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.

Fruit: Berries grow well in Alaska, including a number of tasty ones that are not commercially sold. Even better, they are perennials which require very little care. For the price of a supermarket pint of berries, I buy plants that will produce quarts of fruit throughout the summer, for decades. We grow the following, some domesticated and some wild: three types of strawberries, two types of raspberries, blueberries, haskap berries, saskatoon berries, red and black currants, and cranberries.
Notes: My kiwi plants died, so I will replace those. We wish to add several fruit trees in the future, particularly cherry and pear. Because of the short warm season here, it takes several years, sometimes up to five, for fruit trees and bushes to bear fruit. However, strawberries and raspberries are fast. 
Shopping: We buy bananas, citrus, and nectarines.

Herbs: We grow oregano, chives, and two types of mint, anise hyssop (all overwinter most years), cilantro, thyme, mustard, two types of basil, nasturtium and parsley for food, calendula and yarrow for medicine.
Notes: I love the scents, flavor, and flowers of herbs so I keep some close to my porch to see, sniff, and snip for cooked or raw additions to salads, pizzas, dips, eggs, and entrees. Herbs are also beneficial companion plants for certain vegetables, so I mix them in my other gardens, too. Chives are among the first plants to flower (pink) in my garden. They divide and spread easily. The purple flowers of oregano and anise hyssop are lovely in the yard and in flower arrangements, as are the white flowers of cilantro and the bright yellow of mustard. I make medicinal salves with calendula and yarrow. The nasturtium seedlings didn't transplant well this year, but when they do, all parts (flowers, leaves, and buds) are edible, with a spicy, peppery flavor. I would like to add tarragon.
Shopping: Garlic grows well in Alaska, but we usually fly Outside during Break Up and thus miss the time to buy / plant garlic here. So, to date, we buy lots and lots of garlic. I also buy salt and various other herbs and spices, particularly ones that grow in tropical climates.

Outdoor vegetables and tubers: This year, I harvested four types of potatoes (red/white, yellow, brown, and purple), scallions, carrots, three types of beans, peas, two types of squash, three types of radishes, several types of cabbage, lettuce, spinach, collards, rhubarb, miner's lettuce, and salad burnet (which smells lovely).
A nice, fall potato harvest
Notes: We grow the vegetables (and herbs and strawberries) in five raised bed gardens that range in size from 4x4 to 4 x 16. We started small, shifted location, enhanced the soil, and then added space as we improved.
My favorite plant is potatoes. They are lovely bushes with beautiful white and purple flowers, absolutely no trouble at all, and harvest time is like a treasure hunt. The radishes are great, too: they are exceptionally easy to grow into huge, blowsy plants, loaded with pretty white/pink flowers that the bees LOVE, so I plant them all over the place. We favor the pickled pods, but the leaves and roots are edible, too. Since I plant more than we use, I dry them in the greenhouse for winter snacks for the rabbits (see below). Rhubarb and salad burnet are perennials. My carrots are never straight and easy to peel but all gnarled up, even in a soft, deep bed, so I need to try other varietals. Spinach has not performed well for me. Peas are great because they are legumes, which fix nitrogen in the soil, enhancing the quality. Next year, I want to add beets, fennel and more prolific onions.
Shopping: We buy corn on the cob and onions in summer. This summer, I started to can excess production for food in winter.

Greenhouse vegetables: tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and celery (and basil grows in the greenhouse)
Tomatoes reaching for the roof
Notes: Celery is the only plant that seemed to grow identically indoors and outdoors. Last year, the tomato and cucumber plants grew rapidly to the ceiling! This year, they were shorter but more abundant. Of the sweet and hot peppers I planted, only the hot ones (Hungarian) survived and thrived. I hope to grow a greater variety in the future. Previous to the pickling cucumbers I grew this year, I never knew that they had prickers on those “pimples” you feel in the store!
Shopping: Fewer purchases in this category now: I canned a lot of tomatoes and peppers and celery for winter eating. We ate all the cucumbers.

Meat and eggs: We raise chickens, ducks, and rabbits.
Notes: Raising animals for food is generally a more expensive proposition than buying the same at the supermarket, especially in cold climates. Our poultry (Rhode Island Red hens and Harlequin ducks) are free ranged and share an insulated coop and run for shelter. The rabbits (Satins) are kept in hutches. The chickens eat meat, dairy, grain, and vegetable leftovers (the ducks less so) so we have very little garbage. For the two of us, 3-4 egg layers is a good number. The only time we eat one of the birds is when it has been killed (for example, by an owl this spring) or when we were given too many males by a friend and they started trouble in the flock.

Of rabbits, a mating pair can produce 3-4 litters a year, which can be harvested at 3-6 months. If you start out with two does and a buck, plan for housing expansion. Our does have had litter sizes ranging from 3–9 kits, with survival rates of 0 (deep cold spell) to 7. Rabbits grow fast and when they enter puberty (trust me – you'll know), at about 3 months, the males (bucks) have to be separated (from both males and females), so they are usually the first to be moved onto the dinner plate. We feed them rabbit food (from Alaska Mill and Feed) supplemented by yard and garden debris.  They love fireweed,yarrow, ferns, raspberry leaves (but not canes) and spruce boughs. Three month old rabbits yield about 2 lbs/meat each and, from the bones, lots of broth. Older rabbits have more meat and fat.  Calculate a cost/benefit analysis by age for your location.
Shopping: We buy 20–45 pound boxes of beef and pork from a local butcher once or twice a year. But I anticipate reducing that.  Bryan has a hunting license and we like black bear and moose. We can fish (pike) in our lake. A creek two miles away supports salmon, (and catch and release trout, and grayling).  With our plane, we can fly elsewhere for other wild seafood, but haven't yet felt the reason to do so. Bryan actually bought a male goat last winter (for meat) but it smelled so bad and ate so much that the friend in town who had volunteered to fatten it up sold it on Craig's list.

Wild, foraged foods (other than berries):
I am really enjoying learning about the edible and useful plants that grow on my property. To date, I have used dandelion, raspberry leaves, cranberry bark, fireweed, yarrow, spruce tips, birch leaves, alder leaves, chickweed, and plantain. Plenty more to collect and try out next year.
Notes: For food: dandelion leaves are a tasty green vegetable and tea. I have not yet made dandelion flower jelly but am told it tastes like sweet iced tea. Fireweed (flower) syrup is delicious. I am trying to make teas with various fresh and dried leaves, like those of raspberry and strawberry plants, also clover flowers, and cranberry bark, each of which has medicinal qualities. Yarrow and plantain stop bleeding (slap the leaves on the cut) and yarrow keeps mosquitoes at bay. Chickweed (with other flavors, like garlic and basil) makes a tasty dip, and alone, is an effective topical medicine, for bug bites and splinters. We have hacked chaga off birch trees and made a coffee-like drink, but I still buy coffee. To make salves and ointments with some of the herbs mentioned here, I infuse a jar of olive oil and then mix the oil with beeswax. Grapeseed oil is a stabilizer. 

Food storage:
We have both passive and active food storage.  Although we live off-grid, we do run a refrigerator (propane) and two chest freezers (electric, from solar/wind power) in a food shed near the cabin, during the summer. For storage that does not require power, we have several alternatives: During the winter (when we do not use the above appliances) we just store food in a marine cooler on the back porch. We also have a “cold hole” dug below the permafrost line outside the food shed. In the winter, it stores some vegetables, particularly potatoes, and dairy products between 40-50 degrees. I have learned to passively dry leaves and herbs and to can foods. Over the last week, I have canned (the containers are glass mason jars with two part metal lids) about 24 jars of the following: rabbit and broth, marinara sauce, "bruschetta in a jar", cabbage, collards, zucchini relish, pickles, hot peppers, and onions/carrots/celery/parsley (to add to winter rice and soups). I have also dried and stored the leaves of raspberries, strawberries, fireweed, and cranberry for winter teas. We'll see what happens.  With the autumn temperatures falling, next up is green tomatoes - some remain on the vine and others are in a covered box - hoping the enclosed ethylene gas they exude will ripen them further. 

Mushrooms: I do not feel confident about foraging for wild mushrooms without a personal guide. Shopping: I did buy two of those mushroom sprouting kits and neither worked for me. Not even my poultry would eat the resulting “loaf” of matter.

Baked goods: I bake several times a week
Notes: I have yet to make the perfect tortilla, but I make pizza, bread, biscuits, muffins, cakes, cookies and brownies. 
Shopping: We buy all our flours and rice. Grain production and milling is really a community enterprise. I don't see how a single family could do it.

Alcohol: We make beer and wine.
NotesHe has made the spring/summer beer with birch sap for several years and this winter, he plans to use honey instead of malt. His beer is consistently good quality. My wine – not so much. Let's face it – this is not Bordeaux, so it is hard to hit, much less maintain, a consistent, warm temperature at which the yeast converts the sugars to alcohol, so my wine is usually so sweet that I need to add lemon juice. We tried to make our first batch of birch sap wine this year, too. Not great. We may try to make (honey) mead this winter.
Shopping:  We buy the supplies – kit boxes for wine and raw materials (hops, grains, yeast) for Bryan's favorite Chimay recipe. 

Dairy Products:
Notes:  We did consider raising goats for milk but nixed the idea of building housing and an enclosure for two alternately lactating females, their progeny, and a (smelly, loud) male. Altogether more than we want to address, especially here in bear country, and especially if I want to travel some in the winter.
Shopping: We buy all of our dairy products - dry milk and packaged cheeses, yogurt, sour cream and butter. We can't make any because we don't buy fatted milk. 

Notes: With the resources above, I can make mustard, ketchup, barbeque sauce, relish, chutney, mayonnaise/aioli, pickles, salad dressings, meat and vegetable broth, jams, and syrups. 
Shopping: I buy soy sauce, peanut butter, oils, and vinegars.

Since I did not grow up in a rural area and was a terrible gardener in the heat and bugs of Texas (where I lived for a long time), all of this food production was new to me. At first it was overwhelming - I knew so little, killed so many plants, and seemed to waste a lot of time I need not have spent on fruitless projects (like starting seeds too early). But each season has gotten easier even as I have accomplished more. I learn from prior mistakes and become more confident and competent. I have saved seeds, taken notes, improved the soil and become more efficient in tasks and space. This year, I feel rather proud to add up all the items on this list. Even more important, the process feels like a welcome and engaging education and an aesthetic joy, rather than a chore.

What foods do or would you like to grow?  Please let me know in the Comments box.


  1. Thank you for writing this! I moved from the Southwest to the Northwest a year ago, and my garden did not do well. Your article gives me renewed hope for next year! Your blog is one of my favorites.

  2. Laura as always you inspire me. I find your life fascinating. I tried organic tomatos by seed this year. No luck. dithering about getting a grow light or just going with mature plants I can start outdoors...
    Look forward to hearing about your exciting winter plans this year!

  3. I thought your section on Raising food and how to live remotely gave quite a clear idea of what it takes for living your lifestyle, in particular I thought you explain very well all the problems of water use, disposal issues, communication links that is important to keep. - Stefano

  4. I grow tomatos, rocket, kale, perennial leeks, and asparagus. This is in Melbourne, Australia, so its comparatively easy. I'm yet to harvest the asparagus, but I've committed to the few years I need to wait because I adore asparagus and happily spend a fortune at the shops each spring.

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