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Thread: house buying advice for gardener moving to Anchorage

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    Default house buying advice for gardener moving to Anchorage

    Hi All,

    I'm a long time gardener moving to Anchorage in April for a job. We are hoping to buy a house in a good school district in Anchorage or Eagle River, and have been researching this site for city and general info, but can't find specific tips for what to look for when buying a house/lot with vegetable gardening in mind. We'll probably end up in South Anchorage or Eagle River. Obviously, we'd like a lot large enough and sunny enough for a garden, but is there any Anchorage/Eagle River-specific advice local gardeners can give? Aspect? Exposure? Hillside vs lower, soil types, etc.?

    I've gardened in places with cold winters (Manitoba, Wisconsin, Indiana) but all had warm summers. My understanding is that summers in South Central AK are cool and that can be a challenge. I've read links for the Alaska Master Gardens and Extension. Zone maps indicate that closer to the inlet is warmer, but are hillsides especially bad if for vegetable gardens?

    BTW, I am currently in Maryland and until recently our winter has been similar to yours and I just harvested my last Kale, Tatsoi, and lettuce in Mid-January after several hard freezes. I'm hoping these cold-weather gardening skills transfer to AK, at least to extend the season a bit into the fall. Thanks for and advice.

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    I don't know much about Eagle River.

    Within the Anchorage Bowl land in West Anchorage is enough warmer than East Anchorage that it makes a difference for your warm weather crops such as Tomatoes, Cucumbers and Green Beans. Even in West Anchorage, all of those are difficult without some sort of greenhouse or tunnel.

    Getting a lot with decent soil is kind of hit or miss, except that most houses have a lawn built on hauled topsoil, which makes a nice base for your garden after you kill the grass. I kill the grass by building a 8-inch raised bed, put newspaper on top of the grass and haul in 6-inches of topsoil. After one season the grass is dead, newspaper is decayed and you can till the bed or turn it over with a fork.

    You will need to build a moose fence. If you buy a lot with a 4-foot chain link fence, you can purchase an 8-foot wide roll of concrete reinforcement mesh and use the existing 4-foot fence to support the taller moose fence. If you don't build a moose fence you will lose a lot of your crops. We have a lot of moose within the populated part of the city.

    Crops that grow well by direct sowing include potatoes, carrots, kale, spinach, swiss chard, garlic, beets, baby boc-choi, peas, pole beans, lettuce (prone to damage from slugs)
    Crops that grow well by starting inside include broccoli, cabbage (prone to damage from slugs), celery, cauliflower, zucchini
    Crops that are marginal, but can be successful with care include winter squash, bush beans, storage onions, various peppers, cold hardy tomatoes (especially in western Anchorage), cucumbers (especially in tunnels).

    Herbs that I've had good success with include mint, summer and winter savory, thyme, sage, chives, basil and oregano. Basil often stops producing in late July when the rains come.

    Perennials that grow easily include Rhubarb, Rasberries and walking onions. Perennials that take a bit of care include apples, strawberries, asparagus

    PS. I don't want to hate on South Anchorage, but I wouldn't buy there. Much of the land is filled wetlands and I am skeptical about whether soil is well drained enough for many crops. As you start getting into the hills, land gets very expensive. I'm not sure if the hillside has a micro-climate that would be beneficial. I expect not, as it's windier and generally colder in the summer.

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    When looking at aspect, keep in mind that we get we get 270 of sun that is beneficial to plants, so while you do want to have a southern aspect, paying attention to shade from NE to NW is important. The sun angle can be pretty low in the east and west, so house and trees are significant.

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    Member AK Ray's Avatar
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    You need to ask about covenants on the property. There are some subdivisions with overly restrictive HOAs. Most older homes from the 1970's do not have any kind of restriction outside city codes for set backs and easments.

    There are many places with large houses on small lots with no room for gardening. Most of these are newer homes from the late 1980's and the 1990's.

    Eagle River and the surrounding area can have a sunlight problem. Some places are in shadow for most of the year/day, some just for the winter. Also many house are on steep hillsides that can make for a hard time doing any kind of landscaping. How many hair pin switchback turns coated in ice are you willing to handle for 7 months of the year becomes something you may have to really think about.

    Raised beds are the answer to getting things started in the spring.

    Most of Anchorage is built on some kind of fill material over glacial deposit of either gravel or clay. Silty loam topsoils that are really poor for gardening as their organics are low pH swamp muck. This and the cool temps is why raised beds are the easiest way to get a decent garden up and running. Some of the top soil you can buy from a landscaping company to fill your raised beds is just processed swamp muck from clearing land. Weeds galore.

    Good School District? Its all the same school district. Pretty standard across town. The students can make things harder for themselves, which is normal across the US.

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    Quote Originally Posted by AK Ray View Post
    Good School District? Its all the same school district. Pretty standard across town. The students can make things harder for themselves, which is normal across the US.
    This is not a gardening issue, but Ray is correct. Anchorage has incredible choice within the public school system, with many neighborhood schools in "poor" areas hosting special programs that attract children from throughout the district. If you want to make sure that you child grows up with rich friends, maybe there is one or two neighborhoods you want to move to. But, if you just want to make sure that you child has a good neighborhood school, I can only think of one elementary school that I might avoid, and maybe one Jr. High. All of the high schools are quality.

    If quality of education is a high priority for you, I highly recommend that you start making contacts with parents and teachers in Anchorage and get advice. The amount of choice and diversity in instructional approach in this community is intimidating and complicated, but also empowering for the involved parent.

    FYI: I put "poor" in quotes, because even our poorest areas do not have the problems that truly economically depressed schools have.

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    I leave my gardening to Sam Gamgee, but I can tell you that the West Anchorage recommendation is solid. You have to get away from the Chugach Mountains (to the east of town) for the best sunlight. If you plan on Eagle River, I would stick to the north side of Eagle River Valley for the best sunlight. Chugiak might be good if you go west of the highway, but there are lots of birch and cottonwood trees out that way. Unless your lot is mostly cleared, you will have some work to do to avoid the shade out there. The Mat-Su Valley, including Palmer, offers the best sunlight, but involves a 45-minute commute if you work in Anchorage. That's where those giant pumpkins and cabbages come from. Sun angle isn't too bad in the summer, but she drops low to the southern horizon towards fall. Lots of folks start their stuff indoors in March-April and plant in late May or so. We get our first frosts in mid-September or so. Every year is different.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Michael Strahan View Post
    We get our first frosts in mid-September or so.

    -Mike
    Sometimes in Muldoon we get our first frost in mid-June. Or is that our last frost. It's hard to tell.

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    Thanks All, that gives us a few more things to think about. I hadn't considered the shadow issue from mountains in anchorage, but read somewhere that it could be an issue in Eagle River. Also, we will consider other school areas, but were under the impression that South A and Eagle R were the best. We are not interested in living with rich folks, just want good schools. Also, thanks for the heads up about HOA and covenants. I saw that mentioned in a few house listings, and I wondered what that meant for garden and chickens. Yeah, we want to have chickens too. Have them now (actually gave them to the neighbor before the move), but would like to get a new flock when we arrive. Already researched that. Looks like I will finally build some raised beds and a greenhouse, oh, and a new coop.

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    With the chickens, be sure to invest in an electric fence. Bears will find your chicken coop sooner or later. I know a number of people who have had to learn than lesson by losing all of their chickens before investing in the electric fence.

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    North facing Eagle River mountain side gardener here. The growing season is affected by the later spring thaw and earlier cool evenings in the fall, but we do have the same sunlight all summer. If you want a larger lot for animals and gardening but still close to Anchorage/work, take a look back in the Eagle River valley (south facing side is preferable but more $$), Chugiak, Birchwood, etc. Eagle River also has some fine schools.

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    I think you're going to find that lot size and Southern exposure is going to vary tremendously house to house, not so much Eagle River vs. Anchorage, though much of Eagle River spends part of the winter shaded by the mountains to the South. Not a concern for the growing season, but for us having our house in the shade for two months was a downer.

    The challenge in South Anchorage finding a larger lot is you're either going to be looking at an older home that will likely be sorely in need of upgrades, or a very expensive large newer home because that's just what has been built on the larger lots in Anchorage. There is also a hodgepodge of subdivisions some with very strict and active HOA's, and just across the street pretty much anything goes.

    Temperatures and the length of "summer" will depend on how high up you are on the hillside, the higher up you are the sooner the ground will freeze and the slower it will thaw. As you get farther up the hillside you'll likely have more selection of larger lots, but then you also have a longer commute.

    But Southern exposure also plays a huge part in that and our mid hillside home with great southern exposure had the ground thaw much faster than our Eagle River home. I can't comment on the gardening benefits as this will be our first summer there. One thing to consider if you really want to raise warmer weather crops is a greenhouse, it's pretty much a necessity. The issue on the hillside is going to be whether or not a greenhouse will survive the winds in the winter. A greenhouse isn't going to be an option for us, but I'm planning to put in a raised bed along the South wall of our garage as I'm thinking the wall should soak up a fair amount of sun and significantly raise the temperature of the soil within a few feet of the wall. We'll see...

    As far as schools, honestly I think the South Anchorage schools are the best, and it's a combination of parent involvement/expectations and the teachers. Not to say there aren't good teachers or involved parents in other schools, but in our experience with three kids through ASD and my wife substitute teaching at most schools in the district there is a reason the South schools have the highest scores and in hindsight if we would have known better or could have moved sooner we would have.
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    Thanks for the tips. A greenhouse is definitely in our future. It is good to know that the (mid) hillsides are an option, and thans for the warning about HOAs. We also want chickens, so we will have to watch for that (electric fence is also in our future). We are starting to prepare for the move and am looking forward to actually looking around the city in person. BTW, had a good day of x-country skiing here in MD, which is rare. Looking forward to more of that too. I will be packing my floating row covers and tunnels for the move...

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    Keep in mind that right now it is a major seller's market. Finding a house with what you are looking for isn't going to be cheap. Heck, I got a call the other day from a realtor randomly calling people asking if we were interested in moving because they had people looking for homes. Lots of people looking and not much on the market. When a good one pops up on the radar, it typically has offers within a day.

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    Moderator Paul H's Avatar
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    It's definately a sellers market with very low inventory and historic low interest rates motivating buyers. On top of that, with the specific needs/wants you have you're going to have to be patient because you've really narrowed yourself into a very small segment of an already small real estate market. It's a long story, but we spent close to five years before moving from Eagle River to Anchorage, and it took us nearly a year to find the lot we ended up buying after having been outbid on three previous lots. The lot we ended up buying was on the market for less than a week when a friend of mine told me it had been listed and we were fortunate to get in an offer quickly and close on the lot. Then it was another year before the house was finished.

    IMHO it's worth being somewhat picky on real estate but realize you'll need to be patient as well and when what you want comes on the market be in a position to be decisive.

    The HOA thing is funny as there can be islands of houses with no HOA's in amongst houses with them.
    Those that are successful in Alaska are those who are flexible, and allow the reality of life in Alaska to shape their dreams, vs. trying to force their dreams on the reality of Alaska.

    If you have a tenuous grasp of reality, Alaska is not for you.

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    You had better watch the world's political scene for a bit, and how the price of oil is being affected by it. We have an OPEC versus world pump war going, and also had several economies reporting slowing growth, which equates to less oil consumption,a flooded market, and low prices. Alaska feeds these beasts and we don't have a whole lot else to sell but oil, a few trees, fish, some rocks and metals.

    In short, when people began feeling this, those with debt, and no job, will flee the scene and you will find your cheap house at that time.

    I can't read the bozo leaders minds, so the future may be alright, but it is looking a little rocky for the near future.

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    Quote Originally Posted by AKSnowGoose View Post
    Thanks for the tips. A greenhouse is definitely in our future. It is good to know that the (mid) hillsides are an option, and thans for the warning about HOAs. We also want chickens, so we will have to watch for that (electric fence is also in our future). We are starting to prepare for the move and am looking forward to actually looking around the city in person. BTW, had a good day of x-country skiing here in MD, which is rare. Looking forward to more of that too. I will be packing my floating row covers and tunnels for the move...
    As someone who has lived and gardened both in West Anchorage and on the Upper Hillside, I agree that the west side tends to be warmer. The Anchorage bowl has dramatic microclimates with temps ranging more than 30 degrees F on clear still nights in winter. Upper Hillside is warmest due to formation of an inversion, while the neighborhoods at the toe of the mountains are the coldest. Proximity to Cook Inlet on the west side moderates these cold winter overnight temps and also keeps soil temps warmer year 'round than up here at 1500'. (Although strong sea breezes on spring and summer afternoons can drop air temps on the west side -- those east side toe-of-slope neighborhoods are then the warmest places in town.) Soil temps are your biggest challenge in AK -- bulbs that bloom in late Feb. in parts of MD bloom here in June if at all, despite the fact the soil is getting over 15 hours/day of sun for many weeks by then. Raised beds against a south-facing solid dark fence or house wall will get things growing long before areas that are flush to the ground finish thawing.

    In addition to aspect, covenants, etc., though, if you want a greenhouse on the southwest side of Anchorage, i.e. anywhere south of the airport, think about the high winds we get from the SE during Chinooks, which occur when strong low pressure systems transit Prince William Sound. Strong winds blow from Portage towards the mouth of Turnagain Arm and also through mountain passes into many Upper Hillside neighborhoods. (Mainly in fall and winter.) There is no way, for instance, that I could have a greenhouse where I live unless I put it on the NW side of my house, which would pretty much defeat its purpose. Up here we get at least one storm/year with 100+ mph winds, and many with winds in the 50-70 mph range. In West Anc the winds aren't quite that strong, but still, 50-60 mph will damage tender plants and desiccate perennials.

    Good luck --

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