UPDATED: Greenhouses Remain Open in Fairbanks and Continue to Serve Rural Alaska

With the burgeoning interest in gardening this year, many will probably be relieved to hear that, so far, greenhouses in Fairbanks plan to remain open. They are planning on filling a critical role in helping people improve their own food security, and just as important, their mental health this summer. I interviewed Stephanie Bluekins, owner of the Plant Kingdom and Glen Risse, owner of Risse Greenhouse, about how they plan to meet the demand for all things gardening both in Fairbanks and in rural Alaska.

A view of the inside of one of RIsse's Greenhouses, filled with vibrantly colored flower varieties.

Risse Greenhouse plans to remain open this spring, with curbside pickup. Photo courtesy of Glen Risse.

At both greenhouses, you can make an order online or by phone and schedule a pick-up time. When you arrive at the greenhouse, call and let them know you’re there and they’ll bring your plants and other products out to you. In lieu of their normal in-person workshops, The Plant Kingdom is planning virtual workshops, which may be accompanied by an appropriate kit. Risse greenhouse isn’t quite sure what they will do instead of their large in-person events.

UPDATED: As of 4/20/2020, Risse Greenhouse is open to the public. The Plant Kingdom is also planning to open to the public to some extent. Contact the greenhouses for the most up to date information on hours and special procedures or shopping protocols related to COVID-19.

I also asked them about their continued dedication to serving the needs of villages in rural Alaska. Stephanie is Alaska Native with family throughout rural Alaska and is committed to working with rural Alaska. She offers Bush orders and currently provides a flat rate of $35 for a packing/pulling price in addition to the cost of purchased items and shipping charges. For Bush orders, Risse Greenhouse charges a percentage of the cost of the items purchased as well as shipping.

Heidi Rader prepares to offer an outdoor workshop in Arctic Village on planting hanging baskets with transplants delivered from a Fairbanks greenhouse. A second photo is a detail of a box of transplants that were shipped by freight to Arctic Village from a greenhouse in Fairbanks. They arrived in good condition.

These transplants, shipped from Fairbanks, arrived in great condition for a workshop I did in Arctic Village on planting hanging baskets.

While shipping in plants and soil can be expensive, if you don’t have space to start seeds, it’s the only way to grow some types of vegetables or flowers that would otherwise not have a long enough season to mature. But they both had some tips for how to save money and get the biggest bang for your buck when buying remotely. Stephanie recommends buying “soilless soil’ like Pro-Mix because it goes a long way and is the lightest to ship. Other more traditional potting mixes can be very heavy and it can be painful to pay so much money for shipping dirt! Of course, even better, keep in mind that you can make some of your own soil by composting.

Glen recommends shipping soil, fertilizer or planting trays by U.S. postal service while, of course, live plants must be freighted in. He also suggests that people order jointly to save on costs. Stephanie added, if you order a six-pack of cabbage for instance, you might only want a couple of plants and not all six. Some tribes order gardening supplies for their community members.

I asked if they planned to use any farm hub-type websites like Bender Mountain Farm uses but at this point, they are just trying to adapt as quickly as they can. Farm hubs aggregate local products from farms and allow consumers to purchase online with an easy one stop pickup. In the Kenai/Homer area, the Alaska Food Hub has been really successful. It might be a mechanism for local farmers and artisans to allow consumers to continue purchasing locally while minimizing social contact among shoppers.

This article should not be seen as an endorsement of these greenhouses over other local greenhouses. These are simply examples of local “Bush-friendly” greenhouses coping with COVID. There are many other excellent, local greenhouses likely adapting in very similar ways. Here is an excellent map prepared by the Fairbanks Economic Development Corporation that can help connect you with a greenhouse, farm, or other source of food near you.

By all indications, this is going to be an excellent summer to grow food and flowers in your own backyard – for more reasons than one.

Published in the Fairbanks Daily Newsminer  April 19, 2020.