Five-Acre Almanac: Back in the Garden

Week 41

I’ve lived in Alaska for thirty years now but I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to the way two week’s time can take us from the end of winter to fire season. May brings us from snow, to exposed dry grasses, and then to some of the warmest days of summer. At least that’s true for this year. When I came home from Atlanta two weeks ago a berm of snow three feet tall piled up behind our house and our driveway was still too mushy to drive on. Now the snow is gone and our rain barrels are nearly empty and the sign in front of the fire station on East End Road says fire danger is extremely high. It’s not an exaggeration. The days have been sunny, the afternoons windy, and it would only take one mistake to set the forest ablaze.

Three days ago there was a small wildland fire to the east of us. Before I was even home from work two tankers and a helicopter with a bucket had it under control and that evening as we worked in the garden a different helicopter flew back and forth from town shuttling a twenty-person crew to the scene. Because of the quick response, we’re breathing clean air on these hot, dry days. It’s something I don’t take for granted.

I’ve talked with two different people in the last month who moved to Alaska to escape the smoke that seems to have become a permanent feature of summer in the western United States. It can happen here too. I hope everyone is careful over the long weekend.

I’ve barely been able to bring myself inside long enough to check my email this week, much less write a blog post. I took a couple of days off of work before the long weekend in order to spend some time in the garden. On Thursday I built a new sheet mulch bed for planting potatoes. It looks like a pile of straw, but it’s a culmination of eight buckets of chicken manure, nine cardboard boxes, seven bags of chopped cow parsnip, straw, six buckets of compost, more straw, eight buckets of soil and yet another layer of straw. I hauled it all uphill and got good and sweaty and dirty and was reminded of how much I love that kind of physical work. It’s good for my mind and it’s good for my body and when the realities of the world are intense, the physical exertion gives me an outlet for some of the energy that would just sit around and fester and keep me awake at night. I also think about what I want to write when I’m digging and hauling and raking. Sometimes my ideas make it onto the page but most of the time they don’t. Either way the writing seems to come more easily when it’s paired with physical labor.

By the end of the day today we should have this year’s garden completely planted. It will be the biggest garden we’ve grown to date and this will be the earliest it’s been in the ground. The beds we’ve worked hard to create in previous years made this year’s planting easier and now we just have to keep everything watered through this dry spell. We’re keeping most of our beds under row cover to protect the plants and to keep some of the moisture contained, but we frequently peek under to see how things look. So far most of the garden starts are doing well and the carrot and radish seeds are sprouting.

The season for stinging nettle is winding down with this heat, but it’s been a good harvest so far. I like to get as much as I can because it’s the base for many of the herb tea blends we make for our business and because we incorporate it into our meals throughout the winter. We knock ourselves out growing a garden, but nothing we can grow is as nutritious or abundant as the stinging nettle that just pops up out of the ground.

nettle spread out to dry

A couple of years back a wild black currant popped up inside our fenced garden. We’ve staked it and watered it on occasion, but other than that we’ve done very little to encourage it’s growth. Already it’s three times the size of the domestic black currants we planted four years back. It’s a reminder that the indigenous plants around here have evolved to flourish in this northern environment. We’d be smart to incorporate them into our lives and reap the benefits they have to offer.

wild black currant

The absence of chickens has been a bit to get used to. Besides missing their presence and the eggs they provided, they ate a lot of our kitchen scraps. Chickens are a part of the garden system that we’ve created around here and our plan is to give ourselves a break for a year and then design a new setup that will be safer for them and easier on us. Whatever we come up with will definitely involve an electric fence the next time around.

Today I’m off to the farmer’s market with my mom and then back to bask in our yard again for another three days. Over the long weekend we’re going to try making nettle beer from a recipe we found in the book Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers by Stephen Harrod Buhner, and if time allows I’m going to make some dandelion petal syrup. There’s more to do than I’ll have time to do, but this time of year is about potential. There’s so much that the earth is offering up to us and the sunny days make me feel like everything is possible.

3 thoughts on “Five-Acre Almanac: Back in the Garden”

    1. Hi Catriona. I used the recipe from the book The Boreal Herbal by Beverly Gray. Here it is in a nutshell:
      1. Blend 4 cups of dandelion flowers with 4 cups of water — I let this sit overnight.
      2. Strain the juice from the pulp. Add juice to 3 cups cane sugar + 1/2 cup of lemon juice.
      3. Bring to a boil and then let it simmer until syrupy. This step took about an hour.

      This was my first time trying it and I was happy with how it turned out. I did not separate the petals from the the rest of the flower head and so my syrup turned out a little golden/green. I tried it tonight on vanilla ice cream and it was delicious.

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