Monday, September 12, 2016

The Unpredictability of Raising Food

Raising one's own food - whether it is a pot of herbs on a window sill or a farm - is a satisfying endeavor.  But the results can be unpredictable.  Usually the variances are due to my own errors, but Mother Nature throws curve balls each year, too. For people who live in a town, a failure of a crop just means a trip to the supermarket.  But for people living remotely, as we do, learning to grow, harvest, and store food is a high priority.  We made many naive mistakes, and sometimes took several years to draw logical conclusions and make appropriate changes.  Now, though, we raise and forage for about 65 foods, including meat, eggs, fruits, vegetables, herbs, and sweets.

For readers who think, "One of these days, I'll throw some seeds in the ground," may the following highs and lows of our experience help you start off better and advance faster than we did.  Notes are organized for perennial and annual plants, eggs, meat, honey bees, and harvesting/storing food.

Perennial plants, both native and domesticated, are NO BRAINERS.  They can produce for decades, require very little care, and the wild ones offer excellent information about the types of plants well suited to your locale.

*  Fruit trees and some berry bushes can take up to five years to fruit in Alaska's climate.  If I had planted them much earlier than we did, I'd be enjoying cherries today!
*  I was also slow to learn about the edible (and medicinal) native “weeds” growing on our property. 
*  Another mistake was rototilling two areas and planting grass. Doing so delayed my learning about what NATURALLY grows in that setting, much of it edible and, I think, introduced dandelions.  
*  Annuals, like herbs,  purchased from big box stores were fine, but I have concluded that perennials are better bought from local nurseries.
*  Some of the plants I bought initially were perennials, but I did not realize that and ripped them out at the end of the season!  What a waste!

*  On-line courses in permaculture and herbalism (international curricula) and Master Gardening (a regional curriculum) were so informative that they transformed the way I see and use my property. Highly recommended.
*  Because wild berries grow well here,  I have encouraged them as part of our landscaping and now enjoy the beauty and fruit of a 75 foot raspberry hedge,  thickets of currants and cranberries, sweet scented elderflowers.  
*  As I learned about the native plants, I started to ask nurserymen and women, “If x grows well here, what else might?”  
*  When we finally got around to planting domesticated fruiting perennials, we decided to pay more money in order to buy mature plants that would fruit sooner.  We also bought two or three varietals, some for pollination purposes, others to extend the harvest season, and also to test hardiness. 
*  Another perennial food crop that people might not think of is birch sap, which we collect for ten days in April/May.  From it, we make wine and syrup, as well as using it straight. Taps and food grade buckets are cheap.  
*  Finally, I have also learned to forage for native plants growing right outside my door. Some I use fresh, others I dry for teas and household remedies and skin/hair products.
*  We have started sowing fields with clover and timothy grass.  The former sweetens the acidic soil, the bees love the flowers (which smell sweet and are pretty shades of white, pink, and red), and the timothy grass feeds the rabbits. 

Most veggies and fruits (and flowers) in northern climates are annuals, which means you have to plant them each year. Be sure to check seed packets and website information to determine whether a particular plant can even grow in your USDA planting zone. (temperature determined)

*  Our native soil is so acidic (spruce forest) that many seeds, bulbs and plants rotted in place!  I wasted a lot of initial time, money, and effort on plants that couldn't survive the conditions.
*  Also, for several years, I started seedlings indoors too early - probably from winter cabin fever. Many  grew spindly and weak.  Others grew faster than I expected but I could not yet transplant them outdoors.  I am learning to be more patient.  
*  Some of our raised bed gardens started out to be in the wrong spot (shade, drainage) and others became poorly located as trees grew and we added additional buildings.  
*  Some veggies I left in the ground too long - they rotted during protracted rains or suffered during an early frost.  
*  This year, in an effort to shade out weeds, I have planted intensively (close together), but invariably, the tall plants shade out the desirable short ones, and as far as I can tell, the chickweed and horsetail weeds still grow like crazy - I just couldn't see them to weed them! 
*  I have not had success with compost piles.  They get smelly and attract rodents.  So I make compost teas instead (see below).
*  I used to spend more money on flats of annual flowers.  Now I feel more competent starting seeds, but I favor perennials that return each year, and that I can divide and transplant.    

*  It is slow going to improve the soil organically with egg shells, garbage, rabbit poop, straw mulch and yard debris.
*  I like to try several varietals, in various locations,  to assess which ones do best, and where, and which taste best to us.  
*  I also utilize companion and rotational planting techniques in raised beds.
I make an aerated compost tea in 15 gallon batch (greens, dry yard debris, rabbit poop, and molasses) which creates a healthy plant food full of beneficial microbes.
*  As we add garbage and yard debris to our gardens, the soil levels rise.  Higher gardens mean less bending for me, for easier maintenance.  Next year, some will be out of reach of the chickens, so I won't need to surround them with unattractive chicken wire.
*  At first excited that any plants survived my care, I started too many plants and some food went to waste because we discovered for example, that we didn't really eat that much parsley and don't really like swiss chard.  Each year's experiment yields new favorites as well as plants I retire from the garden. 
*  I have started eating more edible flowers and their leaves.  I am a big fan of nasturtium.
*  I have started saving seeds.   
*  I don't really mind when plants bolt (go to seed in a hot spell) because I have discovered how pretty are the flowers of broccoli, mustard, radish, and oregano, in the yard and in flower arrangements. 

We raise ducks and chickens primarily for their eggs but have discovered other benefits, too.

*  Our first year, we delayed installing a “below ground” fence around the dirt floored chicken run.  A weasel slipped in and killed three.
*  The first year, we bought six chicks too young to determine the gender.  The survivors (above) turned out to be male.  No eggs!  
*  Another year, a woman gave us two males she described as mean to her ducks.  She was right; they were bullies, and the proportion of males to females upset the dynamic of the flock.  So we ate them.   

*  We now buy only birds old enough for gender identification, and from known vendors, among breeds we prefer.
*  We have never kept a noisy rooster, and maintain just one male duck. 
*  Since the ducks are about twice the size of the hens and are exceptionally alert to both aerial and ground predators, we think their presence has protected the chickens.  However, just this morning, a ferocious little mink jumped on the back of one of the ducks, bit and broke her neck.  Last year, an owl killed one right outside the door to the chicken run.
*  The ducks are better able to handle snow and cold than the hens, but their water needs are much, much higher, which is a challenge in an Alaskan winter, especially during the months when we have no running water near their coop.  
*  The ducks are more reliable egg layers in cold temperatures, too, and their large eggs beat lighter and fluffier for baking.  
*  Both species are great at different types of insect eradication, and both are good foragers.  
*  Both can get broody and hide nests of eggs in the summer. (Ours free range) 
*  Chickens age out of laying eggs at about 3 years.  
*  The ducks seem to lay longer.  
*  I enjoy having these birds around much more than I ever expected!

RABBITS:  We have raised rabbits for their tasty meat for several years.  The animals are low maintenance, quiet, and great recipients of leftover veggies and yard debris.  They also provide convenient manure for gardens.  Presuming that the phrase “... breed like rabbits” ensured a constant supply of fresh meat, we were surprised to encounter variety in numbers each year, from 2 to 17!  (We fish and hunt, too, but since that is more opportunistic food, I won't discuss that here). 

*  All of our rabbits the first few years learned to drink from water dispensers that trigger by sucking.  One year, a woman gave us six rabbits she could no longer keep.  To our dismay,  two died, apparently of dehydration, unable to learn how to drink this way!  
*  This year, after years of huge bunny populations, we gambled on raising just one buck and doe, but this female never got pregnant!
*  We have decided to avoid mating rabbits in the coldest months because one February, two does both pulled all their kits out of their respective nesting boxes and let them die of exposure, which was pretty disconcerting. 
*  Last year, the does kindled huge litters of healthy kits - we had so many rabbits that we housed some in the frozen greenhouse and others in the chicken coop with the birds! 

*  Two does and a buck is the right number for us.  
*  My husband designed an abattoir out of a plastic, 55 gallon drum with vertical posts above so he does not have to hunch over to skin them.  
*  Rabbit manure is an excellent addition to my garden soils.  We collect it in plastic sleds under the hutches. For this advantage alone I would encourage people to raise rabbits, even if they don't eat them.  
*  It is easy to burn the thin bones in a wood stove to add calcium to the gardens.
*  It is difficult to thoroughly burn the skin and fur, though, and since we are in bear country, we tend to haul this across the lake and dump it in the bog.  It is usually gone the next day.

Alaskan bees are not plagued by the colony collapse disorder that is devastating hives in Europe and the rest of the US.  We raise Italian bees.
*  It took us several years to position the hives well.  The first year was too close to the ground and they were completely smothered by snow.  The next year we lined them up North to South, which impeded sunlight to the north facing ones, diminishing productivity.  
*  We have not been able to overwinter our bees yet, but we continue to try out different techniques that seem to work for other people... sometimes.  We are motivated because having to buy new queens and starter colonies is expensive (here).

*  Being a beekeeper is a low maintenance endeavor and a fascinating hobby.
*  The first year, we harvested two gallons per hive.  This year, we topped 4.  
*  Each hive seems to have a different work ethic.  Some are big producers with well built honey comb.  Others are less successful.
*  We have never been stung by any honey bee.
*  The honey is delicious, and we are altering some recipes to use it instead of sugar (for example, in beer making).
*  I have also learned to use honey as a hair conditioner, facial mask, and as an alternative to neosporin.
*  I am learning to make products with the beeswax, too, including furniture polish, lip balm, and salves.  I have not yet made any candles. 


*  If you don't plan for harvesting and storage, you are going to waste time and effort raising the food you don't eat.
*  We have been late to harvest some crops almost every year, only to have them rot from  rain, freeze in a cold snap, or break in wind and rain. 
*  At first I did not understand the importance of adequately drying potatoes and onions (for weeks) and herbs (for days) before storing them. 
*  Successful harvests require extra storage capacity and additional containers.  
*  Our cold hole is a good passive refrigerator, but voles that get in occasionally nibble the food, even through plastic, and humidity remains a problem.  
*  Each year I seem to have way too much of "this" and way too little of "that."
* It took me several years to understand what was even meant by canning one's own food.  When I started with the easy stuff (acidic fruits and veggies) I found it easy.  
*  I didn't understand the significance of a pressure canner for safely preserving meat (pressure raises the temperature above the boiling point to kill pathogens) until I smelled a jar of potato soup I had stored with bacon in it.  NEVER AGAIN!
*  I remained intimidated about canning meat for a few more years, but bought a pressure canner with eight locks on the lid and feel comfortable using it now.

*  We have concluded that we can never have too many basil plants!
*  I need a lot more green tomato recipes!
*  I derive more satisfaction than I ever expected by canning summer harvests for winter meals.  This includes condiments, sauces, broths, meats, berry products, vegetable dishes, and pickles.  
*  If our freezer ever "dies" at an inconvenient time, I feel confident that I can can and store everything that is in it.
*  Bountiful harvests have prompted me to seek out new and interesting recipes.


To plant a tiny seed from a $2 packet and enjoy copious dishes from its bounty months later is very fulfilling.  In our case, we use no pesticides and live 42 miles from any source of one, which is satisfying as well.  Bon appetit!  


  1. Wow,what an amazing read. I'm going into my second year of growing my own and the people in my little town think I'm crazy. We have the perfect climate here and yet very few people take the trouble to grow their own. I can't imagine how difficult it is in extreme weather like Alaska, but well done to you. Your articles are so inspiring.

  2. Thanks for the excellent information. Really enjoy it. I need to plant my apple trees