I blinked … and missed spring

First of all, good-bye Tumblr. I tried to post this on my old blog there, and the posting interface had shrunk to a Twitter-sized widget-thing. Clearly they have other plans for their product than the kind of life-journaling I have in mind for this place, however infrequently. So I’m reactivating this one.

So I pretty much missed spring this year. It happened about 2 weeks ago, unusually early. BAM, and all was green. Last week, we had temperatures in the high 20 °C (above 80 °F). But despite the summer-feel, we’re still just seeing the first blooms, which is always a special time.

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Calypso bulbosa, the fairy slipper orchid, right outside our house: These are some of the earliest widflowers, and easy to miss. They’re also very tiny (7 cm/3 in or thereabouts).
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All four Bergenia specimens I planted last year have made it through the winter, and this one is flowering. (I don’t know which species this is.)

The last post here is nearly a year old. At that point I didn’t know yet that last summer would be the wettest since records have been kept in interior Alaska (that is, in approx. 100 years). It was wet. Constant torrential rain. Where in previous years we couldn’t keep up with watering, this time the brassicas all directly bolted, squashes drowned, and whatever needed pollination pretty much failed. (Except blueberries. I was able to go out with my friend Jodi Bailey to one of her patches and get  15+ l of blueberries, something like 4 gallon-sized containers full). No lowbush cranberries to speak of where we live!

But the garden wasn’t a complete failure. Peas were good, and so were leafy greens. Potatoes (“All Blue” from Ebbesons’ Farm – now sadly retired from active farming) were my best harvest ever, and very tasty (about 22 pounds, give or take). And carrots. We got carrots, from the community plot at UAF.

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At the end of the season, I built a raised bed and planted garlic. It overwintered there. I’m extremely curious to see if it’ll come up this year. 3-20140914_092955

So, a winter that was mild with a severe, long Januar cold snap later, and we’re taking stock and preparing for the new season. I’ve been very busy with my research work (passed the “comprehensive exam” in April, and have an accepted PhD project proposal, yay! but also a timeline, argh!), so plans have to be fitted in efficiently. I didn’t start any seeds indoors this time, and only put an old seed tray and last year’s seed packets out in front of the house, now that it has warmed up. What will come up will come up, but otherwise I bought starts, or bartered them from friends. Of course, potatoes and peas are the must-plant vegetables. Here’s the plot behind the house as of the long holiday weekend, when everyone here is planting:

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Left: potatoes (purple fingerling/Borman’s farm; German Butterball from my friend Stacy; a small batch each of Magic Molly and California White). Middle: all peas, with some radishes, beets and turnips in the middle of the row; Right: assorted brassicas and chard. We also have lettuce, green leafy stuff, strawberries, and the garlic (hopefully) in raised beds.
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The honeyberry bushes I planted two summers ago are growing, and two out of the three are flowering! One is a pollinator for the other two, but I forgot which is which. I doubt we’ll get many berries yet, but nonetheless this is nice.

Out of the other bushes and perennials I planted last year, strangely enough, it’s both Highbush Cranberry bushes that have died over the winter. Apparently thawing followed by a cold snap is much much worse for plants than continuous severe frost. It’s a different species (Viburnum trilobum) than the ones that natively grow here, but still surprising. The Amur Maple looks straggly, but is making leaves.

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More perennials for the cold and dark bed in front of the house. From the botanical garden’s plant sale. Oh, and some Thai basil for the kitchen.

So far so good. In June, we’ll receive a shipment of asparagus crowns. Until then, we’ll need to get a raised bed built.

[1] Importing the Tumblr posts into WordPress.com took maybe 3 min. Kudos WordPress team.

Phone camera wildflower impressions: Snow Arnica (Schneearnika, Arnica griscomii subsp. frigida), Arctic/Pink Wintergreen (Wintergrün, Pyrola asarifolia), Labrador Tea (Grönländischer Porst, Rhododendron groenlandicum), Bog-star or Northern Grass-of-Parnassus (Sumpf-Herzblatt, Parnassia palustris), Prickly Rose (NAdel-Rose, Rosa acicularis), Dwarf Dogwood or Bunchberry (Kanadischer Hartriegel, Cornus canadensis). Plant names, English, Deutsch or Latin are best guesses.

Garden tonight: raised bed 1 – leafy greens, radishes, beets, carrots; raised bed 2 – brassicas, lettuce, chard, summer squash; 10 containers of mixed brassicas; little cold bed – sugar snap peas, lamb’s lettuce, spinach; back patch – snap peas, turnips, potatoes. The radishes are nearly ready to pick, and the leaves taste lovely. The greens bed has lamb’s lettuce (Feldsalat), mixed leaf lettuce, arugula/rocket (Rucola/Rauke), spinach, butter bib lettuce, and tatsoi (wow, very good). The container with the red leaves and the very end of one of the raised rows has some experimental orach (Rote Gartenmelde). The brassicas are bok choi, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts. All plants grown from seeds. 

Our bushes, planted 2012 to 2014: one crabapple (Malus fusca, wilder Apfel), 3x haskap or honeyberry (1 pollinator, 2 for fruit) (Lonicera caerulea, Blaue Heckenkirsche), one native gooseberry (Ribes oxyacanthoides, Manitoba-Stachelbeere), 2x Saskatoon Serviceberry or Juneberry (Amelanchier alnifolia, Erlenblättrige Felsenbirne), 2x Highbush cranberry (Viburnum trilobum, Amerikanischer Schneeball).

Baking bread

One of Melinda’s cousins sent us an automatic breadmaker as a gift – a Cuisinart model that can make up to 2 pound sized loaves. Having never baked bread from scratch before, I was intrigued. Clearly, many do, and even more clearly, there are a lot of moving parts and variables that need controlling.

This post is to note down my first two attempts. Both have turned out to be quite delicious.

Take 1: I only had King Arthur brand unbleached all-purpose flour, which the internet says is close to T55 in the French system and is what the French use to make baguette out of. Fine. Recipe used: Pain maison spécial Machine à pain from the French recipe share site 750g.com:

  • 500 g all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 270 ml water
  • a bit more than a 7g envelope of regular dry yeast

 Used the “French or Italian bread” setting (program 2), dark crust, 1.5 lbs. The result looked like this (well, other than not being blurry):

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Verdict: Nice first try – definitely a white bread. Crust maybe a little dry and boring, but ok. Texture good. Not very fluffy nor very soft. OK toasted.

Take 2: The Alaska Flour Company makes and distributes locally grown barley flour, and I think it’s good to support Alaska’s little agriculture sector. I also wanted got some loose wholewheat flour from the co-op (which is mostly a health food store). This time I made a mix of recipes I saw around the interwebs and came up with this:

  • 150 g all-purpose flour
  • 150 g wholemeal wheat flour
  • 100 g barley flour
  • maybe 30 g Scottish porridge oats
  • 250 ml water
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1.5 teaspoons salt
  • one and the rest of the already opened envelopes of dry yeast (maybe 10 g?)

I used the “whole grain” setting (program 3), dark crust, and made cuts into the top. Result:

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It came out of the oven only a few hours ago, so I don’t know how it’s going to age, but it’s quite lovely fresh. Nutty, soft, not too crumbly. Quite happy with this one!

Cycling in Denali National Park

So I’m just back from an adventure I’ve wanted to embark on all summer: cycling the Denali Park Road in Denali National Park and Preserve. The Park Road is 92 miles long from the park entrance to the former mining claim of Kantishna, one of the rare privately owned spots in the park and a complete resort with roadhouse and tourist shuttles. The last public campground is at the mysterious Wonder Lake at mile 85. Another popular deep-in-the-park destination is the Eielson Visitor Center at mile 66, set in a spectacular mountain setting. 

There way I had heard people bike the park road in the summer is this: take your bike on a shuttle bus to Wonder Lake, arrive in the late afternoon, cycle all through the night and maybe part of the next day. The ultimate solstice experience. These people have done it like this, and so had my supervisor (several times). However, you can really only do this between mid-June and mid-July – we have nights now with real darkness (and the cool-off during the night is also greater now). So I packed up a tent, sleeping bag, camping gear etc. and set off. This is what my bike looked out at the start, Saturday afternoon:

Note the bear-proof food container right behind my saddle. The backcountry desk at the park’s Wilderness Access Center provide you with one if you get a permit to camp in the backcountry. The desk is staffed by park rangers, and they are nothing short of awesome. They have a great attitude and helped me to sort out my itinerary, given I had arrived late on Saturday afternoon and wasn’t quite sure which direction I wanted to ride the road (outward is easier – the climbs are less steep and you end with a long downhill on pavement). 

The plan was this: Day 1 – ride to Sanctuary River campground (mile 22) and camp there. Day 2 – ride to Eielson Visitor Center (mile 66), visit, and camp a mile or three downhill from it in backcountry unit 34. If the ride is too long, catch a camper bus with bike rack for part of the ride. Day 3: Roll all downhill to Wonder Lake (mile 85) and catch a bus back. This isn’t quite how it worked out, but no matter. 

The road is paved for the first 15 miles, which is how far any visitor can drive in. Then until mile 31 (Teklanika rest stop) it is wide enough for two buses to pass each other. Beyond that, the larger vehicles have to let each other pass. 

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The image above is from just before mile 7, when the first rain broke out. I waited it out under a spruce tree. There were wonderful blueberries in these woods and beyond… 

The road nearly everywhere very good. My touring bike was perfectly adequate, though this is maybe one of the rare cases where a hybrid with mountain bike elements/29er would be highly appropriate. I was debating putting in wider tires, and that might have been better. Anyhow, no flats.

One of the “worst” sections was this (looking back down the climb I just went up):

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The dirt is still very well packed down, and it’s easy to avoid occasional washboard. Looking towards the other side:

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The elevation profile is worth looking at. Nothing too bad for someone used to hilly interior Alaska, but there’s a difference riding on a highway with no/little baggage and riding on a dirt road loaded up like I was. Mostly, I was a lot slower than I expected, and yes, those climbs can become steep. I wasn’t going to be able to do them all in a day.

To get to my first stop, I rode the paved section of the road (mostly uphill) to Savage River, then a nasty rise and somewhat steep descent (in the twilight) to Sanctuary River. My campground at Sanctuary River…

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… and the river itself:

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The campground has only 7 places, tent-only. It is clean (like all of them) and fairly secluded. The only other party was a bunch of young men with packrafts. 

After Sanctuary, it’s a pleasant ride to Teklanika campground (water spigots available to fill your bottle), Teklanika rest stop (mile 31) and the Teklanika River:image

Then follows a section of beautiful boreal forest to Igloo Creek. And then the serious climbing begins.

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I made it up to Sable Pass and a little beyond, and then an enticing green camper bus with a bike rack came by. So I flagged it down and rode to Eielson Visitor Center in comfort. 

View from Sable Pass:

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The first bear appeared not long after Sable Pass, disconcertingly close to the road (none of the bear photos are going to be high quality, sorry!): 

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The willows in the foreground border the road. None of the bears I saw took the slightest interest in what was going on on the road, though. (And yes, I had bear spray readily accessible and had gotten the bear safety talk from the rangers.) 

Here is an even smaller bear, this one way beyond Polychrome. Can you see him?

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Same bear, zoomed out – landscape with bear dot:

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And here we have a few caribou – can you see them? (This is close to Stony Overlook, already getting close to Eielson):

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(They are close to the right edge of the picture.) All this is on a backdrop of alpine tundra. 

Eielson Visitor Center is in a place of extreme natural beauty. View to the south, towards the gorges below and the creeks full of glacial runoff:

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Mount Eielson (just to the right of the picture above):

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The sun coming out for a moment between the clouds and illuminating the tundra:

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A view back towards the road we came on:

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And a view up north… towards the ridge 1000 feet above, which I hiked up to camp just beyond on the plateau, out of sight in the backcountry. Access is particularly easy here as the Alpine Trail zig-zags up this mountain side to cross the ridge in the U-shaped depression at the left edge of the picture:

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Also, my ride back was in one of these buses.

The weather held just until I had reached “my” ridge. Then it started raining and rained all night. It was also quite windy on the north side of the ridge. The next morning (this morning), after hiking back down the mountains side looked like this:

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As for my bike…

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I decided that rolling on the wet dirt road in the fog and drizzle down to Wonder Lake, only to catch a bus as soon as I arrived, wasn’t going to be all that much more fun. So I left back from Eielson on the early bus, and came home in time to dry my tent and write this post.

It was a great trip, just too short! I learnt so much about traveling, touring and camping, and will sure do it again. I also increased the number of bears I’ve seen (all grizzlies) by several hundred %. 

To finish up, some tips:

  • Travel as light as possible. Don’t take as much water as I did. A filter system (just for backup) and three bike bottles worth of storage is perfect. Teklanika campground and Eielson have 24h accessible water refill stations. I carried more than twice that. I also carried too much gas for the cooker. 
  • You’re going to be slow. Painfully slow. Touring with a full pack is VERY different from travelling lightly for an overnight solstice ride. I wasn’t surprised about the effort expended, but hardly ever rode faster than 10 mph. Seriously, it’s very slow – and the downhills on gravel with a loaded bike aren’t something I’m going to take fast either. I have no trouble doing a 40 mile evening ride in the hills around Fairbanks and think that 40 miles as a day goal on the park road is pushing it.
  • Don’t save on a mat to sleep on. It got pretty cold at night. Also, carry a variety of snack foods.
  • Maps: Get this one – it’s a good topo map and has the backcountry units marked off. Especially if you want to stay longer in the backcountry. Cyclists, print out the elevation profile, and of course pick up all the maps they have for free at the park entrance.
  • What performed well: My Kona Sutra touring bike, the Ortlieb panniers, the REI 1-person Quarter Dome tent, my new Marmot rain pants, Melinda’s JetBoil cooker. I’ll get a waterproof stuff sack for the sleeping bag and a better (and longer!) rain jacket next time.
  • The rangers at the backcountry desk will help you sort out what a good camping spot for a cyclist would be (that is, with bushes to stow your bike out of sight, not too much bushwhacking to get the required ½ mile away from the road etc.) 
  • We saw tons of bears between Sable Pass and Polychrome and even some after Toklat. Caribou up around Stony Overlook. Some moose around the park entrance.
  • The best campgrounds for tent-only, in my opinion, are Sanctuary River and Igloo Creek. Beautiful country around Igloo Creek. 
  • For doing this again, I would take at least three full days of cycling. These guys are doing it right, for fit guys, I think: Park entrance to Igloo Creek is doable in a day. Igloo Creek to Stony Overlook is … tough. I probably would camp somewhere on the rise after Toklat. Camping near Polychrome would be harder (open country or steep slopes), and it’s also very bear-rich country. Then on the last day you don’t HAVE to go all the way to Wonder Lake – the campground is bound to be packed with people who took the bus in (reserve ahead if you want to stay there) plus there are a lot of backpacking kids in the backcountry. You will have to do at least one backcountry camping night – so why not do two? Or of course be super-tough and ride all the way from Igloo Creek (the last campground before Wonder Lake) to Wonder Lake Campground, with reservation: then you can safe on the bear-safe food container, which is heavy and bulky.
  • Other than cycling, day-hikes are very well catered for, either on your own (from Igloo Creek for example) or with the ranger-led program. I wasn’t aware that they organise hikes, including shuttle bus to the starting point, every day. That would be a fun and safe way to experience the amazing park and wildlife.

Nearly August: garden update

So things have been growing, some more than others, and it’s time to take some more notes for next year. 

From an economic point of view, the Swiss chard (DE: Mangold, FR: blette – we grow the kind with the pretty yellow and red stems) just keeps giving and the zucchini plant has produced one beautiful squash with more to come. The bok choy, despite its tendency to break out in bloom, turned out to be very tasty (we’ve supplemented the small plants we got from the CSA with leaves from ours because we like a big heap of bok choy stir-fried over rice). The potato plants closest to the light are shooting up shoulder-high, wich I’m not sure is a good thing….

… but on the other hand, the snow peas are another small success, with very tasty pods just getting ready now, a week or two behind our neighbours:

I planted seeds from two varieties. “Snow bird” came up very prolific and dense but stayed small; these are producing right now. “Sugar Daddy” took longer to come up, and much less densely, but grew taller and is in flower now. I expect will also produce a meal or two of pea pods.

The single sorrel plant is a nice complement. On the flip side the carrots should have been watered more early on and thinned out. Hopefully they’ll grow a bit.

On to the brassicas. The Brussels sprouts (DE: Rosenkohl) are taking their time, and so are the kohlrabi, but something’s happening, so that’s good. The nicest progress comes from the broccoli. I had to emergency-harvest one of the six plants, which had fallen over, but the other five are just getting ready. When Melinda’s back from traveling, we’ll have a week of broccoli meals, I think:

The overflow garden is a bit hit-and-miss. What worked: Oregano, majoram, thyme, mace, and possibly the shallots. Sage is ok. Parsley and basil pretty much meh, as are the tomatoes. The leeks are also still awfully small, though I’m sure will come out edible. I’ll look into better soil next year and select the herbs more attentively. I mean, we should be able to grow parsley! Also, I miss dill. There’s a pot with some arugula I sowed late, which should be ready soon.

The peas are fun. I had a lot of left-over seeds, which sprouted in a tray during the wet early summer days and got strewn around unlikely places:

It staggers the harvest.

The CSA has been giving me ideas. Special attraction: beets (the red ones were spectacular, and the leafy parts taste great, too), turnips and spinach.

Swiss chard and yellow summer squash frittata

I keep forgetting recipes that work. So here’s one that worked really well tonight. I bought some small yellow summer squash at the grocery store – like zucchini, but yellow and more delicate. And we have Swiss chard in the garden ready to use. So I looked online for inspiration and was heavily influenced by this, though I took  my time caramelized the onion a little bit and my result was less dry than their photo.

This is the amount of chard I used – sorry for the blurriness:

For two people:

  • 3 eggs
  • 1 small yellow summer squash (or a zucchino)
  • a handful of Swiss chard, stems included, approx. 100g 
  • 1 medium-sized yellow onion
  • 3 cloves of garlic (or less)
  • parmesan, grated (optional – I used about 2 teaspoons of a mix that came with ravioli)
  • olive oil, a little bit of butter
  • salt, pepper to taste
  • chives (optional)
Cut squash once lengthwise and then into fine slices. Set aside.
Cut chard stems into 5 mm long pieces. Finely chop leaves.  Finely mince garlic. Chop chives. Set all aside.
Beat eggs in a roomy receptacle and season with salt and pepper. Set aside.
Pre-heat oven to 350 °F / 175 °C.

Cut the onion into fine strips or small chunks. In a small, non-stick (preferredly), oven-safe frying pan, sauté onion until translucent, then reduce heat and under near constant stirring caramelize until lightly brown (takes about 30 min – you can stop with a sautéd onion if that’s too long). You may have to add some butter in the middle of the process if the onions get dry. Season a little.

Add squash, stems, approx. half of the garlic. Stir constantly and sauté until squash is slightly translucent and stems are still crunchy but edible. (5-10 min)

Add leaves and wilt, stirring. (Approx. 1 min)

Take pan off the fire and let cool for a minute. Meanwhile, season again and stir parmesan into the beaten eggs. Then add the content of the pan to the eggs and fold under lightly. Add the rest of the garlic.

Put pan back onto the stovetop and if necessary add a little olive oil or butter. Add mixture back into the pan. Once the bottom has set, put pan into the oven until the eggs have set completely and a nice crust has formed on the bottom. (Approx. 10 min)

Serve garnished with chives. We liked it!

Gardening notes 2012, July

This is a quick & straightforward chronicle of this year’s gardening efforts. I noticed that I neglected to write down anything we did last year, what worked, what didn’t and that now I wish I had done this. 

Here’s a picture of our main plot. As is obvious, it’s pretty hard to fight the fireweed, prickly roses, chickweed and grasses that feel at home here. 

The rows aren’t straight, but I don’t mind. Most of the plants (more on exceptions later) were put in during the Memorial Day weekend (the last weekend in May), or the one after. This is the traditional planting (or transplanting) time in interior Alaska. 

Quickly what I remember from last year (2011). We had, in the same three rows:

  • 12 bok choy plants – great success, we were drowning in bok choy
  • butter bib lettuce (4 or 8 plants, can’t remember) – excellent
  • brussels sprouts – grew like mad, developed wonderful little cabbages, but all 6 plants were eaten by a moose just when we wanted to harvest them
  • broccoli – was eaten by Black Bunny (a tame run-away domestic rabbit that had elected to live on the property during the summer of 2011; I still miss him) and his little snowshoe hare friend
  • peas – ditto
  • spinach – ditto
  • carrots from seeds (can’t remember which) – nice success, small, but tasty
  • shallots – ditto
  • eggplant – didn’t grow
  • zucchini – flowered repeatedly but seemed to drown in rain
  • some kind of pepper – developed one tiny stunted fruit
  • tomatoes: 1 Roma, which didn’t develop any fruit. 1Siletz, which I understand was developed in Oregon for short growing seasons. We first thought this one was a bust, too, but when the season threatened to end, this poor plant started cranking out fruit like crazy. We ended up with several pounds of severely green tomatoes, which I transformed into a tasty green salsa. The Siletz plant was a slightly surprising half-success.

I may have forgotten some plants. All the transplants came from Holm Town Nursery. We also had a mint plant, several Italian parsleys and some dill in the very shady bed next to the house entrance. None of them was very happy there but we got at least some herbal leaves from them.

So now on to this year. I had put it into my head to grow potatoes, so I got three pounds of seed potatoes from Homegrown Market. They nearly fill up the left row – at the back are German Butterball, and in front two different red-skinned varieties the names of which I may fill in later (they are on plant labels, but it’s raining now). I don’t know what’s going on beneath the surface, but the plants themselves (all 31 or so of them!) are clearly quite happy. At the front of the row, a lonesome and not too happy zucchini plant, which nonetheless is just preparing to flower. 

In the middle row, from front to back:

  • Another squash plant (not originally planted here in May – see below)
  • 2 kohlrabi plants from Calypso Farm (where we are also members of the CSA) – doing fine so far
  • 2 bok choy plants from Calypso; to our surprise we realized last weekend that they have bolted! The leaves still taste good. I originally wanted to plant a sixpack from Holm Town Nursery, but forgot to add them to my purchases in May. 
  • Originally 4 butter bib lettuces, 2 seem to be surviving
  • Carrots from seeds – need thinning soon
  • 6 brussels sprouts from Holm Town – doing great
  • a sorrel, which was part of the Calypso herb pack (more on that later)

And finally on the right, the following were planted originally:

  • 6 Swiss chard (Holm Town) – 4 are doing great, one more may be surviving
  • 6 broccoli (Holm Town) – doing good so far
  • two different kinds of snow peas from seeds I bought at Safeway (their Organics house brand and another big brand)

The surprise so far was the bolted bok choy and the loss of two heads of butter bib lettuce. So yesterday I went back to Holm Town Nursery to see if they had any more of their bok choy, which had done so well last year. Well, they had a tray full – all bolted. What they did have was a “buy two, get one free” offer on transplants. So I came home with a sixpack of red cabbage, a sixpack of something called “Chinese cabbage” (the closest I could find to bok choy) and another summer squash plant, just starting to flower, to help out pollinating the zucchini. These went in gaps and at the ends of the middle and right rows. 

Now to what I call the “overflow garden” – plants in collected pots and other odd receptacles. 

The front four containers and the big cut-open tire planter contain the rest of the herbs I got from Calypso. A bit of a mixed bag – none of the basil plants seems to be developing and even the flat and curly parsley aren’t very happy. The thyme, majoram, sage etc. are doing a lot better. 

The other six containers, starting and ending with the clay planters, clockwise, contain:

  • arugula I sowed on a whim only two weeks ago 
  • more basil (not to bad, this one)
  • more herbs (summer/winter savory and… mace?) 
  • shallots (some didn’t come up)
  • leeks (from Calypso)
  • more peas from seeds

Well, a month ago the overflow garden looked like this:

We’ll see what becomes of it.

Last, tomatoes! I got one plant (Polar Big?) from Calypso and two  (Siletz and Polar Star) from Holm Town. Can you see them?

I thought I’d use the odd tire planters that the previous owner of the house appears to have used for flowers. They should keep the warmth in better than the raised row. None of the tomatoes looks spectacular, but they all have flowers and/or green fruit in development. I’m coming to the conclusion that growing tomatoes here is hard, at least outside a greenhouse.

This is not quite all. Melinda has a bunch of strawberry plants in a hanging basket. The front bed contains an orange mint, very stunted lemon balm, red sage and some more peas etc. And then there’s a native gooseberry bush in its planter, which is full of berries but looks very exhausted. We’ll see.