garden starts

Beneath the Borealis, Post, Sown, 04-20-20, Growing Peas from Seed in Alaska

Sown

The annual seed planting party has started and this year, it’s a two-stage event.

As acquiring fresh food has become more of a logistical marathon than even the “best” Alaskan shopping trips, creating your own something fresh has become more important than ever. For months now, I’ve been sporting a serious rotation of sprouts and have discovered, through scarcity, ways to stretch fresh foods farther than ever before. Yet as Winter seemed to hang on rather than hang her hat, I wasn’t so sure when the real growing season would begin.

 

Beneath the Borealis, Post, Sown, 04-20-20, Animals of Alaska

Sweet little pawprints in still deep snow.

 

So, I began.

While most seedlings are ready to go outside by about 6-weeks, the longer and longer Alaskan days (the sun is barely set by 10 pm these days) sometimes speed that process. The sun greets the little starts and the starts salute her back, stretching to meet her daily. Start too early and your sweet seeds will have legs for days (in this case, a bad thing). Start too late and your seedlings will still be maturing when the ground is ready, shortening your growing season. Plant now? Plant later? It’s a dance we all do out here, every year.

“Have you planted?”

“Do you think it will be a June 1st kind of year?”

With almost two feet of snow on the ground and April midway through her reign, getting plants into the ground by June 1st, even two weeks ago, didn’t sound all that feasible. Still, I figured, why not start a sort of starter crop? If the season held tight and refused to greet Spring, I could re-pot the most gung-ho of starts into bigger pots and keep them inside, further transforming our house into a greenhouse.

 

Beneath the Borealis, Post, Sown, 04-20-20, House plants in Alaska

These babes have been with since last Fall and have brought me more joy than I could have imagined.

 

So, I braved the slippery descent under the house to round up the seeds a girlfriend and I share. A few days earlier I had gone under to grab my remaining half cube of soil, a huge bag I wrestled inside in order to defrost. Trying to keep my footing on our under the house ice rink, I smacked my head in the process hard enough to put a ringing in my ears. Perhaps I need a helmet. So, on my second descent, I proceeded with care, retrieved the seeds and got to work. It seemed as if the little ones had reproduced over winter. The options were endless.

 

Beneath the Borealis, Post, Sown, 04-20-20, Gardening in Alaska Starting Seeds

Grandma watched over via her decanter. Love you, Gam.

 

Easily overwhelmed, I used a lifeline, phoned a friend, and decided to start with the basics:

Flowers

Herbs

Lettuce

and

Early beginners (those who need a longer season, like tomatoes, peppers, etc.)

 

I divided them by the above delineations and then by their needs:

 

Darkness

A 24-hour soaking period prior to planting

Constant moisture

Light watering

Daily foot rubs (oh wait, that’s my need)

And then, I got to planting!

Nope.

By the end of the prepping, planning and pampering my babes to be, hours had passed and I was pooped.

The Chief looked at me and back at the half cube (think: about 15 pounds) of soil sitting in our “enormous” house (that was sarcastic) and gently said “It’s ok. Just leave it inside for one more day”. The soil, after being moved into and about the house from inconvenient place to inconvenient place for the last few days of planting procrastination certainly wasn’t going outside to freeze again. The nights had been cold and the snow continued to flurry and so we tucked in for the night, Leto, The Chief, the soil and I.

 

Beneath the Borealis, Post, Sown, 04-20-20, Alaskan Malamutes

Mind meld nap

 

The next day was the day: Planting Day (Round One). I budgeted an hour or so to get all the seeds into their cozy, warm soil homes. I mean, I’d already done the hard part of sorting and debating over and soaking the seeds. It was planting time.

 

Beneath the Borealis, Post, Sown, 04-20-20, Gardening in Alaska

Round One

 

Time it was. Somehow, it took me three hours to simply plop some seed pups into soil. It’s a process and one I really love to do. I forget every year how lost I get in the process and how the hours smoothly slide on by. The day was sunny but cool and as the sun made her way behind the trees the temps dropped quickly. I got up every few sown rows or so to get more water from inside, as the water I had cooled within a few minutes. My frozen fingers plodded along as I finished up by fashioning darkness for some of the finicky flowers and cilantro. The cold nipped its final warning. Inside time.

 

Beneath the Borealis, Post, Sown, 04-20-20, Starting Plants from Seed in Alaska

Already rising from their dark sleep.

 

It was done. Round One of the great seed party was complete and as the sky threatened snow I knew I had made the right choice. Winter would hold on, but at least we’d have fresh food inside.

Then came the rain. Winter had ceded her throne. How wrong I was.

The very next morning, Easter morning, I heard the familiar old sound of rain on the roof greeting me from my bed. It had been months since I’d head that sound, since last November, and it brought with it a sweet fondness and familiarity. Change was coming. The lightest of pitter-patter turned into a substantial stream and in it, The Chief, Leto and I took our final true Winter walk. The next day, the trails were an ominous mixture of hard and soft, packed and porous, and I sunk with every few steps up to my knee. Precarious as it was, it announced what I had wondered on for weeks: Spring was on her way.

In the last week, Winter has finally given her final bow and into our lives Spring has sprung with gusto. My garden beds I’d shoveled weeks ago finally melted their last icy layers and for the first time in months on end, I saw the earth below. I dug my fingers into the still nippy soil and looked up to a bright sun in my face.

Spring.

In the last week, all sorts of things have returned to my reality, like old friends returning home.

 

Beneath the Borealis, Post, Sown, 04-20-20, Weather in Alaska

Hello, butt stump!

 

From pulling out our rainboots to seeing what’s unearthed by the melt, things I’d forgotten were buried beneath the season (and our house) have shown their faces again. Processes and patterns, well-weathered by months on end of repetition, have changed and with them, we find ourselves sometimes awkwardly shifting with the season. Even simply getting water from our well is a different experience and although one might think it would be exactly the same experience for us and our neighbors with whom we share the well, it isn’t.

This time of year onward into Summer is the easiest time for us to get water. We hook up two hoses and thar she blows! Instead of schlepping buckets up and down the Ramp of Doom we simply run the hose to the top of the Ramp and fill buckets quickly and easily. Our neighbors, on the other hand, once the snow has completely melted have to walk over, carrying their 70-pounds of water home because their 3-wheeler isn’t working (though they can borrow ours, of course, but I know that sometimes the exercise is nice. Sometimes not.). In the Winter, walking up the Ramp is treacherous and tiresome while they simply load and unload a snowmachine. Two households with the same opportunity (the well) and two completely different realities. One easier, one harder.

 

Beneath the Borealis, Post, Sown, 04-20-20, Spring in Alaska

Spring. The Flipped Perspective.

 

As the season shifts, it means different things for different people, even those in relatively similar circumstances, especially for those in different circumstances. For me, I’m praying to be eating a harvest from these seedling babes in a few months. For my girlfriend in Oregon, she’s enjoying the current bounty from her Winter garden while simultaneously prepping her next season’s crops. We all live in different circumstances yet want the same things: food, water, shelter, love (and pancakes. Did I mention pancakes?). The simple shifting of the season makes it oh so clear that while we are all in this shift together, it means different things for different people.

Be gentle.

 

Beneath the Borealis, Post, Sown, 04-20-20, Growing Peas from Seed in Alaska

Tender new sweet peas. Leaves of little hearts.

 

Shift these times will, and remind us of that which perhaps we had forgotten under the cover of Winter. The other day, after the rains had abated, I visited the wedding arch a dear friend crafted for us on our wedding day and saw the stones he had placed to hold the two willows in place. I had forgotten that beneath the snow lay a base. A base of love, built by hand, stone by stone.

 

Beneath the Borealis, Post, Sown, 04-20-20, Wedding Arch in Alaska

Thanks, M.T. We love you.

 

It’s funny how we forget that which was familiar only months ago and even that which has been for years, every year. We forget that starts take hours on end to complete. That soil has to be brought inside sometimes days before planting. That you never remember everything you need the first time to get the planting job done. That some things that are hard for you are easy for others and vice versa. That your loved ones will surprise you with little miracles to last the seasons through.

 

Beneath the Borealis, Post, Sown, 04-20-20, Friendships in Alaska

Throwback to when A.T. brought me a bell pepper (!) in the middle of Winter. Cheers to beautiful friends.

 

I think in this most precarious of times, seeing that which lies beneath by shedding our winter coats, feels a bit like a rebirth. Seeing soil, shifting our chores to reflect the season, starting fresh with life anew through the simplicity of seedlings soothed my soul in ways I didn’t know I needed.

 

Beneath the Borealis, Post, Sown, 04-20-20, Growing Peas from Seed in Alaska.jpeg

Rows on rows on rows. Hello, loves.

 

Perhaps June 1st will welcome these sprouting babes and the planting beds will be filled with warm soil, ready to receive them. Or, perhaps Spring will snap again and whisk herself away from Summer’s grasp and our house will turn further into a jungle. Perhaps some of the seeds will sprout and some won’t. Not everything that’s planted blooms. Either way, I’m grateful for the shift that has already occurred, away from darkness and into the light.

With love,

from Alaska

 

Beneath the Borealis, Post, Sown, 04-20-20, Weddings in Alaska.jpeg

This way, mama.

A Reinterpretation of Thumbs

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When I was a child of 6 I had a bunny. Her name was Cinnabun due to her cinnamon color (not because of my affinity for cinnamon buns, though it is strong and not for Cinnabon the company. It was not even around at this point. Gasp! Contain yourself, or at least try to) and because she was a bun (short for bunny, ya know?). My parents had divorced years earlier and so she was a Dad’s House Bunny instead of a Go With Me Everywhere type bunny. And that was o.k., or so I thought.

Cinnabun made my time at my Dad’s house more bearable for me and she had been a breath of fresh, non-murderous air from my previous Dad’s House pets. My previous Dad’s House pets had all seemed to be been living out some sort of Roman Coliseum enactment. I had owned two rats whom had been incorrectly sexed as girls. I came to find out quickly that they were, in fact, boys. Two male rats might as well be two warring tigers, each with meat strapped around his neck to further entice the other into battle.

At night the battles began. Almost as soon as “good-nights” had been said the Battle Royale would begin. There would be squealing and shrieking and tearing about the cage, breaking their little wheel and spilling their food and water. I would turn on the light to find panting rats and blood everywhere. The moment I turned the light off, the battle would start again.

For some reason, unbeknownst to me or dare I say anyone, my Dad decided not to intervene for months and so every night I would pile pillows over my ears, in tears over the viciousness happening right behind my head (they were on a bookshelf behind my bed).

So that was one set of Dad’s House pets.

The next were 7 goldfish. At first, they were delightful; bright orange and gold floating little creatures with big eyes and hungry mouths. I loved them. For some reason the only container I was allotted was a Rubbermaid wash basin to house my new pets and so it was perhaps because of this that the Murderous Goldfish was born from within a potentially good goldfish. The bad seed bloomed.

Every day I would come home from school to find another goldfish dead. I didn’t get it. They were fed and housed and I talked with them non-stop (oh, maybe they were bored?). Sure, their accommodations were small but I was working on that.

Throughout the school week homeward I would come everyday to find one more dead goldfish each one looking suspiciously more roughed up. This was not just failing goldfish. Finally, the end of the week came and one goldfish was left standing. We realized once we looked back on the week (and the states of the goldfish) that he had in fact been killing the other goldfish. My Dad said he had seen him chasing after one, pushing it towards the corners.

How was I supposed to love this monster whom had killed all of the others? He was a jerk of a fish if I’d ever seen one. He even scared me. I would come to the “tank” and he would swim back and forth, jumping at me menacingly. I don’t remember what happened to this guy (he remained unnamed). He lived for a while and then after lamenting again and again to my Dad that all of my pets were murderers I returned one week for Dad’s House Days and the brute was gone. Perhaps the sewer systems of Sonoma County would know his whereabouts.

At his disappearance I was both relieved and disheartened all at once and so when finally came the day that Cinnabun came into our lives, a vegetarian hell-bent on little more than hopping about to find clover I felt I had finally found my pet. We would spend hours together, her hopping about, me following on all fours, wiggling my nose in agreement that indeed the best clover grew in the northern patches of the property. My dad and I built a teepee with sticks and grew sugar snap peas to climb up it, creating a hidden world for Cinnabun and myself to pass the days in.

But Cinnabun was not a Mom’s House and Dad’s House bunny, as I stated before and as I stated before I thought this was fine.

I was wrong.

One day I returned for my Dad’s House Days and Cinnabun was nowhere to be found.

“That’s odd” I thought to myself realizing within seconds that it wasn’t odd. Something was fishy here and now I was all alone again. Where was my friend?

I questioned my Dad mercilessly over The Days together. He didn’t know where she had gone or how.

Hmm..weird.

On one of The Days I was walking along on my stilts, pondering her disappearance when it dawned on me: my Dad had let her go.

Of course! She’s a bunny, not a jewel thief or Houdini. She didn’t crack the code or wiggle her way out of the cage. She was let out.

I angrily came to my Dad with this realization, hoping to be met with opposition but his response fell shorter than short.

“I did. You should have seen the way she looked at me, Julia. She was so miserable just being in her cage all the time.”

Umm…exsqueeze me?

I argued and argued. He could have let her out more, she always stayed near. He could have told me and I would have simply brought her to Mom’s house. He could have done anything other than what he had done but he didn’t see it that way. Plus, he added, his girlfriend thought she stunk.

Oh, well that makes it all the more reasonable.

I sat in the clover patch and cried and cried the rest of the Dad Days away.

A few weeks later on another set of Dad Days I was lonely and lazily walking through the garden. I had always loved digging in the dirt but it had always been a little nerve-racking. The garden was taken seriously and I was always afraid to make a mistake. I always seemed to water “too hard” or push down the seeds “too far” and I just “didn’t quite get it”. I didn’t have the green thumb of the family, that was for my Dad to claim and so I shied away from it. That was until it was time to plant the garden earlier that year. My Dad had told me that bunnies loved Nasturtium and so, setting my gardening insecurities aside, I planted and planted Nasturtium for Cinnabun to enjoy.

Well, the Nasturtium was now in full effect and remembering what my Dad had said about bunnies and Nasturtium flower I sat in the field and waited. He came out and noticed my efforts. “Nice job kid, maybe you’ll spot Cinnabun if you wait there quietly. She probably misses you.”

Ah, a dagger to the heart. Thanks, Dad.

And so I sat and sat and sat and ate and ate and ate Nasturtium, not wanting to leave for a snack and miss my chance at seeing Cinnabun again. I ate so much Nasturtium that Summer that I made myself sick daily and all for nothing. I never saw Cinnabun again.

My Dad on the other hand claims that she came back to visit him often to thank him for freeing her.

I guess she had no words for me, her captor.

I did however see her offspring. It seems she had teemed up with a Jackrabbit (or twenty) and suddenly all of the bunnies in the countryside were a clear mix between Cinnabun and Jackrabbit. My Dad singlehandedly changed the DNA of the bunnies in our area and I lost my friend, but hey, she had been “miserable” and she had stunk, right?

So, that was my intro to gardening (and half of my intro to pet ownership. Thankfully the other half at Mom’s House was a little less traumatizing). Planting and tending to the garden yet always critiquing myself or fearing critique. Planting for a purpose and then having that purpose destroyed. Not the best start.

I shied away from the garden after that. Even though it was truly something I enjoyed, it had lost something for me and carried a weight instead of relief.

As an adult I tried again. I started with cacti and killed them all via overwatering (also known as too much love). I tried orchids (geez, why not try bonsai next? A real recipe for success) and succeeded in promptly killing each and every one, except for the one I gave to a girlfriend who had it blooming within the week. Another deflated Garden Confidence Balloon.

Finally, I had my own house with room for gardening and I was determined to make something of it. The only problem was, I wasn’t the only one gardening and it turns out, my partner in crime was every bit the perfectionist my Dad was. I was “sloppy” and “watered at the wrong times of day” and in general, didn’t do it the way it was “supposed to be done” and so again, I shied away. And all of those critiques were perhaps valid but they weren’t the welcome wagon I needed to garner the confidence to start to garden again.

However, last year, before I left for Alaska, something started to shift (well, many things inside of me seemed to start to shift but this was one with a clear outcome). I decided the garden was going in instead of waiting for the call for “more soil” or “bring that shovel over” from someone else. I started to take a bit more charge. I found the place from which I would purchase my starts and planned out three beautiful raised beds. I was going for it. We even decided to bite the bullet and start raising bees as well.

 

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The wonderful D (whom I would eventually move in with before Alaska) and myself donning the beekeepers uniform.

 

The garden was going to be a success and I was finally including myself in the process. We bought the plants and tilled the soil, built a sun shade/green house and planted all in one day. I planted all of my herbs after we had finished on my own, each time hoping I had placed it correctly or watered it gently enough since because it was my herb garden and I was the only one planting it would be obvious that it was my fault if it failed. In the garden I didn’t know exactly which plants I had planted and so no one could have been to blame for a fruitless start.

 

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Look at those white legs! Maybe I’ve secretly lived in Alaska all along…

 

At the end of a long day I felt accomplished yet still nervous. I wanted to wash myself clean of the stigma I had accepted that I had a black thumb in the garden but I couldn’t quite until I had proven to myself otherwise.

 

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Ah to be able to simply go to the store and buy extra soil. Simple luxuries.

 

Well, I never quite got the chance to prove I was planting proficient (though in retrospect I had been running a beautiful and productive herb garden for the previous three years and had kept alive for three years a wonderful family Jade plant my mother had given me that she had cared for for 20 years prior).

I left.

Maybe a week or so after planting the garden and getting the bees I ended my relationship and moved out of my house, starting the flip of my world which would land me living in Alaska. I left all of my plant children and all of my thousands of bee children after all of the work I had put into them, never to receive any of the fruits of our labor. It didn’t matter because suddenly there was no salad or serving of honey that could have come from that garden that would have tided me over or sweetened the deal enough for me to stay.

Interestingly enough, the person I came to visit in Alaska, the person whom is the whole reason I am here today, came to visit that gardening day, right as I was planting roots in California. She just stopped over to say “hello”. Maybe as I was planting she too unexpectedly planted something in me, a whisper of options and happiness elsewhere. Who knows?

I missed my garden and my bees and checked in on them a few times when I returned to retrieve my belongings prior to leaving for Alaska but it wasn’t the bounty that I needed, it was the confidence I gained seeing the garden grow each time I returned. It was bountiful and I had planned and planted it. I hadn’t pressed the roots in too hard. I hadn’t transplanted them too roughly. I had given them a good start and with a little water and tending to they had grown into an amazing garden.

Once in Alaska, I missed having a garden even more since fresh can be hard to come by at times. But I planned instead of fretted (it was too late by the time that I realized that I was living with The Chief to get a garden growing) and got excited for the next year.

Well, the next year is here and despite its lessening, I have to admit that my self-doubt still whispers in my ear from time to time.

I was certain I wouldn’t be able to grow anything from seed.

I was wrong.

 

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I was certain I would plant incorrectly.

I was wrong.

I was certain that my starts wouldn’t fend as well as my neighbor’s did.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

 

You see, we have a communal garden between our neighbors and ourselves. There’s four of us and as the other couple is more experienced at gardening, I felt myself shying away again, feeling insecure, sure I would ruin something. But, between their encouragement and The Chief’s I started to have faith in the greenness of my thumb and let old insecurities start to fade away. Why not let them go? A fresh start.

 

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We all spent the day mending the greenhouse and planting seeds together

 

Sure, some things in the garden didn’t fare as well as others and despite even buying starts some of the starts I bought are now as big as my garden was in California within a week of transplant (and we transplanted the starts here a month and a half ago).

 

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Welcome in.

 

The soil needs work and the greenhouse needs further repair. Cilantro bolts overnight it seems and the garden can be soaked to the bones from watering in the morning and bone dry by midday. Gardening in Alaska is a whole other beast and you know what? It’s kind of perfect for me.

In California things grow easily. After the last frost it’s game on. There’s very little covering at night or babying of plants. For the most part, watering is sufficient given the right medium (soil) and the bounty is well, bountiful.

Here in Alaska the growing season is, just like most things in the Summer here, a race. Starts get going early on from seed and remain indoors until the last frost but often what one thinks is the last frost is in fact the second to last frost. I lost a few plants that way (and a shower unit due to freezing pipes). It’s all a gamble. You can have every aspect perfect and still, you might leave a plant out overnight and suddenly months of work are gone.

Oh well.

For a fearful gardener like myself, one might think this Alaska scenario would be defeating but, in fact, it inspires me. I feel like a mother bear protecting her young. The elements can be kind or cruel and its up to us and our neighbors to keep the plants going. Plus, there’s always room for improvement. Plus plus there’s never a critique or a lack of faith sent my way, only encouragement and that is worth more than I ever knew. And besides, even if I couldn’t grow anything myself, Alaska provides a bounty which constantly surprises me.

 

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A harvested Shepard’s Purse and Chamomile cuddle. Two hearts.

 

This year I started Nasturtium from seed. I worried it wouldn’t grow as I didn’t have the appropriate seedling mix. It grew. I watched it sprout as there were still snow patches outside. It grew alongside the celery that I grew from scraps over winter. It grew along with the many other starts that came up with it. Sure, some of them failed, some of them faltered, some of them, well, it is yet to see what they will do. That’s the joy of gardening now for me. It’s become an experiment. I take mental notes about what did what and when and contemplate why. I’ve started to shift from “you killed it” to “why did that not work and what can I do differently”? It’s no longer so personal and I worry less that I’ll be found out as the culprit for failure. Things come and go, ebb and flow. A perfect garden doesn’t exist, but ours will keep getting better through listening to the lessons it teaches.

 

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The Nasturtium hasn’t put out flowers yet and who knows if it ever will but over 20 years after the Cinnabun incident I still look at them daily and smile (and gag a bit). No longer do they have to stand for a Summer of heartache (and stomach-aches) but for a change of heart towards myself. My thumbs are neither green nor black but sometimes they are the color of the Earth in which they dig to create life. Our garden may not be perfect but it’s helped me to realize that nothing is.

It’s my first garden in Alaska, my first time planting Nasturtium as an adult and even better, it’s the year that the bunnies have returned to our valley. They are on a sort of seven-year cycle. They come back, the Lynx come back, the Lynx eat the bunnies, the bunnies die out, the Lynx go hungry and then die out and then, they start back around all over again.

Nasturtium and bunnies again. Oh, Alaska, your serendipity never ceases to amaze me.

Thank you.