A recipe for stained glass potatoes, and late summer gardening tips from Kodiak, Alaska

To a plant, it’s all about light. Light is the magic engine that drives growth. It also drives my gardening activities here in Kodiak, Alaska. Not to poo-poo gardeners in the Lower 48, but during August, we lose a whopping two hours and 20 minutes of daylight. Poof. Just like that. So, what to do?

fishing boat, Kodiak, Alaska, sunrise, professional photographer, Marion Owen, Canon

A fishing boat heads out to sea during a late summer sunrise. To calculate day length for your location, follow this link: http://aa.usno.navy.mil/data/docs/Dur_OneYear.php#notes [Use Table A (for U.S. cities), Table B (for international)]

When summer wanes, it’s easy to throw in the trowel and think, “Ah, what’s the use. The season’s almost over.” But what if we were to face the end of summer thinking the best is yet to come? Call me a Pollyanna, but to this gardener-photographer, late summer and early fall brings rich smells and sweet light that feeds my soul…

North of the Mason-Dixon line, August is a giant tap on the shoulder. Many folks react by pulling back and devoting less time and attention to their yard and garden; even ignoring it altogether. Is it because school started? The silver salmon are running upstream? (we’re talking Kodiak, remember). Or is it because the flowers we planted in May and June are looking tired?

No matter where you park your wheelbarrow, don’t give up. Your yard will look much better, and you’ll enjoy a longer bloom and harvest season if you take care of a few things. Here are seven ideas to keep you enthused:

1. Your flowers worked hard all summer. Give a little back.

So it’s time to deadhead. Deadheading is like pulling old clothes out of your closet. Out with the old to make room for the new. If you want to increase bloom time and stretch it into the fall (who doesn’t?), continue to pinch, clip, and prune wilted flowers on a regular basis. Deadheading tidies up plants and it strengthens them, too. Don’t make deadheading a big deal. Just pick off faded blossoms of calendula, pansies and other annuals each time you walk by.

I like to deadhead flowers just before my husband Marty mows the lawn. I pinch off the flowers and toss them onto the grass. Pinch and toss; pinch and toss. The lawn mower shreds them up into invisible bits, which in turn, feed the lawn.

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How to make a lawn mower happy: Sprinkle your wilted flowers on the grass. The next turnaround with the mower turns them into beautiful mulch which also feeds the lawn. [Marion Owen photo]

2. Compost: Forget gadgets. Use a shovel.

If you come across plants that are really done, then pull them out and add mulch (grass clippings, kelp/seaweed, cow manure, compost, whatever) to boost the depleted soil. Which brings me to a great way to compost. It’s really nothing new, our grandmothers used to do it: Whenever you have a blank space in the garden, dig a hole and add kitchen scraps, such as banana peels, coffee grounds, and egg shells. Cover with a few inches of soil and walk away. The worms and other soil creatures will take care of it, and silently thank you.

3. Perennials are crying for attention

Perennials come back every  year (much to the dismay of garden centers) but like us, they need love and attention. Otherwise, growth will be stunted. In late summer, cut back tall plants like irises, lilies and delphiniums after blooming. This is also a perfect time to divide perennials and move shrubs and trees: The ground is warm, meaning roots have time to re-establish in their new home.

Special note: Oriental poppies should be all but done by now, and rather than leave the area looking like a bomb went off, follow the advise from the gardener who tended the Pioneer Home gardens in Sitka, Alaska for many years: Cut the stalks and the tallest of the leaves to within four inches of the ground. New, fuzzy green shoots will appear within a couple weeks and you’ll be on your way to healthy, strong plants for next year. Plus, the beds will look neatened up.

4. Potted plants: The last hoorah

For potted plants like fuchsia, dahlias and other late bloomers, they are getting tired. Days are growing shorter and the end is near. Keep pots evenly moist, but stop feeding. Still, rotate pots and hanging baskets so both sides can enjoy the sun.

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While rinsing these tomatoes, I’m smiling ear to ear. Why? Because home-grown tomatoes, let alone RED ones, are a very rare sighting in Alaska! [Marion Owen photo]

5. Meanwhile, back in the greenhouse…

If you have a high tunnel or greenhouse, keep up with the watering but be super careful. Too much moisture in the air causes grey mold and other diseases to explode and flourish. Irregular watering also causes plants to suffer. Tomatoes for example, can develop blossom end rot: a flat and darkened spot develops near the blossom end of a tomato and then spreads out over time. Continue to feed cucumbers and squash compost tea + kelp solutions that are high in many minerals, like potassium and phosphorus.

6. “V” is for veggies

Pick snap peas as they reach a tasty size. Don’t wait for some magic, do-it-all-at-once time. They are much sweeter when just ripe. Try pickling them. When broccoli (and later as their sister crops like cabbage and Brussels sprouts) stop producing, pull the plants out, roots and all, chop them up and put them on the compost pile. Thin carrots and other root crops, eat turnip greens and sow more salad greens while the soil is still warm. Make herb-garlic vinegar.

7. Putting in a good word (and recipe) for potatoes

It may be too early to harvest the main crop, but you can cheat a little and harvest early spuds. Slip your hand into the soil alongside the stem of a flowering spud and root around for  young (new) potatoes. Don’t pull the plant out; you’re just sampling for early ones and leaving the rest to harvest later. Potatoes are a stem crop, so you’ll find the older and larger potatoes near the bottom; the still-forming ones closer to the soil surface.

At this point I want to share one of my favorite ways to prepare potatoes. I call them stained glass potatoes, a recipe I included in my 2014 wall calendar, “Flavors of Kodiak Island.” (The 2015 calendar is available as of August 1, 2014 through MarionOwenPhotography.com. To let your fingers do the walking through the pages online, click here).


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To make Stained Glass Potatoes, sprinkle flower blossoms and herbs on the bottom of a baking pan covered with olive. Place potatoes, cut side down, on top. Bake at 350 degrees for 30-45 minutes. [Marion Owen photo]

This technique has to be one of the most beautiful ways to dress up a spud. Potatoes are cut in half and then baked, cut side down, on a bed of herbs and flower petals. The stained glass effect occurs when you turn the potatoes over to expose an artist’s palette that’s splashed with bright colors, like a Jackson Pollock painting…

  • Small to medium-sized red or white potatoes
  • Fresh herbs: sage, rosemary, oregano, thyme…
  • Fresh, edible flower petals from pansies or calendula (my favorite)

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees F. Cover a baking pan with a thin layer of olive oil. Sprinkle herbs and flower petals onto the oil. Cut potatoes in half and place them cut-side down on top of the herbs and flowers. Brush tops of potatoes with olive oil and bake for 30 to 45 minutes or until done. Sprinkle with sea salt and serve, cut side up.

THE LAST WORDS: You must admit, these seven gardening tasks are pretty simple and they don’t take much time. And the rewards are many. For one thing, (Ha!) your arms, abs and legs get a good workout, you spruce up your yard for you–and your neighbors–to enjoy. And oh yeah, when the first snow flies, you can smile, knowing that you did your best leading up to that point.

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Hibernating garden: Raised beds of spinach seedlings (seeds sown in September) are comfy and cozy under a plastic cover. In February, when the day length pops above 10 hours, plant growth resumes. [Marion Owen photo]

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Blue on blue, with reflections on St. Francis

My best times in the garden happen in the early morning: Dew-kissed strawberries, slow bumblebees (an oxymoron, I know) and flowers backlit by the new-day sun.

New-day sun. Brother sun. Makes me think of the 1972 movie, Brother Sun, Sister Moon — the story of St. Francis of Assisi. Directed by Franco Zeffirelli with soundtrack by Donovan. When the movie arrived in our little movie theater in Lakewood Center, Washington, I went to see it with my friends. Then with Mom.

“That’s the story of St. Francis,” she announced as we left the theater lobby.

“Really?” I knew nothing about saints and wondered if they were real people and if I could ever be like them.

As for the movie, I was so captivated by it, I went to see it again. And again. So many times I lost count. To avoid using up all of my allowance, I snuck through the side door of the building with my cassette tape deck under my coat to record the songs during the movie.

I’ve watched the movie probably 30 times. If you haven’t seen it, I’ll watch it with you.

But I digress. Terribly. Here is the image from this morning’s stroll through our oceanside garden. Our B&B guests weren’t up yet. A quiet time for me.

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Blue poppies (meconopsis sp) are a true, top-of-the-world plant. They bloom like crazy in my Kodiak, Alaska garden, to the point where I have to divide them every 3 years or so. (Marion Owen photo).

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Dancing with whales

Sunday morning arrived with calm winds and a sky dotted with pudgy clouds. So my husband and I packed some carrot-berry muffins and took our boat for a short cruise around our front yard, the waters off Kodiak Island. As we sipped coffee in the wheelhouse, four orca whales surfaced near the bow and glided effortlessly through the water. They were so smooth, so regal. It was like watching my Dad do the foxtrot across the dance floor.

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(c) Marion Owen, Kodiak, Alaska


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How rough can gardening students be anyway?

During last night’s organic gardening class, my students brought me down to earth.

Don’t get me wrong, I love to teach. Problem is, I always feel a little nervous at the first class with a new group of students peering at me from their desks with great anticipation. Never mind that I’ve taught the subject a dozen times, or for as many years. (How rough can a group of gardening students be anyway?) That’s just how I am.

Usually after a few minutes my shoulders relax and then I settle down. Here’s where my students came to my rescue…

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I gave each person a short questionnaire. It’s a way for me to get to know them, and they use the opportunity to express why they want to learn how to grow stuff. During a break, I reviewed some of their responses. Oh, sure there was the expected be more sustainable, grow more safe, healthy food, and get more exercise, but there were some sweetness, too. Even from the guys:

  • Introduce my kids to gardening
  • Be around green, growing things
  • Grow cut flowers for myself and friends
  • Grow beautiful things to photograph

I drove home around 10 o’clock and sat down with a cup of tea. So why do I like to grow stuff? Well, for lots of reasons. But you know, I’d rather hear your thoughts. I mean, surely it’s not for the love of weeding, is it?

pansies, viola, flowers, garden



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Up a creek without a camera

When I grabbed my camera bag and headed out the door, I had no particular agenda in mind. The sky was still peppered with stars and faint outlines of clouds meant the sunrise had potential. So did the day, as I soon learned.

I drove a couple miles to the mouth of the Buskin River, a tight, S-curve stream that flows into the ocean near Kodiak’s main airport. As I pulled into parking lot, the tires crunched over old snow and new ice. I took the precaution of stretching spiked “grippers” over the soles of my boots so I didn’t end up spread-eagled — or worse — on the ice.

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What’s wrong with this picture?

I hiked upriver along a snow-packed trail to where sandwiches of ice sheets, stranded by the receding river and tide, creating interesting patterns. I set my gear down on the matted rye grass and took inventory: river, ocean, beach, sunrise, mountains. The clouds began fringing with pink and orange. Pacific wrens chatted in the spruce trees. Nice.

I unzipped the back panel of the camera bag, anticipating a fun, creative morning. But as I reached for the camera body, all I saw was an empty slot. I’d forgotten to re-pack my bag after going on vacation.

Now what? I reached in my coat pocket and pulled out my iPhone…

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Sunburst over ice and Buskin River on Kodiak Island, Alaska (iPhone photo by Marion Owen)

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Ice constellation and grass meteors. (iPhone macro by Marion Owen)

After I resigned myself to using the cell phone, I began to relax and play, discovering more things to photograph. “I’ve got to bring my students here next week,” I said aloud.

I felt pleased because of what I didn’t do, which was get frustrated, put myself down, and feel cheated by the universe–all the while mumbling, “Why me?”

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Ice sheets left by receding river. (iPhone photo by Marion Owen)

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Self-portrait. Am I smiling?

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Barometer Mountain blushes at first light, Kodiak, Alaska (iPhone photo by Marion Owen)

After an hour or so, I slung my backpack over my shoulder hiked back to the car. The one feeling, the one word that kept coming to mind was gratitude.

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Sunrise over the Buskin River as it flows into the ocean. The City of Kodiak, Alaska in the upper left.

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California’s drought is screaming, “Get off your duff and start growing!”

If you’ve been toying with the idea of growing some of your own food, it’s time to get serious about it. Thanks to California’s current drought–reported to be the worst in 100 years–food prices are on the rise…

garden beds, soil, winter, garden

Our raised beds are thawed out, so I took a break from making bread (note the apron) to turn the soil.

California, which has the nation’s largest farm economy (more than 90 percent of the U.S. production of broccoli, celery, almonds, grapes, walnuts and other crops), seems to be in a perennial drought. While 2013 may have set a new standard as the driest year on record, going back 160 years, this year is not looking good. So far in 2014, geologists say the Sierra snowpack—a crucial source for state water—is only 20 percent of normal.

Why is California so dry? Meteorologists say there’s a huge, stubborn high pressure system (also called the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge) off the West Coast nearly 4 miles high and 2,000 miles long. It isn’t budging.

Can you pick out Alaska and the West Coast? This snapshot gives you an idea of the jet stream "wrinkle" that is causing havoc.

Can you pick out Alaska and the West Coast? This snapshot gives you an idea of the jet stream “wrinkle” that is causing havoc.

“About 65 percent of our cropland [about one million acres] is irrigated,” says Karen Ross, California Secretary of Food and Agriculture, “So it is very serious.

“It is not just isolated to one part of the state. We have a number of our counties that are under extreme drought conditions. We are already seeing farmers choose to fallow land that normally this time of the year they would be preparing for a springtime crop or a summer crop.”

Which means nut trees will have more priority than seasonal crops like lettuce and tomatoes. And since most of the nation’s salad bar is grown in California’s San Joaquin Valley, produce prices could rise.

garden, organic, greens, mustard, salad

Mixed salad greens are the easiest, fastest, and most economical crops to grow in the home garden. (Marion Owen photo)

What does that mean for you and me?

In the U.S., fruits and vegetables account for about 1.2 percent of a typical household’s spending, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. California’s drought could also impact the prices of dairy products and meat. A 10 percent increase in food costs could add 0.4 percent to the annual rate of inflation.

Uhhh, 0.4 percent? It might not seem like much, 0.4 percent, but to an economist, that’s huge.

Meanwhile, a recession seems to be increasingly likely this year. Oops, really?

Here’s a little history lesson: According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, data shows that the average economic expansion since World War II has lasted 58 months. The current expansion that we’re experiencing now began 55 months ago in June 2009 and could end this year as consumer spending slows.

Moving away from speculation, while California is unusually dry and hot for this time of year, why then, is Alaska so wet and warm? The Associated Press gave us a clue recently: The jet stream–the river of air that dictates much of America’s weather–is meandering again. Which means warm air is flowing from near Hawaii north to Alaska and from Canada south to the Lower 48.

“It’s like a fire hose is turned on Alaska at full blast,” said a National Weather Service meteorologist in a recent broadcast.

carrots, garden, harvest, organic

Carrots are so versatile (pickles, savory, sweet, fresh, steamed, roasted) they should be grown in every garden.

So let’s turn a fire hose on rising food prices by growing more local food. If you’re new to gardening, you might be wondering, where to start?First, build a raised bed. Use whatever materials work best: Stones, cement blocks, rough-cut lumber from the sawmill, 4×6’s from your local hardware store, driftwood, re-conditioned pallets. The length is not so important as the width. Make your raised beds 4 to 6 feet wide, narrow enough so you can reach in from both sides.

Fill it with local soil, and local materials such as leaves, kelp, sand, fish meal, compost and aged manure — goat, chicken, horse, cow, buffalo. [You can see that Kodiak Island is blessed with a treasure-trove of garden goodies] Yes, it will seem too lumpy but don’t worry. In a few months, it will have broken down and settled a bit. Come planting time, top it off with a couple inches of sifted soil or compost.

If building a raised bed means reducing the size of your lawn, have at it. A sprawling expanse of green is overrated in this country. Besides, you can’t eat a lawn so you might put you yard to work by growing edible, as well as beautiful food. With the rising cost of food and concern about food safety, you can’t go wrong by growing a few heads of lettuce or broccoli.

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Radish seedling on the grow! (Marion Owen photo)

No room for raised beds? Half-barrels, halibut tubs, totes, window boxes, narrow raised beds, and hanging baskets, all make excellent containers. A community garden or a shared garden with your neighbor might be the answer, too.

Finally, what to grow? Here’s a list of easy-to-grow, veggies that love coastal Alaska growing conditions:

Kale, broccoli, mustard greens, lettuce, carrots, potatoes, cress, Swiss chard, spinach, radishes, peas, fava beans, beets, cabbage, and Chinese cabbage.

You may have noticed that tomatoes and cucumbers are not listed above. If you’re a hoop or greenhouse grower though, they’re do-able. Allan Thielen, Kodiak’s cucumber king, swears by Jade cucumbers from Johnny’s Selected Seeds. As for tomatoes, many early and cherry varieties do well in protected conditions. One to try this year: Gregori’s Altai Tomato from Tomato Growers, which originates near the Chinese border with Siberia and produces slightly flattened beefsteak tomatoes in 65 days.

Speaking of Siberia, as I write this, the temperature has tanked at -63 degrees F.

Screen Shot 2014-01-27 at 3.49.55 PMNOTE: This article was originally published in the Kodiak Daily Mirror as one of my weekly garden columns. I edited it for this blog posting to make it more relevant for readers who don’t live in Alaska.

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Rock stars of organic farming chew the fat about our food

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View of raised vegetable beds in our home in Kodiak, Alaska.

carrots, garden, harvest, organic

Don’t worry, eat carrots! These were grown in our seaside garden. All organic, using kelp (seaweed), leaves, compost, volcanic ash, cow manure and lots more.

In Kodiak, Alaska, I’m an organic gardening geek. I teach the stuff through the University of Alaska and write about weeds, seeds and the beauty of kelp in my weekly newspaper column.

My husband and I grow a lot on our ‘postage stamp’ property. In the summer, it’s mostly greens, herbs and edible flowers which are transformed into 400-500 salads for our dinner cruise guests. So when I saw this article, The Elders of Organic Farming in the New York Times (Jan 24, 2014), I pushed the pause button on today’s schedule to read Carol Pogash’s piece. I hope you do, too.

The Esalen Institute in Big Sur California recently hosted a week-long conference where two dozen organic farmers–rock stars in the industry–from the U.S. and Canada shared decades’ worth of stories, secrets and anxieties.

Let me share a few highlights:

Michael Ableman and Eliot Coleman, a Maine farmer, organized the intimate conference. Mr. Ableman, the author of “Fields of Plenty,” (excellent read, by the way) is writing a book about the gathering. Deborah Garcia, the widow of Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead and a filmmaker whose previous films include “The Future of Food” and “The Symphony of the Soil,” is making a documentary.

Michael Ableman, Fields of Plenty

Each chapter provides you with an enormous helping of hope and inspiration. Thank you, Michael.

We should all be happy, right?

Sales of organic food in the United States reached $31.5 billion in 2012, compared with $1 billion in 1990, according to the Organic Trade Association… So the grandfathers and grandmothers of organic farming should be joyous, but they are not. Their principles of local, seasonal fruits and vegetables have been replaced in many cases by year-round clamshelled tomatoes for Walmart, Target and other stores.

The Winter Harvest Handbook, Eliot Coleman

Thanks to Eliot’s book, we pledged to grow more of our own food. We encircled the house with raised beds, installed a hoophouse and greenhouse and share how-to’s with friends, neighbors and visitors to Kodiak island.

The big picture, from the garden “trenches”:

The sustainable agriculture these farmers practice goes beyond farming without synthetic fertilizer and pesticides. They adhere to a broader political and ecological ethos that includes attention to wildlife, soil, education and community. For most of them, the bottom line has never been their bottom line.

About their anti-establishment beginnings:

“Every one of us broke the law,” said Frank Morton, 57, an Oregon seed farmer, with perverse pride.

But don’t be satisfied reading things tidbits. Pour a beer or a cup of tea and read the whole article here.

Oh, one more thing: Promise yourself you’ll grow at least one salad’s worth of greens this year. It will change your life.

Hakurei turnips

I learned about Hakurei turnips through Eliot Coleman. They are sweet and mild. I even shred and bake them in muffins.

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