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.  

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Review of the Oregon Scientific Weather Thermometer.

I was pleasantly surprised to receive an Oregon Scientific Weather collection model number BAR218HG to provide a review about and just try out for myself.  While I don’t consider myself too much of a techno geek I do find new electronic toys rather cool to play with! 

What arrived in our box was:
•One indoor temperature/humidity/barometric pressure set display unit
•One outdoor temperature/humidity sensor — the system allows for up to five outdoor sensors
•Quick Start Guide
•Full User Manual
•Warranty information

Upon opening the box and adding the batteries I got busy with The Quick Start Guide.  Most of the setup went pretty smoothly, setting the date and time, pairing the base to the remote sensor, setting the altitude, sea level pressure and what not.  However, I did have a minor hiccup when attempting to pair it to my cell phone and that I believe was mostly user error. Not any flaw in the thermometer. 

Since we already had something like this thermometer downstairs, albeit a much older model, we decided to keep this upstairs in our bedroom.  This allows us now to keep an eye on the temperature in our room, as well as humidity levels inside and outside as well.  During winter this is a big help as we can simply push the button for the backlight to come on to find out how we should dress for the day.  Is it in the negative 30s?  Okay, today is a sweater and undershirt day.  Is it a nice, balmy 10 degrees out?  Okay, I can wear a blouse and slacks today.  As for the humidity levels, we try to aim for about 40% humidity in the house to keep shocking ourselves down to a minimum.  This is extremely difficult to do in the winter without constant monitoring and this thermometer definitely helps with that.  If I notice the humidity levels beginning to drop, I will turn on the smaller humidifiers upstairs to help rectify that.  To save electricity I do not keep humidifiers on non stop, and this thermometer now helps with that!  Who knew this could help me save on electricity!

The only feature I have yet to really experiment with is the Bluetooth capabilities.  I never bring our cell phones upstairs, and downstairs we already have an indoor/outdoor thermometer so I have yet to have a reason to grab my phone and check the weather.  One rather irritating limitation is that Bluetooth in the thermometer cannot connect to the cellular device unless you’re pretty nearby.  This renders this part of the thermometer more or less useless most of the time unless we’re in the house. 

I do look forward to testing this thermometer out more during the spring and summer months however.  Being a gardener, we constantly watch the weather, watch for frosts and watch for freezes.  This I think will be invaluable to us later on once seeds are in the ground.  

This model can either be purchased at Amazon for approximately $62 or at the Oregon Scientific store for $69.  A pretty good bargain regardless of where you purchase this at!

Monday, November 3, 2014

Gardening in Alaska~Winter Returns

Life in Alaska moves infinitely slower than it does where we came from on the East coast but our gardening season is much much faster.  So much so that it stunned me how quickly it ended.  By the middle of September we were getting close to the type of temperatures that would kill the cold loving brassicas so we knew, the time has come to harvest what was left.
Gardening here is so much more different than it was in Maryland.  I knew what it was like to grow tomatoes here, I knew that aphids here are tough little monsters when compared to their Maryland cousins, I knew some of the troubles with growing cucumbers and herbs and yet, I learned it again through this year.

  • Tomatoes: This summer was a super wet and cool one which frustrated many of the gardeners and farmers I spoke with.  Locally grown tomatoes were scarcer than hen's teeth and what were found locally grown were ridiculously expensive.  Our plants (9 of them) provided beautiful foliage, they grew tall, but they had a horribly tough time in producing fruits that would ripen.  As a result we canned 10 pints of green tomato salsa.  Unfortunately, at season end we only managed 3 pints of spaghetti sauce and no regular salsa, nor any diced tomatoes.  It kills me that we have to purchase diced tomatoes at the grocery store.
  • Eggplants: Bad, bad, bad.  No good there at all. Wasted space for something that needs a lot more heat.  Next year we will not have eggplants in our garden.
  • Zucchini:  Amazing successes there in a plant that I've always, typically had bad luck with.  I had a few occurences of blossom end rot, but not really enough to make a big dent in our overall production.
  • Corn: This year was simply an experiment.  In the end we got about 6 mostly unfinished ears of corn with little tiny kernels.  They were frozen and then thriftily used in corn cob jelly.  The stalks were used in our Halloween decorations this year on our front door.  Waste not, want not.
  • Strawberries: very limited success with these.  Could be the cooler summer, could be the fact that the tomatoes shaded the strawberries so the strawberries simply did not get enough light.  Better luck next year.
  • Salsify: No luck.  They all grew almost pencil sized roots but whether it was because, once again not enough sunlight, or not a long enough growing season.  I don't know.  I will probably try it one more time next year since I have the seeds but I won't invest a whole of time in this endeavor.
  • Rutabaga: We got one single slightly finished root.  The greens by the way of the rutabagas are edible but they are more bitter than some of the other brassica greens.  We actually mixed them with kale at one point when sauteing them.  The failure to produce good, strong tubers could simply be the problem we had all summer. Our snow peas took over and more or less hogged the sunlight thereby blocking a good portion of our smaller plants.  
  • Snow peas: OH MY GOODNESS, what amazing output. Next year, PLANT LESS SNOW PEAS!  They took over.  Next year the plan is to plant snow peas only over next to the fence. No planting peas in the middle of beds, no planting peas next to anything else.  
  • Beets: No success.  I think the snow peas shaded a good portion of those so the most that developed was some leaves. 
  • Turnips: Mediocre successes there.  We had a few that were victims of our dreaded root maggots.  Those are a big issue here. I still got enough to make two small jars of pickled turnips.  I plan to open those soon to serve on salads.  
  • Radishes: No luck. They produced foliage, no roots.  Lack of sunlight thanks to the over eager snow peas and the over eagerness of plant the snow peas in bad areas.
  • Carrots: Mediocre success.  Snow peas drowned out the light.  We got some that were anywhere between a thumb size to a pinky size.  I don't think we'll put as much into carrots next year.
  • Quinoa: The plants themselves did great but they never seemed to actually produce the seeds that are used as a grain. More experience is needed with working with this plant.  By the time the plant was producing, I THINK, the seeds I was knee deep involved in canning and freezing greens. 
  • Amaranth: No luck.  Too cold, too wet, not enough heat. I don't think I will try it next year. 
  • Nasturtiums: Planted way too many.  They took over parts of the yard.  While I loved eating their spicy, edible flowers, they became monsters after a while.
  • Calendula: Did well, harvested a lot of seeds so I won't have to buy seeds next year.  Just remember, calendula are just like their cousins, marigolds.  You can cut off the dead flower and put it to the side for later.  My family and I just went through our seeds (we had about 6 bowls of different types of seeds) and separated them and then placed them into containers for next year.  Calendula lowers are awesome for dry, irritated skin and does great in salves and soaps.
  • Brussels Sprouts: Very good luck here. I think if they were not quite so shaded by some of the other brassicas they were sharing their bed with we would have had even greater success.  We ate just about every part of each of the plants other than the stem.  The Brussels sprouts were exceedingly sweet, more than any I've ever gotten at the grocery store.  A must do again.
  • Romenesco Broccoli: Three lovely heads of broccoli harvested there.  Only negative to broccoli? They take up a LOT of space and only produce (for us anyways) one harvest of broccoli.  We did also make use of all of each plant. The leaves were chopped up and either sauteed in bacon grease and garlic or just added to soups to boost the nutritional value of the soup.
  • Kale: PLANTED TOO MUCH.  It took over and shaded many of the other less aggressive plants out.
  • Lettuce/European Mesclun/Arugala: PLANTED TOO MUCH.  Between the CSA that we signed up with that was producing lettuce and then our garden, we could not keep up with the salads that needed to be eaten.  
    Every week was a race to use up both the CSA lettuce and ours.  We were green by the end of the summer season and only now look normal, instead of like green martians from Mars.  I just bought some lettuce this past weekend and now, I'm finally back to enjoying salads as a nice fresh treat rather than knowing I'm stuck eating salad for breakfast, salad for lunch and salad for dinner. 
  • Swiss Chard: Not so great success, thanks to the aggressive nature of the kale/broccoli/Brussels sprouts.  They drowned out nearly all the light.  Plant more aggressively next year and possibly start it from seed inside and then transplant. 
  • Broccoli Rabe: WONDERFUL SUCCESS! We loved it! It was so delicious, so tasty, fresh, crunchy.  Next year plant more than what we did!
  • Mustard Greens: Very good success.  We will plant around the same amount as we planted this past year. 
  • Winter Squash: One tiny little winter squash produced. I think there were a bunch of errors surrounding these plants. First, too cold and wet of a summer. Winter squash love the sun and heat.  They need it to push them into producing.  We just didn't get that.  We also purchased these from the greenhouse near our own house too late into the season.  If we were still living in Maryland they would have produced some but since it was so late, (I believe it was mid July) they were just not going to do anything other than maybe produce flowers for the bees and spiky foliage. Next year start seedlings inside in pots early.  
  • Cucumbers: Too cold, too wet to do much. We got one tiny cucumber in August. I was really hoping to make cornichons so I was pretty disappointed. 
  • Potatoes: Did very well!  I don't think we have ever had such a successful planting of potatoes.
  •  Herbs: I'm going to lump all the herbs into one category and just say most of them did well, except for my fennel which still did not produce the nice bulb near its root.  I have never successfully grown a fennel plant that produces the nice celery like bulb. Our dill went nuts, we planted too much borage, parsley did well, Basil did poorly due to too much shading around it from the zucchini, corsican mint was a nice treat.  I wish I could have harvested more of that type of mint but only at the end of summer was it big enough to take from.  Cumin did poorly, aphids destroyed it.  Cilantro/Coriander: PLANTED WAY TOO MUCH. I dried some to be used later but otherwise a lot just went to waste.  Chamomile: Did very well! PLANT MORE NEXT YEAR.  My son, Nick, likes helping me harvest it as he knows he likes chamomile tea and honey.  Rosemary did well, and is still alive in our house. Thyme bit the bullet about the day ago inside the house.  I couldn't find them but I swear the way the plant started dying looks like a spider mite infestation there. My sage plant is bearing the brunt of a aphid and white fly attack. I will be cutting off any leaves I can, washing them well so the leaves can be dried for later use and then throw the pot outdoors to let them freeze in sub zero temperatures. Die you bloody creatures, die. 
  • We have also added around our yard raspberry bushes which do very well in our Alaskan climate, along with cranberry bushes and rose bushes.  Some of the raspberry bushes I managed to get super cheap.  Always great to get something for a good bargain!
  • Garlic: two small beds have been planted.  I am curious to see how they do.
That was our growing season, readers digest version.  We have started discussing what will be planned next year.  From the sound of it, less tomatoes, more pole beans or soup beans, snow peas will be moved far away from the plants that need more sunlight, and of course the biggest challenge next year. Planning our garden along with the possible move from our current home to somewhere, outside of town, with a bit more space.  Who knows what we might have then.  We still want bees. We still want chickens. Goats have been talked about.
In the meanwhile, we now have snow on the ground, our days grow shorter, the sun hangs closer to the horizon.  It'll be at least another six months before we see the ground with no snow.
This is the time of year I love though.  For a little bit, there is not the manic race to can as quickly as possible, there is time to relax, to read good books that have been collecting dust, to put together challenging puzzles, to work on our bread making or soap making, and I have a huge bag of wool to spin.  Our evenings are full of spending quality time as a family, drinking hot cocoa and tea, playing games, and hibernating, much like the bears do this time of year.  
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