The marvel of an Alaska summer.

thI am growing popcorn. Really. Last spring a company called Boom Chicka Pop offered free popcorn seeds. Knowing full well that you need either a greenhouse or floating row cover to grow corn successfully in Anchorage, I nevertheless requested seeds because hope springs eternal in the spring.

Ten corn plants are now flourishing in the heat sink that is the south side of our cream-colored home. In about a month’s time they’ve gone from sere seeds to six-inch green stems with multiple leaves, even though that month was marked by near-record amounts of rain and some very cool overnight temperatures.

Will they have sufficient heat and time even to set ears, let alone ripen them? Probably not. But I’m getting such a kick out of watching them grow that I don’t much care.

I’ve already promised the mature plants to my niece, who’s teaching a combined kindergarten/first grade class this fall. Even without ears of corn attached, those rustly brownish stalks will add a nice touch to the inevitable harvest/Pilgrims room decorations that show up in the primary grades.

Today’s clouds broke apart for a bit after lunch, so I went out to check on our backyard spread. The temporary brightness and warmth made me ridiculously happy as I counted the small cucumbers and tomatoes on greenhouse plants.

Radishes are pushing themselves out of the raised bed, yelling “Salad! Salad!” Definitely tonight, and probably every night for weeks: The lettuce has exploded, the spinach is threatening to bolt and three kinds of Asian greens are flourishing.

True, our tomatoes are only the size of a quarter and the cukes about half the length of a stick of Doublemint. But we have a couple of nice red tomatoes from a local greenhouse and with such a variety of fresh greens, what else do we need?

Rooting for root vegetables

The turnips are looking pretty sturdy, and the beets are sorta-kinda coming along. The greens of these plants are not prized, but at the end of the summer we’ll chop and freeze the vegetation to add to soups. Not because we relish the flavor, but because they’re good for us. I guess.

However, I do love to roast a beet, marinate it in sweet pickle brine and then slice it onto rustic bread that’s been toasted and buttered. Add a sliced hard-cooked egg, kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper and you won’t miss meat. The question is whether the beets will fill out; last year they disappointed, and this year they look only half-willing.

Turnips? Well. They’re good for us, too. Alaska turnips are actually much sweeter than those found in the Lower 48, apparently due to lots of sun but little summer heat. Maybe I’ll roast some of them, too, with olive oil and garlic. Or maybe we’ll just dice them up for soup and feel virtuous.

By contrast, we’re salivating over potential potatoes. They have outrun our attempts at hilling, probably because of the cool, rainy weather. My theory: They think they’re in Ireland. DF planted a couple of varieties in the ground, on top of the ground (covered with straw) and in buckets.

We’ll see which method is best. Once the plants have died back in late August or thereabouts, he’ll invite his granddaughter to come by and tip over the buckets and then prospect for spuds – yet another chance for fun without toys at Opa’s house.

Weeding wars

Our winter squash plants have one embryonic fruit and a bunch of blossoms; the cold nights traumatized them, I think. The strawberries are ripening and rhubarb stalks are getting thicker by the moment, but the two probably won’t go together. We don’t yet have enough berry plants to produce the fruit in bulk, and I’m planning to freeze some of the rhubarb (for wintertime yogurt) and to pickle the rest.

The only real disappointment is the spindly red cabbage. Last year’s plants produced heads the size of basketballs and we made a simple pickled cabbage that was so good we rationed it. Only a couple of pints left, and here we are without much hope of home-grown replacements. DF thinks it’s because he started from seed vs. buying seedlings. Next year we go to Bell’s Nursery. I’ll see to it personally.

I’d also about given up hope on the carrots. Today, however, I saw some spots of feathery growth that I’m pretty sure belongs to Scarlet Nantes. Either that, or it’s young equisetum masquerading as something useful.

Nearby is the raspberry patch, where I’m waging a pointless war against equisetum and also pushki, a towering itch-inducer known elsewhere as cow parsnip. Never mind that I know I will never really eradicate either species. They say lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for. So I pull and I snip and I crush, figuring that additional light plus reduced competition for food and water will help new berry growth survive.

Certainly plenty of suckers are popping up everywhere (along with more equisetum and horsetail). The already established plants are looking great, too, full of white blossoms and tiny green berries. The raspberry patch has its own theme song, i.e., the humming of delighted bees.

Fleeting but fine

I marvel at the Alaska summer, brief though it may be. Perhaps its brevity is why I love it so much.

I memorize the vigor of raised beds that in November will look like snow-covered graves. I inhale the fragrance of clover. I listen to the rustling of birch leaves. I even forgive the dandelions for growing up past my knees and spilling their seeds upon the ground. 

Each summer is a crapshoot. Will it be all rain and chill, so that nothing really produces the way it should? Will it be one of those near-80-degrees seasons that has Alaskans complaining about heatstroke and swimming in lakes cold enough to preserve meat?

I’m hoping for the latter, if only so that the “Lumina” pumpkin plant will have time to produce ghostly gourds. Even I’m not optimistic enough to think I’ll harvest popcorn, but what fun for my niece’s class to have a white pumpkin near Halloween. Not that schools refer to Halloween as much as they used to; the annual carnival is now a “fall festival.”

Whatever. Lumina has half a dozen not-quite-open blossoms. It’s a little late in the game, true, but the tag did promise “matures in 70 days.” See you in September.

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  1. Meghan

    I love your financial posts, but I really love these more personal posts. You’ve painted a beautiful picture of your garden in my mind’s eye. I hope the garden continues to produce for you, and exceeds your expectations.

    • Donna Freedman

      Thanks, Meghan. Really hoping for white pumpkins! And, yeah, popcorn. Also that moose will stay the heck out of the yard.
      The personal posts are more fun to write, but I don’t want to turn too deeply inward too often. My navel isn’t that interesting. No one’s is.

      • Carolina Cooper

        Hey, Donna, I have to take exception here! When you write about stuff like your garden, it is NOT navel gazing! It is just another aspect of your truly awesome writing talent. Though if you WERE actually navel gazing, I would have to agree than no one’s is interesting…

  2. Do you take advantage of the dandelion flowers and greens? They are good to eat. I enjoy hearing all things Alaska.

    • Donna Freedman

      I’ve added a bit of dandelion greens to soups, and last year DF and I made dandelion pesto. He also tried dandelion soda, which turned out more like a hard cider — a little too strong for me, but he enjoys it mixed with 7Up.

  3. How do you pickle rhubarb?
    I’ve never heard of it ,and would love to try to make some.

    • Donna Freedman

      It’s a very simple recipe from The Mother Earth News:

      1 cup balsamic vinegar (or substitute your favorite fruit vinegar)*
      1 and 1/2 cups sugar
      1 tablespoon kosher salt
      1 teaspoon cloves
      4 stalks rhubarb, cut into 1-inch pieces

      Boil the first four ingredients for 5 minutes or until sugar has dissolved, stirring constantly. Cool in refrigerator for 1 hour.
      Put the cut-up rhubarb into jars and pour in the liquid. Store in refrigerator for a day or two before eating.

      *I used half balsamic and half white vinegar. Still delicious.

      Note: These are refrigerator pickles, as processing would turn them to mush. Enjoy them now. They’re especially good with cold meat or with crackers and cheese.

  4. You are doing very well. My tomato plants just started to bloom. DJ and I were pulling weeds yesterday and he acted as if he was going to yank out one of my tomato plants. I waved my hands and yelled, stop. He laughed. BOYS!

  5. Ok, Donna, the summer is pretty near over. How did your popcorn fare? I have only hot peppers left to harvest. When we moved into a new/old house when I was 6 we planted popcorn, but the squirrels got it. I was so discouraged (it was our first garden) that I never planted it again. I wonder how much our early conditioning influences our financial decisions and if there are some people who just can never overcome it.

    • Donna Freedman

      The popcorn plants are taller than me, but as I predicted they did not set ears. Next year I’m going to plant them in a greenhouse and see if we can get some results.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.


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