8 Early Greens You Will Never Have to Plant Again

IMG_9458After a long, cold winter of eating from the cold storage and the freezer, nothing tastes better than a fresh salad.  Greens are my tonic, giving me energy and vitality.  I eat salads lunch and dinner and throw greens into quesadillas, soups, eggs, and more.

I always plant an early crop of hearty greens. The beauty is that these greens can withstand freezing so you do not need to wait until the danger of frost has passed.  This year due to the lack of snow I planted some greens on the south side of the house in March.  The ground was still frozen underneath, but the hearty greens and the lettuce still came up.  I also planted some greens in flats in the greenhouse which came up a little faster and were ready to eat sooner.

The busier my life gets, the more I appreciate plants that I don’t have to sow.  I have several varieties of perennial greens as well as some self-seeding annuals.  These are brilliant because they come up whenever they are ready.  You don’t have to stress about planting them at the right time, or at all. They just take care of themselves.  You probably already have some of these in your garden, and right now is the perfect time to plant the ones you don’t have.

IMG_25761. Orach: Red, purple or green, orach is a relative of spinach and self-seeds readily in the garden.   It has a very mild flavor and can be eaten fresh or cooked.  The purple variety looks awesome in salads, and the green variety can be used as a straight-up substitute for spinach.  I have a patch of both.

2. Lamb’s-quarters: A relative of orach, you most likely already have this green in your garden. Also known as goosefoot or fat hen, this green has been eaten since the time of hunter-gatherers.  Although often discarded to the compost, it is high in phytonutrients, fights viruses and bacteria, and has been shown to inhibit the growth of breast cancer.

2. Sorrel: Sorrel is a perennial that has a lemony flavor and can be used to add pizzaz to salads or cooked.  It also self-seeds in the garden which can be useful since it does experience occasional die-back.  Because it is perennial and has a lot of energy in the root, it is often one of the first greens to emerge in the spring.

IMG_94464. Dandelion: Another perennial you almost surely already have, dandelion greens are at their best in the spring before they flower. Compared to spinach, dandelion greens have eight times more antioxidants, two times more calcium, three times more vitamin A, and five more times vitamin K and vitamin E. Iceberg lettuce has 1/40th the bionutrients as dandelions(Jo Robinson, Eating on the Wild Side).  If you don’t like how bitter dandelion is (this is actually a sign of the phytonutrients) you can temper it with fat (avocado or olive oil) or honey.

5. Arugula: Another self-seeder, arugula is notoriously difficult to grow during Alaska summers because our long daylight hours encourage it to bolt.  But you can get a few cuttings of it in the early spring.  Arugula has a delicious peppery flavor and is full of glucosinates, cancer fighting compounds.

IMG_26086. Good King Henry: Another spinach relative, GKH is a perennial and self-seeder that is a great multi-purpose plant.  The shoots can be eaten as asparagus, the buds like broccoli, and the seeds like quinoa.

IMG_25727. Asparagus: While not exactly a “green,” asparagus is a tasty perennial spring vegetable!  Asparagus is on the edge of its zone here in Anchorage so put it in your warmest spot.  We ate our first asparagus this year and it was well worth the 5 year wait!

8. Chives:  Another delicious perennial, chives are up early in the spring and pep up salads, dips, eggs, soups, salmon and more.  We threw some on the grill the other night and they were excellent.

We ate our first salad this year on May 3rd.  With fresh garden greens every salad is different.  I never get tired of enjoying the healthy and flavorful bounty from the garden.  Plant now to enjoy your bounty this year and extra early next year!

All About Rhubarb

IMG_9450When the rhubarb starts poking its alien heads out of the ground, you know spring is finally here.  The alien heads become giant deep green leaves that contrast beautifully with bright red stalks.  Beautiful, easy to grow, and delicious, rhubarb belongs in every yard.

Planting

It’s easiest to start with a rhubarb plant, which you can get from a nursery or from a friend.  Choose a warm location for the earliest harvests such as next to your house or on the sunny side of a fence.  Rhubarb will take partial shade, so the east or west side of the house works well, or at the edge of a forest like how it would grow in nature.  Keep in mind that once you plant rhubarb it is very difficult to remove.

Rhubarb loves rich, well-drained soil, so if your soil is poor, you may want to spend some time improving it with compost or a sheet mulch bed. Set the plant in the soil at the same depth it was in the pot or in the ground and water it in well.  Mulch around it to prevent encroachment from weeds or grass.  Let it get established for a year before you start harvesting from it.

Maintaining

IMG_2331_2Rhubarb loves water, especially in the spring when it tends to be very dry in Anchorage.  Use your finger to test the ground for moisture and water deeply whenever it is dry.

Rhubarb loves manure and can be fertilized liberally with any manure that isn’t too hot (high in nitrogen).  Goat or rabbit can be used straight, but chicken, horse, or cow should be composted or mixed with plenty of straw.  Cover the manure with leaves or wood chips to keep the smell down and allow soil microbes to break it down.

Rhubarb should be divided every 5-6 years to keep from getting overcrowded. In the spring, when they are emerging from the ground, choose a section that has at least 3 eyes. Use a sharp spade to cut it off from the main plant. Repeat if necessary. If you don’t take too much off the mother plant you can still harvest from it that year. Otherwise it is best to wait one year.

In years past, my dad has been unable to find someone to take his rhubarb divisions, so he just tossed them into the woods next to his patch.  Wouldn’t you know, they rooted and now he has more rhubarb than he knows what to do with!

Harvesting

K7A15C51CA025E_1000247When you harvest rhubarb just grab the stalk and twist gently while you pull and the whole stalk will come out.  If you use a knife, you will leave a piece of the stalk in there which might rot and damage the plant.  Twist the leaf off and leave it beneath the plant as mulch.  This will keep weeds down, the ground moist, and return nutrients to the soil.

Some people like to harvest all of their rhubarb at one time for jam or preserves, but be sure to let it grow back again before fall.  If you don’t let it recover, it may not have enough energy to come back the next spring.  I prefer to just harvest when I need it and enjoy having a consistent supply.  Towards the end of the summer, the stalks may become tough and stringy, so test them before you bake your pie.

Preserving and Eating

Rhubarb is easy to freeze, just chop it up and put it in a ziplock bag and you can have your favorite rhubarb desserts all winter long.  It also makes excellent jam, chutney, BBQ sauce, etc. Growing up my mom would make rhubarb sauce popsicles for a healthy summer treat and her famous rhubarb crunch, which has graced every important summer event for as long as I can remember.  Thanks mom!

Rhubarb Crunch

  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1 tsp salt and cinnamon
  • ½ cup butter, melted
  • 3- 4 cups rhubarb
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 Tbs tapioca
  • 1 tsp vanilla or almond extract
  1. Mix together first three ingredients with a fork, then add melted butter. Mixture will be crumbly.
  2. Pat one half of this mixture into lightly greased 8 x 8 pan. Add rhubarb to almost top of pan.
  3. In a small saucepan, cook water, sugar and tapioca until slightly thickened. Remove from heat and add vanilla. Pour over rhubarb.
  4. Cover with remaining brown sugar mixture.
  5. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. Tastes best the next day!

10 Tips for a Better Garden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time to Start Some Seeds!

I know it’s hard to believe… we haven’t had much of a “real” winter here yet, but the calendar doesn’t lie.  It’s February and it’s time to start some seeds.  In fact, I should have gotten the onions and leeks started earlier, but I was on vacation in Mexico.  Gardeners need their sun, you know.

IMG_3228This weekend I managed to slip out to the greenhouse. Last year I had some problems with damping off, where your seedlings die just as they germinate.  It’s caused by a number of different pathogens which can hide in your used pots and seed-starting trays.  So, I decide to sterilize my cell-packs this year.  I grab two 5-gallon buckets of water… one with a bleach solution and one for rinsing.  I put the cell-packs in the bleach solution, making sure they are in complete contact with the water, and let them soak for at least 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, I find my potting soil.  I use Pro-Mix which I get in big bales at Alaska Mill and Feed.  It is more economical than buying small bags and already has mycorrhizae in it, which is a fungus that forms a symbiotic relationship with the plant and helps them grow bigger and stronger.

IMG_3232When potting soil comes out of the bag it is dry, dry, dry.  It is so dry that it will repel water.  I moisten it before I fill my cell packs or pots, otherwise, I will never get it evenly moist and my seedlings will suffer.  I dump my potting soil into a big plastic tote, pour some water in, and mix it up.  I keep pouring and mixing until there are no dry spots left and it is about as wet as a wrung-out sponge.  I gather a handful of soil and squeeze it into a ball.  No water runs out, and when I open my hand, it stays in a nice ball.  Perfect.  TIme to fill the seed trays.

IMG_3226I use plastic cell packs like the ones you buy at the nursery to start my seeds.  I can fill a whole tray with soil and plant it in no time.  They are convenient and easy to move around.  And when I plant, the seedlings pop right out.  I do not mess with individual pots, paper pots, egg shells, and especially not the peat pots that are so popular lately.  They will not break down fast enough in our cool soils and the plants will suffer.

I rinse the bleach off of the cell packs, put them in the trays, then fill them with potting soil.  I mound the potting soil on, then brush the excess off the top.  Each cell is evenly filled to the top… not packed too tight.  Then, because Matt is inside with the kids and my hands are cold, I bring the trays inside to plant.  Onions, leeks, celery, tomatoes, peppers, and herbs.

It feels deeply satisfying to have the trays stacked up in the corner, waiting to germinate.  Each flat holds a potential for 72 (or more) food-bearing plants that will fill our bellies this summer and fall. It is a promise that winter will soon give way to spring.  That we will soon feel the heat of the sun on our back as we sink our hands into the earth and breathe deeply.

 

Winter Food Stores, 2014

Chard

Chard

One of our goals with our garden is to provide as much of our food year-round as possible.  During the Alaska Food Challenge in 2011-2, we had no idea how much food to put away.  I put away way too much kale and shredded zucchini.  We now have a better idea of how much food to put away, although each year the exact composition depends on what did well in the garden that year.  Last year we had a ridiculous overabundance of winter squash (I still have some under the bed), and this year we only got 8.  This year we did really well with tomatoes and tomatillos while the potatoes and peas, two reliable producers, struggled.

This year we froze about 48 pounds of vegetables and 13 gallons of berries.  Most vegetables are frozen in 1/2 pound packages which I have found to be a good portion for us and the recipes we use.  The major player here are: romanesco (6#), broccoli (8#), beans (3.5#), kale (5.5#), zucchini (6#), celery (8#), leeks (6#).  Berries are frozen whole on sheet pans and then put in gallon ziplocks.

Parsnips

Parsnips

In our root cellar we have approximately 7 gallons of carrots, 8 gallons of potatoes, 3 gallons of beets, 3 gallons Jerusalem artichokes, 4 gallons parsnips, and 4 gallons of apples. We have 4 cases of sauerkraut, 3 cases of fermented tomatillo salsa, as well as a few jars of pickles. We canned 3 cases of tomatoes and 2 cases of applesauce.

In the house we have 8 winter squash, two gallon ziplocks with dried herbs, and herbs frozen into ice cubes.  We also have 2 gallons of honey from our bees and a (somewhat) steady supply of eggs. All this is from our 9,000 square foot city lot.

Additionally, we put away about 100 pounds of pork products, almost 100 pounds of salmon and salmon products (sausage and smoked), and 70 pounds of caribou.  We canned two cases of crabapple sauce from our neighbor’s tree.  We dried a quart of bolete mushrooms.  And we picked 2 gallons of blueberries.

Every year we get better at getting ready for winter.  I’ve learned to put things away throughout the summer instead of all at the end.  I’m faster at blanching and I have my systems for packaging salmon and caribou down.  It isn’t this big, exhausting unknown thing anymore.  It has become a part of our routine, what we do in our daily lives.  And I have to say, it is a really rewarding way to live!

tomatoes

tomatoes

Kale

Dinosaur Kale

Dinosaur Kale

Everyone kept asking, ” What are you going to do with all that kale?”  I didn’t mean to plant so much… some of it was left from my spring greens mix and everything else had bolted except the kale.  And some of that kale wasn’t really kale, it was sprouting broccoli or broccoli rabe that never sprouted.  So I’m left with eating the leaves which is kind of like kale.  And then there was the extra 2 kale plants I stuck in the corner because I had extras.  Oh, and the black or dinosaur kale I planted under the apple tree.  It is excellent in salads but the leaves are so skinny that there is not much leaf on there and they are more work for freezing.

I have already brought 2 large loads of kale over to the MIssion soup kitchen, but the main patch was still left.  I had a couple friends help me harvest it on Monday and we had a huge bucket full in less than 5 minutes.  I sent them home with some, but the bucket was still overflowing.

IMG_1818Tuesday I got all set up to freeze it.  I have my system down.  I get the water steaming on the stove while I strip the leaves off the stem and throw them in the wash water in the left sink.  As the first batch is steaming I fill the right sink with ice water and get out a large towel for drying.  Three minutes for each batch in the steamer, them I throw it in the ice water, fish it out, and squeeze it dry.  It gets packed into ziplocks in 1/2 pound packages and labeled and into the freezer.

After about 10 batches I had barely put a dent in the bucket.   I started having flashbacks from our Alaska Food Challenge year.  I froze WAY too much kale and we got a little sick of it.  Matt has been a little anti frozen kale since then.  There was no way we were going to use all of this kale this winter.  Besides, I already had beet greens and chard put away.  I texted my friend, “Help!  Too much kale!  Save me!”

Kale and Celery Salad with apples and green onion

  • 1 large bunch dinosaur kale, stemmed and cut into thin strips
  • 4 stalks celery, with tender leaves, chopped
  • 1 tart apple, sliced thin
  • 3 green onions, sliced
  • 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil

Combine kale with vinegar and salt and mix very well.  Let sit 20 minutes.  Add olive oil and toss again, then add the rest of the ingredients.

 

Butchering

IMG_1642As I stared at the caribou leg in front of me and tried to figure out how to get the meat off the bone, I suddenly remembered how I would hide in my room when my dad and brothers came home with their catch.  It seemed kind of gross and I just wasn’t interested.

Now I am fascinated by how the muscles wrap around the bone, layer upon layer.  It is a puzzle to unwrap it and remove the tough tendons and gauzy connective tissue.  It is a lot of work for a few hamburgers-worth of meat.  I can see why some hunters might leave this behind, but our ethics will not let us waste anything useable.

My dad grew up in Palmer and hunting was a huge part of his life.  He has many epic tales that occasionally come out when you can get him to talk.  My grandparents were not farmers so they relied on wild game as a big part of their diet.  For us it was the same.  There were four of us kids and my mother didn’t work, so money was tight. There was the occasional holiday ham, but other than that it was mostly caribou or moose.  Sometimes there was hares or dall sheep, and one time we got some black bear from a family friend.  We were thankful for what we had because some years we didn’t get anything.

Occasionally my mom would drag me downstairs to help grind the burger.  After getting over the gross-factor, I enjoyed working together with my family to get the job done.  Everyone was in a good mood and there was a comradery in the kitchen that didn’t exist at other times. Our normal sibling bickering temporarily ceased and for a while there was just good-natured teasing.

When I went away to college my mom warned me not to become a vegetarian.  She was concerned the liberal school I had chosen would corrupt me.  My first semester I took an ethics class where we discussed animal rights and I learned about the cruelty of slaughter houses.  I stopped eating factory farmed meat but would still eat wild game when I went home.  This seemed to be semi-acceptable to my mom as she didn’t have to make too many concessions with her cooking.  But while I was away from Alaska I didn’t have access to wild game and ate vegetarian.

Four years ago, Matt went on his first Alaskan hunt and brought home a spring black bear.  We awkwardly butchered it and put it in the freezer. Although black bear is not known for being good-tasting, we thought it was wonderful and were hooked on having our own meat.

When Matt got a caribou the following fall we had my parents help us butcher so we could learn from them.  Over 60 years of butchering knowledge passed on to us.  We learned the names of all the cuts and which ones made the best stew.  We learned how to package it safely and effectively.

IMG_1658Today Matt and I are working efficiently together.  My mom is watching the kids and it is eerily quiet in the house.  We have developed our own, slightly different practices that suit our cooking styles.  Matt breaks down the large muscles while I work on the smaller stuff and package everything for the freezer.  We will grind the meat when we use it.  Later we will make stock from all of the bones for use in soups, stews and sauces.

Having a freezer full of meat now seems like such an important part of our lives that I have a hard time believing I ate vegetarian for so many years.  My eating habits have come full circle now, returning to a simple place-based diet similar to what I grew up with.