Tag Archives: Anchorage gardening

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!

10 Tips for a Better Garden

During my consultations, in friend’s gardens, and on Facebook I see people making the same mistakes over and over again.  Follow these simple tips for your best garden ever.

IMG_12931. Put your garden as close to your door as possible, where you will see it every day.  Put it right next to your back patio or along the walkway to your car. If you see it every day, you will notice when it needs to be watered, weeded, when to put down some Sluggo, and and when the broccoli needs to be harvested.  It will become a part of your life, it will be easier and give you more joy as you can watch things grow change every day.  Please do not banish it to the neglected back corner of your yard, where it will become a chore to drag the hose over only to discover that the weeds have entirely taken over and you missed harvesting your only head of cauliflower.

2. Make permanent raised beds, no more than 4 feet wide.  Raised beds dry out and warm up quicker in spring than ground-level beds.  This means you will be planting and therefor harvesting earlier. They don’t need wooden sides; ours are just mounded and the soil stays put just fine.  You could also use logs, rocks, bottles, or urbanite (concrete chunks) to border them if you wish.  The important part is that you never walk in them so they don’t get compacted and you never have to dig them up or turn them.  Keeping them no wider than 4 feet across ensures you can reach into them to plant, thin, weed, and harvest without stepping in the beds or killing your back.  If your bed is against a house or fence, it should be no wider than 2 feet.

IMG_16043. Think outside the box.  Vegetables don’t care what shape the bed is that they are planted in. While a agree that rectangles are easier to determine spacing or put a hoop house over, I find them uninspiring.  Your bed can be triangular, curvy, keyhole shaped, or whatever you desire.  My main garden bed is a bunch of keyhole gardens put together, resulting in an amoeba-shaped garden.  Each lobe gives a distinct planting area, plus a large area in the middle.  We also mix our vegetables, flowers, and perennials all together for more diverse plantings that are more beautiful and confuse pests.

4. Become a worm wrangler. There are millions of organisms below the soil from bacteria and fungi to worms and beetles.  Most of them we can’t see, but they are there, working to keep the soil aerated, breaking down organic matter, and making nutrients available for our plants.  We can help our soil life proliferate by not walking on our garden beds, not tilling or turning the soil, providing a lot of organic matter for them to feed on, and keeping mulch on top of the soil to keep it moist.  Sheet mulching is a great way to start garden beds that are rich with soil life.  See my post on how to build a sheet mulch bed.

5. Start seeds at the proper time.  Seedings starting inside should be still small when transplanted outside otherwise they will not transplant well.  This differs for each type of plant and some don’t like to be transplanted at all so you must plant them directly in the ground. This is not a contest to see who can start their seeds earliest.  You will not get any squash from a squash planted in December.  Squash hates to be root-bound, and doesn’t like to be transplanted very much.  Start them in the beginning of May in 3-4 inch pots and your plants will be plenty big to go out in the garden when the soil warms up in June.  Likewise, if you try to start your celery now, they are so slow-growing that they won’t have time to mature.  Check out my planting chart on the resources page for more information on when to start your seeds.

IMG_32266. Start your seeds in plastic flats.  Each cell in plastic flats is the right space for one plant to grow.  They are easy and efficient to fill, water, move around, provide light to, and get the seedling out when transplanting.  They can be reused year after year. Can you use egg shells? It might look great on Pinterest, but they are too shallow, they don’t drain, they tip over and make a big mess.  And don’t waste money on peat pots or those expanding jiffy cells.  The peat doesn’t break down in our cold soils and you will be fishing the netting out of your garden for years to come.  Soil blocks also work great but require a greater up-front investment.

7. Give plants their proper spacing.  I know it is tempting when you have all these little tiny seedlings to crowd them in, but if you do, you may not get anything at all.  Especially for things like broccoli and cabbage where you are eating a “head” or an unopened flower, each plant needs to get big enough to form a decent sized head.  If you crowd them they will get stressed out and bolt, which is where they go straight to flowering.  Each broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower needs 15 inches of space.  Measure it out!  I use a planting stick 15 inches long to get the spacing right.  Again, refer to my planting chart for proper spacing.

IMG_10568. Get in the ground early.  Most plants that like to grow up here can withstand freezing temperatures, especially when they are young, and can be planted well before the last frost.  I have lettuce, arugula, and other hardy greens growing from seed in the garden already and I’m not worried about them, even with the snow coming down outside today.  I plant them as soon as the ground thaws out a bit.  You can also plant potatoes, carrots, parsnips, turnips, peas and radishes right now.

9. Use floating row cover.  Probably one of my most indispensable garden tools, row cover is a spun polyester fabric that you lay on top of your seedlings.  It lets air, water, and light through, but creates a pocket of warm air right on the ground that the wind can’t blow away as easily. Seeds started under row cover germinate and grow faster than uncovered seeds.  It also keeps cabbage root maggots off of your plants as long as you bury the edges so the flies can’t get underneath it.

10. Use the finger test and water deeply.  You can’t really tell by looking at the surface of the soil if your garden needs water.  You need to stick your finger in the soil as far down as it will go to see if it is moist underneath where the plant roots are.  Sometimes if will be dry on top but moist underneath… other times if we get a sprinkle of rain it will be moist on top and dry beneath.  When you do water, make sure you give your garden enough that it soaks down into the root zone.  Once your plants are established, you should only need to water once a week or so, as long as you keep the mulch on.

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

Change

 

my first leaf "harvest"

 

The trees shed their leaves and the termination dust advances daily down the mountains as we scurry to get everything at the farmhouse ready for winter.  Gathering in the last of the crops, putting the garden to bed, and wrapping up unfinished projects.  We can no longer cling to the hope of summers last gleaming rays, we must face the immanent change.

This past weekend I finally hauled in the last of the root crops.  Fifteen pounds of parsnips and our first sunchokes (aka jerusalem artichokes.) I tossed them in a little grapeseed oil, salt and pepper for a Permaculture Guild potluck.  They were a success…nutty and crisp and slightly sweet!  Sunchokes are a perennial in the sunflower family with edible tubers.  They are easy to grow by planting the tubers in the fall and are highly nutritious.

After harvesting my garden beds, I dug out the paths surrounding them and piled the gorgeous black earth on top of the garden to raise the beds even further.  The paths (and the whole garden) used to be lawn, which I put cardboard over and covered with wood chips.  This smothered the grass and gave the opportunity for the microorganisms to turn the degraded lawn into fertile soil.  The raised beds will warm up faster in the spring and allow me to start seeds earlier.  On top of the soil, I put on a layer of chopped up garden waste, whatever happened to be nearby, to give the soil life something to feed on, then covered it with mulch.  For mulch I like to use a mixture of straw and leaves, but I haven’t been able to find any leaves this fall.  If anyone has a good source of pesticide-free leaves (ie, no weed-and-feed) in Anchorage, let me know.

 

Broadbeds

 

I am putting my chickens to work in the garden as well.  Their job is to go in after harvest and eat all the slug eggs, what garden waste they want, dig the rest into the soil, and fertilize while they are at it.  They are very efficient at their job, spending countless hours making sure they get everything.  I can’t imagine how busy I would be if I didn’t have their services.

 

chickens at work

 

The falling leaves are emblematic of a deeper change going on.  I recently returned from Tennessee where I graduated with my master’s degree in Regenerative Entrepreneurship, became an advisor for incoming Gaia University associates, and completed a Permaculture Teacher training with Dave Jacke. Suddenly, instead of focusing on my own learning, I am focused on other people’s learning.  Matt is still on his Gaia University learning pathway, and I am learning to be a better support for him as well.

Matt and I also have friends breaking up from long-term relationships, others moving away, and new tenants who just moved in downstairs.  Even though it can be difficult, I need to be open to shedding old relationships, ideas, and patterns in order to make way for the flush of growth that comes in physical or metaphorical spring.  My garden will burst forth with life after a winter’s slumber, and I, too will be transformed by my new opportunities and growth.