Northern Lights

Dispatch from the Veggie Patch

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They ruined butter lettuce, but didn’t touch the kale

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By Miranda Weiss

August 11, 2016


 

I came home one day earlier this summer to find that the chickens had gotten into the veggie patch. Apparently our dog had nosed her way into their pen in search of the food scraps we throw in there and—I’m sorry to report—a chance at some fresh chicken poop, as well. Her efforts left a hole in the fence, and the hens were quick to escape.

They tore up some young Brussels sprouts plants, scratched away my small bed of carrot seedlings, nibbled a few red cabbage plants down to the nub, and decimated the butter lettuce I was so looking forward to eating.

I did not make chicken soup in revenge, but for a few days I fumed. The birds left the kale and chard untouched, which made it clear to me that they know I always have an abundance of those greens, which pretty much anyone in Alaska can grow by tossing some seeds out the window. It’s the other veggies—the ones that make for much-needed diversity in our chilly garden beds—that I work hard for and that they ruined.

Variety has never been a hallmark of a typical vegetable patch in Alaska—at least not for an under-skilled gardener like myself. The crops that do well in our cool climate are shoulder-season crops everywhere else, including all of the cole crops, those hardy plants in the cabbage family that include Brussels sprouts, kale, kohlrabi, and broccoli. I happen to love those vegetables, but I admit, they don’t sound like a whole lot of fun. It’s not warm enough to grow tomatoes outside, or basil—a source of existential angst when I think about it for too long. How could I have ended up living in a place where you can’t wander into your garden and pick a ripe tomato, getting that wonderful tomato stalk scent on your hands?

But I do have plenty of thyme, oregano, and tarragon, which perfume the hands nicely and have overwintered now for the second time. I’m not complaining about that, but it is a sign of how things are changing. I’ve got zucchini plants in a cold frame, and they’re just starting to produce fruit. The strawberry patch did really well this year, but it’s time to tear it out and replant with fresh runners, because it’s a dense slug-fest in there.

Kale is our champion crop. We usually freeze a few gallons of it chopped to use in soups during the winter. And I’ll pick parsley long after it’s frozen in the yard. I love how it plinks when I break the stems, and it always thaws out nicely on the kitchen counter. But summer lingers in these August weeks, and I don’t want to start thinking about the colder seasons yet.

It’s a tricky time for a mediocre gardener like myself. The broccoli is all heading out right this very moment, snap peas are producing more than we can eat, and the dill is going to seed. Staggering crops is not something I’ve mastered yet. Better make some cream of broccoli soup for dinner tonight.

 


Miranda Weiss is the author of Tide, Feather, Snow: A Life in Alaska. She is a science and nature writer in Homer, Alaska.

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