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!!

Bone Broth

Bone broth is an incredibly nourishing food that has been lost in the modern American diet.  When Matt began hunting 3 years ago, we made bone broth in an attempt to use as much of the animal as possible.  We were sold from the very first pot of divine broth that no bouillon cube could ever match.  It has since become an indispensable part of our cooking, going into stews, soups, stir-fries, and sauces.  We pressure can it in pint jars and freeze it in ice-cube trays for throwing into dishes for a burst of flavor.  We use all of the bones from Matt’s caribou plus some from my parent’s caribou, and sometimes we even get more bones from the butcher to make additional stock.

Not only is bone broth delicious, but it’s extremely good for you as well. It gives you strong bones, teeth, tendons, and connective tissue, it protects the integrity of your digestive track, and it helps digest meats and other food.  Bone broth is rich is the amino acid glycine, which balances methionine, another amino acid found in meat and eggs.  Methionine can disrupt cellular communication leading to a number of issues such as mental disorders or cancer.  (Source: The Nourishing Traditions Book of Baby and Child Care by Sally Fallon Morell) This is why it is always good to use bone broth in a sauce when you are cooking meat.  Bone broth is especially good to use when you are pregnant or trying to heal tooth decay.

Caribou (or moose, beef, or bison) Stock

  • 6 pounds caribou bones cut into 2-4 inch pieces. Include some that have marrow such as leg bones and some that are meaty such as ribs or neck vertebrae. 
  • Image2 medium onions, quartered
  • 1 pound carrots roughly chopped
  • 4 stalks celery, roughly chopped, including some leaves
  • 1 tablespoon peppercorns
  • 6 unpeeled garlic cloves, smashed
  • 2 small tomatoes, chopped, or ½ cup canned tomatoes
  • 1/4 cup vinegar
  • 4 parsley stalks
  • 8 sprigs thyme
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 sprigs tarragon, optional
  • 2 teaspoons salt

Preheat oven to 450º.  Put the bones and the vegetables into a roasting pan (or two) and roast 30-40 minutes until they are medium brown.  Use tongs to put vegetables and bones into a large stainless steel stockpot (do NOT use an aluminum pan!).  Pour off accumulated fat and deglaze pan with 1 cup of water on stovetop.  Scrape up tidbits on the pan and then pour it into stockpot. 

ImageAdd the rest of the ingredients and enough water to cover bones by a few inches and bring to a boil.  Simmer slowly for 6-12 hours, skimming off any scum that floats to the top.  Add more water as necessary to keep bones submerged. Strain the stock, pressing all the liquid out of the ingredients.  Let cool and skim off the fat that congeals on the surface or use a degreasing pitcher.  You may also return the stock to the stovetop and boil gently to reduce it further.  

 To can your bone broth, reheat it to boiling and pour into glass jars.  Put on lids and process in a pressure canner at 10 pounds of pressure for 20 minutes for pints, or 25 minutes for quarts.

A More Nutritious Garden

The weather has been startlingly spring-like lately and seed catalogs have been arriving to the Williams Street Farmhouse in droves.  I planted my first seeds last week (onions, leeks, celery and some herbs) and we can officially say, let the gardening season begin!  This is one of my favorite parts of the gardening season, the dreaming stage.

This year my dreams are fueled by an excellent book called Eating on the Wild Side by Jo Robinson.  The premise of the book is that many of the nutritious aspects of fruits and vegetables have been bred out in our quest to make our food sweeter, less bitter, store better, etc.  The more wild a plant is, generally, the more nutrients it has.  The book is loaded with information on how to buy, grow, and store the most nutritious foods.

As gardeners we are lucky because we can grow a greater variety of vegetables than what is available in the supermarket.  Instead of choosing between “baby” and regular carrots, we can grow 50 or more different types.  Did you know that carrots were originally red, purple, yellow or white?  It wasn’t until some Dutch plant breeders wanted to pay tribute to their royalty, the House of Orange, and crossed a red carrot with a yellow one that we got orange carrots.  In the process they lost all kinds of nutrients.

Without going into the stories or the science behind it, here is what to look for in the seed catalogs so you can grow the most nutritious garden:

IMG_5366Artichokes:  One of the most nutritious vegetables out there.  Every year I get a few plants to grow enough to give me baby artichokes.  Choose a annual variety like Imperial Star.

Asparagus: Also top on the nutritious list, especially the purple varieties.  Maybe this year my patch will be mature enough to give me a few spears?

Beets:  Beets have more antioxidants than most other common vegetables in the store, but their greens are even more healthy.  Choose the darkest red varieties for the most anti-cancer properties.  Valentines Day bonus: beets are an aphrodisiac.

Cabbage Family: Everything in this family is highly nutritious, with kale (especially Redbor and Tuscan) and Brussels sprouts being the best.  Broccoli is also great with purple broccoli being even better than green.  Red cabbage is better than green cabbage.  Romanesca and other colored cauliflower have more antioxidants than white.  The vegetables in this family loose their antioxidants quickly after they are harvested, so as gardeners we have a real advantage.  Just be sure to leave them in the garden until you are ready to eat them!

Carrots:  Red and purple types are the most nutritious.

IMG_1288Greens:  Bitter greens (arugula, endive, radicchio) are more nutritious than sweet varieties.  Red leaves are better than green, and leaf lettuce is better than head lettuce.

Onion Family: These are all very healthful.  Garlic is especially nutritious, but you must chop it up at least 10 minutes before you cook it to activate the goodness.  Sweet onions are less nutritious than hot onions (the kind that make you cry.)  But leeks and chives are better than onions, and shallots and scallions are the best of all.  Chives and scallions are super easy to grow here, and there is room for them in any garden.  I met one woman who chops up chives and freezes them in one cup measurements as an onion replacement.

Peas and Beans:  Edible pod peas are more nutritious than shelling peas.  Purple, red or blue beans are better than green ones.

Potatoes:  Look for the purple varieties like Magic Molly.  French Fingerling are also quite good.  Be sure to buy your seed potatoes locally to avoid introducing potato diseases to Alaska.

Tomatoes: Choose dark red tomatoes.  Smaller is better, especially the currant variety which is actually a different species and a nutrition superstar.

IMG_2068Apples: What are you waiting for?  The sooner you plant a tree the sooner you will have your own apples.  Costco sells apple trees in the spring that work well here.  Also, don’t overlook the multitudes of crabapples in this city.  If you wait until after the first frost to harvest they are sweeter and make the best sauce.

Berries: You can never have too many strawberries, especially with a toddler around the garden.  They are super high in antioxidants, especially when picked at the height of their ripeness, and you can rest assured that they are pesticide-free when you grow them yourself.  Dark red raspberries are more nutritious than yellow ones, but black raspberries are even better.

IMG_1068Aronia, juneberry (saskatoon) honeyberry (hascaps) and seaberry (sea buckthorn) are lesser-known berries that do well up here and are super nutritious.  Seaberry is considered a superfood.

This year’s garden will be the most nutritious ever, and it won’t even be more work!

New Years Resolutions

IMG_7294The snow is deep outside and spring is a long way off, but the light is starting to slowly come back, bringing with it hope and increased energy.  I love this time of year with the holidays over and a new page on the calendar.  It is a great time to slow down, review the previous year’s highlights and challenges, and resolve to do better this year. What an opportunity for a fresh start, a new beginning!

I came up with quite an ambitious list this year, as usual, except this time my number one thing is get more organized, which can help me with all of the other things.  I recently read a book called Organized Simplicity, which has a lot of great ideas I’m using.  First is a weekly template with lists of my daily, weekly, and monthly tasks to check off and space to write my appointments, meal plan, and to-do lists.  It is super simple, but keeps me on task.  I also have a notebook where I write meal planning ideas, project lists, work ideas, things for the kids, my goals, and anything else I need to get out of my head.  She also has a method for deep-cleaning and de-cluttering one room at a time that I am beginning to dive into.  I took a huge load of books into Tidal Wave and can’t believe how great it feels to only have books that I really love and want to read.

IMG_0384My other big resolutions revolve around health, something I am always thinking about and trying to improve.  Of course I have the usual “exercise more- at least 3 times per week” but this time I really mean it!  I can’t believe how sluggish I feel when I get out of the habit of exercising regularly.  It’s not easy to take the time for myself with two kiddos, but I’ve been doing a good job of bundling them up and getting them in the chariot so I can take them on a ski.  We all get fresh air and I get extra exercise pulling them!

I’m also re-doubling my efforts to eat healthier.  This seems to be a moving target as I learn more and my life changes (feeding kids, breastfeeding, etc).  The Alaska Food Challenge was a really healthy way to eat, but it is really difficult to keep up with, and there are so many things I really like to have in my life that don’t come from Alaska.  It’s not so cut-and-dry anymore so I have difficult decisions to make, just like everyone else.

IMG_8108The most difficult part for me is the grains.  It is a ton of work to make all your own bread, pasta, tortillas and crackers, (I must admit I got a little burned out during the food challenge) but the processed stuff just isn’t so good for us.  We all know white flour is bad, but whole grains contain antinutrients that keep us from absorbing all those amazing nutrients they offer unless we sprout, sour, or ferment them first.  Many traditional cultures know this and would process their grains in such a way before preparing them.  You can read all about this and more in the excellent book, Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon.  If you are thinking of becoming pregnant, pregnant, or have young children, you absolutely must read her new book, The Nourishing Traditions Book of Baby and Child Care.  I thought I ate really healthy until I read these books, but I’m realizing I have a lot to learn and a lot of habits to change.

As I found out, reading the books isn’t quite enough, you actually have to make changes.  While I was pregnant with Rylan I got a few new cavities.  This is fairly common with expectant mothers, because the nutrient demands are so high for the baby, but I didn’t expect it to happen to me.  My teeth and gums are actually in pretty poor shape, so I bought the book, Cure Tooth Decay.  I haven’t read it yet, but I’m pretty sure it is going to echo much of the information in Nourishing Traditions.  Surprise surprise, another one of my resolutions is to heal my cavities.

IMG_2175I’ll spare you the rest of my resolutions… they probably look an awful lot like yours; spend more time with my family, show my love and appreciation for Matt, be present and patient with my children, etc.  It is not a sign of failure that my resolutions look similar year after year, rather it is a sign that these things are really important and I need to continuously pay attention to them.  I hope that during this dark, cold season that you, too will find time to reflect and resolve to doing what is important to you.

The Magic of the Sheet Mulch Garden

Our first sheet mulch garden was an act of faith.  We had read about it but we had no idea if it would work, especially here in Alaska.  And how can stuff grow without soil?  But I was determined to try.  Matt was skeptical so he made us dig another garden out of the sod so that we would at least get something if the sheet mulch failed.

IMG_3446I collected lots and lots of cardboard.  Then I rented a trailer, hooked it up to my ’77 F100, and drove out to the valley to get a load of goat manure, because I heard that was the best.  The neighbors were a little skeptical about the smell of the, but they were really patient as I shoveled it over the cardboard over the next week.  I may have been a little ambitious, planning a huge garden in my front yard, but I was serious about my garden.  Too many years of travelling around without soil to sink my hands into had made me desperate.  The manure had a lot of straw in it, so all my layers were already mixed together.  As soon as I covered the manure with a bit of soil it stopped the odor, thank goodness.

In the backyard we dug out sod for a “regular” garden.  It was a lot of work, even with Matt helping!  And what were we going to do with all that sod?  Underneath the sod was sandy, rocky fill.  We shook what topsoil we could out of the sod, but essentially we were removing the best part of the soil.  We added what little compost we had and a bunch of bagged steer manure.

Then came the moment of truth… planting time.  We made a pocket of soil right in the goat manure, then put the plants into that.  In the back we planted carrots and beets.

First year!

First year!

And miraculously, our plants started to grow!  In fact, while everyone around us was complaining about how poor their gardens were doing, our vegetables were growing big and beautiful.  We had gorgeous zucchini, cucumbers out of control, and nasturtiums on crack.  My dad claimed we were living in the banana belt, but I knew the real secret was with the sheet mulch.  As it was breaking down, all that microbial action was creating its own heat, just like a compost pile, just not quite as hot.

In the back, our results were not quite so great.  The carrots and beets grew, just not as energetically as the plants in the sheet mulch.  It just didn’t have the same oomph.  In fact, we keep adding stuff to it, but that bed has never performed as well as our sheet mulch beds.  The moose got to the beets before we did, so they never really even got big enough to eat.

We’ve been convinced ever since that sheet mulching is the way to go, and have been encouraging others to try it as well.  It takes a little bit of resourcefulness to gather all the materials, but in the end, it is the cheapest and less labor-intensive way to go.  But you have to do it right.  No shortcuts or the magic doesn’t happen.  Believe me, I’ve tried.  First, you have to make it deep enough…. 1.5-2 feet, minimum!  Second, you have to have enough nitrogen-rich material to make it all break down.  It’s just like building a compost pile.  And third… lots of water!  Those microorganisms can’t work when it’s too dry!

If you want to learn more and actually participate in building a sheet mulch bed, I’m teaching a workshop this Saturday, May 11th from 3:30- 5:30pm or May 19th from 12-2pm.  Contact me at to sign up!


IMG_8938Even though it is snowing outside, I know spring is on its way because I have flats of tiny seedlings in my living room poking their little green leaves towards the light.  Matt helped me make a fancy new seedling set-up this year, partly, I suspect, so I wouldn’t take over the sunroom again, which became his office last year.

The lights we’ve been using were T-12 fluorescent fixtures with full-spectrum bulbs, but my seedlings were still a bit leggy.  We decided to upgrade to T-8 fixtures, which not only put out a stronger light, but are also more efficient.  Wow!  What a difference!  Plants use red and blue light. However, red light promotes flowering while blue light promotes compact, bushy growth, which is what you want for seedling growth.  The higher the Kelvin number, the more blue it is, so, when choosing the bulbs for your fixture, get ones that have a Kelvin rating of 3600K-5500K.  To our eyes, the lights look very bright white, not actually blue.  My old “full spectrum” lights look very red next to them.

IMG_8949We bought the largest wire metal rack they had, which fits 4 flats perfectly on one shelf with one 4-foot fixture above it.  If we filled all 5 shelves, we could have 20 flats, which is far more than we need right now, but I was surprised at how fast the first 3 shelves filled up!  We plugged the lights into an extension cord on a timer so that our seedlings get the requisite 16 hours per day. Plants need at least 6 hours of darkness per day so they can rest, so don’t dismiss the timer! Then we wrapped the whole thing in space blankets to reflect the light back to the plants and to save our eyes from the bright light.

We will start moving seedlings out to the greenhouse at the end of March, when temperatures in there become more stable and there getting to be more daylight.  It isn’t until the end of April that we start getting 16 hours of daylight, so some of them will stay under the lights a bit longer for the extra boost they need to get going.  Depending on how much space I have in the greenhouse, I may move the lights out there so that I am supplementing the natural light instead of replacing it.

If you like to start your own seedlings at home, I highly recommend investing in a simple light set-up.  Even one light can help you fill your garden with your own healthy plants!  The money you save from not having to buy your starts more than offsets the cost of the fixture in just one season, but will last for years.


Eating After the Challenge

Many people have asked if we are still doing the Alaska Food Challenge or are back to eating “normally.”  The answer lies somewhere in between and depends on what you call “normal.”  If you compare how we eat to the average American, I would say we are definitely not normal!  And proudly so!  If you compare our eating habits now to how we were eating before the challenge, I would say we are eating more Alaskan food, but not 100%.

IMG_0998So what have we kept from the challenge and what did we decide we don’t want to live without?  Here are the details!

Drinks and candy: Coffee, black tea, and wine have all returned… although I no longer feel like I need them!  Our juice is now rhubarb, raspberry, or cranberry.  We got a chocolate subscription from our friends at Nova Monda Chocolate to fulfill all of my deepest chocolate desires. (Use the promo code “Saskia” to get a 10% discount.)

Wheat products: Tortillas have been around occasionally, but I’m finding we just don’t eat them like we used to.  And they are not as tasty as the ones I make myself.  Ditto with bagels.  Matt is back to eating pretzels and loving it.  We have also been buying crackers, but my friend Sara showed me a recipe for some very easy home-made ones that will hopefully become my new cracker standby.  After buying bread this summer, I am now back to making it, although I re-introduced a little white flour, as it makes the bread so much lighter.  We got some packages of dried pasta, but have become more proficient at making it ourselves, and usually prefer to do that.

Sugar: I also brought back sugar into my pantry for those treats where honey just won’t do.  I think that was one of the hardest things to do without because I have a huge sweet-tooth and I love to bake.  But I did learn to be more moderate with my sugar intake, and I was amazed by all the great things I could make with honey.

Dairy: Although I was relieved to be able to buy butter, I think I’ll go back to making that as well.  It was so nice to have cream and buttermilk around, especially in the winter!  I’ve perfected my yogurt-making and it is now a part of my routine.  However, it is nice to have parmesan, manchego, and brie cheese back in our lives!!  When our chickens were on strike recently,  I was blown away by the inferior quality of even the organic “free-range” eggs from the store.  The yolks were pale yellow, the whites runny, and taste bland.

Cooking essentials: We are using olive oil for some things, but have not brought back vegetable oil.  We have a few kinds of vinegar and love to have lemon juice (or lemons) around.  One of my potted lemons is blooming, and I would love to get all my lemon and lime fixes from my house-plants someday.  I also really love having a box of white wine for cooking.

Rhubarb BBQ Sauce

Rhubarb BBQ Sauce

Condiments: We decided we couldn’t do without dijon mustard.  All the other zillion bottles in our fridge?  Meh. But we have a very good zucchini relish recipe that is great with caribou burgers, Matt’s mom’s recipe for pickled hot peppers, and we developed fantastic rhubarb ketchup and BBQ sauce recipes.  Gooseberry chutney is still in the works.

Vegetables : We continue to eat 98% local, from our own garden.  We didn’t go back to buying tasteless winter lettuce, tomatoes, or avocados.  We did buy canned tomatos from Costco since Bells did not have their cheap deal on tomatoes this summer and our own crop was pretty poor.  But I’m really happy with my stocked freezer, pantry, and root cellar.

IMG_8547Fruit: Graysen is a huge fan of fresh fruit, so we have been buying apples, cantaloupe (his favorite), and bananas, which I haven’t bought in years.  It’s pretty much the only special thing we are buying for him.  Otherwise, he eats what we eat.

I am surprised by some of the things I missed, that have not really returned to my diet.  A block of blue cheese I picked up at Costco in July is still lingering in my fridge.  A bag of walnuts is chilling in the freezer. We haven’t even opened a brand new bag of quinoa.  The rolled oats that used to be essential have pretty much gone unused as well.  Matt finds he misses rice, but I’m pretty happy with potatoes and barley.

I suppose the point of the challenge was to get us to change those non-local habits.  It’s not to deprive us of them for ever, but show us local alternatives.  It is still nice for a holiday treat to break out the chocolate bourbon pecan pie recipe, and it’s also nice to have an all- local pumpkin pie as well.

Overall, I feel our diet is healthier and more delicious than before.  But we are still learning and getting better at growing, preserving, and cooking local food.  A cookbook based on local, seasonal foods is in the works.  Our journey is far from over, and we are still enjoying the ride!