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.

Jun 062014

Much of the snow melted later in the day on June 2nd, and the following day it was gone, except where it collects below the roofline. I shoveled snow into my water-collection buckets; I’d been hoping for water. We’re back to sunny days in the 60s.

Green hillside

The hill out back.

Bent and broken willows leaned on power lines and blocked roads and driveways. The aspens dropped small branches here and there, but otherwise weathered the storm well. The only remaining snow is in the mountains.

Aspens, mountains, and snow.

Healthy aspens and the last of the June 2nd snow in the mountains.

The annuals on the deck, which I would expect to be sensitive, are a bit on the scraggly side, but are green and growing strong. Truth be told, scraggly seems to be the norm. I planted annuals for the first time last year. Between the wind and my refusal to pamper, groom, or force the plants to be anything but what they want to be, well, wild and scraggly it is. They don’t complain about living in old laundry soap buckets and the like, and I don’t complain if they want to be leggy or droopy.

Annuals on the deck

The annuals continue to live and grow.

The local wildflowers in the Million Dollar Bed, show the effects of the heavy wet snow, but seem to shrug it off and carry on. The yellow arnica stalks that were flattened will simply bloom lying down. The young punk flowers (that have no idea how good they have it) can stand up. Same for the lupines and Jacob’s ladders.

Arnica, lying down and standing up

Whether lying down or standing up, the arnica continues to bloom.

And cheers to the kale bed that I thought was a goner: I replaced just two plants in this bed, a collard and a bok choi. At this point, the leftover seedlings inside look much better than these survivors, but I’m sticking with the survivors. I’ll plant what I can of the leftovers in unfenced overflow beds where they may become moose food, and we’ll eat the rest.

I look forward to seeing this bed in a month.

Kale and other seedlings

The kale bed (with kale, cabbage, collards, mustard greens, bok choi, fennel, leeks, and cauliflower), on June 5th.

Snow? What snow? In June? Don’t be ridiculous.

Jun 032014

I had plans for today, really I did, and they did not include watching snow fall then watching snow melt. Snow hasn’t been on the agenda since April. But sometimes plans don’t work out.

The day began a little after 5 a.m. I woke to soft “whump” noises and the metallic clanking of the fuel oil line. These are familiar sounds.

I was instantly alert: Bump or Spike—the young bull moose hanging about lately—was probably munching on the fireweed just out the back door. It’s a great moosey snack spot.

I sat up in bed and saw nothing but white outside the loft window. Yesterday, everything outside that window was green.

Snow on the hillside.

The hill out back.

My heart sank. Snow—and no mere dusting. Whump! That was snow sliding off the house roof onto the shed roof. Clank! That was snow falling from a willow onto the fuel line.

At another time of year—say, anytime from October through March—my heart might leap with joy at the beauty of it. But not today. Just a few days ago, I planted out the seedlings I’d been growing in my house for the past 4–6 weeks. I’d just moved the pots and buckets with annuals out to the deck. Was this snow in the weather forecast? Should I have known? Beats me. I rarely look at weather forecasts. It’s been 50–60+ degrees all through May. I felt late getting things outside because I waited as long as I did. June 1 is the standard for-sure-safe-to-plant-now date. That was yesterday.

Snow on deck and flowers pots.

I moved the buckets and containers with annuals outside only a few days ago.

It snowed for the next four or five hours, sometimes lightly, sometimes with giant, wet blobs. Despite the weather, I heard one of the neighbor robins singing. A pair nests here year after year, rearing their young in our strawberry/raspberry patch, where they eat berries and insects and peck at the soaker hose to open larger holes and get more water. This year’s nest is under the deck.

Robin perched in a snowy aspen.

And still the robin sings.

Green leaves drooped and looked glassy. Willows bent—more than a few broke—under the weight of the wet snow.

Willows bent under the weight of snow.

Not weeping willows, but perhaps willows weeping.

I was distracted all day, wondering how the seedlings in the garden were faring—especially the zucs, squash, and pumpkins in the (not so) warm beds, and marveling at the drama and spectacle of it all. It really is a wonder that plants and animals survive the sometimes extreme conditions here: A fire is burning up the Kenai Peninsula; a volcano is erupting on the Alaska Peninsula, and we’ve got snow on June 2nd, after an unusually warm month, during which plants flowered early. (I’ll take the snow over the fire and volcano, thankyouverymuch.)

Several days ago, I walked through the tundra noting the gazillion tiny blueberry flowers and the white buds of Labrador tea ready to burst open. Now what? Will we have blueberries this year? I wanted to go out and see if the blueberry flowers had all been knocked off the plants or frozen, but there was still too much snow to know.

By midday, the snow stopped falling. That’s when I stopped watching it fall and began to watch it melt. Gradually, the pots of annuals on the deck became exposed. The plants were flattened, but still vibrant green, not dead. Not nipped as they get in the fall when it frosts. They looked better than the leaves on the willows and aspens.

Annuals under snow.

Annuals flattened, but not dead. I don’t think.

Several times, I ventured out to the garden and yard to see what I could see. I had forgotten that yesterday, after working in the strawberries, I noted how cold it was and put plastic down over the plants in the warm beds. Hooray! I wish I’d remembered that at 5:30 this morning.

Plastic on a raised garden bed

Not the right plastic, not well placed–but it’s there!

It seems to have done some good! Oh, plants are flattened, and not everything survived, but some plants did.

Tiny surviving zuccini plant

It lives!

On the other hand, the broccoli, kale, cabbage, collards, bok choi, etc. don’t look so good. Given the rebounding I’ve watched today, I won’t write them off entirely just yet, but they weren’t protected, and things don’t look good in that bed. On the bright side of this, however, is the fact that I have a good many spares, warm, snug, and growing strong here in the house. As usual, I never thinned the starts, and when it came time to plant out, I carefully separated the partners that shared a container, and I have a bunch of leftovers.

The native wildflowers that I’ve been cultivating for several years were, like everything else, flattened, but they’re not dead, and every time I check, they’ve perked up a bit more. Just Friday, I explained to my mother that this is the first year this flower bed really looked nice. Figures, eh?

Lupines and other wildflower recover from heavy snow.

Many of the blooms are still there, and some of the arnica stalks are starting to stand up. Go, flowers!

And perhaps best of all, when I was finally able to survey the damage to the blueberries on the tundra, I discovered this:

Tiny pink blueberry flowers.

Hooray! Blueberry flowers survived!

I had a hard time getting a picture of the blueberry flowers: The sun was shining, and the snow was melting fast. Tiny branches sprang up as snow fell away, and the pictures had blurry streaks.

How’s that for bouncing back?

May 112014
Leaves popping out on aspen trees

Taken May 11, 2014

The aspens popped yesterday. One day’s growth is pretty spectacular. For the next three months, nature and the season are on fast forward.

First flower of the year.

The first flower of 2014.

I’ve begun walking through the aspen grove in search of fairy slippers. They’re usually the first flowers I see. This one, however, has been out for days. I suppose it has an advantage being in a somewhat cultivated bed.


And so it begins.

I planted some of these in mid-April, some every week since. I need to do some thinning, but, as usual, the idea makes me sad. Sophie’s Jen’s choice.

The main garden beds are turned, copious amounts of bloodmeal added. My hands are blistered, and my body feels as though it’s earned its dinner, which is from last year’s garden.

Mike set shrimp pots two days ago. Let the planting and harvesting begin!

May 012014

Here’s my little “Yopp!” for the #weneeddiversebooks campaign going on this weekend. Thanks to Grace Lin and Cheryl Klein for showing me where and how to direct my yopp—and for helping to provide the diverse books I love to read.

Children's books with divers characters and authors

It took me under a minute to grab a handful of diverse books off my shelf.

I want diverse books to be published because they appeal to my sense of adventure. I love to travel and do new things, and books enable me to do way-yonder more adventuring than I can do in my own life. I adore books that take me to new places, expose me to new activities, and show me different points of view.

That’s what diverse books do for kids, too, and I think that’s a good thing. I think it’s vital to developing empathy for others, a necessity in our complex, diverse, ever-shrinking world.