One greenhouse, two high tunnels, three fenced open-air garden plots and three-and-a-half years of work make up Synergy Gardens, a producer of Homer-grown vegetables.
Located about 10 miles out East End Road on Wilderness Lane, Synergy Gardens is owned by three humans and one dog — Lori and Wayne Jenkins, their son Obie, and a Golden-Bernese mountain dog mix named Lilu.
Along with one part-time paid farm worker and countless work-trade volunteers, Synergy produces a variety of vegetables, including kale, lettuce, potatoes, tomatoes, squash, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, peas, wasabi arugula, purple spinach, herbs, turnips and garlic.
It was their garlic, or rather the twisting garlic scapes, that were highlighted at Synergy’s First Great Garlic Scape Festival on Sunday, July 10.
The group of Homer residents and visitors attending the event enjoyed an evening of food, art, yoga and general merrymaking in the midst of the crops of Synergy Gardens. Party-goers were treated to a clear, Alaska summer day, complete with blue skies and warm sun — so much that Wayne reminded everyone to stay hydrated as the sun streamed down around 4 p.m.
Chef Richard Nell of The Homestead Restaurant kicked off the afternoon with a pickling demonstration. Nell showed the crowd the simple art of making pickled and fermented foods, using pickled ginger and kimchi as examples. He encouraged the crowd to not fear pickling, which he said might seem daunting to some, because it is as easy as chopping vegetables, adding salt, and boiling rice wine vinegar, water and sugar together to make a brine.
The Homestead Restaurant is one of 11 restaurants in the Homer area that regularly stock their pantries with produce from Synergy Gardens. Produce from Synergy Gardens is also sold at the Homer Farmers Market during the summer.
At the Homestead, about 40 percent of their menu is farm to table from local producers, but Synergy is Nell’s favorite, he said.
“The way Lori grows her produce is amazing. The flavors and the soils she’s using out here — the iron content makes the food amazing. And she’s fun to work with,” Nell said.
The farm-to-table-without-tables dinner — where guests lounged on hay bales while listening to local musicians Max Doyle and Kenute Tonga play guitar — gave diners more than a taste of the bounty of Synergy Gardens and other local producers.
Guests filled their bellies with four types of wood-fired oven pizzas topped with local produce, homemade baguettes, several types of garlic butters, garlic hummus, salad with a chive blossom vinaigrette, Jakolof Bay oysters shucked on the spot, and finally a rhubarb-vodka-cherry-berry crumble topped with yogurt.
“I talked with Lori about the vegetables available to harvest,” said Kari Hagedorn, a worker at Synergy Gardens who ran a farm-to-table pizza business in Maui before coming to Homer. “The vision for the dinner was to use local fresh food grown on our farm.”
During a farm tour, Wayne explained that the long hours of light of the summer growing season converts more of the starches in the plants to sugar, making Alaska-grown vegetables sweeter than those produced elsewhere in the United States.
The volcanic ash in the soil also causes more flavors to be present in the vegetables because of high amounts of trace elements, including iron.
The Jenkins family tests the soil of each garden area on a yearly basis and use organic methods, enriching the soil with limestone, seaweed and kelp meals, fish bone meal, bone meal, calcium, phosphorus and blood meal. Their fish bone meal comes from Kodiak, while the blood and bone meals are products of the meat industry — dried animal blood, which is high in iron, and bones from cattle, Wayne said.
“In organic agriculture you don’t use soluble minerals so much as you use mined and other substances for balancing your fertility and creating healthy food,” Wayne said. “In many cases with industrial agriculture, (trace elements) are not in the soil any more. We’ve depleted them … and we haven’t put them back. That’s the big lesson with sustainable agriculture. You can’t just farm and farm and farm it. You have to feed it. You have to put some back.”
They also make their own compost using horse manure, beer waste from Homer Brewery, weeds from their gardens, and food waste from local restaurants and the Jenkins’ home. Compost closes the loop of waste and helps put back some of the nutrients taken from the soil as well, Wayne said.
Despite their flavor-filled crops, farming in the short growing season of Alaska’s summer presents challenges, some of them yet unknown, Wayne said. Methods used to keep the soil healthy in other climates aren’t always viable here.
“How long we can do this and keep these soils rich and get them richer? I don’t think anybody knows yet. Nobody’s been doing this in Alaska or here long enough,” Wayne said. “We’re really cropping the hell out of this and so we have to figure out how do we take care of this soil so that it’s better than when we got here and we’re not just mining it. That’s a huge challenge because we have a very short season here so we can’t grow a cover crop to enrich it and a food crop in the same season.”
Other obstacles that come up are simply that of temperature or amount of daylight and a plant’s ability to adapt. Spinach can only be grown for a short period in the beginning of the Alaska growing season, otherwise it begins to go to seed, or bolt, in the longer days of summer. Tomato plants, even when kept in high tunnels, produce candy-sweet fruit, but the leaves curl in the cooler temperatures, making the plants look stressed out.
The Jenkinses are working to acclimate one particular plant to Alaska’s climate — garlic — with what they call The Alaska Garlic Project. For the last three years, they have been working on a crop of garlic, which they recently harvested, Lori said.
“The goal is to sell seed to Alaska gardeners,” Lori said. “They might have different soil from Homer in places like Fairbanks, but they have similar daylight issues.”
The garlic produced so far ranges in size from heads one might find in the supermarket, to nearly fist-sized heads of garlic, all streaked with purple. Eventually it will be hung to dry and ready to eat.
In the meantime, the family celebrates their garlic scapes, using the curled shoots of the garlic plant in butters, hummus, and as inspiration for yoga flow — led by Many Rivers yoga teacher Alex Folio — and botanical art.
During the festival, guests laid out garlic scapes, flowers and leaves on paper to create cyanotypes, a monochrome photographic print. By leaving the plants and papers in the sun for five minutes and then dipping the paper in water, the UV-light creates a print of the plant design in white over blue paper.
Lori said she hopes one day to have a show of botanical art in one of Homer’s galleries.