Five-Acre Almanac: Week 5

Alaska Alpine

Summer Still

The mornings are noticeably darker this week and the alder leaves and pushki are turning yellow. The fireweed blooms have topped out and their lower leaves are changing to deep red. The end of summer comes on fast around here and the sudden shift brings both a sense relief and a little sadness. There’s still a lot to do, but there’s an end in sight to the intensity of it all.

Our friend Mark who lives in Truckee, California paid us a surprise visit last week. He showed up with fresh shrimp from Prince William Sound and a box of wine. We’ve known each other since our now-grown children were babies and every time we see each other there is lots of reminiscing and catching up to do. As always, he was happy to be back in Alaska, but this time he was especially thankful to have a break from the smoky air in the Sierras.

We had a cooler gardening season this year. Certain vegetables we’ve been able to successfully grow the past few summers didn’t do so well this time around, like the dragon tongue beans that are just now flowering and the winter squash that doesn’t look like it’s going to produce anything bigger than a golf ball. There were just enough sunny weekends that I didn’t feel cheated though, and compared to the heat and smoke that so many people have to contend with, a damp and cool summer with a few clear sky breaks seems just about perfect.

I’m hoping the rain and cool air will be good for the kale plants I transplanted two weeks ago. Several years ago I went through a smoothie making phase and I loaded up on frozen spinach from the grocery store. One morning I read the small print on one of the plastic bags I pulled out of the freezer and learned that the spinach I’d purchased was grown in China and packaged in California. The distance those greens had to travel from their place of origin to my Vita-mix made me vow to do better, and the summer after that we began to grow and freeze kale. If we have a good crop we can toss it into stir-fries, soups, and smoothies throughout the winter.

There are other greens we rely on besides kale. When we first moved into our home, our neighbors Bob and Doris James gave us little tidbits of information about gardening and living out here. Bob especially liked to walk down the driveway and shout advice to me when I was out in the garden. Sometimes it felt a little like heckling, but he meant well. Anyhow, he’s the one who informed me that the chickweed I was pulling out of my carrot bed was more nutritious than anything else I was trying to grow. He told me he’d munch on it when he was out working in his potato fields to tide him over until dinner time.

Rosemary Gladstar’s book Medicinal Herbs: A beginner’s guide confirms that Mr. James wasn’t wrong about chickweed. It’s got Vitamin C, calcium, potassium, phosphorus, and is good for skin afflictions. Now we add it to salads, and this week I made basil/garlic scape/chickweed pesto. I even threw in a few carrot tops for good measure. Last year for the first time I put a few jars of pesto in the freezer and when it thawed out it looked and tasted as fresh as if I’d just made it. My hope is to have even more of it this year. Now that I know I can make it out of things like chickweed and carrot tops, it shouldn’t be a problem.

Last night I went out in the rain to assess the back garden after a week of not spending much time out there. There are still a few strawberries, but if I wanted to pick them I’d have to slog through the mushy, overripe ones that now outnumber the good berries. The snap peas are as sweet as candy and prolific. We’re eating carrots liberally and trying to figure out the best plan for storing them once the time comes to pull them.

The greenhouse is a jumble of pepper, tomato, and cucumber plants. Of the three things growing in there, the peppers are doing the best. Tomatoes are coming on but they’re slow to ripen. The cucumber plants look beautiful, but they got off to a slow start and at this point there may not be enough time left in the season for them to produce.

In the spring we planted some heirloom cabbage seeds we picked up from the Homer Seed Library. They’d been mailed over from Switzerland and instead of forming a round head, they grow in a tear drop shape. They seem to be well suited for the cool summer we’ve had.

The list of things we hope to do before winter sets in is still long and our list of things to do once winter’s here is long too. That seems to be the nature of this lifestyle we’ve chosen. Sometimes we have to remember to step away from it all and see Alaska beyond these five acres.

Earlier this week I did just that and escaped to Hope with a couple of friends. It was a short trip, but it included all the elements of a perfect a vacation: A change of scenery, good company, ideal weather, amazing food, adventure, a comfortable bed, and time to read. We hiked to a mountain lake and jumped in. We saw two bears, spotted a wolf running down the mountainside, and picked buckets of blueberries. We played fiddle and banjo after breakfast and laughed over half-hearted scrabble late into the evenings.

Cold, clear water
Gentiana platypetala

Now I’m home and refreshed and it’s a three day weekend. We’ve got a wood splitter rented for the next couple days and there’s garlic and red currants to harvest. Right now we can’t see the mountains through the fog, but the forecast is calling for sun.

Summer may be on its way out, but it’s not over yet.

Dragonfly friend

Five-Acre Almanac: Week 2

Looking out

We have a big view from our property. When we stand on the edge of our meadow we can see nearly all of Kachemak Bay. We see mountains and ice fields and islands. We see where the river from the Grewingk Glacier spills into the ocean and when the sun is right we can see the way the silty water moves and disperses with the tides. The lights of the Homer Spit jut out into the bay, reminding us that in the distance there is a whole busy world of harbor life,restaurants, and gift shops.

When we moved here twenty-some years ago we could enjoy our big view from the picture window in our living room, but that’s changed. Nowadays most of what we see when we look out our south-facing window is green, at least this time of year.

A vegetable garden is directly in front of our house beside a small lawn, beyond that is a semi-wild area of raspberries, roses, and alders. Just to the south of all of that are several spruce trees that survived a bark beetle infestation that swept through the lower Kenai Peninsula in the mid 1990s. These days to fully appreciate our big view we have to go outside and take a short stroll down one of the paths we’ve carved out of the green zone that’s grown up between our house and the meadow below.

When the spruce bark beetles came through and killed all the mature spruce trees in their wake, we treasured the young trees that survived. Now those that were just a few feet tall back then have grown to create their own forest ecosystem, right in our view. The obstruction doesn’t bother me as much as it bothers other people, partly because I know that the panorama is just a few yards away, and partly because the forest gives us privacy and a protective barrier from noise and wind. And I won’t lie, I’ve become attached to a few of those trees, which I suppose is what happens when you watch a thing grow for a couple of decades.

Fire safety is on our minds though, and it demands that we start thinning some of our trees. Identifying the ones that need to go isn’t easy. How do we preserve the privacy and protection that the trees provide and still open it up enough to keep our house safe if a fire were to sweep through? Which of our favorites can we keep? The spruce bark beetles didn’t discriminate between the mature trees. They killed them all. I appreciate that I can be a bit more selective.

A few of the spruce have grown tall in precarious places. Removing them is going to require some fancy chain saw work and good planning so they won’t fall on our chicken coop or our garden. Most importantly I want to protect he grandmother birch tree that grows in the center of our five acres. I don’t know how old it is, but it was old when the original homesteader first got here. It’s the heart of this place, and my heart would break in two if a spruce tree fell on it.

Last winter we dropped one of the more straight forward spruce trees, one that wouldn’t harm anything in its fall. Now it’s stacked and drying. Just that one tree going down made a difference in our view and the extra light from the cleared space is a noticeable change. More light is a good thing, for my psyche and for our gardens. I’m just hoping we can strike the right balance between open and protected.

These days I gaze out the back window more often than the front window. There aren’t any bodies of water or mountains to look at in that direction, but there’s a stand of cottonwood trees in the distance where a family of bald eagles has built a nest, and right now the fireweed is blooming. The prayer flags we hung on our pea fence earlier in the spring have faded but everything else is brilliant. The orange nasturtiums against the fireweed against the bright white yarrow against a backdrop of green is like a magnet. My eyes are drawn to all that color. It feels nourishing the way sun on my skin feels nourishing in April. I’m taking it in while I can and trying not to mourn its absence before it’s even gone.

Five-Acre Almanac: Beginning

Right now seems an unlikely time to start a new writing project. It’s August in Alaska, which means that summer is speeding downhill. It’s time for berry picking and firewood stacking, time for cleaning out anything old in the freezer and filling it back up again with this year’s harvest. But I’m going to start it anyhow.

Earlier this year Dean and I acquired a business license and started Twin Fish Gardens. It’s a home-based endeavor and the idea of it came about in 2020 when all of our routines were disrupted and we had a bit of time to assess our lives. We asked ourselves questions. What brings us joy? What are we most grateful for? How do we want to spend our days? And we imagined creating something that would allow us to live in line with the answers to those questions. We don’t have a perfect plan in place and we expect there will be some trial an error along the way. But we knew it wouldn’t happen if we didn’t start somewhere.

This writing project is a part of Twin Fish Gardens. Each week I’m going to write an account of living here on this five acres of land. There’s faith and fear mixed into this commitment, but there’s also promise.

I’ll kick it off with strawberries.

1. Strawberries

I’m starting this at 10:00pm on the first Wednesday night in August, 2021 and outside there’s a thick fog. This afternoon we had an unexpected rain and it’s because of that rain that I’m inside writing instead of outside picking strawberries. The strawberries are only here for a time and the time is now.

For the past two weeks we’ve picked twenty quarts of Sitka strawberries for our freezer and twelve pounds to trade. We’ve eaten them with abandon while picking and with a bit of sugar and cream when we’re settled back in the house before crashing into bed. We’ve shared with friends and we’ve turned a blind eye on our dogs sneaking into the patch and helping themselves. It seems like the more we pick the more they produce.

We’ve done nothing to deserve these strawberries. We’re just the recipients of a gift the previous owner planted nearly four decades ago. We don’t water them and we don’t weed them except for Dean’s occasional attempt to knock down the cow parsnip plants (locally known as pushki) so that we won’t be harmed by their photo-reactive juices when we’re down on our hands and knees, expedition style, in search of the soft pink fruits that are hiding among the horsetail and wild grasses.

We could spend our time weeding and keeping the strawberry beds orderly, but I don’t think we’d have more to show for our troubles. The way the plants are, free to do their natural berry thing in their natural berry way, seems to be working just fine. The horsetail between them offers visual protection from birds and provides them with an airy space in which to grow. The sprawling beds allow them to spread and put down roots in fresh places. They’d take over the whole place if we let them.

Strawberries are just one aspect of our garden. The snap peas are also coming on now, and after a slow start we’re finally eating broccoli and zucchini most days. The arnica Dean planted this spring has its first bloom and the wild plants we forage—fireweed, yarrow, pineapple weed, clover—are keeping our herb drying racks full. Slugs are also plentiful this year and one bed in particular has been hit hard. At this point we’ve sacrificed the kale plants around the edges in hopes that the slugs will be so enamored with them that they’ll stay away from the broccoli and cabbage.

There’s a lot we want to do around here and a limited amount of time, so we’re always looking for ways to be more efficient. The strawberries, along with the wild plants we forage, are a gift in that regard. They grow on their own and all we have to do is harvest. The same is not true for most garden vegetables. Most of the food we grow requires a lot more work and sometimes our efforts fail and our yield is much smaller than we’d hoped for.

How fortunate we are though, to live during a time when our survival doesn’t depend on whether we grow enough food. We can garden for the joy of it and if something doesn’t grow well for a season –and there’s always something that doesn’t grow well– we can either do without or buy it. This kind of freedom allows for creativity. We can try new varieties of vegetables. We can plant chamomile in between our garlic to see if it’s true that the two thrive next to each other. We can try different methods of gardening. Everything becomes an experiment and each season becomes a study. We plan for it over the winter, we plant it in the spring and then we watch and wait and learn. It requires patience and a willingness to get it wrong sometimes. But each year we do a little better. Each year we have a bit more to show for our effort.

Of course there’s more to summer than growing and foraging. We both hold full time jobs. In July we went to Georgia for our daughter’s wedding. This weekend we spent the bulk of two days at a music festival. Next week we’re hosting guests and throwing a party.

Extended, uninterrupted time for the things we love isn’t going to materialize out of nowhere. We have to do what we can and give up a few of the things that aren’t in line with the direction we want to go. Mostly we have to let go of perfection. I’ve written this post over a few days, between stints in the garden, in the mornings before work, fifteen minutes before bed. I’ve picked away at this the way I’m picking all those strawberries, a little at a time.

It’s more satisfying than television. It’s more uplifting than Twitter.