Growing Green: Alaska's agriculture industry is ready to bloom.

Author:Simonelli, Isaac Stone
Position:AGRICULTURE
 
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Alone employee arrived in mid-February to turn on a furnace and grow lights in one of the northernmost commercial plant nurseries in North America.

Despite winter weather outside, within a few days it would warm to about 75[degrees]F inside the greenhouse--the right temperature for starting begonia bulbs, followed by veggies such as leeks and onions--at The Plant Kingdom Greenhouse & Nursery, north of Fairbanks.

At Plant Kingdom, like other plant nurseries and vegetable farms around Alaska, greenhouses are essential for starting the growing season early to seize the opportunity of the long summer days during the short summer season.

Three and a half months after the first starts went in at Plant Kingdom, the staff ballooned from one to thirty-two to care for the plants that filled the six greenhouses and beyond. The snowy, south-facing hillside had transformed into colorful fields and gardens that the business uses as a wedding venue in addition to a greenhouse store.

Old timers in Fairbanks say that the first week of June is the safe time to put in outdoor plants, but Plant Kingdom founder Cyndie Warbelow says customers are asking for plants earlier. In recent years, the busiest weekend of the year has often been Mother's Day weekend, a day that's big in the nursery industry in the Lower 48 but was previously considered too early for Alaska's Interior.

This year--which saw a particularly warm spring--customers started coming in two months before the start of the traditional gardening season, says current business owner Stephanie Bluekens, who purchased the business from Warbelow a few years ago. But even though climate change has generally made planting early a safer bet, it still has its risks.

Last year, for example, there was frost in the second week of June. Greenhouse operators can protect their plants from frost by bringing them indoors, but it comes at a cost. The business model is based on rotating plants through the greenhouse quickly.

"Things keep growing so you've got to be able to move stuff into your own outdoors and into your customers' yards," Warbelow says. "Things keep taking up more space, so the sequence needs to keep working in the right direction."

Even with the chance of a late frost, Warbelow says the risks of starting early are worth it to be ready with plants when customers want them.

"I've seen killing frost for at least squash every month of the year. Agriculture is a form of gambling, and it pays to gamble," she...

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