Fay Branigan grew up on a farm in High Level, Alberta.
The small town sits about the same latitude as Juneau, Alaska.
As a teenager, Branigan would recite the names of every plant and tree she came across.
When she moved to the Yukon, 20 years ago, she thought she knew a fair bit about how to garden for the climate.
“I’m from the most northern part of Alberta, I thought: it’s got to be similar,” she said.
Ingrid Wilcox hears this a lot.
“If you read books on ‘Northern gardening,’ it’s usually Ontario – it’s not even northern Ontario,” said Wilcox, a Yukon greenhouse enthusiast who has been in the industry for 40 years.
“People have said to me, ‘I’ve grown this in Saskatchewan.’ They’ll try to grow it and, after about three years, I get a call that says, ‘What am I doing wrong?’”
What they’re doing wrong is employing southern methods in the territory.
“There are a few tricks pertinent to the Yukon.”
And thanks to Branigan, those tricks may be passed along to Whitehorse gardeners.
Branigan is the new manager of the Greenhouse at Cliffside.
She hopes to offer things northern gardeners can’t find anywhere else.
“I think Whitehorse lacks a lot of things, and that’s what I’m looking for,” she said. “I don’t want to have anything the same as Canadian Tire or Walmart. Everything I do, I want to be different.”
This ranges from organic seeds and fertilizers, to things that will help ornamental plants from freezing.
“She seems to have a quite a few new ideas,” said Wilcox. “Some items pertinent for the Yukon … such as soil test kits and soil thermometers and all that kind of stuff, which is really good for up here.”
She is also cultivating contacts with seed farmers that know the specific needs of the North, added Wilcox.
“And the more she learns, the more she’ll be able to offer,” she said of Branigan.
Along with running the “home of the giant sunflower,” Branigan is also taking the master gardener course at Yukon College.
“I thought I knew a lot,” she said about her underestimations of the short, cold growing season Yukon has to offer. “But you can always learn more.”
Wilcox is one of the instructors of the course and will be the guest lecturer for daylong workshops and seminars at the Greenhouse at Cliffside.
Holding seminars at the store and greenhouse is not one of Branigan’s new ideas, but the previous owners had been in the industry for a long time.
“They forgot to cover the basics,” she said. “People want to grow, but they just don’t know where to start. And then what happens is they start, it fails, they give up and say, ‘The heck with it, I’m not doing it again.’ I want people to be successful gardeners.”
The first three seminars are already planned and will be a sort-of, Yukon gardening 101. Everything from picking the right seeds, preparing and balancing the soil, prepping your plot, properly planting seeds and eventually the workshops will progress into other things, like crop cover.
“It’s those little tricks pertinent to the Yukon that people have picked up over the years that I am willing to share,” said Wilcox who has owned a nine-greenhouse enterprise and a floral shop in the past. “The more information out there, the better.”
The gardening culture in the territory is still in its infancy. People plant flowers but there aren’t a lot of people growing their own food, she said.
“I am not saying that we will completely grow our requirements but the more people grow the better it is – for their own personal use and for their kids to learn how to grow things, because they may need to use that skill at one point,” she said. “Even if they don’t grow the fancy stuff … heck you can grow enough to get yourself through the winter at least.”
Recent city council approval of new community gardens and the rise in popularity of communal greenhouses is a good thing.
As are many of Branigan’s ideas, said Wilcox.
Those ideas include using worms for a more natural fertilizer or ladybugs instead of chemical treatments against aphids.
Both critters are expected to be at the Cliffside store soon, said Branigan.
She also has hopes to set up a weekend farmer’s market throughout the summer, she said.
And unlike previous management, Branigan will stay open all the way into December.
“The customers that were here before are loving the changes that I’ve made,” she said. “It’s a different focus.”
As she walks in between stonework ornaments, lawn furniture and chalkboard garden signs, Branigan points to an open cabinet full of natural soaps from Salt Spring Island, British Columbia.
“Anything that has to do with self-care, anything that makes people feel good – that’s what my goal is and that’s what I see gardening as being,” she said. “It’s relaxing.”
The new Greenhouse at Cliffside opened last week and the first seminar with Wilcox is this Saturday. It is free and open to everyone.
Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at