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.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Challenges and successes in a northern Alaskan garden

Its officially week three into our safe planting time and we’re now harvesting baby kale greens, rapini (or also called Broccoli Rabe which is pronounced raab),  some lettuce, arugula, micro greens and oddly enough, mustard greens which were from last year.  They obviously reseeded themselves.
  As of today I harvested our first two radishes, and wow, surprise, no sign of root maggots! Little victories!
Our tomatoes, bell peppers, cucumbers and watermelon are looking better than they ever did last year which gives me some hope that we’ll actually harvest something more than greens and potatoes this year.  As of today we have about five unripe tomatoes on the plants, most of which are all on the tomatoes in our greenhouse.  We have harvested our first bell pepper recently which came from one of the few plants we purchased from one of the many greenhouses here.
I purchased two weekends ago  two white eggplants which I’m seriously hoping we see something out of.  My husband pestered me when I purchased these that they’ll never produce.  Here’s to hoping he’s wrong and we end up eating ratatouille and eggplant parmesan come late July.
Our strawberries are growing, albeit slowly, and I anxiously wait for their small red fruits.  I know I’ll never get enough for jam or pie but it would be nice if we could get some to snack on.  Thanks to a few Facebook friends along with my husband’s job we now have raspberries growing all along the exterior of our fence.  Last year we got enough to get a bowl or two filled.  I have the oddest feeling that while right now we watch them anxiously and whisper to them “grow grow”, later we’ll be yelling at them to stop growing and to stop sending out runners that start up raspberry bushes in the middle of the yard. Regardless, I’m still looking forward to all you can eat raspberry buffet in my back yard. 
This year we veered far away from space hogs and heavy feeders like corn and we’re going more with what we’ve had success with in the past.  Last year we had an awesome amount of zucchini squash so once again we’ve planted that along with summer squash.  I am really hoping we get even more this year out of those squash plants since I have had my eye on a vegetable spiralizer at Amazon for the past year.  Who knew you could make noodles out of vegetables!  Here is a list of recipes we used last year when we were swimming in zucchini. 

At the time we had to, by hand; sculpt each and every zucchini into a noodle type of shape.  Now this year we’ll have this spiralizer that we can use to speed up production when we’re making dinner in the evening!
We’ve moved our snow peas to a part of the fence that won’t cause them to shade all the other plants and we’ve also planted less of them.  Snow peas don’t do so well with freezing so if we do not have a surplus of snow peas in the freezer this year I won't have my feelings hurt.
 We have also added to the yard this year blueberry bushes which I seriously hope manage to survive the winter.  I read after the fact that these variety of blueberries  can only survive up to -20 which is no good for us as our winters typically can get down to -40.  My husband picked the first blueberry today though and he reported that it was delicious.
Visitor in our garden. We're trying to make friends with him/her
We did have a nice surprise recently.  Last year we planted a mixture of trees that I purchased from a University of Alaska Fairbanks fundraiser.  All of them approximately three weeks later were mowed over by the lawn crew our home owners association hired.  The only survivor, it seemed was the small Amur Maple tree which is still extremely small.  We now have it protected by a metal pole stuck near it with a small flag to notify anyone who is trying to mow that to please avoid this tree.  It's there on purpose. Just this past week we noticed that three of our high bush cranberry bushes are regrowing from the little stubs that were left behind.  Amazing, we thought they were done for.
So, with this all said, I have to get back to work. Our peony bloomed and it's now time to go make some peony jelly!  I love the color of the finished product from these beautiful peonies!
This is the recipe I like to use for my peony jelly. 

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Getting back into the swing of things, our Alaska springtime garden

So now here we are, in the middle of our second spring back in Fairbanks, Alaska after a reasonably mild winter.  In late March we started our seeds, mostly tomatoes, a mixture of beans and a few herbs.  This, I knew going into it, would be challenging since we would be going on a weeklong vacation in May.  Trying to keep little seedlings going for a week without any attention what so ever would be tough. 
Lo and behold our own dumb mistake took care of that worry. One mid April night when my husband and I were both exhausted from work we forgot the seedlings over night in our new light weight greenhouse.  The next morning we peeked in and every single one was dead, the mid 20’s temperatures killed them all. 
Our greenhouse now in early June.  A lot of tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, hot peppers and believe it or not, ORANGE & LEMON TREES!

The weekend of the 25th of April we did manage to directly sow a lot of seeds.  All kale, lettuce, radishes, turnips, broccoli rabe, spinach, yarrow, edible flowers,  multiple types of herbs and I even decided to try to directly sow some shelling beans called Carson.  Almost everything has come up and now by early June it is all flourishing, except for the beans and the turnips. 

There we have another problem.  This year we have bigger pests that once again have found our garden.  Voles.  Not only have they apparently eaten every single one of our specially ordered garlic bulbs that we planted last autumn but they have eaten any other larger seed that I planted.  After speaking with many of my neighbors, they too have noticed the increase in the vole population. 
So call me mean, but I went to war.  First, I tried sticky traps with peanut butter in the middle of the trap.  The voles proved to be too heavy for these.  They obviously would get slightly stuck but then would manage to eat all the peanut butter off the trap and then leave the now used and ruined trap behind.  So, next I grabbed the poison I used for our rat problem in Maryland.  I got to scream a few victory yells here, as I rubbed peanut butter into each and every poison block, threw them into hidden areas under our porches and within a week found carcasses of voles.  I believe we still have some frequenting our garden but not in such large numbers now.  Voles-30 some garlic bulbs and numerous bean and herb seeds along with a daylily; Me-a few voles.  I think they’re still winning.
I guess I can still be grateful that as of writing this today they have left my potatoes, my 9 year old Peony, my other daylilies, along with now all the other plants that are now in the raised beds.  I get the feeling I will be battling these little stinkers all summer long. 

As for all the other plants, we’ve purchased numerous tomato plants, strawberry plants, summer squash, zucchini, brussel sprouts, broccoli, watermelon, butternut squash, cucumbers and a couple of simple herbs like parsley,  basil, summer savory, chives, and a few varieties of mint.  I really hate to have to purchase plants now a days since I have the seeds for so many of these, but since our needed supplies list was so short this year it didn’t hurt as bad financially.  Now, if these plants produce enough for us for me to can a good amount, I’ll be really happy. Honestly, I’d love to get a really good amount of tomatoes! Last year was exceedingly cool and wet, perfect weather for kale, spinach and lettuce. Not so good for heat and sun loving tomatoes so as a result we canned several pints of green tomato salsa.  We managed to can 2 pints of spaghetti sauce which really saddened me.  We typically use a lot of tomato products in our cooking so this changed my cooking a bit this past winter since I didn’t have as many homemade tomato products on hand.

On the other hand, kale was the star of the show last year.  We had tons of it, along with salad greens both of which was actually hard to keep up with because we signed up with Rosie Creek Farm, a local farm with a CSA share.  Between our farm share and garden, we were eating salad breakfast, lunch and dinner and if someone wanted a snack, well then they could have a salad.   We did manage to can approximately 15 pints of kale, mustard greens and broccoli and brussel sprout greens. 
This year we have decided to opt out of the CSA share so now it is completely on our shoulders to produce good, healthy fresh fruits and vegetables from our own yard in a very small space.  Our goal throughout the summer is to do our best to limit our grocery shopping to the bare minimum so that we can save for another house in the near future. 

As for now, we’re stuck with what we’ve got. A medium sized townhome in downtown Fairbanks with a small urban garden.  Bees and chickens are just completely out of the question.  There is no room for those in our yard.  Those will be for the next house in the future which will hopefully have a larger yard than what we’ve currently got.  
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