Friday, September 18, 2015

Permaculture: Dying Spruce = New Deck

Several years ago, my husband and I tried to build a birdhouse. No bird wanted to live in it. Then we built a stool. No person wanted to sit on it. And then we concluded that we never wanted to work together on another construction project!

I have full confidence that marriage counselors would be out of work if engaged couples attempted to build something together (or share a canoe or put up striped wallpaper). Let's just say that such endeavors clarify the yin and the yang in a couple and those who stick it out will last. In our case, because he can't cook and I can't fly, we need each other, so we stick together. However, we mutually agreed to never attempt future constructions together – never ever.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

How Much Food Can a Part Time Gardener Raise in Alaska?

    During WWII, Americans were encouraged to grow “victory gardens” of fresh food in their yards as a patriotic effort, and millions did, in back yards and on rooftops. After the war, the number declined, but in recent years, home-grown foods are enjoying a resurgence of interest among people who have never previously grown anything but mold in the refrigerator. (Including me!)  For those whose source of food tends to be a delivery van or a drive up window, the idea of growing food in the back yard (or window sill) may seem daunting. It doesn't have to be. In the future I will offer step by step articles for super easy seed starts to encourage the beginning gardener, since my successes and failures are still fresh in my mind. But with this article, I hope to inspire readers with the successes of an erstwhile terrible gardener.

    Wild raspberries galore all summer!
    I definitely did not grow up gardening and I gave up every summer in Texas.  Here, though, over the past three years, I have increased my production to 65 animal and herbal foods this summer. And guess what: most survive my care! Except for planting and harvesting at the beginning and end of the growing season, the time expenditure for all that is less than 1.5 hours per day. So a modest effort by someone else might require only 20 minutes, every other day.

    Since a packet of (hundreds of) seeds costs about $2, a strawberry plant costs $1, a raspberry cane about $5, and a fruit tree sapling $10 – 50, depending on age/size/type (all these fruits are perennial – they last many years), the cost and quality of home grown fruit and vegetables is much more attractive than at a store. The cost of producing eggs and meat is higher than at a big box store, but we can justify that for a number of reasons I won't belabor here. My hope is that if I, a relative newbie, can grow so much food, perhaps this article will inspire you to start or expand your food raising efforts. (For more information about raising chickens, ducks, rabbits, and honeybees, see other articles on this blog).

    Each section below lists the foods we raise/make, some notes about successes and failures, and comment about what foods in this category we still need to buy because we cannot raise/make them ourselves. I hope you will feel encouraged to grow something you can put in your next pizza or scrambled eggs.

Sweets: We tap birch trees for sap in April/May (used in cooking and making beer) and harvest honey in August/September (four hives).
Notes: Birch sap is less than 2% sugar, so it is a subtle replacement for water in oatmeal, coffee, and beer. It is also chock full of vitamins, including calcium. We collected 15 gallons last year from four trees in three days. Maple syrup is MUCH more efficient than birch syrup. But since maples don't grow this far north, we are preparing to collect 100 gallons from 14 trees over ten days in order to process a single gallon of delectable birch syrup! We will also collect additional gallons of sap for cooking and drinking. The sap needs to be chilled, but the honey is shelf stable, forever.
Honey about to be extracted from the comb

Our bees in Alaska do not overwinter so we have to buy new queens and “starter colonies” each spring. The first year, the bees spent more time building comb than making honey, so we netted only two gallons from a hive. The second year (with the existing comb), our honey harvest doubled. We do buy sugar for baking, but with next year's sweet harvests, I will endeavor to tweak recipes to use the sap and honey instead. I have learned that I can use honey instead of pharmaceutical products to cover a cut.  
Shopping: We buy flavorings that do not grow in a cold climate, like chocolate, vanilla, and coffee.