I recently got a message asking for advice regarding putting in a garden and starting seeds. I was so thrilled to be asked advice, that I’m writing a whole post about it. After all, it’s time to start seriously thinking about garden plans for the coming summer.
Most seeds need to be planted in pots long before the garden is ready. In order to grow varieties besides the fertilizer-drenched options at the local box store or greenhouse, you’ll need to think about picking out seeds from local seeds racks, or ordering from online seed companies.
Seed Planting Calendar:
Below is a general planting calendar for starting your seeds indoors. Keep in mind:you will likely want to stagger your plantings. In other words, plant a few seeds a week over a couple of weeks. That way you’ll be able to harvest continually and not end up with 200 lbs of cabbage at once!
- Bulb Onions (1-2″ cell packs)
Beginning of March
- Celery (4″ pots, may need to transplant into larger pots before placing outdoors)
- Cabbage/Brocolli/Brussel Sprouts (6-pack deep cell-packs)
- Lettuce (2″ cell packs)
- Peppers/Cucumbers/Tomatoes (4″ pots)
- Corn (4″ pots)
Plant directly in the garden by Memorial Day:
- Roots crops (turnips, rutabagas, beets)
- Green onions
- Salad mix
Soil for Your Seeds:
Many books say that you need sterilized soil for your seeds. I think that’s nonsense. In Alaska, I create a mixture of half topsoil and half local potting soil called Fishy Peat. You can find it at Alaska Mill and Feed in Anchorage, or Budget Feed in Palmer. I find that it contains a little too much peat — it can get easily water-logged — so I like to mix it with topsoil that tends to contain more sand. Soil should drain well but retain moisture. It should contain enough nutrients to give your plant babies a good start! Any mixture of topsoil, potting soil, and finished compost should work just fine.
**NOTE: I have tried using the MiracleGro “organic” potting soil before. Don’t bother. My plants never really thrive in the stuff.
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There was a big solar flare this week, and while I missed the best of the light show, I did get a few pictures of the Northern Lights. Enjoy the picture below ofthe aurora above our chicken coop.
I recently sat down with a pencil and a piece of paper to determine how much our home-grown chicken eggs are costing us up here in Alaska. Obviously, we are not keeping laying hens for economic reasons, but for other reasons including compost, amusement, and knowing where our food comes from. With all this in mind however, I thought I’d go into detail about the economic breakdown of our chicken operation:
|250W heat lamp
|24/hrs a day at .10 a Kwh
|14/hrs a day at .10 a Kwh
|1 50lb bag of 20% layer crumbles
|1/2 bale per month
Monthly Value of Eggs
Eggs for 6 young chickens per month: 5/day x 30 = 150 eggs
Price for a dozen eggs: $2/dozen
Total value of eggs: $25 dollars
With all that said, in winter we’re paying an extra $30/month for eggs. In the summer, with the light and heat lamp off, we’re paying an extra $7 dollars a month for eggs. If we sold a dozen eggs a week for $4/dozen, we’re still looking at paying another $14 dollars a month for eggs. Drawn out over a year, factoring not using a heat lamp or 100w bulb for six months of the year, we are paying approx. $200 extra a year for our eggs. If we sold a dozen eggs a week, we’d still be paying $120 extra a year.
Again, keeping chickens is about more than mere economics. We get great compost, infinite amusement, a good way to get rid of kitchen scraps, and delicious eggs. More importantly, we feel a greater connection to our food and to the earth. However, for the potential Alaskan chicken-keeper, these economic considerations might be good information to have.
With a nice cold winter and lots of snow, I’ve had the chance to do a little backcountry skiing in the mountains near my house. Although it seems like I can never quite make it out there during daylight hours, skiing with a headlamp has it’s own benefits. The world quickly coming at you five feet at a time forces you to live in the moment.
They have a certain curvature of the back
— a graceful arc under perfect 15-year-old skin.
This arc is the result of many sunny hours of youth
spent indoors under the soft glow
of computer screens.
This is a new bending of a line —
a new curve in a season where curves appear.
But this flawless arc is a darker symbol than the blossoming of youth.
It’s a defense, an escape, a quiet act of surrender
to a life that provides stimulation in mouse clicks
and lonely words on lonely walls.
Outside the world burns and beckons
and the stars on a October night miss the gaze of youthful eyes.
But everywhere there are these arcs — fallen trajectories,
perfect skin pulled taught
over a bent and bowed frame.
And the quiet sounds of mouse clicks.
Friday was the last day of moose season, and while I never got the big bull I was hoping for ( I did get a 1/3 of a moose I helped butcher and haul out of the swamp earlier this year), I spent the evening in the beauty of the mountains. The end of moose season is such a bittersweet time. In the ebb and flow of the year, that last crisp day of September is sort of admission that winter will soon be here.
Below are a few pictures:
For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been starting my classes out with a poem taken from the Poetry 180 site. It’s been a good way to get students in the right mindset, and it requires that I start reading poetry on a regular basis.
It’s funny the way that writing reveals itself to you. Over the course of teaching and exploring a poem with five different classes over two day span, the poem slowly begins to reveal itself; the fifth time I discuss the poem with the class, it is an entirely different beast than when I started.
I’m constantly being re-reminded of the rewards of being is a state of patient expectation. The last few weeks I’ve been spending quite a bit of time hunting. Perched in a tree or sitting on top of a hill, I wait in silent hope. I may see moose, I may not, but in that state of intense listening, watching, and anticipation, even nature reveals itself in a rare way. Watching a mouse loudly busy himself near my feet, observing a raven circling the clouded sky, or studying the intricacy of the tundra beneath me: these are the ways nature reveals itself to those who sit in silence and expectation.
In a society that values getting as much done as we possible can, and where we intentionally set a break-neck pace for our day, it’s no wonder so many of us feel disconnected, discontent, and stressed. There is simply no room to practice silent expectation: waiting for a poem, the world, or God himself to be revealed to us in due time.
Fall is in the air, the leaves are quickly turning colors, and we’ll have the first frost in the next few weeks.
Once again, I wasn’t able to give my veggie garden the attention it deserved. (My garden is at my dad’s house, a half-hour drive away). All that said, most of my crops grew successfully. Below are a few of my notes on the lessons I learned this year:
- Onions: This year, instead of buying onion starts through the mail, I started my onions in seeds in February. For whatever reason, this was a far better way to go. I think the onion starts one gets through the mail (which have entered dormancy) take a while to get going. This doesn’t allow enough time to mature. This year, I started the onions in seed-starting flats and then transplanted them into 2′” cell packs. I grew “Gunnison “variety onions from Johnnys seeds. They’re a storage-type onion and we should still be eating them in February.
- Winter squash: This year I tried to grow acorn squash . It was a gamble here in Alaska. The plant that I put under a plastic hoop created several squash,whereas the plants that were on raised mounds did not produce any fruit (more on that later). I used the “Jet” variety.
- Sweet Corn: I finally figured out how to successfully grow sweet corn! I start it indoors at the beginning of May and transplant it under a plastic hoop, removing the hoop when the corn gets too tall. Once the ears form, I wait until the last minute to harvest it. (It takes a long time for the ears to mature in our cool weather.) This year, I used a variety called “Spring Treat”. It made much larger ears than the “Yukon Chief ” variety that was developed in Alaska.
- Broccoli: I planted way too much broccoli this year and enjoyed a lot of it over the last couple of months. Big heads and lots of side-shoots this summer.
- Cabbage: The cabbage did ok this summer. I grew several different varieties, including storage cabbage, “giant cabbage” (OS Cross), and red cabbage. We had a wet fall, and the slugs went crazy on the cabbage. I harvested the gaint cabbage before the slugs affected them, and the storage cabbages tend to not get terribly damaged. In terms of storage cabbage, I may have planted them too closely together. I’ve used “Storage #4” variety for the last several years. They store very well, but they mature late and I’m not sure if they’re going to form good heads before the frost.
- Squash and Pumpkins: I tried squash, zucchini, and pumpkins again this year, but I placed them in a different spot. I tilled a new area of the yard and mounded the soil and covered the mounds with clear plastic. Unfortunately, I don’t think the plants got nearly enough water during the early part of the summer. None of the squash, zucchini, or pumpkins matured enough this year. They definitely need to be grown under plastic hoops in a warm location.
- Carrots: I started the carrots about a month late due to a failed planting idea. However, they grew fast and we’ll have plenty of carrots this year. I’m going to leave them in the ground for a lot longer this year — until we get a few frosts.
- Lettuce and Kale: The lettuce and kale did well this year. I tried another “baby salad mix”, but it bolted very quickly. I hardly got any cuttings out of it. The romaine and kale did very well; the only problem is that the romaine is not ready until mid-July, so we were a little short on salad greens for the first part of the summer.
- Gooseberries: My dad has a couple of healthy gooseberry plants that produce red gooseberries. The taste is exquisite, and they grow to be almost the size of grapes. I easily picked three pounds off of the bushes, and will be trying a 1 gallon batch of gooseberry mead soon! (I’ll let you know how it turns out!)
Yesterday a black bear got into our chicken coop. I was at work, and Ashlee came home from dropping Elias off at school to see the black bear in the chicken run with a chicken in its mouth. She grabbed River and drove down to her mom’s house to call her brother-in-law. He came over, grabbed a gun, and went up the hill to our property and shot the bear.
In that fifteen minute span, the black bear (who was pretty small) got inside the coop through the chicken door. The carnage was indescribable. Truly awful. The bear killed or maimed 22 of my chickens. Only five survived: two meat chickens and three of the laying hens. The meat birds were only days away from being butchered, so I spent yesterday afternoon putting well over 100 lbs of chicken meat into the garbage can — a waste of hundreds of pounds of chicken feed, and months of work.
Needless to say, I’m disheartened. It’s the second troublesome bear we’ve had hanging around this year. Between our steep lot, our bear problems, and the short growing season of living in Alaska, there’s a whole extra layer of difficulty added to the passions I’m trying to pursue, and it’s hard not to get frustrated…
Worse, Elias called me while I was coming home from hunting last night, crying and telling me how much he misses his chickens. His heartbreak was, in many ways, the worst part of the whole ordeal.
When I got home last night, I petting the three remaining laying hens as I closed the coop for the night. We’ll be fixing the fence this weekend, making the chicken coop entrance significantly smaller so that bears cannot get in, and looking for a few replacement layers.
And I echo Elias’ words: “I really miss my chickens.”
Elias and I headed out on his first salmon trip this morning. Waking at 4:30, Elias was groggy but excited. We drove an hour south to a creek that a neighbor friend had suggested as a kid-friendly salmon fishing hole. Arriving by six, we situated ourselves above an emerald-colored side stream teeming with salmon.
Elias hooked is first fish on the third cast. It was all Elias could do to keep his rod tip up and try to reel the fish in at the same time; eventually he gave up reeling and just started backing up the bank. The look of determination — and fear — on his face was priceless. Surprised that he caught one so quickly, I grabbed the net and hoisted the fish onto the shore. Elias beemed with pride.
Over the course of the morning we caught several other pink salmon.
(While not as good of eating as sockeye or coho, Elias was extremely proud to be bringing home fish for his family. In fact, on the walk back he commented, “We have so much meat for the freezer. We’ll be in good shape for the winter.”)
A couple of hours later, it was clear Elias’ arm was getting tired from so much casting, and we had caught his limit of fish. We headed back to the car, stopped at a local bakery for donuts and coffee, and headed home. Elias fell asleep within minutes.
Season of Plenty
Tonight we’re eating Elias’ salmon with home-grown dill, as well as broccoli and salad from the garden. It’s the season of plenty here in Alaska. It seems to last only a few weeks, but there is a feeling of abundance in the air. In a couple weeks it will be time to go moose hunting, butcher the chickens,and watch as the snow line slowly descends from the mountains.
After about a month of working evenings and spare time, I’ve completed the chicken coop of my dreams. It’s eight by twelve feet of glorious chicken accomodations (and storage space). I wrote a whole page/tutorial about the process that you can find here.
Last week Ashlee came out of the house, face to face with a black bear about 15ft away. Needless to say, it surprised her. The next night we heard the dog barking her “bear bark” whenever a bear is in the yard. We got up, but couldn’t see the bear. The next morning, I left the house to get some coffee and fill up the gas tank. Once I got back, I came inside for a about twenty minutes and then went out to check on my chickens. In the span of those twenty minutes, the bear had gotten into the trash (which had not been properly latched) and had spread garbage everywhere. Understandably, I was on edge to have the black bear visiting in the middle of the day.
About two hours later, I came outside again, and there was the black bear, sitting in the yard looking at me. I ran inside, grabbed the gun, and shot him as he sauntered up our driveway. (Black bear hunting is open year-round where I live.) It was a clean shot and he didn’t go far.
The neighbor came over and helped me drag him into the driveway where I could butcher him.
This bear had been harassing the neighborhood for weeks. It had killed another neighbor’s chickens and had been getting way too close to humans. Upon skinning him, I found that this wasn’t the first time this bear had gotten himself into trouble either. I found 80-90 pieces of bird shot in his face and one of his front quarters. It had been there a while, so this bear had taken a shotgun blast to the face and had still not been deterred from eating garbage and killing chickens. Needless to say, a number of neighbors are glad to see him gone.
The meat is really good too! It’s the first bear I’ve eaten and it’s very mild, if a bit chewy. Above all, it’s nice not to have to worry about a troublesome bear in the yard with my kids.
In other news, we’re done fishing for the year. I went dipnetting on the Copper River (with only marginal success) and spent a week dipnetting on the Kenai River, which is enjoying a record run. The freezer is getting full, the garden is starting to produce nicely, and there’s a tinge of fall in the air.
Next up: berry picking in order to make my annual currant-raspberry mead.
We just got back from a fun but exhausting halibut fishing weekend. Our yearly hunting/gathering begins every Memorial Day weekend when my wife’s extended family, and about half of the congregation, travels 5 hours south and spends the weekend camping on the beach and fishing for halibut. We fish from 12ft zodiacs, which can be fairly thrilling when the waves are up. Although all of the fish were small this year, we did well and came home with a good portion of halibut meat. The weather was good, and my oldest son went out on the boat for the first time. He was pretty impressed, though he’s still too young to put up a halibut.
Tonight: beer-battered halibut!
Next up: dipnetting for salmon in a couple of weeks!
School got out last Friday, and I haven’t stopped moving since. Summers here in Alaska are way too short — and there’s far too much daylight — to slow down. I rented a big excavator this weekend to improve our yard and parking on our outrageously steep mountainside lot.
It’s tough to see, but we ended up terracing the whole yard into four large terraces. We finally have flat space to someday put in a garden, build a chicken coop, and build a greenhouse!
As if that weren’t enough, I put in my garden over the past two days…I may have gone a little overboard. I planted far more cabbage and broccoli than I ever have. I also planted more corn and pumpkins than last year, and tilled a large area to plant 60lbs of potatoes and some acorn squash.
The bees are doing well: I checked up on them a couple weeks ago (and again on Sunday) and the queen is laying eggs, which is a huge relief. The first flowers (dandelions) have blossomed, so the bees are busy gathering what nectar and pollen they can.
Ashlee and the boys are fascinated by the bees. It sounds as if Ashlee is interested in being the family beekeeper next year. Elias wants to help too!
Because the adventures never end in Alaska, we’re in the process of packing up for our yearly halibut fishing trip: three days of camping on the beach and a year’s supply of delicious bottomfish!
I LOVE SUMMER!
Last Wednesday, I went to check on my bees. Confidently, I put on my makeshift beekeeping suit: my rain jacket, snow pants, hiking boots, leather gloves, and a cheap mosquito head net. Like a dutiful beekeeer, I brought over 25lbs of sugar, lovingly filled up their feeder, and watched my 14,000 cute, fuzzy children wander around in the hive.
But I couldn’t help help myself.
I wanted discover if I could see any bee eggs in the comb to make sure the queen was laying, even though I had just introduced the bees four days earlier.
I opened the top cover to reveal a swarming mass of honey bees, clearly bother by my intrusion. The entire colony buzzed at me angrily and dozens of them began to shoot themselves at me, landing on my headnet, hands, and arms.
I tried to get one of the frames out of the hive to check for eggs. Using my pry bar, I began to lift the frame out of the hive. As I attempted to lift it out, it broke with a sickening crunch, and a comb full of bees fell angrily to the bottom of the hive. Because the spacing is so tight in bee hives, I had to remove another frame full of bees before I could reach the broken frame. Gingerly, I brushed the bees off of the first frame, hoping I had not accidentally killed the queen.
Then I felt it: the soft tickling of insect feet on my skin. All of a sudden my confidence turned to cold truth.
Beekeeping books say that as a beekeeper, one is supposed to move slowly and methodically when working around bees. All such zen-like thoughts completely left me as I felt bee feet moving up my back. They had got in. Milliseconds later I felt the sting. And I did what any other rational person would do: I dropped everything and ran. Fast. Brutally punching myself in the back where I had been stung. I ran across the yard — a grown, bearded man in snowpants fleeing in terror from bugs. My sense of imperviousness (to say nothing of my sense of pride) had been shattered…
I think I’ll go back tonight, ask them for forgiveness, and offer them some sugar water.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the last year of my life. The past 12 months have brought a lot of exciting changes to my family and I, and something about the long daylight hours and the feel of spring is making me reflective.
This time last year, we were just moving into the house. We spent three long years building. My hand has touched every piece of wood, every wire, every nail that holds this house together. And although it seemed like an impossibly long project, I’ll never forget the feeling of sleeping in our house the first night. In our home. That we built.
It was about this time last year that I graduated from grad school. After a long and very intense year that took me away from my family and away from my passions, I remember the feeling of relief and accomplishment that I had made it through, and that I had met some extraordinary friends along the way.
Finally, it was about this time last year that we found out that Ashlee was expecting our third child…talk about a big surprise! I remember, before we found out she was pregnant, feeling that our family had finally come to a place of stability: I was going to be starting a career, the boys were no longer toddlers, and we were finally in our house. Everything was coming to a culmination at once.
Well, I guess we’re a family that needs adventure, because our third little adventure came into this world this past January. She’s amazing. I’m incredibly excited (and terrified) to have a daughter. She fits perfectly into our little family, and is such a sweet, sweet little baby. More than that, it’s amazing to see my wife with her. Ashlee’s calling in life is to be a mother, and there is nothing more pure and good and real in this whole world than the sight of my wife singing softly to my daughter. The other day, I watched them for an hour from the other room. The sunshine was falling over Ashlee’s shoulders and dark brown hair as she sat on the bed folding laundry. Aurora lay on one side of her and her laptop on the other. She kept playing “Tiny Dancer” on her computer, singing it softly to Aurora. I’ll never forget the way she smiled as she sang, love shining in both their eyes.
It’s been a really good year.