FAIRBANKS — As I write this column on March 26, it is 54 degrees on my back porch and 81 degrees in my unheated greenhouse. It is all I can do not to rush out and start digging holes for my tomato and cuke transplants, even though I know that there is still time for killing frosts. Instead, I distract myself with other garden activities. If you, too, need to find a way to prevent premature transplantation, you might want to consider engaging in a few of the following.
• Have you been promising yourself that this will be the year you do your back a favor and convert some, or all, of your garden to raised beds? Build them now, and they’ll be ready to go when transplant season begins. I did a column on this a few years ago (bit.ly/2UgNi4N). Directions for building other styles of raised beds also can be found in the April/May 2019 issue of Mother Earth News and the March 2019 Family Handyman. Our wonderful Fairbanks library carries Family Handyman, so not having a subscription is no excuse.
• I already see the first stirring of weeds in my backyard. Soon I will be ready to pounce on dandelions, chickweed, lambs’ quarters and fireweed. They are fresh, free and full of nutrients — why spend money on grocery store lettuce? Salads, soups, pesto and stir fry recipes are all great places to use these gifts from nature.
A good all-purpose pesto recipe can be found at the Farmgirl Dabbles blog at bit.ly/2uLumvZ. More adventuresome souls can check out “Dandelion and Quince” by Michelle McKenzie from the library. Fireweed lovers will find a recipe for pickling the young stalks in the spring 2018 issue of Edible Alaska magazine.
If you know where to find cattails, you might be interested in an article in the April/May 2018 issue of Mother Earth News, which explains how to use all of the edible parts of them. Closer to home, expand your herb garden after you look through “An Alaska Herb Garden: Recipes and Garden Tips for Enjoying Your Herb Garden.” This is the book that made me try growing sweet woodruff a few years ago. It is put out by our local Cooperative Extension Service and worth every penny. (But do stay away from the Nasturtium Aspic. Blech!)
Finally, you can email me and I will send you the recipes for Weed Quiche, Chickweed Pie and Dandelion Greens with Cowpeas.
• If only mass starvation would induce you to eat weeds, you can get an early fix of fresh greens by putting a flat of microgreens under your grow lights. In fact, since these are harvested so young, they are one thing that will do okay in just the light from a south facing window. For exact directions, look up this column I wrote in 2017 at bit.ly/2HwkwqD.
• Another option for early greens is to raise some sprouts. You don’t need one of those fancy sprouting caps, which are nothing more than lids riddled with holes. You can use cheesecloth, an old linen towel or handkerchief, or a coffee filter.
I like the sprouting mixtures put out by High Mowing Organic Seeds, carried by the Co-op Market Grocery & Deli at 526 Gaffney Road; if you have lived here long enough, it is in the round building that formerly housed Foodland. The Sandwich Booster Mix has radish, mustard, alfalfa and clover seeds, while the Broccoli Blend has broccoli, broccoli raab, mustard and arugula seeds.
If you have never been to this local cooperative, then getting some sprouting seeds is a great excuse to stop by a Fairbanks treasure.
• If you are still figuring out what you should include among your edibles, here is the Environmental Working Group’s annual dirty dozen list of the most pesticide laden produce: strawberries, spinach, kale, nectarines, apples, grapes, peaches, cherries, pears, tomatoes, celery and potatoes. (Non-organic kale is the third most tainted vegetable, showing 18 different contaminants.)
The fruits and vegetables least likely to have pesticide or pesticide breakdown residues? Avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, frozen sweet peas, onions, papayas, eggplant, asparagus, kiwi, cabbage, cauliflower, cantaloupes, broccoli, mushrooms and honeydew melon. All of which is to say that you may want to skip the cauliflower, which is on the clean list, and use the space for dirty kale, spinach or potatoes.
• If you feel like you eat the same garden produce in the same way every summer, and by August are so bored you let a good deal of your harvest go to waste, here are two books to devour during this pre-season pause: “Twelve Months of Monastery Soups” by Brother Victor-Antoine d’Avila-Latourrette and “The Pesto Cookbook” by Olwen Woodier.
Most of the Brother’s recipes are devoid of what my father called fancy-schmancy ingredients. They are hearty and most are fast and easy to make. Not every soup was to my taste — you will never find Curried Soybean Soup or Russian Cream of String Bean Soup or Spanish Cilantro Soup on my stove — but I could make a week’s worth of suppers out of the recipes we have tried and loved. Beer and Mushroom soup, anyone?
Chapter four of “The Pesto Cookbook” is called “Pushing the Pesto Envelope,” but that should have been the title of the book. This guy will give you ways you never thought for eating various herbs.
I’m thankful to the author for reminding me of a forgotten favorite from my childhood, haroseth. A thick (the way it was made in my house, anyway) paste of nuts, dried fruits, apple and honey, we ate it for dessert, scooping it out of the middle of a baked apple. However, it is also used as an accompaniment for various baked meats, and though it does not use many ingredients we can grow here, it is worth a try.
Of course, in between all the tasks above, don’t forget to keep your seedlings moist but not over-watered, and the lights on between 12 and 14 hours a day. If your starting soil didn’t have fertilizer built in, you may want to start with some half strength water soluble fertilizer such as fish emulsion.
A fan set to gently rustle the seedlings a few hours a day will help them develop sturdy stems and will encourage air circulation and thus reduce the possibility of the killer damping off. If you don’t have a fan, at least gently brush your hands across the tops of the seedlings, the low-tech way to encourage stronger stems.
If you are looking for another vegetable to grow, I have about 80 spare seeds of Red Warty Thing to give away. This winter squash does require a lot of space, as the vines quickly run amuck. However, in my experience they are prolific and the fruits can grow quite large, in the 20-pound range and higher. The taste is nothing special but their rich color and warts make them a welcome addition in my garden; they scream Halloween.
They are particularly good at luring youngsters into the backyard, in case you have a kid you are trying to get interested in growing things. Email me and I will tell you where to send a self-addressed stamped envelope for a few seeds of your own. If you want to order an entire pack of seeds or see more pictures of them, go here: bit.ly/2WNFV1O.
Linden Staciokas has gardened in the Interior for more than two decades. Send gardening questions to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.