Jul 182014

On July 5th, we returned from ten days in the Bush. The robins had fledged, and the harvest season was upon us.

The kale bed on June 5th after our freaky June 2nd snow:

Kale and other seedlings

The kale bed (with kale, cabbage, collards, mustard greens, bok choi, fennel, leeks, and cauliflower) doesn’t look so good, but these hardy little seedlings survived eight inches of snow on June 2nd, having just been planted.

The kale bed on July 8th:

Kale, collards, mustard greens, cabbage, cauliflower, and more.

And now they thrive.

The first harvest, July 8th:

Harvested kale, mustard greens, arugula

The first harvest of greens yielded a week of salads and ten 2-serving containers of winter greens. Second harvest: fourteen containers. Yes, I measure by 2-serving containers.

Aside from the bok choi bolting, the plants are doing well. I harvested greens a second time last weekend and will harvest chard and more greens this weekend. Greens are either dried as chips or blanched and frozen for use in the coming year. Of course, we also eat fresh greens daily, raw and cooked.

Good Things in 2014

  • I’m doing a better job stagger planting. We’ve had a continuous supply of spinach, radishes, arugula, and other lettuces.
Radishes at different stages of development.

Continuous radish production.

  • Rain. I’ve had to do little watering.
  • Breakfast radishes. Yum!
  • Spinach planted with strawberries. I read that they’re good companions. I can only do this on newly turned beds because old beds are jam-packed with strawberry plants—because I hate to cut runners.
Spinach and strawberry plants.

These strawberry beds were turned, fortified, and replanted this spring. While there’s room, I planted spinach between the berries. It’s time for another wilted spinach salad, I see.

  • I finally cut strawberry runners.
  • Instead of mixing them all together, I organized the kale bed plants by type, so I know what’s what.
  • Tons of strawberry and raspberry flowers.
  • Broccoli. Lots of plants this year.
  • Aphids. None on the basil (yet), and none on the cabbages (yet). Yay!
  • Garden feeding. I’ve done some—more than usual and almost according to vague instructions. You can forget detailed, per-species feeding instructions. Blood meal, bone meal, fish fertilizer, and worm juice (liquid from the worm bin).

Not-so-good Things in 2014

  • Mustard greens. I’m not sure I like these much. Anyone have tips for using these?
  • While I organized the primary kale bed, I didn’t organize two overflow beds, and I didn’t write down the second string plants that replaced things that died. As a result, I’m not sure if some plants are collards or cabbage or brussels sprouts or maybe even cauliflower. Note to self: It’s time to admit you can’t ID collards and friends until they’re old and bitter. Plant them together or write down everything you plant on your map. Quit thinking you’ll remember. You won’t.
  • I didn’t cut enough strawberry runners.
  • Raspberry jungle. Technically a bad thing, I suppose, but I couldn’t be happier about it! There will be a price to pay at some point.
Overgrown raspberries

The raspberry jungle. See the rows in the raspberries? Yeah, me neither.

  • Not a lot of heat and sun, so the zucs, squash, pumpkins, cucs, and beans are slow. We may not get much from them this year.
  • Peas. In an effort to give their usual beds a break to boost the soil and prevent disease, I planted the peas in different beds. They don’t yet have trellises to climb on, and there are way-yonder fewer of them, especially snow peas, which are usually a winter staple. I’m not sure why there are so few plants. Somehow, I thought I planted a bed that was, in fact, not planted. Unless some critter or person came along and stole all the planted peas just after they were planted, which seems unlikely.
  • Rhubarb. Still don’t have enough despite having tons of plants. They’re either not planted in good places, or they’re not getting enough food, or something else. We have some, though, and we’re enjoying it.

It’s a good year for the gardens.

Jul 012014

One of my favorite ocean animals is the Dall porpoise, or Dall’s porpoise, if you prefer. We see them regularly in Kenai Fjords National Park. One reason they’re a favorite is because they make it easy for us to see them. We don’t have to spend hours quietly waiting or sneak up on them: They come to us.

Two Dall's porpoises

Dall’s porpoises. They look like little orcas, don’t they?

They enjoy playing in the bow wake of boats, so it’s not uncommon for groups to approach tour boats and travel with them for a bit, giving passengers a nice show. Who doesn’t like a playful wild animal eager to interact with humans—or at least their boats?

They’re pretty, too. They’re black with white patches on the belly and flanks, so they look like little orcas, but they’re only about six feet long and 300 pounds. Yeah, only! And they’re fast, reaching speeds up to 35 miles per hour, able to zip along beside boats.

Until recently, I’d only ever seen them from a tour boat. I’m generally on smallish tour boats, but, still, they’re close but not exactly within arm’s reach.

Back in May, while visiting Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge, Mike, his brother, and I took our little skiff out to the mouth of Aialik Bay. Last year, it took an hour to go that distance, but this year a new motor makes that a significantly faster trip. Another unanticipated benefit of our faster boat is that it is now attractive to porpoises!

Me, all wet

Soaking wet from Dall porpoises splashing in our bow wake.

I leaned over the front of the boat and was within arm’s reach of a bunch of porpoises, zipping through the water, back and forth, up and down in front of the boat. I didn’t actually try to touch them: It seems intrusive, and you know how I feel about that. Plus, we were all moving fast, and my morbid brain can conjure all sorts of ways that could end in frightening, bloody disasters. I did, however, get splashed a lot. I was soaked, as was Mike—and the camera.

Twice, as we were floating, drifting, fishing, and baking in the sun, a group of porpoises approached and swam around us. “Wanna play?” they seemed to ask. When we continued to just sit there, all boring-like, they moved on. I hated to disappoint them. The tour season hadn’t started, so there were no other boats out, no one else to play with. But we had another purpose.

Mike holding the halibut we caught.

It’s not a big halibut, but it’s yummy!

A table full of just-caught halibut, rockfish, and shrimp.

Halibut, rockfish, and shrimp from Aialik Bay.

This isn’t the first time we’ve had close encounters with sealife while out in our boat. Remember the humpback whale? I hope this won’t be the last encounter, either. I love our little boat.

Robin Round 2

 Posted by  Alaska
Jun 242014

A couple of days ago, when the robins’ nest was unattended, Mike decided to get out the ladder and take another round of pictures. It had been only a few days since the first round, but because I couldn’t accuse him of disturbing the adults, he took advantage of the opportunity. Let’s be honest, we’d both be poking our noses into that nest several times a day if the birds didn’t seem to care.

The morning was cool, as it has been of late, the adults were nowhere around, and the chicks didn’t move at all. Mike was convinced they were dead. To his credit, he didn’t poke them. I’m sure he wanted to. I want to just sitting here looking at the photo.

Baby robin chicks in their nest.

Unattended and unmoving on a cool, forty-something-degree morning.

Eventually, an adult returned. I figured it knew what it was doing. Mike figured it was in denial.

Adult robin beside nest.

Checking up on the chicks.

The adults are out catching insects and even finding worms, which are rare here. They hop around the garden beds and driveway, helping with insect control. I wish they’d take care of whatever is eating the cabbage and bok choi, but they seem to prefer working in the berry beds.

American robin.

Catching insects in the driveway.

It’s been a few days since Mike took the above pictures. We haven’t seen any lightly feathered heads from the ground, and we don’t hear any peeping, but the adults come and go from the nest. They chase away other birds, but are nicely tolerant of us. I know: What choice do they have, really?

Again, both adults were gone this morning. Mike took the opportunity to peek in the nest. The chicks aren’t dead.

American robin chicks in their nest.

Alive, well, and growing feathers. Still rather adorably ugly though, no?

See? It’s fun having them nest under the deck, isn’t it? Even if it means we curb our use of the deck for a time.

Jun 192014

They’re here!

Mom and Pop Robin have chicks!

I peeked through the deck boards yesterday when Mom or Pop flew off the nest and saw this:

Robin egg and just-hatched chick.

Not hatched. Hatched!

I would have left the intrusion at that, but Mike and I have different levels of intrusion tolerance, and he went down below the deck for a better look and better pictures.

Last week, when I first peeked through the deck boards at the nest, I thought there were three blue eggs. I guess there were four.

Three just-hatched robin chicks and a blue egg.

Three chicks and an egg.

Are they adorably ugly or what?

I generally stay away from the nest—and keep Mike away—so we don’t disturb the robins. Mike is more inclined to go about his business as if the robins weren’t there, figuring that if the robins want to build under the deck, they have to deal with our use of the deck—or build somewhere else, dag nabbit. Coddle the robins and what do you get? More robins!

I figure they’ll be in and out quickly, so I can cut back my use of the deck for their peace of mind and breeding success. I like having them here, even though they eat the strawberries I grow and enlarge the holes in the soaker hose for easier drinking and more satisfying bird baths.

The first time we sat on the glider on the deck after the nest was built, the adult flew away and hollered at us from a nearby tree. The glider is only a few feet away from the nest. Eventually, though, it decided we weren’t going anywhere, and we weren’t out to harm it or the nest, so it returned to sitting on the eggs until Mike got up to come inside and walked over its head. A giant foot two inches overhead . . . yeah, I’d fly away, too!

I walk back and forth under the nest when I’m working in the yard, and they’re fine with that; they don’t budge. But I don’t let Mike park under the deck, and I keep the hose outside so I don’t have to open and close the garage door. It’s true: I go out of my way—and make Mike go out of his—to not disturb the robins. It doesn’t seem like a huge sacrifice or inconvenience.They’re going to have enough to do now, feeding four chicks, without having to worry about us, too.

Robin chick with open mouth.

Feed me!

When I first came to Alaska to work as a guide for Alaska Wildland Adventures, I helped drive two vehicles up the Al-Can. En route, we stopped several times to watch wildlife. After tiptoeing through brush for a better look at a moose in a pond, the moose noticed and seemed torn between putting more distance between us and sticking around to enjoy the yummy food on the bottom of the pond. I encouraged my fellow drivers to leave the moose alone and let it eat in peace. One of them looked at me with raised eyebrows and said, “You realize you’re coming to Alaska in order to show people animals like this, right?”

Yep. There’s a push/pull between wanting to see and share wildlife and wanting to not disturb it. I encouraged Mike to take these pictures, but I also encouraged him to be quick and as non-intrusive as possible, and I stayed inside to reduce the impact. The adults are still tending the nest, so I guess that will do.

Jun 172014

Today, our main garden has 350 square feet of raised beds. Then there are the strawberry/raspberry beds (probably another 350 square feet), the Million Dollar Flower Bed, Chili’s Flower Bed, and what is currently the overflow bed (maybe 100 square feet), home to rhubarb, potatoes, and various veggies that don’t fit anywhere else.

The whole gardening/yardscaping thing began in 2007 with this, eighty square feet of topsoil trucked in by a neighbor, carried in 5-gallon buckets by me and Mike, contained in leftover-siding boxes, and sitting atop silty clay that turned to slick, quicksand-like mud in the rain.

Raised garden beds in mud

Oh, the mud! The first two garden beds on the silty mud of the septic field.

We put up a temporary and not-at-all-strong fence to encourage moose to walk around the raised beds. At first, I don’t think they even noticed it was there. They’d just walk right through it. But they didn’t eat much, if anything, in the beds.

We pounded the green metal posts in while the clay was mud. Several are still in the expanded garden—and in the way—because we haven’t been able to get them out. When that clay dries, it’s hard.

Broken string where moose walked through the fence.

See the broken strings on the ground? We put the rag flags on the strings to make them more visible to the moose. “What? There was something there? I didn’t notice a fence.”

Pretty soon, the moose seemed to get the idea, and they’ve been very accommodating since. None of our fences are strong enough to keep a determined moose out of a garden, but except for an occasional curious calf, they stay out. We have very considerate and polite moose. As a result, I’ve decided to not fence the strawberry/raspberry bed completely, but rather to fence the corners so the moose are directed up the center path should they wish to go up the hill. It’s not a perfect system, some moose still tromp through the beds (there’s nothing to distinguish them as anything special), but mostly they walk up the path. They don’t eat the strawberries and seem to wait until after berry season to prune the raspberry stalks.

Moose questioning the not-at-all-strong fence.

What is this thing? You mean you want me to go around it? Oh. Okay.

I didn’t know much about gardening, let alone gardening in Alaska, but, luckily, the plants knew what to do.

Bob watering the garden.

First-year garden, in August. It’s growing well!

The little garden provided all sorts of greens, radishes, beets, and peas. I had no idea how to harvest kale and collards, so I let them grow until they looked like the bunches I had seen in stores. These days, I harvest younger leaves as they grow rather than waiting for a whole “head.”

I was hooked. I couldn’t wait to expand the garden the following year.

Lots of greens growing in the garden.

September 7, 2007. How the garden grows!

We were especially excited to try growing tomatoes in buckets on the deck. Early and late in the season, we carried the buckets inside at night.

Tomato plants in 5-gallon buckets on the deck.

Tomato plants in 5-gallon buckets on the deck.

We got our first ripe tomatoes in October. I hate to say it, but they weren’t that great. We’ve grown tomatoes a few times since, even building a cold frame for the deck, but the results have never seemed worth the effort. If we ever build a greenhouse, I’ll have another go.

Red tomatoes on the vine.

We had vine-ripened tomatoes in October.

Though it seems terribly slow sometimes, these pictures are proof we’re making progress.

Today's 350-square-foot garden.

The garden today. The original two beds are in there.

Jun 102014

Spring is a moosey time of year here. Pregnant cows come into the people community to give birth: There are few to no bears and wolves in people communities, and people tend to be less hazardous to calves.

I’ve been seeing two young bull moose frequently. I named them Bump and Spike (volleyball moose!) based on their antlers. Given their size (small, as moose go) and antler growth, I figure they’re teenagers, probably last year’s calves.

Young bull moose with anlter spikes.

Bump. His antlers have grown since I first saw him this spring. This is almost what Spike looked like the first time I saw him. As long as they show up regularly, I’ll be able to tell them apart, but if I don’t seem them for a time, I won’t be able to distinguish.

In fact, because they are both in the general vicinity, though not side-by-side together, I suspect they’re the twin bulls that we watched last fall, playing with each other and the boat trailer parked in our driveway. I figure they returned to the area with their pregnant mother, but were chased off by her and are newly on their own.

Twin moose calves playing with a boat trailer.

This was taken last fall. They don’t exactly look like bulls, but they acted like bulls, playing as though they had antlers and mounting each other.

I’ve seen them both a number of times, easily distinguishable by their antlers. Bump’s been around most, browsing on the hill while I work in the gardens and Hugo (visiting dog) lazes in one of his dirt beds. Bump also strolled by close enough—about twenty feet away—that I was compelled to sit with Hugo to make sure he didn’t chase.

We saw the young moose so often that Hugo routinely stopped in the doorway to scan the hill before going out, then stopped at the corner of the house to sniff and scan again in the other direction. He’s a lazy old guy; I don’t think he wants a confrontation.

One evening last week, I casually asked, “Is there a moose in the yard?” before making a lap around the darn-good room to examine the yard. I make such laps many times a day. At the last window, I answered my own question, “Why, yes, there is!”

Mike, incredulous, said, “No way.”

Oh, yes way.

But it wasn’t Bump or Spike, it was a cow, also smallish. She meandered up the hill on the west side and circled around the back of the house. As I retrieved the binoculars to get a better look at a mark on her hind quarter, Mike announced that something seemed to startle her, and she was running off.

Ah, yes, here comes another, larger cow. Followed by a tiny, brown calf—this year’s calf.

Around the house and down below the garden, the big cow aggressively chased the little cow, until finally the little cow headed west, and the big cow headed east with the brown baby on her heels.

Cow moose nuzzles young calf

Awww. A cow moose nuzzles her new calf. Isn’t nature lovely?

Without the benefit of a genetic test, I’m going to guess that the little cow is a teenager, the offspring of the cow that was chasing her. If that’s true, this young cow has spent the past year with her mother, and now, suddenly, her mother is not only leaving her alone (abandoning her), but is aggressively chasing her off (being mean).

I know this is how it’s done. It’s time for the teenage cow to grow up and be independent. Nature demands it; the cow has to raise her new calf. But it breaks my heart a little anyway. The poor teenage moose doesn’t seem quite ready yet.

So even while I marvel at the recovering plants on my deck and in the garden, celebrating the wonder and beauty of nature, I grumble at the heartless cruelty of nature, too. Sometimes nature is ugly.