Saturday, February 18, 2017

Planning out our 2017 Alaskan garden

I've often told newer gardeners that the best thing to do is watch your yard, really watch it for a full season to get a good idea of where the sun is at any given time of the day, where the water collects and lays stagnant most often, which areas are drier, and so on.  
So, following my own advice, last year that is precisely what I did.  Now I found recently that when presented with a large amount of area to deal with you need to break it into manageable pieces, quadrants or areas.  So I've broken this down to the garden area, the side area, our pond area, our rabbit area and our bee area. 
Our morning sun comes over our house and hits the lilac tree, the raspberries and the raised beds on the left so this year I'll be putting more of the plants that don't do as well with afternoon sun over on the left.  Meanwhile, the plants that love the heat (summer squash, tomatoes, hot peppers) will all be pushed over to the right side where the sun shines from 3p to 6pm.

If you read my last post, you'll know we're adding honeybees to our mix (not drawing below since they will be in a quiet corner of our garden far away from the more actively used areas).  We are also adding a bit more raised beds as well as some extra perennials and fruit bearing bushes and trees.  

Peony needs to be planted, 3 new beds need to be built and we need to clear out some trees before the beehives are added nearby.

While in my Master Gardener class an instructor suggested using paper to draw all the permanent fixtures on, and then with tracing paper add any new additions to the garden to see what you think.  Me personally, I prefer using MS Paint as I can achieve some of the same great results.

The Peony towards the back near the compost bin is my newest idea for the main reason that I would love to have some sweet smelling flowers near that area.  Our lilac blooms in late May early June which will mean the Peony will follow shortly thereafter which will ensure me a lovely aroma around a not so lovely smelling area for at least a couple of months.  The challenge here will most definitely be the fact that the soil here is very dense and compact.  I will have to dig a nice sized hole and then mix a good amount of compost and manure in to give it the very best chance.
Next, the herb garden on the right.  Last year I discovered that I ran out of space FAST in the left raised bed for my herbs.  I enjoy growing both medicinal and culinary herbs and they do take up some room so we'll be adding another two cinder block tall raised bed and add compost and topsoil to that.
The two other raised beds in front will be pretty low into the ground but will be slightly more elevated than the grass.  These, like the herb gardens will be built most likely using the cinder blocks that we saved from our small space garden in Fairbanks.
In these I plan to plant a small area of horseradish (which I hope to keep in that small area.  Horseradish can become invasive sometimes so I will have to watch it closely) as well as some winter squash and possibly even some sunchokes (Jerusalem Artichokes)  I'm not certain what variety of squash yet I'm going to try there, possibly something smaller like acorn squash.
In the right newly built raised bed we plan to plant garlic which might be a challenge.  There are trees right along this area so it might or might not get enough sunlight.  We will have to try it out and see if we're successful.  If not something else that is perennial will go here since this bed will not be as elevated which will allow whatever is planted there to potentially overwinter a little more easily.  I have a feeling that regardless of the turnout here it will not be enough garlic to keep us going all throughout the winter so we'll most likely have to come up with other areas that we can plant more.
Next is our side area.
Early Spring in the yard
 This area doesn't need as much planting, it just needs clearing!  We have a lot of trees and the goal is to remove a lot of them while still maintaining the privacy they provide.
We have planted several rhubarb in one area and we hope they will continue to expand.  I use rhubarb in multiple canning projects, so it'll always find a use.  Next we purchased a couple of peony's from Chatanika Peonies, a local grower out here.  I really miss my huge peony bush from my Fairbanks house.  Every year since being back I make Peony jelly   It's delicious and boy do I miss it!
Last year one of the biggest additions we added in this area was two, 2nd year crabapples.  I hope the moose continue to ignore them, at least until such time as the trees are large enough to deal with their depredations.  Later I might graft other crabapples to fast growing apples and place those here as well but first we have to clear this area out some more.  As time goes on we will have to guard against frequent moose visits.  That will require tall fencing in the areas we plan to guard.

Below is what we have now and what is planned for this year.
Trees need to be cleared, a border around the rhubarb patch needs to be built and I intend to plant flowers that honeybees love.   This I'm sure will not just attract bees but other pollinators as well. 
This year we plan to grow lettuce and other greens in the raised bed in this area.  Last year this area got morning sunlight but no afternoon sunlight.  This renders it useless for any plant that loves heat or full afternoon sun.

Thankfully we don't have as much to do in the pond area.  The previous owners did such a great job landscaping this area that we can almost ignore this area other than I do want to plant some more ostrich ferns and I need to move the gooseberries that I mistakenly planted near the pond last year.  Other than clearing more trees and planting this area is done.
The pond, early in the season

Our rabbits this year will be getting newly built hutches (built by us) since the last hutch was built with scraps and two individuals who knew little to nothing of what we were doing.  Now that we've been doing this for almost a year we know what we want or what we would possibly like.  This is still a work in progress however so we might change to something similar to this idea over the next month or two.
The goal is to get it changed before summer.  In the same area as our rabbits we have also planted asparagus which would be a challenge if the rabbits accidentally ever got out.  I guess our rabbits would be eating well (not that they don't already since they get spoiled massively by all of us) but we'd be missing our fresh from the garden asparagus that year.  Last year we did notice that we had asparagus spears growing in late summer in the area so we're hoping it overwinters and comes back this spring.  Asparagus actually takes several years to grow before it will actually produce enough to eat so of course we won't see much coming from this until at least next year or the year following that, possibly.  That's if it survives our harsh Alaskan winters.

We have approximately two to three more months before the snow has completely melted and we can start plants like hardy red russian kale, broccoli, cauliflower or cabbage.  In the meantime we continue to collect seeds and over and over look over the snowy landscape that is currently our yard.  We have a lot of annual flowers to plant, a lot of perennials to plant, of lot of vegetable starts to buy and of course, rabbits to work with and of course, most of all, a couple thousand bees to work with.
It's going to be a lot of work with hopefully, a lot of accomplishments, lessons learned and a lot of food coming directly from our backyard.  One could never ask for more!

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Somethings a'buzz in our backyard Honeybees in Alaska

A long time ago, when we lived in Maryland actually, in military housing, I badly wanted honeybees. I felt like it would be the perfect addition to my backyard garden.  And of course, that was a no go since military housing said "No you may not have domesticated honey bees in your backyard".  So I shelved that idea until we had a house with some land.  Land that we could spread out on some, do what we want with and so on.
Well now we do have land.  1.7 acres of it.  We have a garden that is bigger than any I've ever had the pleasure to work in, we raise meat rabbits and now, it looks like we might be finally getting the honeybees I longed for so long ago.
You know that saying "be careful what you wish for because you might just get it?" Well that applies here.
Out of all my experiences with gardening and with rabbits, never once did I feel truly overwhelmed by my own lack of knowledge.  Not until now.
Since Christmas morning when I opened up my first ever brood box I have been constantly in a state of amazement of how wonderfully scientific, methodical, precise, fastidious and amazing honeybees are.
Never did I know that honeybees had a hierarchy in their hive.  I never knew that the entire colony consisted of females except for those lonely little drones who only have one purpose in life.  I never knew that honeybees were so amazingly hygenic.
Each time I learn a new fact I'm struck by the realization of how much more I have to learn.
Thankfully I have both my husband and son at my side as we all wade through all the facts, details and lessons that a new beekeeper is bombarded with.

Last year our garden performed below par.  The soil was horrible, very low in organic material, low in nitrogen, in phosphorous, and in potash.  The spreading moss was indicative of the high acidity in the soil.  No good for growing kale or spinach.
Since we had just moved in last March there was not much to do about it, other than potentially use store bought fertilizer which I detest doing.  Yes, I have done it before but I tend to prefer the slower method of improving my soil which means composting and adding liberal amounts of manure.  I've said it before and I'll say it again now, you don't grow healthy plants.  You produce healthy soil and the soil will do all the work for you. Now it seems we'll have one other helper; honeybees.
Not only did I notice the extreme lack of some of the most important macro-nutrients in our soil but I also noticed that we had a distinct lack of pollinating insects.  Whether this is because we have neighbors that spray incessantly to remove the "state bird" aka mosquito from their yards or simply because there are no beekeepers nearby; I do not know.  All I know was we only had a couple of butterflies and sporadic shows of European bumble bees.  Wasps we had plenty of, unfortunately.  As any gardener knows, without the pollinating insects you might as well throw in the towel unless you plan to take the most tedious route; pollinating by hand.

Almost as soon as I got over the shock on Christmas morning about my new hive, I joined several beekeeping groups.  One thing led to another and I found myself with invitations to beekeeping groups here in Alaska and in the interior of Alaska as well.  This then alerted me to all the upcoming classes, important dates and what not.  Several weeks ago we attended our first class, which was free at the UAF Fairbanks co-op extension office.  The class was taught by a local farmer and owner out here, it was four hours and best of all, it was free.
This gave my husband, my son and I a very basic idea about beekeeping, but it was no where near enough as it made us realize how little we truly knew about beekeeping in general.
So next we signed up for another class.  This one was two days long, several hours each day and much more intensive but this one also cost where the other was free.  We came away from it with our knowledge increased even more and an even deeper grasp of the supplies needed for this Spring, Summer and Autumn as well as knowledge about beekeeping in general.  Dawn Cogan runs this workshop each year here in the interior and it is well worth the money spent!
So far we have purchased three deep brood boxes, and three medium supers. We hope to increase this a bit more in the coming months, but these are not cheap so we have to buy a little at a time.
Deep Brood box

Medium Super
We also have approximately 70 hive foundations, those are mixed between deep and medium sized and unfortunately some of those are also unwaxed. Not great since we want to give our ladies any extra gain we can.  Unwaxed means the ladies have to work that much harder to get the ball rolling on developing the hive and even further, producing their sweet treat, HONEY.

We have also purchased frame grips, frame holders, a beekeeping brush, numerous hive tools, three hats with veils and three pairs of beekeeping goatskin gloves. Our plan is to purchase actual suits later on but due to all the other expenses of setting up this year we decided to go with cheaper tyvek suits.  Our new bee colonies, once we purchase them, will be $185 for each one.
All told we've spent approximately $1000 to set up.  No, unlike our bunnies, this is not a cheap hobby.

We have very, very short summers here and honeybees do NOT overwinter well here simply because honeybees will not typically defecate in their own hive and due to cold temperatures they will often not venture out for a cleansing flight so instead they "hold it" until it becomes a serious problem.  This either can cause an unsanitary condition in the hive which leads to diseases like Nosema, or come spring they can develop dysentery which is a tad bit different for them than it is for humans.  Due to the fact that they have been eating all winter, come spring they load up on all the fresh water only to die due to the fact that now they are over bloated and are not able to void their bowels.
This is a rather simplistic explanation.  Keep in mind, I am a novice beekeeper (I haven't even gotten my bees yet).

Our bees arrive in mid April, and as they arrive I hope they bring temperatures above 50 degrees with them.  We will need to hive them within the next several days after in order to ensure they don't get overly stressed.
Now of course, we want the honey.  Who wouldn't after all?  However, our main goal at this point is to increase the population of the pollinators in our garden which then will of course increase production in said garden.

We shall see.  I hope to report back within a few months with tales of positive news.

Friday, August 12, 2016

An argument for soil testing

I've been a gardener since in my early twenties.  Yes, I was a novice but we have to start somewhere right? I started by killing mint and basil.  I did try to grow them, but they constantly died.
A couple of years later, I figured out what I was doing wrong, what the heck was the small spidery pest that was attacking (and killing) my bonsai, why was my mint taking over the yard, what were the green small bugs eating my cilantro, and WHY was my cilantro always developing seeds so fast?   I got a bit better at planting herbs in the tiny spaces I had in all the houses we occupied, and upgraded to vegetables and even cherry trees (that the moose thoroughly enjoyed even though I did not).
When we moved to Maryland all that experience was kicked into high gear as my family got hit by many unfortunate personal economic events.
When you only suddenly have money for your house, your car, the repairs for the car and some of your bills and desperation hits in, well then you'll do anything to fix it. For me it was to grow a garden and grow it big in a small space.
Our old garden in Northern Maryland
When we moved into our new house in North Pole, Alaska and the snow had melted I could tell the soil in our raised beds was pretty acidic.  We had a bad moss problem in them,
However, whether it was because life was just really that chaotic then or I was just too trusting, I didn't test the soil in our raised beds.  I told myself and my husband that "a master gardener owned this house, she knew what she was doing, I don't need to test the soil, it'll be plenty fertile"

By late May it became very obvious that our soil was seriously deficient in nitrogen, possibly a bit in phosphorous.  It was also extremely apparent that our soil was seriously acidic.  Enough to compete with our garden in Maryland!  Our moss (which we did not plant) thrived while our broccoli rabe died.

So finally beginning of August I broke down and finally purchased a soil testing kit from
And yes.  Our soil was very, very acidic. And yes, it was completed depleted of nitrogen which explained why our greens failed to thrive and why plants looked so yellow, and why the only thing that would grow was the moss.
Too acidic, lacking too much nitrogen, lacking too much organic material.  All in all, not good.  Just keep in mind, if you're a bit nervous or just don't want to test your soil yourself your local Cooperative Extension office should be able to do it for you.

So, now the game plan is to raise our nitrogen levels, lower the acidity, add much more organic material and add in some phosphorous.

First, I have made a deal with one of the local coffee shops here that I frequent way too often.  I will stop by several times during the work week to pick up used coffee grounds.  These will help to increase nitrogen in our soil however there is a negative in this.  Coffee grounds are slightly acidic, Not what we need, more acidity.  So I'll have to use the coffee grounds in my compost and mix liberally with wood ash, lime or ground limestone.  Sometimes lime can be a bit too alkaline but at this point, my soil is so acidic I'm not overly concerned by it.

I also have been making friends with horses.  Or at least their owners.  Horses produce, of course, a large amount of manure which is excellent for use in the garden.
This will help add organic material, add nitrogen and lower the overall PH to a more average level.  We have a separate bin just for manure that later will be mixed into our compost pile of vegetable scraps, leaves, and grass clippings. The grass clipping of course will also add nitrogen back into our depleted soil.

We also now are the proud owners of three rabbits that will make up our breeding stock for meat rabbits. Two are Californians, a buck and a doe and then we also have one New Zealand cross doe.  As many gardeners know, rabbits make one of the most perfect manures.  It's really sad you don't see more rabbit productions here in the US just because their manure is just so perfect for a garden. Not too high in nitrogen like chicken manure is.  Chicken manure is extremely hot, while cow, sheep and horse are not quite as bad. Rabbit manure is actually considered a cold manure so it can be added directly into a garden.  A plus if you're want to use this now rather than waiting 5-7 months for your horse, cow or sheep manure to compost!

These amendments that we will be adding this Autumn will hopefully change our soil to a more alkaline, nitrogen rich soil.  But still we have the phosphorous deficiency to deal with.

To combat this we can use rock phosphate that we can buy from any greenhouse or big box store like Lowes.  The manure we are using will also help combat this and we're starting to try one other alternative "natural" method.  Human urine from the men in my family.  They're not always on call but we do have a collection vessel for both of them to use which we then just simply dump into the garden.  This has been by far the most UNfavorite way by one of my men however the younger one of them thinks "it's super cool to go outside and pee on the yard"

These are all very natural, mostly organic ways to increased the fertility and organic material in our soil and I'm sure by the next year and definitely by the following year we will see a massive improvement!  I've said it before, and I'll say it again.  Growing a garden is not about growing a plant that will produce fruits or vegetables.  It's about producing healthy soil.  If you have healthy soil, it'll do the work for you!

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

New House, New Garden

We've had a pretty earth shattering winter.  The past two years, since moving back here to Fairbanks, Alaska our goal has been to expand our garden.  To finally have some land to do with what we would like.
Two years ago we looked at a fixer upper, but alas, it was not meant to be.  After much struggling to make it work, to purchase that house, it fell through.  We went into the winter of 2014 dejected and sad.  We knew we had to change some things about our life financially so we buckled down and put quite a bit to the side, paid off some bills so that hopefully, next time we fell in love with a house we could actually buy SAID house.
In January of 2016 we knew we had made some pretty good progress on our financial goals, we knew we had made some progress cleaning up some of the damages from our previous renters on our current home in Fairbanks, so we decided, tentatively, to take a look at a couple of houses during the weekend of the Martin Luther King holiday.
Our goal was to purchase anything outside of the town of Fairbanks that had at least 1900 square feet, no bigger than 2500 square feet, it had to have a wood stove or space for one to be installed, at least a 3 bedroom, 2 bathroom and it absolutely had to have a sizable amount of acreage.

On January the 25th, we scheduled a walk through with our realtor on a rather nice sized home in North Pole, Alaska.  2400 square feet; 4 bedroom; 2 1/2 bathroom; 2 car garage; 1.7 acres.
To this day I cannot tell you what exactly drew us to this particular house.  The kitchen was a bit smaller than I would have liked; the master bathroom did not have a tub, only a shower and it only had one vanity.  That was a big point that I constantly was pointing out while my husband window shopped online on sites like
Still we were drawn to this house.  The owners had photos of what the yard looked like in summer and it was amazing. Our realtor even pointed out all the space we could have to work on our garden at which I sheepishly pointed out that I had just been accepted to University of Alaska Fairbanks Master Gardener Program.

Yet it was not really that, that pulled us to this house.  What exactly pulled us to this house, we cannot put our finger on.  
On the last Tuesday of January we placed our bid on the house.  By Tuesday evening, we discovered someone else had bid against us.  By Wednesday morning, yet another bid came in.
Wednesday afternoon we were told by our realtor that the seller had asked for all the bidders to pre-qualify through local mortgage companies here along with numerous other tedious tasks.  We raced like chickens that had just lost their heads to comply with all of the sellers wishes.
Thursday morning as I left to go to work my husband told me "Well today is the day, we find out about the house" which I grumpily replied "That house could burn down for all I care".  That was the state of mind I was in at this point of the process.  I really could almost care less if we got it, thanks to the whole bit that we had to go through.
That Thursday at about 1215 pm we got word, even though we were the lowest bidder; we had the least going for us; the seller chose us.
The clock began ticking a furious pace at that point. We had to race to prepare our current house in Fairbanks for renters.

Painting the rental property
We were going to hire a painter, but because the painter we had already interviewed was out of town we took on the job ourselves of painting the interior of the house ourselves.

We had carpets to clean, rooms to clean up and now the tedious task of packing ourselves.
Beginning of March, when snow still covered the ground, we made the move from Fairbanks to North Pole.

We still really couldn't see the layout of our new yard, everything was covered in several inches of snow, but we had more than enough to keep us busy on the inside of the house.  There were curtains and pictures to hang, rooms to organize and most of all, a house to get to know.
The mess of moving in. 

Now we are four months later and our yard work demands have increased, significantly.  Each weekend day is packed from approximately 9am to 6pm.  Any time off is valuable.
We are working very hard to put aside at least four cords of wood for our wood stove.  The house we purchased has six raised beds, along with a decorative pond with a waterfall (pretty much unheard of here in North Pole, Alaska!).
 We had seeds to plant, plants that we purchased to plant and on top of that we now have all those concrete blocks from our previous house in Fairbanks that we plan to use to build a few raised beds along with a potential root cellar.  The concern still remains that I cannot produce a whole lot of protein on our land with our garden so the option of either chickens for eggs or meat rabbits are being discussed. The goal always remains to reduce our dependency on the grocery store.
By looking at the state now of our raised beds housing our kale, broccoli rabe, butternut squash and Swiss chard, it appears we're deficient in nitrogen.  The poor plants look so yellowed out and on top of this is the constant threat of moose visitations to almost all of our plants.  Yes, this yard does not have any fencing at all.
So now we will have to devise our own fences around the raised beds.  Until those fences get built it will only be a matter of time before a hungry moose makes a visit to our garden and potentially eats every single one of our plants.
Our spinach is showing great signs of growth, our kohlrabi is looking promising, our snow peas are going nuts, and even our onions and carrots seem to be progressing well.  Now thanks to the classes at UAF I have learned how to preserve those onions and carrots that does not involve canning.

Meanwhile, as we hurry each weekend to accomplish as much as possible, we know that we have a very short summer in which to get things accomplished here.  There are plants to grow, produce to can, freeze or dry.  Wood to cut, split and stack, and my son has even taken on a job to make briquettes for our wood stove using shredded paper and leaves from the yard.  We all have a job to do and a very short time to get it done in.
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