Editor’s Note: Last week the Alaska Botanical Garden hosted an event to celebrate Lile’s Garden, named after Lile Vivian Bernard Rasmuson. This post is taken from a brochure about Lile that was written by her three children.
By Ed Rasmuson, Lile Gibbons and Judy Rasmuson
Lile’s Garden, at the Alaska Botanical Garden, has been planted in memory of a remarkable Alaskan gardener of the 1940’s and 1950’s, a woman who relished being out-of-doors, who was never more happy than puttering around her garden dressed in faded red pedal pushers and old espadrilles. She weeded and planted. She created heaven.
Gardening in Alaska—and more so in the 1940’s and 50’s—is a tease, a challenge and an exclamation point to those willing to dig in the dirt and plant their seeds. Midnight sun, cool nights work their magic to create beautiful flowers and tasty vegetables in the course of three short months. The gardening season is brief but the rewards are worth the work and anticipation.
Lile Vivian Bernard and Elmer Edwin Rasmuson were married in 1939 in Summit, New Jersey. Elmer, an Alaskan born and raised in Yakatat and Skagway, had come East to college, worked in New York City in the 1930’s where he met our mother on a blind date. Elmer, Lile and their two small children moved to Alaska in the spring of 1943. Raised in suburban New Jersey, Anchorage was a globe away for Lile, in distance, in scope and in daily life. Yet she set out for Alaska eager, curious and excited to begin a new adventure in this northern climate.
The Rasmuson family’s first house was at 10th and G Street, then the outer limits of residential Anchorage. Groceries in Alaska in the 1940’s came up from the states (“Outside”) by boat. Fresh vegetables, lettuces and fruits were hard to come by, so Mother started her own vegetable garden. Raspberries lined the white picket fence. A big strawberry patch was adjacent. Potatoes were the front lawn. The family raised chickens in a coop in the back yard, both for eggs and for fresh meat when the local butcher had none. Peas, broccoli, lettuce, carrots and potatoes were the basic crops. No tomatoes or cucumbers. They required far more sun and heat than Alaskan summers could provide.
In 1955, Elmer and Lile built a new house in Turnagain, complete with a greenhouse. There, Mother finally raised her tomatoes and cucumbers and started sets of squashes to be transplanted outside in late May. If the pollinating bees didn’t arrive on cue (through open vented windows), Mother would take a little paintbrush, collect the pollen on the male cucumber flower and dab it on the female bud. Voila, instant hybridizing! Giving the mature tomato plant a good shake pollinated their little flowers. Not too scientific but it worked! Broccoli, potatoes, zucchini and green beans were mainstays in the vegetable garden in the raised beds outside.
Mother’s flower gardens were her real love. She was always digging a new one and gladiolas of all colors, gorgeous sky-blue delphinium punctuated the south facing front garden. Purple nicotiana and vivid pink petunias filled in the holes. Alongside the greenhouse grew huge magenta colored roses, intertwined with more spires of blue delphinium. Mother strew poppy seeds in the driveway island every year… delicate shades of yellow and orange scattered amongst the white trunks of the birch and bushy greens of the horsetail ferns.
Continual blooms of fiery colored begonias, blue lobelia and rosy fuchsia cascaded over the sides of hanging baskets. In the fall, Mother dug up all the begonia tubers, overwintered them in the basement, and replanted the tubers the following summer. Old fashion purple lilacs grew in abundance in front of the house. Hoses, sprinklers and fertilizers were dragged and moved around the yard to keep the flowers and grass watered and nourished.
Fall was berry picking season-especially for high and low bush cranberries. Mother made many pints of jams and jellies; first, boiling the berries in large pots to a hard ball stage, then skimming off the white bubbling foam, and finally pouring the cooked fruit through cheesecloth into sterilized mason jars to be sealed with paraffin when cool. White cheesecloth bags hung from every kitchen cabinet door when jam making was in full swing.
Lile would have been delighted with this garden as a place to grow, to show, and to learn.
Lile’s Garden at the Alaska Botanical Garden has been made possible with funding from U.S. Housing and Urban Development, Atwood Foundation, Rasmuson Foundation, Rasmuson family members and friends of the Botanical Garden.
Lile’s Garden concept design was created by Carol Johnson of Boston. Final design was completed by Elise Huggins of Anchorage. Plant selection strategy was prepared by the ABG plant committee, and final design and selection of perennials, shrubs, bulbs and fruit trees by Ayse Gilbert of Anchorage.