There's a Moose in My Garden: Designing Gardens in Alaska and the Far North

There's a Moose in My Garden: Designing Gardens in Alaska and the Far North

by Brenda C. Adams

What do you do when a young moose calf wants to dine on your freshly planted Lady’s Mantle for lunch? What plants can handle a summer of nearly endless sun? How do you harness the wild beauty of the north for your own backyard? There’s a Moose in My Garden is the first book to tackle these questions and more with practical, user-friendly advice


What do you do when a young moose calf wants to dine on your freshly planted Lady’s Mantle for lunch? What plants can handle a summer of nearly endless sun? How do you harness the wild beauty of the north for your own backyard? There’s a Moose in My Garden is the first book to tackle these questions and more with practical, user-friendly advice from an award-winning gardener.

Adams provides helpful tips for Far Northern gardeners on how to design and implement successful landscape environments. The book outlines the entire planning and planting process, covering such aspects as handling low-angled sun, soft light, expansive vistas, and a cool climate.

Editorial Reviews

C. Colston Burrell

“Experienced and novice residents alike will find There’s a Moose in My Garden a must-read, while visitors curious about the vagaries of northern gardening are sure to find the book irresistible as well.”
Erica Glasener

“Brenda’s extensive knowledge and her sense of humor add richness to this delightful book. A must have!"
Steven Still

“In There’s a Moose in My Garden, Brenda Adams provides a clear, step-by-step guide to creating a garden in Alaska and the Far North. Readers who follow Brenda’s sage advice will be rewarded with an opportunity to create the garden of their dreams."
Alan Armitage

“How can you not love this book? Brenda’s photos are fabulous, her knowledge of design is elegant, and her plant selection for the Alaska gardener is first-rate. It is destined to be the Bible of Alaska gardening. I am hooked!”
Homer News

"Whether you’re a wannabe gardener wondering where to start, a gardener with many years in the soil, a visitor wanting an informative, humorous, beautiful look at the northland from a gardener’s perspective or just someone in search of an entertaining read, There’s a Moose in My Garden will fit the bill."
Homer Tribune

"Even the experienced gardener will find plenty of useful tips in Adams’ book. They are the kind of details you only learn through decades of work in the soil; like how to introduce new plants without bringing in unwanted pests at the same time."
Seacoast Online

"If you are into gardening in cool climates, or know someone who is, this is a fact-filled, and light-hearted read. The book is profusely edited with the author's colorful garden photographs."
American Gardener

"There’s a Moose in My Garden guides the reader, gently and with humor, through the process of designing a spectacular garden in Alaska and the far north. Author Brenda C. Adams’s enthusiasm is infectious as she coaches readers through plant selection and site evaluation to ensure success in this challenging environment."

Product Details

University of Alaska Press
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8.00(w) x 10.00(h) x 0.50(d)

Read an Excerpt

There's a Moose in My Garden

Designing Gardens in Alaska and the Far North

By Brenda C. Adams

University of Alaska Press

Copyright © 2013 University of Alaska Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60223-208-2


There's a Moose in My Garden

Spring is a magical time in Alaska. Winter is finally a memory. Days dawn bright and crisp; they are long and succulent, filled with promise. You can almost taste the change in the air. Early bulbs peek through the waning snow. And moose return to our gardens.

In my view, a full-grown moose is an incredibly unfortunate-looking animal. Photos rarely capture how homely they actually are. I can't help but think that this might be the way a horse would appear reflected in a fun-house mirror; everything is a bit out of whack! The muzzle of a moose seems too long and broad at the tip; in profile it appears afflicted with a severe overbite. In fact, the expanded proboscis is an evolutionary novelty unique within the deer family of which moose are members.

Adding to their overall homeliness is that strange and shaggy bit of skin and hair that hangs down below their lower jaw. It's known as a bell or dewlap, but there doesn't seem to be a consensus as to its purpose. Where their necks meet their backs they have a Quasimodo-like hump. From nose to shoulders they look enormous—and they are. Then suddenly, like a hatchback car, the moose body seems to end a bit too abruptly. The back end is wanting; the tail a mere three-inch stub. Evolution has made them successful in cold and snowy climates, but it certainly hasn't made them attractive.

On the other hand, their calves are among the cutest creatures I've ever seen, with their lanky, wobbly legs and precious little faces. Their short manes stand up along their necks like a zebra's. We've seen many calves on our land within days of their birth and each experience brings a thrill of excitement and a dash for the camera. I can spend hours gazing out the windows at moose babies. The new calves are curious and playful. Holding their ears forward as they swivel their heads all around, they take in their new surroundings. Tentatively, they venture away from their mothers but canter back quickly when startled. They can be quite demanding when hungry, poking and prodding their moms insistently when they want milk. As they mature, their noses will grow and take on the lumpy attributes of their bizarre, goofy-looking mothers, but in their youth they look and act more like frisky, long-legged colts.

The cow moose that visit us in spring are heavy and swollen with the calves they are about to birth. They grunt as they amble along, emitting an "uungh" with each step. They sound as if they are terribly uncomfortable. Is this the result of moose labor pains? Perhaps.

After the long winter the moose are extremely hungry and chomp on nearly everything fresh and green that they encounter, so this is a particularly vulnerable time for our gardens. In addition to the damage their browsing causes, their huge, sharp-hoofed feet sink deeply into the soil, which has been made soggy and soft by melting snow. The plants they trample are totally crushed and unlikely to put on a good display later even if they survive the tread of such an enormous animal.

Moose in Alaska are unavoidable in spring as many move from higher altitudes and forests to populated areas to deliver their calves. In the wilderness they must contend with predators like bears, wolves, coyotes, and wolverines; near people it's just us and our noisy dogs that trouble them.

Soon after birth the calves begin to experiment in the garden. Their mothers have already taught them that gardens are worthwhile destinations, but unfortunately, young moose don't know anything about the lists of plants that "moose eat last" so they try a taste of nearly everything. Much as we enjoy the calves, it is very frustrating to watch them tear a long branch from a tree or shrub, mouth it a little, and then spit it out. We watched as one young male bit off the entire top of one of my weeping pea shrubs (Caragana arborescens 'Pendula') just above the graft. Then he spit it out and moved on to the second one in the grouping. With this one, the dear boy grabbed and yanked the top, stripping part of the bark halfway down the trunk. And, yes, he spit that out too. Fortunately, by the time he reached the third, he'd figured out that these thorny shrubs were not to his liking.

When the calves gain strength and agility, their mothers lead them away from my garden and ultimately to higher ground. I'm instantly relieved, but I know that in the fall they'll be back.

I will explain the most reliable ways you can keep these special creatures out of your garden later, but first let's get started on creating your garden.


Getting Started

If you would like to participate in the thrill of an Alaska or Far North gardening experience, you might wonder how to get started. Many books on gardening, and particularly on garden design, tell you to begin with an inventory of your site (which we'll discuss in the next chapter), but I'd like to encourage you to start more simply.

Sit down and ask yourself why you are thinking about creating a garden. What do you want to get out of it for you? What are your personal goals? Where does a garden fit among the other priorities in your life? There are no right or wrong answers, but your answers will be important in planning your garden.

There are both practical and aesthetic reasons you may want a garden or new landscape. Perhaps you want to give your home or business more curb appeal, create a retreat to enjoy at the end of a busy workday, or dedicate a place to grow food for your family. Other family members may have needs or wishes for the garden too. Do you need a play area for your children, a place for pets to exercise, a fire pit or outdoor eating area where you can entertain family and friends? Maybe you simply desire a prettier view from your kitchen, bedroom, or living room window. Because we have so many summer guests in Alaska, a hideaway to which you can retreat and be alone for a time may be desirable. In a practical sense, you may be concerned about wildfires and wish to push the existing tangle of native plant growth farther away from your home or other structures.

If you live in an area with frequent rainfall, a covered area for viewing your prospective garden or the beautiful scenery around you might be pleasurable. Would a gazebo or covered patio make sense? One of my clients wanted a gazebo with a fire ring inside it so her husband would have a warm, dry, and inviting place outside the house to enjoy his cigars.

Then again, there may be more esoteric reasons for you to create a garden. Do you enjoy nurturing things? Perhaps you see a garden as a way to get exercise and improve your fitness. Would you like to experience the immense satisfaction of creating something gorgeous and magical? Are you seeking an activity that will totally absorb your mind as well as your energy? A garden can be so many things; it can satisfy your desire to learn and provide a place to teach your children as well.

Each of you will have a different list, and there are many other reasons you might be contemplating a garden. The important thing is to really think about this and answer the questions for you. Not for someone else. You. Gardening in the far northern latitudes is not a trivial pursuit. Every garden is unique and so is every gardener. Knowing why you want a garden is as important as knowing what you plan to create. I think this knowledge will help you to be more satisfied with the results of your efforts.

Another important question to pose to yourself is how much time you're willing or able to devote to this project, both up front and over time. When you think about this, be honest with yourself. How much time do you actually have to spend on this endeavor? What other activities and responsibilities in your life will you need to balance with the time you dedicate to your garden? As you know, gardening season is also our busy season for everything else. It's when guests come to stay, when we want to go fishing, when we build an addition onto the house. Many Alaska jobs have longer hours during the gardening season because of the tourist-driven nature of much of our commerce. You must remember that there is no such thing as a "maintenance-free" garden. We'll talk about ways to make gardens low, or rather lower, maintenance, but all gardens need some attention and care to be successful and attractive.

If you plan to tend your garden yourself and you are new to gardening or new to gardening in Alaska, my fervent advice is to start small. It is much more satisfying to have an exquisite small garden than an out-of-control large one. If a garden is too much for you to manage, it will quickly become a burden instead of a pleasure. No matter what your answers are to the questions above about why you are setting out to create a garden, I strongly doubt one of your answers will be to generate additional stress in your life. So don't. Start small and see if you like caring for a garden. If you've gardened Outside and know gardening brings you pleasure, my counsel is still to start small until you learn how vigorously plants and weeds flourish during our long days of spring and summer sunshine. If you want a larger garden than you have the time or inclination to care for, another option is to hire a knowledgeable person or maintenance firm to care for it for you.

By the way, when I use the term garden or landscape, I'm referring to the entire area outside of your home or business that you plan to enhance. Within the overall garden space there will be planted areas that I'll call garden beds.

Once you have your answers to the questions about your motivations and goals firmly in mind, you're ready for the next step. Study your land. Watch and record which areas receive sun and for how many hours per day during each month of the growing season. Because of the way our sun pattern moves around the sky rather than over it, you'll see dramatic differences from one month to the next. You should also learn the direction, frequency, and variability of wind on your property. See if there are protected areas that are less windy. Fences and buildings can cause eddies. Stone and concrete will absorb heat during the day and radiate it at night, providing special pockets of warmth. Make notes of your observations in a notebook to serve as your garden journal, a personal reference you can build over time. This information will be invaluable to you as you select plants for your garden.

In spring, note where the snow melts first and where it melts last. See if your soil drains well or if puddles persist long after the snow is gone. Dig down six inches or more and see if the soil is saturated at that depth. If you plan to add trees to your landscape, you will want to dig down two feet to check on drainage. In many areas the water table is very close to the surface for much of the year. Note which plants are currently growing where you're considering placing your garden beds since some indigenous plants, like alder, enhance the quality of soil. Some weeds are harder to eradicate than others. The important thing is to make careful, accurate observations and add them to your journal. These will help you lay out the best master plan you can before you begin digging and planting.


Your Master Plan

It's probably a good idea to define what I mean by a master plan. It is a description of your ultimate goal for your landscaped area—that is, for your garden. It details the main elements, including decks, walkways, and planting areas, that will be included and it delineates their locations. It shows the placement of existing structures and view corridors. If you already have garden beds that you will keep as they are or plan to enhance, include them in your master plan. All this can be done to some extent in words, but it's much more useful to sketch it out. With a drawing, even a rudimentary one, you can see how the major elements will relate to one another and where you'll need paths and entrances to draw people from one area to another and to make their transit through the garden seem natural and effortless. This is often referred to as garden "flow."

Create a scale drawing of your home or business, including all the existing fixed structures like driveways, retaining walls, utility poles, and so on. You may already have a document called an as-built survey from your builder or the borough that details all of the structures and easements on your property. If so, it will make the task of creating your scale drawing easier, as many of the dimensions you will need may be included on that document. Put your drawing on quarter-inch graph paper, using each square to represent one foot. (If your property is large you may need to use each square to represent five feet or more.) Make note of views you wish to enhance and views you'd rather obscure. Indicate wind direction and the direction of north. This scale drawing will be your base drawing, your starting point. Some refer to it as a site inventory.

I find brainstorming and designing in layers of paper to be very helpful. To do this lay tracing paper over your base drawing and tape it in place with masking tape. You are now ready to begin trying different ideas. I suggest you start with big bold strokes designating areas rather than details, until you have a flow that works well. Don't be discouraged if your first attempt doesn't please you. Just replace the tracing paper with a new sheet and try again. Often it takes many attempts to come up with what you perceive to be an ideal layout.

How do you decide what to put where? To a large extent the answer to this question will be driven by your reasons for the garden. With my clients, I approach this by asking them to talk through how they'll use each element and how often. For example, serious cooks will want the herb garden near the kitchen since they'll use it daily. You might locate a fire pit far enough away from the house so it's not dangerous, but close enough that you don't get chilled dashing back to the house after you've enjoyed the warmth of the fire. If you plan to have a water feature—a fountain, waterfall, or pond—you may want it close to a deck or patio or to your bedroom window, so you can hear the soothing sounds of gently splashing water. A meditative bench might be situated in a breezy spot to keep mosquitoes at bay. If you plan raised beds for your vegetables, choose flat or very gently sloping land as it will be easiest to work upon. From a horticultural point of view your vegetable garden is best placed in full sun and protected from the wind. As you consider alternatives and tradeoffs, try to select locations that offer the most advantages and fewest negatives for each particular element.

On a very practical level, be sure to keep in mind the hidden structures on your property. Wells, septic systems, or underground utilities may affect your placement decisions. Often the borough or city will have easements on part of your property. Think long and hard before placing expensive elements in these locations. Also take note of overhead utilities. The power company will top your trees if they grow to a size that might interfere with overhead wires.

Beauty and views will likely play a key role in your placement decisions, as you'll want to draw attention to your special vistas and divert it from undesirable aspects. An alder patch that you might plan to clear to open a particular panorama should offer humus-rich soil for an ornamental garden bed, which would in turn draw attention toward the exceptional scene. A south-facing slope will provide a longer growing season than a north-facing one, as the sun will melt the snow and warm the soil much earlier. All of these factors will be influenced by the decisions you made when you held the conversation with yourself about why you were setting out on this adventure. They will also be tempered by the realities of your site.

Excerpted from There's a Moose in My Garden by Brenda C. Adams. Copyright © 2013 University of Alaska Press. Excerpted by permission of University of Alaska Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Brenda C. Adams teaches garden design and creation at the University of Alaska. She is also the designer for and founder of Gardens By Design. She lives in Homer, Alaska. 

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