Tag Archives: alaska gardening

5 Ways to Put Away Food for the Winter

IMG_2770It’s mid-July and the garden at the Williams Street Farmhouse is overflowing with vegetables and berries.  Although it feels like summer has just begun, this is the time we normally start putting things away for the winter.  Over the years, we have experimented with various ways to preserve our garden bounty, and have found there is no one-size-fits-all solution.  What we use over the winter depends very much on how we cook, which is constantly changing.  One year we use up every last parsnip, and have shredded frozen zucchini left over and the next year it is opposite. Every year we try something new and keep finding amazing products like Matt’s fermented tomatillo salsa.

No matter which method you choose, start with best quality produce for the tastiest and most nutritious results.  Vegetables that are overly mature do not store well.  Also, process vegetables as soon as possible after you harvest them. Produce continues to respire after harvest and enzymes begin breaking it down, affecting flavor and nutrition.

  1. Canning: Canned produce is convenient because it is shelf stable and will last for years. It requires no thawing or cleaning or rehydrating. Unfortunately, it is laborious, destroys up to 65% or the original nutrition value, and can be dangerous if not done properly. We can tomatoes, jam, applesauce, and bone broth.
  2. IMG_2054Cold Storage: Easy when you have a good spot to do it, as the veggies require minimal preparation. Temperature needs to stay 35-40º and humidity around 90-95% for optimum storage for most vegetables.   We insulated a small room in our unheated garage and put in a heater on a thermostat. You can also adapt a crawl space or minimally heated garage.
  3. Drying: A simple and ancient method of preserving food, dried foods are easily stored. The nutritional content is similar to frozen foods, and the flavor is better than canned. Many herbs lend themselves well for drying, although you can dry many fruits and vegetables as well. Most vegetables need to be blanched before drying.
  4. Freezing: Freezing is an easy way to store food that preserves many nutrients. Generally vegetables that are eaten cooked as well as already cooked foods freeze well. The downside is that you can quickly run out of freezer space and freezers are expensive to buy and run. It also takes a little planning to take what you need out of the freezer ahead of time so it can defrost slowly.
  5. DSC_0457Fermentation: The only method of food preservation that actually increases the nutritional content of the food! Fermented food is extremely good for you, and can actually heal many gut problems. Many people are familiar with sauerkraut, but you can ferment almost anything. Fermented food must be stored in a refrigerator or cold storage to slow fermentation.

One of the most difficult aspects of leaving this fall is not having our normal food stores.  I can’t quite imagine what we are going to cook!  I am so used to having our garden food available in some form or another year-round.  Matt and I cleaned out our cold storage yesterday and found a treasure trove of garden products.  Perfect produce preserved in various mediums ready whenever we want… chutney, relish, jam, wine, and the best surprise… our very own raw apple cider vinegar.

IMG_2767Since we can’t take all our garden produce and preserves with us on our trip, we are selling what we can at our new self-serve farm stand in our garage.  I stock it up on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays when we are around, but you can stop by anytime and see what we have!  Leave your money in the jar and if you don’t see something you want, don’t hesitate to ask.  It has been a lot of fun sharing our garden bounty!

 

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8 Early Greens You Will Never Have to Plant Again

IMG_9458After a long, cold winter of eating from the cold storage and the freezer, nothing tastes better than a fresh salad.  Greens are my tonic, giving me energy and vitality.  I eat salads lunch and dinner and throw greens into quesadillas, soups, eggs, and more.

I always plant an early crop of hearty greens. The beauty is that these greens can withstand freezing so you do not need to wait until the danger of frost has passed.  This year due to the lack of snow I planted some greens on the south side of the house in March.  The ground was still frozen underneath, but the hearty greens and the lettuce still came up.  I also planted some greens in flats in the greenhouse which came up a little faster and were ready to eat sooner.

The busier my life gets, the more I appreciate plants that I don’t have to sow.  I have several varieties of perennial greens as well as some self-seeding annuals.  These are brilliant because they come up whenever they are ready.  You don’t have to stress about planting them at the right time, or at all. They just take care of themselves.  You probably already have some of these in your garden, and right now is the perfect time to plant the ones you don’t have.

IMG_25761. Orach: Red, purple or green, orach is a relative of spinach and self-seeds readily in the garden.   It has a very mild flavor and can be eaten fresh or cooked.  The purple variety looks awesome in salads, and the green variety can be used as a straight-up substitute for spinach.  I have a patch of both.

2. Lamb’s-quarters: A relative of orach, you most likely already have this green in your garden. Also known as goosefoot or fat hen, this green has been eaten since the time of hunter-gatherers.  Although often discarded to the compost, it is high in phytonutrients, fights viruses and bacteria, and has been shown to inhibit the growth of breast cancer.

2. Sorrel: Sorrel is a perennial that has a lemony flavor and can be used to add pizzaz to salads or cooked.  It also self-seeds in the garden which can be useful since it does experience occasional die-back.  Because it is perennial and has a lot of energy in the root, it is often one of the first greens to emerge in the spring.

IMG_94464. Dandelion: Another perennial you almost surely already have, dandelion greens are at their best in the spring before they flower. Compared to spinach, dandelion greens have eight times more antioxidants, two times more calcium, three times more vitamin A, and five more times vitamin K and vitamin E. Iceberg lettuce has 1/40th the bionutrients as dandelions(Jo Robinson, Eating on the Wild Side).  If you don’t like how bitter dandelion is (this is actually a sign of the phytonutrients) you can temper it with fat (avocado or olive oil) or honey.

5. Arugula: Another self-seeder, arugula is notoriously difficult to grow during Alaska summers because our long daylight hours encourage it to bolt.  But you can get a few cuttings of it in the early spring.  Arugula has a delicious peppery flavor and is full of glucosinates, cancer fighting compounds.

IMG_26086. Good King Henry: Another spinach relative, GKH is a perennial and self-seeder that is a great multi-purpose plant.  The shoots can be eaten as asparagus, the buds like broccoli, and the seeds like quinoa.

IMG_25727. Asparagus: While not exactly a “green,” asparagus is a tasty perennial spring vegetable!  Asparagus is on the edge of its zone here in Anchorage so put it in your warmest spot.  We ate our first asparagus this year and it was well worth the 5 year wait!

8. Chives:  Another delicious perennial, chives are up early in the spring and pep up salads, dips, eggs, soups, salmon and more.  We threw some on the grill the other night and they were excellent.

We ate our first salad this year on May 3rd.  With fresh garden greens every salad is different.  I never get tired of enjoying the healthy and flavorful bounty from the garden.  Plant now to enjoy your bounty this year and extra early next year!

Time to Start Some Seeds!

I know it’s hard to believe… we haven’t had much of a “real” winter here yet, but the calendar doesn’t lie.  It’s February and it’s time to start some seeds.  In fact, I should have gotten the onions and leeks started earlier, but I was on vacation in Mexico.  Gardeners need their sun, you know.

IMG_3228This weekend I managed to slip out to the greenhouse. Last year I had some problems with damping off, where your seedlings die just as they germinate.  It’s caused by a number of different pathogens which can hide in your used pots and seed-starting trays.  So, I decide to sterilize my cell-packs this year.  I grab two 5-gallon buckets of water… one with a bleach solution and one for rinsing.  I put the cell-packs in the bleach solution, making sure they are in complete contact with the water, and let them soak for at least 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, I find my potting soil.  I use Pro-Mix which I get in big bales at Alaska Mill and Feed.  It is more economical than buying small bags and already has mycorrhizae in it, which is a fungus that forms a symbiotic relationship with the plant and helps them grow bigger and stronger.

IMG_3232When potting soil comes out of the bag it is dry, dry, dry.  It is so dry that it will repel water.  I moisten it before I fill my cell packs or pots, otherwise, I will never get it evenly moist and my seedlings will suffer.  I dump my potting soil into a big plastic tote, pour some water in, and mix it up.  I keep pouring and mixing until there are no dry spots left and it is about as wet as a wrung-out sponge.  I gather a handful of soil and squeeze it into a ball.  No water runs out, and when I open my hand, it stays in a nice ball.  Perfect.  TIme to fill the seed trays.

IMG_3226I use plastic cell packs like the ones you buy at the nursery to start my seeds.  I can fill a whole tray with soil and plant it in no time.  They are convenient and easy to move around.  And when I plant, the seedlings pop right out.  I do not mess with individual pots, paper pots, egg shells, and especially not the peat pots that are so popular lately.  They will not break down fast enough in our cool soils and the plants will suffer.

I rinse the bleach off of the cell packs, put them in the trays, then fill them with potting soil.  I mound the potting soil on, then brush the excess off the top.  Each cell is evenly filled to the top… not packed too tight.  Then, because Matt is inside with the kids and my hands are cold, I bring the trays inside to plant.  Onions, leeks, celery, tomatoes, peppers, and herbs.

It feels deeply satisfying to have the trays stacked up in the corner, waiting to germinate.  Each flat holds a potential for 72 (or more) food-bearing plants that will fill our bellies this summer and fall. It is a promise that winter will soon give way to spring.  That we will soon feel the heat of the sun on our back as we sink our hands into the earth and breathe deeply.

 

Winter Food Stores, 2014

Chard

Chard

One of our goals with our garden is to provide as much of our food year-round as possible.  During the Alaska Food Challenge in 2011-2, we had no idea how much food to put away.  I put away way too much kale and shredded zucchini.  We now have a better idea of how much food to put away, although each year the exact composition depends on what did well in the garden that year.  Last year we had a ridiculous overabundance of winter squash (I still have some under the bed), and this year we only got 8.  This year we did really well with tomatoes and tomatillos while the potatoes and peas, two reliable producers, struggled.

This year we froze about 48 pounds of vegetables and 13 gallons of berries.  Most vegetables are frozen in 1/2 pound packages which I have found to be a good portion for us and the recipes we use.  The major player here are: romanesco (6#), broccoli (8#), beans (3.5#), kale (5.5#), zucchini (6#), celery (8#), leeks (6#).  Berries are frozen whole on sheet pans and then put in gallon ziplocks.

Parsnips

Parsnips

In our root cellar we have approximately 7 gallons of carrots, 8 gallons of potatoes, 3 gallons of beets, 3 gallons Jerusalem artichokes, 4 gallons parsnips, and 4 gallons of apples. We have 4 cases of sauerkraut, 3 cases of fermented tomatillo salsa, as well as a few jars of pickles. We canned 3 cases of tomatoes and 2 cases of applesauce.

In the house we have 8 winter squash, two gallon ziplocks with dried herbs, and herbs frozen into ice cubes.  We also have 2 gallons of honey from our bees and a (somewhat) steady supply of eggs. All this is from our 9,000 square foot city lot.

Additionally, we put away about 100 pounds of pork products, almost 100 pounds of salmon and salmon products (sausage and smoked), and 70 pounds of caribou.  We canned two cases of crabapple sauce from our neighbor’s tree.  We dried a quart of bolete mushrooms.  And we picked 2 gallons of blueberries.

Every year we get better at getting ready for winter.  I’ve learned to put things away throughout the summer instead of all at the end.  I’m faster at blanching and I have my systems for packaging salmon and caribou down.  It isn’t this big, exhausting unknown thing anymore.  It has become a part of our routine, what we do in our daily lives.  And I have to say, it is a really rewarding way to live!

tomatoes

tomatoes

Kale

Dinosaur Kale

Dinosaur Kale

Everyone kept asking, ” What are you going to do with all that kale?”  I didn’t mean to plant so much… some of it was left from my spring greens mix and everything else had bolted except the kale.  And some of that kale wasn’t really kale, it was sprouting broccoli or broccoli rabe that never sprouted.  So I’m left with eating the leaves which is kind of like kale.  And then there was the extra 2 kale plants I stuck in the corner because I had extras.  Oh, and the black or dinosaur kale I planted under the apple tree.  It is excellent in salads but the leaves are so skinny that there is not much leaf on there and they are more work for freezing.

I have already brought 2 large loads of kale over to the MIssion soup kitchen, but the main patch was still left.  I had a couple friends help me harvest it on Monday and we had a huge bucket full in less than 5 minutes.  I sent them home with some, but the bucket was still overflowing.

IMG_1818Tuesday I got all set up to freeze it.  I have my system down.  I get the water steaming on the stove while I strip the leaves off the stem and throw them in the wash water in the left sink.  As the first batch is steaming I fill the right sink with ice water and get out a large towel for drying.  Three minutes for each batch in the steamer, them I throw it in the ice water, fish it out, and squeeze it dry.  It gets packed into ziplocks in 1/2 pound packages and labeled and into the freezer.

After about 10 batches I had barely put a dent in the bucket.   I started having flashbacks from our Alaska Food Challenge year.  I froze WAY too much kale and we got a little sick of it.  Matt has been a little anti frozen kale since then.  There was no way we were going to use all of this kale this winter.  Besides, I already had beet greens and chard put away.  I texted my friend, “Help!  Too much kale!  Save me!”

Kale and Celery Salad with apples and green onion

  • 1 large bunch dinosaur kale, stemmed and cut into thin strips
  • 4 stalks celery, with tender leaves, chopped
  • 1 tart apple, sliced thin
  • 3 green onions, sliced
  • 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil

Combine kale with vinegar and salt and mix very well.  Let sit 20 minutes.  Add olive oil and toss again, then add the rest of the ingredients.

 

Planting Time!

Conventional wisdom in South-central Alaska says not to plant anything in the ground unImagetil Memorial Day weekend.  My gardening is anything but conventional, so you might guess I plant a lot earlier than that.  Especially during a spring like this one… how can anyone wait?  We’ve been planting in the garden for a month and a half, and we are already eating fresh greens from the garden.  Nothing compares to the taste of spring greens straight from the garden and I have been eating them for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  My body craves them like a tonic to cleanse my body from the fatty foods of winter.  

The last average frost date for most of Anchorage is May 15th, but many young seedlings can handle a light frost.  If you put floating row cover over your seedlings, you get an extra 3-7 degrees of protection, plus your plants will grow much faster.  Floating row cover is a spun polyester fabric that lays right on top of your plants like a blanket.  Air, light, and water pass right through it, but it creates an air pocket of warm air right next to the ground where your seedlings need it.  I consider it essential in my garden and I also use it for hardening off seedlings and keeping out the cabbage root maggots.  It lasts for many seasons and is well worth the investment.  

I start planting greens in my warmest beds just as soon as they are free from snow and the soil warms up a bit.  The beds directly in front of the south side of the house and greenhouse are ready at least two weeks before anything else.  This year that was the first of April. Last year I already had baby greens growing in the ground when we had that late snowfall.  I stapled some plastic to the greenhouse to shed the snow and they were fine.  Next I like to get my carrots, parsnips, onions and potatoes planted.  The sooner I plant, the sooner I can harvest and eat. I cover the carrots and parsnips with row cover because it helps keep the soil moist while I’m waiting for them to germinate.   I try to plant out my broccoli and other cabbage family starts in the first part of May.  

ImageIn fact, the only thing I wait until the end of May for is the tomatoes, cucumbers, and squash, which truly are frost sensitive and will do poorly if subjected to cool temperatures.  With this amazing weather we’ve been having, I’m going to put all those out to harden off so they will be ready to be planted next week.  It is essential for me and my large garden to spread the planting out over two months because I couldn’t possibly get it all done at once.  

If you’ve been waiting to plant your garden, wait no longer!  Get out there in this beautiful weather and start planting.  Just remember to harden off your seedings by putting them in the shade for one week before planting.  Throw some row cover over them for extra protection.  Happy planting!!

Garden Tallies

The results are in!  We grew 1049 pounds of food on our 9000 square foot city lot in Anchorage this year!  Looks like we will be eating well this winter, with our cold storage, freezers, and pantry packed to the rafters.  Even though our Alaska food challenge is over, local food is too good to go back to our old habits.

This year’s total of 1049 pounds was a fair bit less than the 1622 pounds we grew here last year, but comprable to our share of last year’s harvest, which was 1132 pounds.  The remainder of last year’s harvest was shared with our tenants.

We concentrated more on the staples this year instead of our experimental crops, and yields were up for potatoes, cabbage, winter squash, and broccoli.  It was down on things we had major excess of last year like kale, raspberries, and

rhubarb  We had some big disappointments such as tomatoes, basil, onions, green beans, and parsnips. And a few things that never got planted, like turnips and boc choi.

We’ll see how our stores hold up over the winter, but I already have ideas of what I want to grow more (and less) of next year, and how I’m going to do that.  I will dedicate more space to broccoli and less to cabbage.  I will buy onion plants again like last year, which yielded much better than the ones I grew from seed.

We also learned from what we ate last winter, and were able to be more efficient in putting our food by.  We made a huge batch of sauerkraut and didn’t bother with the sauerruben (turnips.)  I freed up a few days work by not freezing nearly as much kale.  I also added a few new products I’m really happy about, like my strawberry preserves, which are great with yogurt or on ice cream with Nova Monda Cacao.

Although I don’t keep track of the time I spend in the garden, I’m pretty sure my new role as mother has helped me streamline my process, as I simply have less time available.  I’m really not sure how I managed to get the garden planted in the first place.  My days of spending 12 hours getting lost in my garden are over for now.  Perhaps that will be encouraging to those of you whose time time is limited as well.  It is also encouraging to know that all the work we’ve put in establishing the beds with loads and loads of organic material has really paid off, and that now we can let nature do the work for us in some ways.  In other ways, it feels like we have loads more work to do to get the garden where we want it.  Get ready Graysen, we need your help!!