Susanne and Wallace "Sandy" Williams stand in their yard in Juneau.
t6Planters spread across the Williams' lawn in Juneau, ready for spring.
Story last updated at 5/23/2012 - 11:52 am
If a residence's exterior grounds are any depiction of its inhabitants, then the Williams' should be as healthy, colorful, well kept and vibrant as they come in Juneau. They fit the bill.
Susanne, 73, and Wallace (known as Sandy), 76, are as fresh-faced as spring buds. The amount of energy and time they spend on their home garden and volunteering and maintaining community-related projects is enough to exhaust a fleet of 20-year old men.
The couple met in Vermont. After graduating college with a civil engineering degree, Sandy had two job offers: one in Lake Tahoe, and one in Juneau. Sandy approached Susanne and asked if she would like to accompany him. The answer was yes. To which location? She didn't care. "Then we're moving to Juneau," he told her. Three weeks later they were married. One week later they left for Juneau.
"We moved here when a landscaped front lawn was a gravel pad and a junk car," Sandy said.
They found an apartment on Starr Hill, had their first son, Rusty, and bought a house on Behrends Avenue in 1963. Their second child, Michael, was born in 1964.
In 1975 the Williams bought their current house, on 5th Street on south Douglas. Susanne was frustrated with the lack of food items available at the grocery store.
"The only thing you could buy for salads was iceberg lettuce and romaine. I was raising two boys, fussy kids, so I started a garden with peas, lettuce, potatoes and carrots," Susanne said.
She enrolled in the Master Gardener Program, offered through the University of Alaska Fairbanks cooperative extension service, about 45 years ago she estimates. Sandy decided to join her. The curriculum consists of 40 hours of classroom work and a minimum of 40 hours of volunteer service work.
"We've put in all the service we will ever need to do," said Sandy. "Ever. Ever. Ever."
According to Darren Snyder, who manages northern Southeast Alaska's Master Gardener Program, "The Williams are a gardening phenomenon for Juneau; an amazing resource and generous with their educational resources and volunteerism."
Once the Community Garden was established off Montana Creek in the early 1990s, the Williams not only tended their own plots, but assisted in the care of the six plots used to raise food for charity. They still do. Last year, they harvested 150 pounds of potatoes to be used as seed potatoes for this spring, as well as 900 pounds of potatoes for charity.
The Southeast Alaska Food Bank, which often oversees the distribution of donated food to various charities, calls Susanne "The Salad Lady." She arrives with 5-gallon buckets of carrots and other vegetables.
The Williams assisted with the construction of the Gruening Park community garden, located in a low-income housing development between downtown Juneau and the Mendenhall Valley. They helped the residents build the garden's 10 to 15 raised beds and a tool shed, as well as shared gardening advice. Some of the local residents have been influenced enough to complete the Master Gardener's course themselves.
Susanne is also heavily involved with the garden at the Johnson Youth Center, a detention center for young boys in Juneau. Jo Dahl, a teacher at the center, was the catalyst for the school's garden. Susanne helped Dahl plan and construct the center's two green houses and 13 raised beds. The center receives human-powered assistance each spring and summer from members of the Master Gardeners Association. Susanne coordinates the scheduling. Some of the newer association members are hesitant to volunteer there, she said, so she, Sandy, or other members will accompany them, "And they end up loving it."
Starting in February, she spends an hour and a half a week with the youth center boys and their garden. Once the ground thaws she volunteers one day a week.
"We've opened the eyes of a lot of teenagers," Susanne said. "Kids that weren't eating vegetables, when they grow it, and see what happens, it's amazing."
She's spied one boy plucking broccoli straight from the garden stalk and into his mouth, which delights her. Dahl also started a culinary program at the school, and the boys are learning how to cook with their fresh produce.
Sandy's major community contribution is the plants he raises from seed each year. The Williams have a whole room in their house devoted to plant starts, with three grow stands and lights operated on a timer. They have a fourth grow stand they place in their laundry room each spring. This year Sandy started 800 plants. After the starts outgrow their containers and need to be transplanted, they are moved to the Williams' green house.
A majority of the Williams' plants are sold at the annual Super Plant sale, which occurs on the Saturday before Mother's Day. The profits from the sale go to the Master Gardener's Association as well as the Community Garden, as Sandy is involved with both.
Sandy grows mostly tomatoes - about 400 to 500 this year. He's found one variety, the Balconi, which fairs particularly well in Southeast Alaska, and are a hot item at the plant sale. One local woman told Sandy she harvested 50 tomatoes from a single Balconi plant she had purchased from him. She kept it on her kitchen windowsill, and had fresh tomatoes into December. Sandy also always tries a couple of new tomato varieties each year. If the make it through a season in his greenhouse, he begins experimenting keeping them outdoors.
Around 30 years ago the Williams bought a "pig tail" lot adjacent and downhill from their back yard. The lot is not large enough to legally contain a residence, and the couple bought it to expand their private garden, though a lot of what they produce is donated to charity. The lot, on the uphill side of St. Ann's Avenue, is a far cry from a gravel pad with a junked car. It contains their green house, tool shed and around 20 to 24 raised beds. They grow a variety of produce including five lettuce varieties, Swiss chard, radishes, peas and herbs. Their yard is lined with salmon berries that produced three gallons of product last season. They also have white, red and black current bushes, rhubarb (one plant against the house grows leaves over four feet wide), crab apple trees and a plum tree - planted to replace a cherry tree favored by porcupines.
Perhaps the most remarkable component at the Williams' house is an arbor, completely entwined by kiwi plant vines. The couple initially purchased the kiwis to add some fall color to their yard, nostalgic of the autumn colors in Vermont. The kiwi plants took off, with branches over three inches in diameter. The fruit they produce is small and smooth, not quite like the kiwi fruit common in grocery stores. But according to the Williams, they taste quite similar. The vines produced two to three gallons of fruit last season, but the kiwis ripen in unison, sometimes dropping their fruit in a rainstorm of activity.
After 53 years in Juneau, the Williams have cultivated the energy they first brought with them. Their support and enthusiasm for gardening has helped expose many green thumbs that have never yanked a carrot top or celebrated the death of a slug. They show no signs of slowing.
"Every year they teach vegetable growing and composting classes," said Snyder. "They're easily tipping into hundreds, if not thousands, of volunteer hours."
The Williams said their main advice is: "Don't give up; you'll get there. And get yourself a good set of rain gear. We've had crops fail, and others grow better. It's like gambling, going to Las Vegas."