Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Native Plants and Gardening

We live in South Central Alaska.
Among the edible wild plants on the property are plenty of edible berries:  blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, elderberries, cranberries.  Vitamin C is not a problem in the summers or for people who can the berries in the fall. Edible wild leaves for salads or cooked preparations (or medicine) include fiddlehead ferns (which must be cooked), fireweed, dandelion, and chickweed  (Do you remember Euell Gibbons?  He called the last a miracle plant because it is so good for so many things).  I've used spring time spruce tips in shortcake, viniagrette, and tea, based on information that Captain Cook had his men drink spruce tip tea to ward of scurvy during winter explorations.
Below is a list of native and purchased plants that this neophyte gardener and forager has nurtured and how they performed over the past few years.

One of the things I'd like to mention first is that it is such a pleasure to work in the soil here, as opposed to the gumbo soil of south east Texas with all of its creepy crawlies. There are few ground dwelling insects and no snakes in Alaska, thanks to the permafrost layer.  Although areas recently inhabited by alders and birch trees are riddled with shallow roots and difficult to hoe, areas where those trees and roots have broken down over a few years are incredibly rich.  Alder fixes nitrogen to the soil, whereas in other parts of the country, gardeners plant legumes to do it for them. Because Alaska has active volcanoes, digging down a few feet reveals stripes of light gray volcanic matter, too.  The rains here are light and last several hours, so they penetrates the soil without washing it away.  All in all, gardening is a becoming a real pleasure for me, in contrast to the intense heat, tropical deluges, and bugs of the South.  

Native, naturalizing flowers: 
Among flowering plants, delphinium, aster, iris, yarrow, and columbine naturalize easily.  Of these, I use yarrow as a natural coagulant on cuts.  I love a lacy white and green field of yarrow (it rather looks like Queen Anne's Lace).  Its slightly medicinal scent is supposed to deter voles (furry little meadow mice), so I transplanted some from the yard to a row along the outhouse and cabin, along with mint, which, because of its scent, is supposed to accomplish the same disincentive to little creatures that might otherwise want to dig under the building to breed five times per year.  I look forward to seeing which plant survives the winter better and thrives next year.  I also enjoy cheery looking asters, which bloom over a long summer season, but the yellow heads attract flies so at the end of the second summer in our cabin, I pulled up the ones I had transplanted close to the porch and replanted them along the shore where they will wave to me when I fly in or kayak home. 

In September, the seed pods of the columbines (also called "Granny's Bonnet" for the shape of the flower) and a bit later, the delphinia, were dry enough to hear the seeds rattle inside.  I collected them, split the pods, and planted them shallowly as they would under their own power in areas of dappled light for the former and sun for the latter.  We'll see how they fare.  Both plants are tall and showy. I  would be delighted to see more of them.  The columbine have two toned flowers of a very distinctive shape, as the common name suggests.   One mother plant had bright yellow and red flowers on a plant that reached about two feet high; the other plant, which reached about 40 inches, featured butter yellow and lavender flowers.  Because of their distinctive flowers, I think of them as "Alaskan orchids."

Among the native ground covers, I particularly love dwarf dogwood and starflower, each with bright white flowers on dark green leaves in the spring.  Come fall, the dogwood puts out little red berries  and the starflower leaves turn burgundy then, so they are lovely from June 1 to Oct 1.  They seem to grow where we have cut back alders and near birch trees.  I'd like to encourage them to spread.  The soldier ferns are lovely but they can grow huge - taller than me - on hummocks of root stock two feet high, making it doubly difficult to walk through them in the woods.  Around our buildings, we have cut them back but not out, so they return each season, but don't form bear-obscuring thickets.  In the spring, I harvest fiddleheads from some for dinner, sauteed quickly in garlic and olive oil.  During the summer, the soft looking leaves are lovely, and in August/September, they herald cooler weather when they turn yellow/brown.

Fireweed is an extremely low maintenance, dramatic flower.  As the name suggests, the plants naturalize areas that have been burned (one of the early plants to recolonize Mt. St. Helens) so they are particularly prolific in the areas where we burned funeral pyres of devil's club and alder (while clearing the land for our cabin and outbuildings). I love them for so many reasons.  The main one is the beauty.  The plants are tall spikes (4-6 feet) with slim, lateral leaves.  No poison.  No sharp spikes.  Easy to naturalize and easy to pull out, too.  On the top, they feature a spire of tight buds, some 20-40 rows.  The small magenta flowers open from the bottom and are so numerous you can see fields of them when you fly in to land at our dock.  The second reason I love this plant is its prediction tradition.  The rule of thumb is that when the fireweed blossoms reach the top, it is indication that winter is 6 weeks away.   The third reason I love the plant is that it is useful for humans.  People have made fireweed wine (although I think that would require an enormous number of blossoms) and I have included spring leaves in my salads.     

Edible garden:
My husband built me five raised beds for gardens in various parts of the yard so we could test plants in varying light/wind/soil conditions. We have not built a greenhouse because we don't spend all winter there, and are leery of the snow weight without our presence to shovel it off, but we plan to build some hoop houses to expand the season as we increase our time at the cabin into Break Up and Freeze Up periods (see blog on weather).   For fertilizer I use a "kitchen mulch" of egg shells (for calcium) and coffee grounds for nitrogen, although I may not need that. I have concluded that my soil needs lime, too, and so I will add that amendment this year.  Beer mash, which I trench into the garden, rather than leaving on top (the birds love the beer mash), yields robust leaf growth.  A starter application of bone meal and miracle grow helps too.  My mulch is mostly birch leaves and dry grasses in the fall,  and saw dust when my husband cuts down or chops up some tree in the vicinity.  No pesticides, of course. 

One garden has been devoted to strawberries which overwinter well and grow robustly.  The first year plants I bought in Anchorage  looked rather spindly all summer, but the second year the leaves reached three inches in diameter and the stalks put out vigorous runners.  I harvested a few delicious fruits, but mostly encouraged the plants to put their effort into growth.  Next year, with three year old plants and some transplants from Anchorage friends, I have higher expectations!  I hope I mulched them enough.  Because the spruce hens and voles and hares like the strawberries, too, I have planted chives in the ground outside the raised bed in the hope that their aroma may deter small creatures with sensitive noses.  The chives flourish early in the spring, are very flavorful, and sport beautiful pink globe flowers (also edible) so I like to see them anywhere in the garden.  I've read that chives and strawberries are companion plants.  We'll see!

Among herbs that overwinter, mint is the star.  It grows so well that I have divided it and planted some along the buildings, where I won't mind if it becomes an aromatic ground cover, and some I'll segregate in a garden pot for food and tea.  Thyme and sage overwinter and thrive.  At the end of the summer, I dried all of these (and chives) in a cold gas oven and will see how flavorful they remain this winter.  I had thought that rosemary would do well in this climate, but although it remained healthy looking, it never really grew.  Basil, one of my very favorite herbs, is obviously native to much warmer climates.  My Alaska friends say they are able to grow it indoors in southern exposed windows, but I have such deep porches that I don't think that will work.  Alas.  Oregano grew quickly but turned and stayed yellow even though I didn't over water it, so I moved it to a different garden.  I'll try to bring out two plants next summer and plant them in different gardens to see how they do.  As a result of these strengths and weaknesses, I have made pestos I hadn't tried before, such as one with thyme, lemon zest and walnut, and I flavor butters and cheeses with sage. 

I also planted asparagus and rhubarb, which will grow to be enormous and will last 10 - 20 years, but take several years to reach edibility, so, we'll see if they can survive my ignorant efforts on their behalf.  (Initially I planted the asparagus "crowns" upside down because that way they looked like crowns to me!)

Two perennial vines I planted are hops and kiwi.  I had assumed that kiwi was a tropical vine, but not so.  Neither plant grew as tall as the labels indicated during their first summer with me, but I mulched them well and look forward to observing them next summer.  The hops won't fruit here, but I like the look of the leathery, large ivy like leaves climbing up the front posts of our log cabin.  One label I read said that they should climb 15 feet in five weeks!  My first year plants climbed about 11 feet over the course of the whole summer.  The kiwi didn't do well but I could see how pretty the leaves will be - they are almost variegated and the edges turn pink in the fall.  These actually are supposed to fruit in Alaskan summers, which would be a welcome treat, as long as the male and female plants are positioned near enough together to allow for pollination.

The vegetables I plant are all the cold weather ones you would normally think of.  The ones that exceeded my expectations included yukon gold potatoes, broccoli and kale.  Some of the potatoes were the size of my fist and the rest progressively smaller.  they were the cleanest potatoes with the thinnest skins I have ever eaten, and juicy, too, when I cut them.  The broccoli bolted in July during the warm summer, but I like to eat them before that and look at the beautiful head of yellow flowers afterward so anything they do is OK to me.  The kale were so prolific that I need more recipes.  One intriguing treat is crispy cale appetizers (coat with olive oil and salt and cook in the slowest oven you have for about 2 hours - they turn out like lovely green "potato chips").  The plants were so prolific that I added them to everything I could think of: rice, soup, stew, and pasta and I used the youngest leaves in sandwiches.

Those vegetables that fell short of expectations were cauliflower and several of the lettuce plants that remained weak and small, bok choy (it bolted when the June temperature hit an unseasonable high of 75 for three days out of seven), and squash plants (out of three plants, I got one great squash while others flowered but rotted on the vine).  I think a lot of the failures have to do with my being a such a novice gardener, since I asked Alaska nurserymen to select the plants.  We are still pretty dependent on Costco for food, but I am learning to grow some of my own!

The plants that never grew for me were onions and garlic (both rotted in the ground, although they put up shoots), carrots (which put up lacy leaves, but that's it), spinach  (nada), and tomatoes, which put out dozens of little yellow flowers and finally, in September, a dozen green tomatoes, but they wouldn't get red before the temperature turned cold.  I planted some peas too late and will do so earlier in the future.  They flowered, grew, and fruited and I harvested about 10 peas, altogether.

University of Alaska at Fairbanks publishes wonderfully useful agricultural documents, such as recommended varieties of plants and seeds.  I rely greatly on their advice and on seed suppliers from Maine and Vermont.

I regarded the past two summers as periods of learning and experimentation.  We tried three different locations for gardens, different underlayment (cardboard and black plastic) in two.  I moved some plants around to capitalize on companion planting (once I learned about that and will apply that logic to initial locations next year).  I have completed an on-line Master Gardener class for Alaska and have learned a great deal.  This upcoming third summer of gardening, I have higher expectations of myself and my plants.   Wish me luck!

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