees is that they must either be self-pollinating, or they must have a second tree that flowers at the same time, and is of a different variety.

Lastly, he said fruit trees need at least six hours of sun per day to successfully produce fruit.

Growing successful raspberries, Davidshofer said, involves giving them a bounty of mulch, and to always cut the previous season’s canes out to preserve vigor.

Davidshofer’s advice for new gardeners was to start building a compost pile immediately.

“It’s a big thing,” he said.

He also said a successful garden should have some amount of planning put into it.

“You need to really take a look at your design and know what plants are going to grow good together,” he said.

He added that it’s also important to know the microclimate in one’s garden area. For instance, rhubarbs thrive in more damp areas.

He also said courage is important in gardening.

“You have to try. It’s all experiments,” he said. “I go to other people’s houses and they’re growing things totally different than me, and they had the same results.”

He added that he thinks gardening success, more than anything, is “observation, trial-and-error, just even sitting out here in the morning with a cup of coffee and thinking” can bring helpful insights.

He stressed that learning to be a good gardener is more hands-on than book learning.

“You learn from your mistakes,” he said.

Davidshofer said he is saddened by the loss of Americans’ independence in growing their own food.

“After World War II, gardening went downhill,” he said. He explained that, during the war, people planted victory gardens to supply the troops, and their own families with food.

“In two generations, we’ve lost all that,” he said. “To me it’s very saddening, that we lose so much of our history in just two generations.”

Davidshofer likened tending a garden to raising children — both need constant thoughtful supervision, shaping and nurturing.

“You’ve got to be resilient and be hopeful. You have to be hopeful for what’s going to come in the future,” to become a successful gardener, Davidshofer said. Those qualities bring inspiration “when you’re sitting in the mud on your hands and knees, knowing that spring’s going to come and pretty soon you’re going to have lettuce, beets, peas, tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers — basically anything from the grocery store — and it’ll be fresh, delicious and more nutritious.”