Wasilla Alaska Garden Adventures

Wasilla Alaska Garden Adventures - learning about gardening up north.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Fresh Garden Salad in December!

Just a quick update about my winter salad garden. It is doing fine and I have been picking lettuce for about 3 weeks now. It sure is nice to have fresh lettuce in December...

My plant rack is working well and I have been looking into a more permanent system that would be a self contained small plant stand with built in grow light and water reservoir. Maybe something akin to a small scale hydroponic setup. But my simple bottom water setup has been working just fine.

I am reminded to be more vigilant about sanitizing my growing containers as I must have brought the current aphid infestation along with my dirty pots.

So let it snow outside all it wants I am still gardening here in Alaska and that sure helps to beat some of the cabin fever that develops during our long winter season up here - and fresh salad sure is nice.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Winter Salad Garden Update

Winter is here in Wasilla in a big way. I just got in from clearing my driveway again and they are forecasting more snow tonight. This has been a rather harsh November, compared to recent weather patterns. I don't think I had to clear my driveway more than one or two times all last winter. And we have been hit by a frigid cold snap that reminds me just what Alaska winters can be like.

We have had many nights with temperatures below zero and several in the -10 to -20 degree F range. It is interesting how short our memories can be and it was not unusual to get a severe cold spell early in the winter season. I have seen -35 F temperatures in Anchorage but not for a while. At least we got a thick snow cover before the frigid weather set in and that should protect most of the sensitive perennials.

 I have  used about half of my firewood so far and this is only November! I will be splitting more wood long before this winter is over and if we get more cold weather I may be looking to buy some firewood. I do have a furnace so I don't depend on wood to heat my house, but with all of my nice windows it can be a little chilly inside on a very cold night. My wood stove does a great job keeping the house warm and does save on fuel bills.

My indoor salad garden is looking good so far the lettuce id really doing well. The Swiss chard and kale are a little slower but I haven't given up.

I did notice an infestation of Aphids on some plants so everything got a dose of insecticidal soap and that has really helped. I did not wash or sanitize my pots and that is probably where they came from.

I will find out which growing containers work best using fabric grow bags or pots. I am still using my oxygen booster plant food and that should help the potted plants that don't have ventilation for the roots.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Indoor Garden Update

I transplanted my seedlings yesterday and adjusted my seedling growing rack to accommodate the larger plants. Everything looks good so far. I am using a modified bottom watering system and a wicking medium to draw the water up to the plants. I made it out of commonly available plastic storage containers that I bought at a local discount store and used fabric shopping bags to contain the growing medium.

I am growing several varieties of red lettuce along with curly kale and red Swiss chard. 

I will be using Safer® Brand Oxygen Plus Liquid Plant Food that also contains oxygen booster.

 The translucent watering tray will allow me to visually maintain the necessary water level.

I also planted some in square pots placed in a regular seedling flat as a watering tray. We shall see which plants do best. I may experiment with a gravity feed watering system at some point - but for now I will simply keep the watering trays filled every few days.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Sustainable Agriculture in Rural Alaska

Gardening in Alaska can be a challenge even when the weather cooperates. Dealing with frozen soil, late frosts, short growing seasons, cool rainy summers, root maggots, aphids, fungal disease, and the ever lurking neighborhood moose can be frustrating at best. I still supplement the vast majority of my food supply at the near by supermarket or giant warehouse outlet. A new local Three Bears warehouse outlet just opened a few miles from my house in Wasilla. Not all Alaskans have this advantage and those that don't live on the road system are at a particular disadvantage. This includes all of the rural towns and villages where all of the food supply is dependent on summer barge and winter air shipment.

Depending on our food distribution system in Alaska can be expensive and troublesome especially during a natural disaster and the ever increasing cost for transportation has to be paid for by the consumer. Growing at least part of our personal food supply makes economical sense and eating fresh produce is a luxury most Alaskans have learned to live without. Even the produce for sale in local supermarkets that was picked days or weeks ago and shipped north is usually a bland and tasteless comparison to fresh picked backyard veggies.

I am particularly enthusiastic to learn about Tim and Lisa Meyers and their family farming operation in Bethel, Alaska. You can follow the link at the beginning of this post to read all about their farming operation. You can hear Tim speak to the Bioneers in Alaska conference on October 16, 2011 that was recorded by the Alaska Public Broadcasting Network for their Addressing Alaska lecture series at:  Sustainable Agriculture in Rural Alaska  and following the playback link at the bottom of their page. If Tim and Lisa can be as successful as they appear to be in Bethel with all of the challenges that they have to overcome - then anybody can at least learn to supplement their own food supply almost anywhere. There are no excuses. And beyond growing fresh food the Meyers developed their own low tech food storage system to store their produce over-winter by using the simple root cellar system that was at one time common to nearly every farmstead in America.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Snow in Wasilla

Our first official snowfall today in Wasilla. Not much but it is official.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Winter Salad Garden - Why Not ?

Like most serious cold climate gardeners I start my garden plants indoors to get a jump on the growing season. I have a shelf system with florescent grow lights that will hold several seed starting flats equipped with a timer switch to regulate the daily lighting cycle. You can read about my system on my Seedling Update blog entry from March 30, 2011. There is no reason that this grow rack could not be used during our winters in Alaska to grow salad greens and herbs along with some small vegetables such as scallions, and maybe even baby carrots or beets. So last week I planted a flat with a variety of lettuce, kale, and Swiss chard. The seedlings have since sprouted and it is time to thin them out today.

I plan to transplant my seedling into a bottom watering system based on my Alaska Grow Buckets using fabric shopping bags. I will be experimenting with some different designs to see what works best and is simple and inexpensive to make.

I anticipate the luxury of making a fresh salad in the middle of our long winter. The added benefit of some green plants adding a splash of color to our often drab landscape should be a welcome relief and just may help offset some of my winter cabin fever. Many people do try to fill their indoor space with ornamental house  plants for this very reason and leafy green vegetables could serve the same purpose with the added benefit of being edible too. For a continued supply, over the next 5 to 6 months, I will try to stagger some plantings to have new seedlings ready to replace mature plants as they are harvested. I will continue to post updates on my progress.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Another Alaska Garden Season Ends

Time to put the garden to bed for the winter. We have had our first hard freeze this week on a particularly clear Autumn night - with the aurora borealis dancing on the horizon. Cleaning up the garden is always a chore that I put off as long as possible. I usually end up rushing around during the first snowfall stacking tomato cages and putting tools away for the winter. I picked the last of the tomatoes both ripe and green. It looks like I may make another batch of green tomato chutney. The red ones are very ripe and probably won't keep so they may go into a batch of chili.

The hoop tunnels were uncovered and the beds have been cleaned up for winter. All plant material moved to the compost pile. Drip lines are put away and garden hose stored in the garage.

I did transplant one stubborn lettuce plant to a pot and moved it indoors along with my herb planter. They are now sitting near a sunny window and I may just get some more lettuce.

I plan to try growing an indoor salad garden this winter under grow lights - using a modified bottom watering grow bucket system. That will be my next gardening experiment.

Another season of learning what it takes to garden up north is under my belt. The need for a moose fence was made clear once again and that is an expense I will have to budget for soon. I still haven't quite settled on how large I want my garden to be and that will determine what needs to be fenced. I am considering a larger unheated greenhouse of some sort that would cover part of the garden area. Heat loving plants don't seem to do as well in my micro-climate despite my raised beds and hoop tunnels. I have a downward sloping yard and cold air seems to collect. My yard is the last place in this area to melt off each spring.

My improved Alaska Grow Bucket design was a success. I still need to study up on plant care under greenhouse conditions as I still suffer with fungus from high humidity levels and poor air circulation. More ventilation is needed and adequate plant spacing is essential.  Overcrowding seems to be my greatest problem. Proper nutrient is also necessary to encourage fruit production over excess foliage growth. I believe the high nitrogen fertilizer that I used this season was not the best choice. 

Earlier this week I mixed up a Tabbouleh Salad with some of the last of the garden tomatoes and lettuce. I tried adding some sprouted legumes called Bean Trio to my regular tabbouleh bulgar mix and it turned out pretty good.

2 Cups cooled Bean Trio cooked and drained according to package instructions.
2 Cups Tabbouleh mix + 2 1/2 Cups water
1 can cooked Garbanzo beans
1 can ripe olives
1 large cucumber chopped
3 - 4 Cups chopped Tomatoes
Chopped Scallions (I used chopped whole onion this time)
 Minced Parsley
1/4 Cup Olive Oil
1/2 Cup Lemon Juice

Save the drained cooking liquid from the Bean Trio and combine with water to make 2/12 Cups. Combine liquid with 2 cups Tabbouleh mix and let stand 20 mins. or until liquid is absorbed. Add cooled Bean Trio and all additional ingredients. Mix well and adjust lemon juice to taste. I found it needed more. Serve on a bed of fresh salad greens and enjoy!

Monday, August 29, 2011

That's what it's all about...

Burgers for supper tonight with fresh sliced Early Girl tomato and garden lettuce.

Soy-Veggie Burger Recipe:

2 Cups Prepared Veg Broth
1 tsp Kitchen Bouquet Liquid seasoning 
1 can Tomato Paste
2 Tbsp Olive Oil
2 Cups dry TVP granules
1 Cup quick oats or bread crumbs
1/4 Cup ground Flax seed
1/2 onion finely minced
1 green pepper finely minced
1 tsp each garlic granules and smoked paprika

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees

2. Combine prepared broth, Kitchen Bouquet, tomato paste, and TVP. Let stand until liquid is absorbed.

3. Add remaining ingredients and mix well.

4. I covered 1/2 cup portions of burger mix with plastic wrap and used a plastic burger press to form patties.

Place patties on a oiled sheet pan and bake about 20 minutes - turn once to get even browning. Served on toasted multi-grain sandwich thins with sliced tomato, lettuce, optional Soy Cheese slice and your choice of condiments.

Recipe makes 8 - 1/2 lb patties.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Berry Season 2011

My raspberries are finally getting ripe. I picked my first batch a few day ago and decided to make some Raspberry - Rhubarb Jam. 

I had several packages of frozen rhubarb in the deep freeze that needed to be used. I also recently purchased a new duel purpose canning kettle. This kettle can be used as a conventional water-bath canner or as a steam canner. A steam canner is used in the same manner as a water-bath canner - but uses about 10% as much water. You only fill the pot to about 3 inches deep and it takes much less time and fuel to heat. The kettle fills with steam and the steam heats the jars in the same manner as boiling water.

This Victorio brand canner has the added feature of a thermometer in the lid to indicate when the steam temperature has reached the proper level for process timing to begin. I made enough jam to fill 4 pint jars and 6 half pint jars. I was able to fit all of the jars into the canner in one batch. Processing time was 15 minutes once the gauge indicated the internal temperature was correct. My recipe for Razzybarb Jam was:

2 Quarts fresh Raspberries
2 lbs chopped Rhubarb
1 T lemon juice
6 cups white sugar
1 pkg pectin

Crush raspberries and add chopped rhubarb, lemon juice and pectin. Heat to a rolling boil and stir in sugar. Return to a boil stirring constantly. Boil 1-2 minutes. Fill sterile jars and add lids. Process in a water-bath canner or steam canner for indicated times. Allow to cool and check that lids have sealed.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Sweet Pickles

My first Alaska cucumber has been pickled. I made sweet cucumber chunks with raisins, cloves, onion, and celery seed for flavor. It made 2 full pints of pickles from one large cucumber. I used the quick hot brine method and these will be refrigerator pickles as I did not process the jars for storage. I will let them mellow in the fridge for several weeks before I try them. Yum!

Sweet cucumber chunks

Some Facebook friends asked for my recipe:

1/2" thick sliced cucumber
Sliced Onion
pickling salt
Soak in salted water for 3 hours.

3 cups cider vinegar
4 cups sugar
1 tablespoon celery seed
whole cloves
(adjust amounts for more cucumbers)

Bring to a boil in stainless steel pot. Drain cucumbers and onions and rinse. Add to cooking liquid. Return to boil and simmer 5 minutes. Pack into sterile jars and top with hot cooking liquid. Add lids and rings. Allow to cool and lids to pop. Store in fridge. Wait at least 2 weeks before tasting.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

My First Alaska Cucumber

Yesterday I picked my first Grow Bucket cucumber along with my first King of the North peppers and Millionaire eggplant. The new Grow Bucket design seems to be working as good as I hoped. 

The other veggies came from my hoop tunnel and they are doing much better this year then in the past few summers. The weather has been better this year with far fewer cloudy rainy days. As I have said before, without clear sunny days we just don't get the warmth needed for some veggies. Cloudy days rarely get above 60 - 65 degrees and hoop tunnels and greenhouses need direct sun for solar gain to produce the higher temperatures that some plants prefer. My greenhouse and hoop tunnel tomatoes are full of green fruit and it is just a matter of ripening. I did try a new fertilizer this year and it probably was too high in nitrogen that resulted in excessive foliage growth. I had to do some extreme pruning inside the greenhouse yesterday as many of the tomato plants were running out of room. They are all still producing blossoms that probably won't have time left in this growing season to develop into ripe fruit.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

July 26 Garden Update

My improved Alaska Grow Bucket design seems to be working just fine. I was interested to see if the ventilation holes would allow adequate oxygen to reach the root zone. They seem to be working better then expected.

The cucumber that I planted has already outgrown the trellis and is loaded with baby cukes.

Reaching for the sky
The rest of the greenhouse tomatoes are outgrowing their space again. I guess it might be time to prune back the tops. The plants are loaded with green tomatoes and some are getting pretty large, but no ripe ones in the greenhouse just yet.

I do have one tomato turning red inside my hoop tunnel. It is a Glacier variety and the other hoop tunnel plants are also loaded with fruit. It looks like a bumper crop if the weather holds out.

The other hoop tunnel veggies are looking good. My eggplants are setting fruit and I will be picking some any day. The Millionaire eggplant seems to do well here but the fruit are small averaging about 4 inches long. The plants are loaded with blossoms and small fruit - it seems that they make up for the small size with quantity. My Northstar peppers are also loaded with fruit - but the California Wonder are not producing as well yet.

Northstar Peppers
We have had several days of rain lately. My green beans are beginning to flower and the mounded rows seem to be working as planned. I should be picking beans in a few weeks. It looks like I should have plenty to freeze and save for next winter.

Root maggots ruined my onions and radish crops and all plants had to be removed and destroyed. I hope that adding the nematodes will clean up any remaining larva before winter. I will not plant onions in the same bed next year and I will be sure to follow the practice of using a Reemay floating row cover to prevent the adult flies from laying eggs in the soil. I replaced my onions with additional lettuce that I started last month in the greenhouse.

I am planning to start some additional lettuce, chard, and kale plants and build an insulated cold frame just to see how well they do in our short cold Alaska Fall weather.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

I told you so...

Sometime last night a neighborhood moose stopped by and got my cabbage, snap peas, chard, some lettuce, and kale. I wish I had an electric fence - but it just isn't in my budget right now. I still enjoy gardening in Alaska. You just roll with the punches...

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

4th of July - Garden Update

Yesterday was the 4th of July and the weather has been about as good as you could ask for. Plenty of sunshine with just enough rain mixed in to keep everything green. It is amazing how fast everything grows in the short Alaska summer. Hard to imagine that a little over a month ago we were still keeping an eye open for any late spring frosts and the ground was just barley warm enough to set out tender plants without protection. Twenty hours of daylight can work magic with the right temperature and adequate water. A hot day in Wasilla is anywhere above 75 degrees. On a sunny day temperatures now average in the high 60's to low 70's and you usually get a cool breeze in the afternoon. Nighttime lows now are around 50 degrees. If the day is overcast or rainy you can drop 10 degrees and stay below 65 and tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants like it a little warmer to set fruit and do better inside a greenhouse. They don't seem to be bothered by high indoor temperature in the 85-95 degree range. Ventilation is still important for greenhouses and plastic hoop tunnels as humidity can build up promoting fungal disease and it can easily reach above 100 in a closed greenhouse on a sunny day.

Greenhouse tomatoes one month ago and today.
All of the tomatoes are setting fruit and I will be checking for any signs of blossom end rot indicating watering stress.

I added a 35 gallon trash can reservoir to keep the plants watered as they grow larger and start to set fruit. It is amazing just how much water the plants can absorb.

My new Grow Bucket test plants seem to be doing very well also and I need to build a trellis for the cucumber and set up a wire cage for the tomato.


The green beans are looking good and the raised row system seems to be helping. I have had good results with Purple Pod beans that turn green after cooking. They are much easier to find when picking as the purple beans stand out against the green foliage.

The hoop tunnels are holding up well also and the eggplant and peppers are looking good so far. Several peppers have set fruit and the eggplants are blooming but haven't seen any new fruit yet. I had an attack of aphids on my hoop tunnel tomatoes but that seems to have past and the tomatoes look okay.

I am fighting a bad infestation of root maggots and had to throw out the last of my radish crop. They are now attacking my onions and I picked up some predatory nematodes at the Far North Garden Supply today and we shall see if they help. I will have to to move my onions and any other root crops to a different garden bed next year.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Build Your Own Alaska Grow Buckets

The new improved Alaska Grow Bucket design is still based on bottom watering which depends on a wicking medium to draw water from below up to the plant roots. The design has been simplified and eliminates the second inner bucket and and the plastic wicking basket. Construction is much easier and takes less time. A free guide with complete step by step instructions is available for viewing and download hereAll components for building your system are available through my Garden Gadget Store

A bulk reservoir with a float valve regulator is still recommended for automatic watering and to maintain the optimal water level throughout the system when connecting several buckets.
The advantage of this system over a true hydroponic system is the lack of liquid pumps to circulate water and nutrients and air pumps to aerate the root zone. Lack of pumps means that power is not necessary. You can use this system anyplace you have a water source.

The first key to this system is the growing medium. It must have a strong wicking property. Soil or compost will not work. A soilless mix with the correct properties is necessary. I prefer a commercial product called Sunshine Mix #4 by Sun Gro Horticulture. It consists of Canadian Sphagnum peat moss, coarse perlite, starter nutrient charge (with Gypsum), dolomitic limestone and a wetting agent. Other Peat based soilless growing mixes will also work – but the addition of perlite and dolomite lime are recommended

The second key to this design is the readily available fabric shopping bag. These common bags can be found at most supermarkets and are very inexpensive or free. The bags are made from spun polypropylene and are very porous. To test a bag simply fill it with water. If it runs out freely then it will work. Similar “Grow Bags” are available from nursery and garden suppliers at a much higher cost. Canvas or burlap bags may also work – but they will eventually rot and fall apart.

The porous fabric allows excess water drainage and aeration of the root zone which is necessary for optimal growing conditions. The system is also based on the principle of “air root pruning”.  As roots grow out to the porous fabric they become exposed to air, dry out and die. This causes the plant to produce dense fine feeder roots and prevents root circling.  The increase in fine feeder roots leads to better nutrient and water absorption and promotes accelerated plant growth.

The third key to this system is the 5 gallon support bucket with plenty of ventilation holes around the sides. The bucket helps support the fabric bag and the ventilation holes allow adequate air movement. The bucket also acts as a water reservoir below the bag providing a water source for the wicking grow medium. By maintaining the proper water level with the float valve regulator the medium will never dry out and will continuously wick moisture up to the root zone.

I put together my complete How To Guide for building your own Grow Bucket system. You can view the PDF guide on line - download a copy and print it out. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Warming up in Wasilla

Yesterday was the first day of summer 2011. Spring in Wasilla has been pretty good this year with just enough rain lately to green things up. Lack of Spring rain can be a problem and usually leads to frequent wild fires. Things got off to a slow start with plenty of sunny days to melt the snow - but that meant clear cold nights that didn't warm the bare soil and the local word is that many plants are slow starting this year. The Iris in my yard are just now starting to bloom and many other bulbs have just began to emerge from the ground. It's all about soil temperature here in Alaska.

Alaska Iris
I am learning many techniques for taking advantage of the abundant sun to speed up soil warming. Along with plastic covered hoop tunnels I have mentioned before about covering soil with special plastic film that transmits the infrared spectrum called Infrared Transmitting plastic mulch (Irt Mulch®) and I am sold on using it for my garden to grow peppers and eggplant. The product I use is purchased from Far North Garden Supply in Wasilla and I believe it is called SRM® Olive plastic mulch made by Ken-Bar, Inc.

Eggplant and Peppers under IRT row cover
I am also learning about irrigation and how important it is when planting inside hoop tunnels. It may seem obvious - but it is easy to overlook when it is raining outside and you must remember to water your covered plants. I am still planning to try adding programmable timers to control the watering cycles. We don't get the heavy rain showers that I remember from growing up in the Midwest. An all day light rain here in Wasilla may only add up to 1/2 inch in many cases. An afternoon shower in Iowa could dump 1 - 2 inches of rain in one hour and flooded streets were a common sight. I remember a rule of thumb for irrigation - one inch of rain per week. Using my bottom watering grow buckets in the greenhouse eliminates the need to monitor the moisture  as long as I keep the reservoir filled they take care of themselves.

First pepper 2011
The right combination of long days, warm soil, and correct irrigation can lead to some surprising results and this King Of The North pepper is my first example this year.

It is also important to be patient and not to plant crops that don't do well in cold soil before it has time to warm up. I learned this the hard way, as usual, and my first attempt at growing green beans failed to germinate in the cool soil of late May several years ago. This year I waited until the first weekend in June and I am using a technique called mounded rows.  I constructed a raised mound about 12 inches wide and planted two rows of bush beans in each raised mound. I ran a 1/4 inch soaker hose down the center of each mound for irrigation.

Beans planted in Mounded Rows
I tried this before and did help, but this time I am running the rows east to west instead of north to south. Little details can make a big difference. In this configuration the sun will warm both sides on the mounded row as it moves through the day. As you can see the beans have germinated well using this technique. I will see how this planting pattern plays out this summer.

You never know what mother nature has in store and it can stay cool and cloudy for extended periods very easily. You will often hear people say jokingly that summer is over after a week of cloudy weather. There is also a saying that goes back to the first farmers to settle her in the Matanuska valley: "There are bean years and then there are lean years - it all has to do with the weather".

Alaska Fireweed - full bloom in mid-summer