BY LES BRAKE / Willow, Alaska, USDA Zone 3
22nd Annual Alaska Greenhouse and Nursery Conference and Polar Grower Trade Show
Hang out with 100 or more gardeners for a couple of days—the perfect antidote to the winter blues. A variety of topics will be presented, and the trade show offers retail therapy. January 28 and 29. Millennium Hotel, Anchorage, AK, Call the Anchorage office of the cooperative extension service at 907-786-6300 for more information.
Light & Ice
I’ve never had a problem with summer in Alaska—what gardener wouldn’t enjoy 15 hours of sun every day? But my first 13 winters in the subarctic were nothing but long, oppressive ordeals. Every winter here delivers some new definition of terrible. Up to 200 inches of snow can fall, and the temperature drops below zero on 60 or 70 nights. It’s dark, too; nights are more than 19 hours long in December and January. I just couldn’t figure out anything fun to do in those conditions.
Then, while walking with a friend in Anchorage one day, I had a serendipitous encounter with a cylinder of ice that had tipped over on its side on a lawn. I turned to my friend and said, “Wouldn’t that be pretty with a candle in it?” Odd as it may sound, that piece of ice was the spark that ignited a manic obsession that kicks in when gardening is in the off-season.
I call what I’m doing “ice arranging”— coloring and shaping pieces of ice, “gluing” them together with a slurry of snow and ice water, and then illuminating the arrangements with candles. I prefer not to call them ice sculptures, because what I’m doing doesn’t require the delivery of a two-ton block of ice, nor am I using chainsaws, chisels, or propane torches. And although they are illuminated, I prefer not to call them luminarias, because I’m uncomfortable applying a southwestern word to ice made in Alaska. (Besides, a luminaria is really just a candle in a paper bag, and that’s nothing but a fire hazard.) Ice arranging is fire in ice, and that’s what makes it so magical.
Most of the molds I “grow” the ice in are just ordinary household items like cake pans, dinner plates, microwave cookware, plastic vegetable bags, large cat litter pails, juice pitchers, and Jell-O rings. (That last one is easy to make and very effective because when a candle is inserted in the hole and lit, the entire ice ring glows.) Much of the appeal of ice comes from using mundane objects to turn out the sublime—from half-gallon milk cartons and muffin tins to blue angels and “Tiffan-ice” lamps. Thrift stores are a great source for odd-shaped plastic molds.
To color the ice, I use food coloring, and lots of it. By putting down color between layers of clear ice, though, I don’t have to use as much, and the colors last longer. For a good white, I add a few spoonfuls of milk to the freezing water. Some of the color theory I apply to garden design is the same for ice arranging—blue can be used to make pieces recede, and less is more when it comes to red.
Because of the way I’m using color and making and placing the arrangements, my friend Sylva says I’m landscaping with ice. Although most arrangements have an abstract quality that invites personal interpretation, I occasionally do one with a distinct floral theme. The big centerpiece last year was a four-foot-long flower box filled with ice blue poppies (“Meconops-ice,” to be botanically correct). That was a complicated arrangement that required about 40 individual pieces of ice, but I sure had a good time putting it together.
Fun at – 13’F? Yes. As soon as the temperature plunges below zero, I’m out on the deck with all my toys. I’ll spend about 60 hours in eight days playing with ice, until I have 50 or 60 arrangements made. In fact, my favorite temperatures for growing the ice and making the arrangements are in the 0’F to – 15’F range. At those temperatures, the ice pops and cracks as it forms, and I get excited hearing the ice grow.
My partner thinks I’ve gone around the icy bend and should go for treatment at a deicing clinic, but winters are much more tolerable now that I have something to do outdoors. The ice arrangements give me light and color during the darkest months, and now friends actually come to visit in the winter. Who knows? This could lead to the founding of the Alaska Hard Water Society. H
Harrowsmith Perennial Garden: Flowers for Three Seasons, by Patrick Lima (Camden House Publishing, 1990). If you’re unfamiliar with this author and his gorgeous garden, Larkwhistle, in Ontario, take a look at this book. Although the primary focus is hardy flowers for the North, what appealed to me most was the strong use of structure in the author’s garden.