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Close to the Earth in Alaska

Portrait of an Alaskan Garden

Using the old John Deere to clear space for the garden.

In 2006 my husband, Matt, cleared a space for our garden. He used the old John Deere to drag cottonwood logs cut from our property as raspberry bed borders.

The garden in March

March may still look like winter, but it’s spring in my head, and I start thinking about what I’ll plant in May. The gardening books come out, I review previous years’ notes, and rattle my leftover seed packets because I like the sound of all that potential. Weeding and back pain don’t even cross my mind.

Spinach plants and leaves in a laundry basket.

One summer, the spinach leaves grew to the size of salad plates! I washed out a laundry basket for hauling my favorite greens to the kitchen for processing. We eat lots of spinach salads, and blanch and freeze the rest.

Rhubarb

Rhubarb is an Alaskan staple.

Crimson Giant radishes

Crimson Giant radishes from Denali Seed Co. (based in Anchorage) really did grow into giants. They have great flavor and are crunchy with just enough heat.

Broccoli

Broccoli grows surely but slowly and is ready by mid-late August.

Boyne raspberries

We grow three varieties of raspberry. Boyne, shown here, are the best for just popping in your mouth as a snack or dessert, but our Goldens and Killarneys are tasty too. All three make excellent jam.

Containers with chives growing

I’ll try transplanting one of these chive pots to a permanent place, and try over-wintering the other inside.

Hot peppers in the greenhouse

Hot peppers did well one sunny summer in the greenhouse, but I had to bring them indoors in fall to fully ripen.

Yukon Chief corn

This year, we’re trying corn for the first time—Yukon Chief from Denali Seed Co. We only have 16 plants, but if it’s successful, we’ll try lots more next year.

A cabbage as big as my head

My first attempt at growing cabbage yielded one as big as my head!

A rustic fence to deter moose

Most of the time, this rustic fence deters moose. Now, if it would only do the same for weeds…

Something in the Water

A photo of Susan B. SommerI’ve just learned there’s something in the water in our neighborhood. It causes a disease called H1NF and typically only affects men, especially those who’ve lived here a long time. Apparently, if too many germs from this malady build up in their system, they’re forever afflicted. H1NF’s common name is House 1 Never Finished.

Remodeling frustration

The causes of H1NF are many: lack of money or time; illness or injury; 80-hour work weeks; indecision; purchase of other more pressing items such as camper, RV, ATV, snow machine, or boat; football season; fishing season; cold beer. In fact, a friend up the hill swears it’s not the water wreaking havoc with our men’s systems, but something – ahem – a little stronger. Could be. Could also be that every so often they hear a voice on the wind calling, “Hhhhoooo - this is your cabin speaking ... when are you going to build my deck? And how about that Arctic entryway you promised?” Our poor chaps. They’re pulled in all directions! I do know that whenever my hubby and I earn a little extra money, we both agree it’s more fun to use it for fixing up the cabin than our house. So I admit I’m just as guilty of fostering our case of H1NF.

Cabin improvements in progress

Friends and neighbors have come up with all kinds of creative solutions for dealing with their own H1NF condition. One married gal whose kitchen floor was bare plywood for the longest time decided to sponge paint it a nice peaceful green to simulate a mossy carpet. Though a trail has been worn into the most active corridor, the floor retains a rustic charm that matches the rest of her house.

Another friend whose home, upon initial entry, seems finished – for it sports carpet, linoleum, and blinds – reveals a few small details left off the to-do list. The window sills have lacked trim for a decade. And a while ago (as in years, not weeks), the couple cut a wall back to make more room in the dining area. The flooring there still gapes, filling with dirt and crumbs between regular vacuumings. My friend just rolls her eyes and offers us ladies more wine. While sipping, we joke about trading our men to each other for house and yard projects, since they seem more eager to tackle others’ tasks than their own (especially if there’s beer). Maybe that way we’d all end up with finished houses one day. But probably not. Guys are so easily distracted by things like tractors, sawmills, “vintage” cars, and shiny tools.

Working on the sawmill

The most outrageous case of H1NF in our neighborhood made itself known to me only recently. I thought I’d seen it all until I met a delightful couple and subsequently paid them a visit on their turf. The lady of the house is new to Alaska, but her man has lived on this spot for years. Like many, he started out small and expanded his living quarters over time. What they call The Shack is now a guesthouse. Another cabinesque structure houses all manner of things, from furniture to bags of chicken feed nearly spilling out the front door. (They are now, by the way, our source for fresh eggs.) The big house, the one they occupy, is still a work in progress. On the ground level is a massive garage, though “shop” would be a more accurate term, as there’s no room to park a vehicle. Creative projects are a higher priority. The house perched above the shop on this sloping plot is nearly done except for a bit of flooring and a railing around the small, 20-foot-high deck. There is one other major thing missing. Stairs. To get up to the house. Their (his) solution is an aluminum extension ladder spanning the vertiginous gap from dirt to towering porch. Ever since she moved in last winter, my hardy new friend has been carrying groceries – and everything else – up the rungs to the house in a backpack. She, being a woman, and as yet unaffected by H1NF, has of course insisted on stairs by the end of this summer. I wish her lots of luck, for this fever has a strangle hold on our beloved gentlemen.

As for my own experience with this contagion, I’ve learned to endure, and even to ignore. Less and less I apologize to new guests for the painted plywood section of our living room, or for the water-stained hardwood floor that needs to be refinished, or for the lack of trim everywhere, or for the general oldness of our abode. After all, this homestead has history and character. Less and less I expound to those who’ve already heard it a hundred times anyway on our grand plans for getting rid of the popcorn ceiling or eventually laying carpet back in the bedroom from which I ripped the horrid ‘70s shag several years ago. As for my man, I know he’s both lured and repelled by all that “needs to be done.” The never-ending, self-imposed list sometimes overwhelms him. But really, we’re our own worst critics. No one else is out there wondering, “Gosh, are those people ever going to finish their house?” Nobody cares. We could live in a tent and they’d still be our friends. Besides, they have no room to talk, since many of them also suffer the same curse.

Alaskan house with character

Now, as if H1NF isn’t concern enough, there’s yet another ailment besieging nearly all Alaskans, not just those in our area. 2CGC’s source is uncertain but is believed to have originated from drinking water contaminated with dust left behind by the ever-growing population of packus ratus, an unruly little rodent immune to even the most valiant of its hosts’ efforts at eradication. Its results can be seen everywhere, from city streets to country hamlets: cars and trucks parked outside in the cold, mere feet from heated garages packed full of Stuff. So close, and yet so far. Ours included. 2CGC, of course, is the infamous epidemic Dicargarageicide. Although a few individuals have made progress in fighting it, the scourge is so widespread that any attempts at a cure remain as elusive as a pesky mosquito at night.

Hmm, maybe we should all start drinking bottled water. Beat these poxes to a pulp. Naaahhh. What, then, would we gals have to gripe about?

Wait. Don’t answer that.

Muffin Recipe: Sweet and Savory Sommer-House Muffins

A photo of Susan B. SommerI’ve tried a gazillion muffin recipes over the years, and finally stumbled onto one that actually holds together, is super healthy, and tastes great. Below is my basic recipe, followed by ideas for flavorful additions.

Basic Sommer-House Muffins

(Makes 12 small or 6 large.)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Spray or grease muffin pan.

Soak:
2 cups rolled oats
1 ½ cups sour/buttermilk (or mixture of milk and plain yogurt)

Mix and add:
1 egg, beaten
3 tablespoon brown sugar

Mix and add:
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon soda
1 teaspoon salt

Fold in additions (see below). Fill muffin cups even with top and bake about 16 minutes for small muffins (a little longer for large).

Ham, cheese and sundried tomatoes additions for muffins

Creative Additions:
Currants or cranberries and orange juice or peel
Bananas and walnuts
Apple, cinnamon, and allspice
Carrot and apple
Nuts, seeds, and ground flax
Sweet potato puree and pumpkin pie spice
Chocolate chips and coffee or coffee liqueur
Ham, cheese, and sun-dried tomatoes
Garlic and cheese
Olive and herb

Ham, cheese and tomato muffins

Tips:

  • Adjust sweet/salty ratio depending on whether you’re making sweet or savory muffins.
  • Try other liquids (beer, juice, stock, chai, etc.).
  • Try other quick-cooking grains (quinoa, couscous, hot cereal, etc.).
  • Adapt recipe for loaf pan and serve sliced.
  • Freezes well (cool, wrap in plastic wrap, and store in zip-closure bag in freezer).
  • Travels well—great for commuters.

I’d love to hear of other combinations you come up with or have already used in your muffin-making adventures. Enjoy!

Save Money: Think Before You Buy

A photo of Susan B. SommerEvery day we’re bombarded by advertising on TV and radio, in catalogs and magazines, in our mailboxes. Having grown up in our throw-away quick-fix modern society, I constantly struggle to fend off these entreaties to buy new gadgets and spend money on all kinds of things I don’t need. But I also come from a family and am married to a guy who knows how to fix old stuff and build new stuff from scratch. So, though I’m sometimes lured into the thrill of buying new, I’m getting better at purchasing wisely and making do with what we already have. Here are a few ways creative thinking has saved us money.

Plastic Bag Dryer

I use a lot of Ziplock bags, most of which stay fairly clean. I rinse them and have been laying them atop the stack of clean hand-washed pots, pans and delicate stemware in the dish drainer, but inevitably the corners get squashed and don’t fully dry, or they get splattered being so near the sink. Flipping through catalogs, I’ve eyed those bag dryers with the nice ash or birch sticks poking up from an attractive base, but just can’t bring myself to spend upwards of $20 on one. So I decided to make one. I dug through my box of extra jars and found a tall plastic container with a lid, through which I pierced holes with a small nail. I filled the inside with rocks to stabilize it, then gently stabbed a wooden cooking skewer through each hole. I covered the whole shebang with wrapping paper to pretty it up, and voila!

Plastic bag dryer

Clothes Pins as Bag Clips

Those large plastic bag clips are overpriced and unnecessary. We use clothespins for open bags of cereal, frozen veggies, pasta, etc.

Clothes pins as bag clips

Cat Trees and Toys

Have you shopped for a cat tree lately? Highway robbery! Though I’m willing to spend whatever it takes to keep my pets healthy, I’m a cheapskate when it comes to buying their happiness. Shortly after I got two kitties from the pound last year, I visited several pet stores looking for a tallish carpeted cat tree so they could spend the winter spying on critters outside and gazing contentedly down upon their humans and dogs below. Every “tree” I sampled either cost hundreds of dollars, or was cloaked in hideous purple shag carpet, or wobbled. Sometimes all of the above. What to do?

“Could you make one?” I asked my husband, who has lots of tools.

He’s a smart man, and knows that a happy wife equals a happy life, so after only a week or two of hemming and hawing, he cut a large old willow out front, and set to work peeling the bark, drying the trunk, measuring and cutting and nailing shelves. “They better use it,” he said. We joked that it would make a really nice plant stand if they didn’t. Turns out they love it. When they feel like it. That’s how cats are.

As for cat toys, I admit I do buy the bag of 10 rabbit-furred fake mice, but beyond that they get cardboard playhouses constructed on a dull winter’s eve, crinkly tissue paper, and shoelaces.

Homemade cat tree

Corn Bag Helps Keep Thermostat Down

I remember as a child sometimes taking a hot water bottle to bed with me (does anyone use those anymore?). Now I use a corn bag that we acquired as a gift. This year, especially, we’re more conscious than ever of reducing our costs, and rather than have “heat wars” (I’m too cold, he’s too hot – typical couple), we keep the thermostats turned down a bit more than we used to, and I crawl into bed each night with my microwaved corn bag. Within minutes, my whole body is toasty. Two hours later, heat still radiates from the bag.

Corn bag heating feet

So, how do you save money through creative alternatives?

Commitment to Eat Locally Produced Foods

A photo of Susan B. SommerAlaska’s agricultural hub of Palmer is a 40-minute drive from my house in the fertile Matanuska Valley. I was born in Palmer, but have never paid much attention to its farming activities other than visiting a u-pick business, biking or walking on the area’s scenic roads a few times each summer, or going to the state fair.

All that, though, is about to change.

The more I read about eating locally produced foods, and the more I think about self-sufficiency, the more I want to support farmers in my region. For years my husband tried to convince me to buy local milk from the now defunct Matanuska Maid dairy, but toward the end of the company’s 70-plus-year run, they were selling a gallon of milk for $6. Six dollars! I doubt it cost that much in previous years, but being the bargain shopper that I am, I always went for the cheaper store brand, never considering how much the real cost was when you added in shipping to Alaska and unhealthy additives (thank you, Barbara Kingsolver, and GRIT, for helping open my eyes). Unfortunately for Matanuska Maid, efforts to keep it afloat were too little too late.

An Alaska Farm

But yesterday I was picking up a few groceries at Fred Meyer, and at first grabbed two gallons of the cheaper milk and placed them in my cart. The bright yellow jugs next to them in the cooler caught my eye, though, and I saw that their labels said Matanuska Creamery. Hmm, a new, local dairy source, and though it sported a higher price ($4.69 vs. $2.00 on sale for the Fred Meyer brand, which is distributed by a firm in Ohio and comes from who knows where), I surrendered, sort of, and exchanged one of the mystery gallons for a local one. It was a small, first step.

When I got home, my husband, who’d been out running his own errands, said, “I bought eggs!”

He gets them occasionally at a nearby hardware store. The two dozen eggs were, like the local milk, from Palmer.

“They were four-something each,” he confessed about the price, “but I really want to buy from the local guys. When you think about it, that’s only, let’s see…” He began figuring in his head how much extra we’d spend if we purchased local milk and eggs all year.

Local dairy and eggs

The numbers made it crystal clear to me: We drink about 1½ gallons of milk a week, so at an average of $3/gallon, that’s $234 per year for store brand vs. about $366 for Matanuska Creamery milk, a difference of $132. And if we bought local eggs instead of those shipped from the Lower 48, most likely laid by stressed hens living their entire lives in putrid cramped cages and fed antibiotics, the difference would be about $90 per year. Combined “extra” expenditures on local dairy would be $222. Big whoop! We’ve dropped that much on treating friends to one dinner out! Oh yeah, and there are also those pesky health risks that figure into the equation from mass produced foods. And transportation costs. And living conditions for the animals. Who knows what the final tally is?

My family already eats meat that we harvest ourselves – salmon, moose, caribou, wild sheep. I grow vegetables every year, and pick berries. From this day forward, I’m making the commitment to switch to locally produced dairy products. I’m not sure if Alaska produces its own grains for human consumption, but discovering that is next on my list.

Winter Gardening Alaska-Style

veggies in bowlAh, yes, winter in Alaska. Today it’s 33 above and raining on top of a foot of brand new snow. Spring, however, is around several corners yet; it’s only February after all. Three more months till the birch leaves are the size of mouse’s ears, and I can work the garden soil, start pressing vegetable seeds into rows. Three more months of enduring a palette of white, blue, and dark, then brown and muddy.

But in my mind, the picture is clear and bright and full of green. My winter garden comes to life in visions of tender spinach leaves growing bigger every day under the long northern summer sun, until they are themselves like salad plates; feathery green carrot tops waving gently in the breeze as their orange roots reach ever deeper; purpley-red radishes ready to eat in no time; tight little broccoli heads forming and expanding despite my worries they won’t.

spinach in the garden

Even the mosquitoes are welcome in these dreams, for the smell of Off is our summertime perfume. Inside our little old run-down greenhouse, tomatoes bask in the heat. The raspberry bushes – Boyne and Killarney and Goldens – are forming fruits, luscious and juicy, ruby red and yellow. Salad tonight! Jam tomorrow!

These are the dreams that sustain me through the rest of winter.

I fertilize my garden visions with seed catalogs and photos from last year’s crops, water them with research on irrigation methods for our planned garden expansion, light them up by talking to other green thumbs. I even plant some actual seeds for basil, parsley, and cilantro, and when they sprout, set them in a cool room on a table by a big window. I build a fence of sorts with cardboard and duct tape around the edge to keep the cats out. Can reality rival my imagination?

veggies in bowl

It’s a common saying that gardening is an act of faith. So is living in Alaska. I was born and raised here, but left a few times in my twenties, convinced the grass was greener elsewhere. Literally, it was, but metaphorically, not so much. Alaska always wooed me back with promises of wildness and midnight sun in June. Eventually I settled down, settled in, got married, and moved to an old homestead property with plenty of space to plant our own food. As our garden takes root, so do I. And I put up with the fickle winter weather and months of bundling up because I know the snow will melt and the world around me will come alive again and sustain my body and soul. In the meantime, my winter garden thrives.