When celery is cloaked with diamonds

Let’s face it, celery is an unappreciated vegetable. A little goes a long way for me. Still, I grow several plants in containers on the deck where it’s convenient to harvest, but mostly to discourage slugs.

This year’s celery crop was a culinary failure though. The flavor was so strong and bitter, I didn’t dare chance even a soup with it. But instead of cutting it down in favor of say, spinach, I let it grow into its natural form. At that point, I pretty much ignored it.

Then, on a misty morning, when I was busy prepping for the night’s dinner cruise, I looked out the kitchen window and saw hundreds of celery flowers, heavy with dew and shimmering like stars. They looked like gems, yet in the moment, they were more precious than diamonds.

Celery, garden, photograph, sparkles, macro, seeds, Marion Owen, Kodiak, Alaska

When a friend of mine saw this photo she said, “Wow, I love the watermelons in the background!” By the way, can you spot the little bug in the photo?

I set the paring knife down, grabbed my camera gear, (shutting out the lazy thought, “Oh, I’ll shoot it tomorrow”) and headed outside.

Returning to my kitchen chores, I thought about something a fellow photographer shared with me this summer; something he learned during a photo workshop. In essence: “If, when you go out to take pictures, you have narrow expectations or you’re restless in the head, then you’ll miss the gifts that the Universe is sending you.”

I think this is so true in anything we attempt in life.

Feel free to download this photo to use as your phone’s wallpaper or desktop background.

And many thanks for visiting!

Marion Owen, Kodiak, Alaska, photographer


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In praise of: Winter spinach, easy refrigerator pickles, and aronia berries

This article was originally published as one of my weekly garden columns…

Let me begin with a gentle apology: Professional columnists say you should never devote your columns to more than one topic. Fat chance. Here in Kodiak, Alaska, there’s so much going on that it’s impossible for me to follow their advice. So this week you get a bonus: Three topics for the price of one. (Of course I’m kidding about the price). I think you’ll enjoy the variety:

  1. How to overwinter spinach (harvest fresh greens in February)
  2. My favorite refrigerator pickle (mix ‘n match veggies)
  3. What’s an aronia berry? (hint: It has more nutritional punch than blueberries)

The fall season means prepping the garden for next spring. But it’s also planting time. Yes, while you’re yanking out faded pansies and tired lettuce, spinach seeds need to be planted. Now you might be thinking, “But it’s September, in Alaska. Why are you telling us about sowing seeds?” This is a heads-up for anyone living north of the Mason-Dixon line: The first two weeks of September is the best time to sow spinach for harvesting next spring.

spinach, green, vegetable, overwinter, greenhouse, Kodiak, Alaska, garden, winter, salad

This spinach leaf is so big I could use it for sandwich wraps! Spinach is my favorite winter green: Sow seeds in September and enjoy spinach salads in March. (Marion Owen photo).

Kale and cress might be the Rock ‘n Roll stars of veggies, but spinach is the best winter green for northern climates. It loves cool temperatures and tolerates winter weather if, and only if, the seeds are sown early enough for the plants to establish roots.

1) How to overwinter spinach: Our favorite winter green

I learned about overwintering spinach through Eliot Coleman, while reading his landmark book, The Winter Harvest Handbook. “In cold houses,” he says, “Spinach continues producing new leaves all winter unlike, say kale, another cold-hardy crop, which stops new growth during the cold months.”

In Kodiak, we sow spinach seeds in outside beds, greenhouses or hoophouses. Favorite varieties include Olympia, Space and Tyee. For outdoor raised beds, you’ll want to provide a protective cover such as a cold frame, fiberglass or perforated plastic. The plants will grow to 2 to 4 inches in height, and then when the day length drops below 10 hours (around October 20 for our latitude), growth slows to a crawl.

To access the Duration of Daylight table for your latitude, click here.

During the winter months, keep the soil barely moist (not soggy). Too dry and the seedlings won’t have enough root structure to produce a crop in March.

Around February 20, the day length (for our latitude), crests over the 10-hour mark. Like magic, the spinach resumes growing, and you’re on your way to fresh salads.

While you’re waiting for your spinach seeds to germinate why not make a batch of pickles? Below is my all-time favorite refrigerator pickle recipe. They are easy to make and require no processing in a boiling water bath. And you can mix and match veggies: cucumbers, carrots, green onions, onions, green beans, bits of cauliflower, zucchini, you name it.

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What can I say? My favorite refrigerator pickle recipe gives me an excuse to be creative in a quart jar.

2) My favorite refrigerator pickle recipe

This recipe is excellent for anyone who is new to pickling and since many vegetables are pickle-friendly, you’re not limited to cucumbers. (If love pickles, be sure to try rhubarb pickles). Yields 2 quarts.

Brine ingredients :
4 cups water
2 cups white vinegar (For a sweet ‘n sour pickle use cider vinegar and add 1 cup sugar to each 2 cups vinegar)
8-10 cloves garlic, peeled
6 tsp non-iodized (kosher or canning) salt
Several sprigs of fresh dill
1 tsp each celery seed, coriander seed, and mustard seed
1/2 tsp black peppercorns (optional)
Crushed red peppers
Vegetables (6-7 cups):
Cucumbers, sliced into 1/8-inch slices or into cut lengthwise into sticks
Carrots, small whole, or cut in half lengthwise
Green onion pieces
Green beans
Chinese snow peas
Edamame (soy beans)
Cauliflower pieces
Sliced white turnip
Fennel slices

In a stainless or other non-reactive pan, bring water to a boil, reduce the heat, add the garlic and let it simmer for about for 5 minutes. Add the vinegar and salt (add sugar now if you’re going to use it), raise the heat and bring to a boil, stirring until everything is dissolved. Remove from heat. Into each 1-quart jar, pack a few sprigs of dill and a pinch of crushed red peppers. Divide the seeds and garlic between the jars. Then pack the jars snug (but not too tight) with vegetables. Bring the brine back to a boil, pour it over the vegetables to cover completely. Let it cool, then cover and refrigerate. The pickles will taste good in a few hours, though better after a couple of days. They’ll keep for 3 to 6 months.

3) What are aronia berries?

With all the emphasis on eating local foods (that includes foraging), it’s nice to find trees and shrubs that work double-duty in your garden, that is, as an ornamental plant and as a food source. Meet aronia, an overlooked member of the Rosacea (rose) family, that’s native to the Eastern U.S. and is often found in wet woods and marshy areas.

gardening, aronia, berries, black, edible landscaping, chokeberry, chokeberries, Kodiak, Alaska, garden, B&B

Picking berries from our aronia bush requires wearing a life jacket (just kidding) because the plant hangs over the cliff at our oceanside home/B&B in Kodiak, Alaska. The effort is well worth the stretching exercises, though. (Marion Owen photo)

Aronia, also called chokeberries, produce red or black berries, depending on the variety. fresh, but because of their tartness, most people process them into jams, jellies, juices, teas (Poland) and wine (Lithuania). The midnight blue berries mix well with black currants, blackberries, and blueberries. Another tidbit about aronia berries is that they are also used as a flavoring or colorant for beverages and yogurts. By the way, blogger Donna Stewart has an excellent recipe for GLAM Jam, that’s Ginger, Lime, Aronia and Maple.

Aronia berries’ deep color should give you a clue that they contain a healthy amount of polyphenols, especially anthocyanins (antioxidants). In fact, chokeberries contain some of the highest anthocyanins measured in plants, said to contain three times the antioxidants than blueberries.

But that’s not the end of aronia’s beauty. After a summer of dainty white blossoms which give way to purple-blue berries, this shrub really comes into its own in the fall when its leaves turn a pleasing yellow, orange and red. It’s these leaves that I see from my kitchen window as I sip coffee, watch eagles fly by, make pickles…

Thanks for visiting…

Marion Owen, photographer, organic gardener, Kodiak Island, Alaska

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Why sea otters put on a happy face

At one million hairs per square inch, sea otters have the densest fur on Earth.  That’s more hair than on a black lab dog. All that hair means extra warmth for sea otters. And extra work. Sea otters aren’t insulated with blubber like whales and sea lions, so they spend much of their time cleaning and grooming their fur. In the process, sea otters do funny things: Scratch their bellies, nibble their toes, practice yoga, and make funny faces.

One morning we came across an otter, comfortably wrapped in a seaweed “seat belt.” He was massaging his neck and cheeks, which all seemed so businesslike, when suddenly his face erupted into a giant grin. I laughed out loud into the back of my camera.

What a great smile and what an impressive set of choppers, don’t you think? Healthy sea otter teeth are no accident, though. Remember, these guys dine on crabs, clams, sea urchins, and an occasional octopus. According to Science Magazine, sea otter teeth are twice as tough as human tooth enamel. Dentists should use photos of sea otter smiles to encourage patients to brush and floss their teeth!

Sea otter, teeth, fur, Kodiak, Alaska, preening, kelp,

Mr. Enhydra lutris (sea otter) smiles back at our cameras during a wildlife photo workshop on our boat. He had us ALL laughing! (Marion Owen photo)

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“A Life at Sea”: My little photo essay in Alaska Magazine

Whew. Life in Kodiak, Alaska ramps up every summer: My husband Marty and I run an oceanfront B&B and host about 120 tours on our boat in the form of wildlife viewing/photo trips and gourmet dinner cruises. As the chief cook and bottle washer, I have great views for doing dishes). But I haven’t always cooked, scrubbed toilets, grown kale salads, and photographed for a living. I’ll show you what I mean…

The July/August issue of Alaska Magazine printed a photo essay of my work, showing the beauty that abounds on Kodiak Island. The photo essay, called “A Life at Sea,” is a play on words you see, because I once worked  as an Able-Bodied Seaman and later as a 3rd Mate (Merchant Marine Officer) aboard research ships and tugs. Even then, my camera helped me describe to friends and family back home what it was like to spend 6 to 8 months at sea. I hope you enjoy it as much as I loved taking the photos.

(To see the video I created about our close encounter with humpback whales, visit my post, From whales to plants, mid-summer feeding is a must).

Puffins, horned puffins, photograph, photo, photography, Alaska Magazine, Alaska, ocean, sea, Marion Owen

Puffins, horned puffins, photograph, photo, photography, Alaska Magazine, Alaska, ocean, sea otter, starfish, sea lion, Steller sea lion, pigeon guillemot, seabirds, sea, Marion Owen

Puffins, horned puffins, photograph, photo, photography, Alaska Magazine, Alaska, orca, whales, killer whales, ocean, sea, Marion Owen

FINAL NOTE: If you’re thinking about traveling to Kodiak Island, be sure to visit the Discover Kodiak visitor website.

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From whales to plants, mid-summer feeding is a must

After shutting down the boat engine we leaned against the railing to watch two humpback whales feed close to the surface. Winding slowly through the kelp bed, they created small whirlpools with their pectoral fins and tails, like a barista would use a straw to draw artistic swirls on top of a latte.

Then one of the whales slowly turned toward us, exhaled deep and low, and eased alongside the hull. It was so close we could see every bump and dimple on its dark skin. Long ribbons of kelp streamed like banners from the whale’s dorsal fin as it dove. We craned our necks toward the stern to capture every precious moment. Here’s a video I made illustrating that magic close encounter…

Humpback whales gather in Alaska waters every summer to do one thing: Eat. In fact, good feeding is a mid-summer’s dream to many species on the planet, from whales and eagles, to bumblebees and plants. (I’ve included more photos from recent whale watching trips at the end of this piece).

Just like whales need to bulk up with food to take them through the lean winter months, plants need a pick-me-up with a midsummer feed to take them through the rest of the season. The garden, after all, has been churning out non-stop growth for several months. As a result, levels of essential nutrients like nitrogen for leafy growth, root-promoting phosphorus and potassium for fruits and flowers are in short-supply. In limited spaces like containers, hanging baskets, as well as greenhouse beds, feeding is even more critical.

And since gardens are always growing, your first consideration should be keeping them healthy and well fed. This is especially important for heavy (vegetable) feeders like broccoli, celery, cucumbers, squash, tomatoes, onions, spinach. Medium feeders include basil, lettuce, potatoes and radish. Light feeders would be peas, Swiss chard, beans, carrots, and beets.

tomato, homegrown, organic, greenhouse, Alaska, garden, summer

My hoophouse (high tunnel) in summer’s full-production. Zucchini, tomatoes, beets, poppies, carrots, and cress. This is the second crop, put in after harvesting spring greens.

For the most part, perennials don’t need a lot of feeding, particularly if the soil is healthy and rich and was prepared well at planting time. Still, a top or side-dressing of compost may do the trick and will be appreciated by “heavy feeders” such as lilies, delphiniums, astilbe and phlox.

Perennials that are currently blooming, or have yet to bloom (as in some lilies), still need a steady supply of food. Annual flowers may be showing signs of slowed growth or yellowing after their initial burst of activity in late spring and summer. And vegetable that are still producing will have used up a fair amount of available nutrients in the soil around them, particularly if you’ve planted a second or third crop in the same bed.

So a mid-season feeding is in order. And there is a number of ways to accomplish this.

My first preference is to sprinkle well-rotted compost around plant roots or in between rows of plants. Not only is this a wonderful soil-builder, but with each rainfall or watering, nutrients will be made available in the root zones, and worms and other tiny creatures will make short work of the new “packages” of goodies.

Along the same vein, but slightly faster-acting, is to water with compost tea or manure tea. These liquid foods (I like to think of them as smoothies for plants) are easy to make. Just soak a couple handfuls of compost or manure (add a handful of seaweed for good measure) in a 5-gallon bucket of water. Stir occasionally to introduce air and thus keep the concoction from smelling bad. To use the nutrient-rich liquid, dilute it 1 or 2 parts tea to 1 part water. It’s not rocket science so don’t sweat the details. Just feed your plants.

cucumbers, greenhouse, summer, fertilizer, organic, garden, Alaska

Nestled between cucumber plants, this plastic milk carton, minus its bottom, makes a perfect funnel for feeding with liquids like compost tea, without disturbing tender roots.

One of my favorite ways to make manure tea is to add a cow or buffalo pie to a bucket of water. I don’t bother to break it up. Instead I just scoop out the colored water and feed it to tomatoes, cabbage, herbs, calendulas, whatever.

Dilute the teas even more and you have a fabulous—and instant—foliar feed. It’s best to spray plants early in the morning rather than in the heat of the day.

Greenhouse crops need feeding as soon as flowers form. For tomato growers, a potassium-rich seaweed or compost liquid added to the watering can every week encourages more flowers and a better harvest. And those pale yellow leaves? They indicate a shortage of nitrogen, also treatable with a fast-acting dose of liquid compost or manure. (Yellow leaves can also be cause by over or under watering). As for a magnesium deficiency (yellowing leaves with bright green veins), a weekly spray of diluted Epsom salts can help return things back to normal.

perennial, plants, summer, organic, Alaska, garden, Marion Owen

Daisy the Dragon (which I made from recycled Styrofoam chunks from old docks and covered with cement and broken plates and glass) is surrounded by perennial flowers that don’t require a lot of extra fuss and food.

A gentle word of caution here: While organic matter is considered the magic elixir, more is not always better. An over-fertilized perennial will reward you with weak, leggy growth that flops over half-way through the season. Over-feeding can also affect bloom performance, producing lots of green foliage at the expense of flowers. However, if your soil lacks organic material, your plants will benefit from routine, light (lay off the nitrogen) mulching.

Beholding a whale glide along the hull of the boat can leave you pretty wide-eyed and wired, so we retired to the galley for a muffin and a cup of coffee.

“Wow,” I said. “When I get home, it might be tough to wrap my head around writing my weekly column.”

I knew I could do it, though, and I’ll let you in on a little secret: After writing this column for fifteen years I consider it a personal challenge to be able to relate any topic to gardening. Even whales.

Thanks for visiting… May you have a whale of a good time today!

whales, whale watching, Alaska

It’s an honor to have one’s spectacles sprayed with whale “snot.”

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A breaching whale is one of the most exciting things you can witness. This humpback whale did a back flip right next to our boat.


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What’s to celebrate in July? Try freedom from plastic bags

Bag Free WorldEvery year I spend a glorious amount of time creating a wall calendar. I adorn each month with photos from Kodiak Island and dates for the rest of us to remember and celebrate. I research uplifting quotes and toss in a favorite recipe or three.

Let’s take the month of July, Picnic Month. The grid, as it’s called, begins with Canada Day on July 1, followed by July 3 which is International Plastic Bag Free Day. Think for a moment. Can you remember the first time you experienced a plastic grocery bag?

Wall calendar, Kodiak, Alaska, Marion, Owen

It’s all about Freedom: Leading up to the Unites States’ Independence Day is an international day called International Plastic Bag Free Day. Let’s be free as a people and free of plastic bags.

I remember. I was in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, 500 miles out the Aleutian Chain. I remember how the bag crinkled when the store clerk handed over my purchase of apples, crackers and cheese. As I stepped outside into the morning blizzard, I slipped my gloves through the two loops and thought, “Wow, this bag feels weird.”

That was back in 1981. Who would have thought plastic bags would grow into such a curse? According to PlasticBagFreeDay.org, each plastic bag is used for an average of 25 minutes. Go to TriplePundit and you learn that Americans use 100 billion plastic bags each year. Plastic bags clog storm drains, litter streets, and are mistaken for food. Just ask a turtle.


Interactive map, courtesy of PlasticBagFreeDay.org

I’m no saint. I forget my canvas shopping bags at home, too. But as a photographer, I’ve seen my share of ugly bags tangled in tree limbs and twisted in a pile of brown bear scat.

Please, please, please, as we celebrate the glories of summer, let’s be mindful of how we can leave this beautiful planet a better place for those that follow us by acting as if every day is a plastic bag free day.

Cheers and blessings from Kodiak Island,





International Plastic Bag Free Day, plastic, pollution

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The day I was hugged by a fern

Alaska’s 2015-2016 winter was the second warmest on record, dating back to 1925. And here on Kodiak Island it’s been one of the rainiest. So when the clouds parted a few days ago, I took my camera for a walk along an ocean bluff, edged with spruce trees, in search of spring wildflowers and fresh greenery.

It was early for wild orchids (I promise to post later), but I came upon clumps of graceful fiddlehead ferns. I crouched down onto my belly, grateful for the mattress of moss, to study the tall stems that hadn’t completely unfurled. Oh my. Suddenly a warm awareness filled my being. Not thunder and lightning stuff. Just a subtle shift from looking at stems and fronds to seeing heads and outstretched “arms.” As if recognizing a long lost friend, I smiled and mentally sent a greeting, “Hi.”

When I finally picked up my camera and started composing the image, I felt like I was taking a portrait…

Hug, fern, green, plant, Kodiak, Alaska

“Can I give you a hug?” said the fern… (Marion Owen photo)

A few days after meeting Fernie, I came across an interesting blog post,  The amazing similarity between blood and chlorophyll where the author looks at common links between plants and humans. “Chlorophyll contains oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen and magnesium, whilst haemoglobin from the blood contains iron at the place of magnesium. Both iron and magnesium are metallic atoms.”

How similar are we, humans and plants?

How similar are we, humans and plants?

It is definitely food for thought, to behold the Oneness in all.

Meanwhile, I’m celebrating spring in new ways and looking forward to more discoveries along my inner Journey.

“Behold, my friends, the spring is come; the earth has gladly received the embraces of the sun, and we shall soon see the results of their love!” ~~ Sitting Bull

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A Sitka spruce tree seems to reach out to hikers passing by in a Kodiak, Alaska forest. (Marion Owen photo)

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Sowing Wisdom: Luther Burbank, intuition and dealing with surprises

I’ve written a weekly garden column for the Kodiak Daily Mirror for over 15 years. This article first appeared on April 11, 2016…

Last Friday it rained, hard. Inside the gym though, it was bright and sunny, thanks to neon shirt day when everyone was encouraged to wear a dayglow t-shirt to the circuit workout. Believe me, working up a sweat with 30 active humans clad in hot pink, orange and chartreuse t-shirts was a sight for winter-weary eyes. A pleasant surprise.

Surprises, good or bad, are a part of life. As the saying goes, it isn’t so much what happens in life, but how you react to it. In the garden, surprises can appear in many ways: The first primrose of spring, fresh spinach, fewer slugs, an empty bird nest on the ground.

Flowers, primrose, drumstick, garden, Alaska, organic, spring

Surprises can also bring on confusion and frustration. For example, deciphering soil test results with all its numbers and acronyms, can be a daunting task. How much N, P, K should be in my soil? Can you have too much boron? What is a good pH for tomatoes?

It’s important to know the status of your soil so you can make adjustments (compost, bone meal and so on) to build and maintain healthy soil. (Healthy soil = healthy plants = health you). But you don’t have to get a soil test every year. “If your soil test results come back looking good, then don’t sweat it,” said Casey Matney, horticultural agent for the University of Alaska’s Cooperative Extension Service to a crowd of gardeners at his presentation last week at the Kodiak Public Library. “Just keep doing what you’ve been doing.”

Casey also cautioned growers to not get too wrapped up in the numbers. After all, you can’t reduce gardening into a scientific equation. There’s so much more going on. Stuff we cannot see.

Luther BurbankIt’s easy to get thrown off, even angry, by surprises and situations that don’t make sense. The first thing to do is pause and relax. That’s when answers come to you. To take it one step further, surrender and trust your intuition. That’s what Luther Burbank did.

Luther Burbank is one of history’s most inventive and productive plant breeders. For nearly 50 years he developed over 800 strains and varieties of plants, including plums, prunes, peaches, and berries; the Shasta daisy and the Burbank potato.

In some ways though, Luther Burbank remains a mystery to many biographers. He had little formal education, yet he managed to conduct 3,000 experiments at once, crossbreeding and grafting plants to come up with new and improved kinds. Over many years of working with plants, he practiced and developed a strong intuition, or inner knowing.

His lab was a simple cottage. He kept notes on envelopes and brown paper bags. Just watching him work left researchers scratching their heads. His methods were non-traditional. For example, to select superior plants, Burbank simply walked down a row of thousands of seedlings, and without breaking his stride, yanked up and tossed aside the ones he didn’t want.

Luther Burbank's home and garden in Santa Rosa, California.

Luther Burbank’s home and garden in Santa Rosa, California.

Today, Burbank’s home, greenhouse and gardens (LutherBurbank.org) near Santa Rosa, California is a Registered National, State and City Historic Landmark attracting thousand of visitors every year. Some of the more famous visitors include Jack London, Albert Einstein and Helen Keller. When Helen Keller stopped by during one of her tours, she and Burbank became instant friends. They seemed to understand one another. Later, Keller later wrote: “He has the rarest of gifts, the receptive spirit of a child. When plants talk to him, he listens. That is why they tell him so many things about themselves.”

Helen Keller

Okay, so maybe you don’t carry on two-way conversations with trees and flowers, but I encourage you to be a little more receptive while working with plants. If, while transplanting lettuce seedlings for example, you get an inkling to set them behind a row of beets, don’t ask questions; just do it.

Learning a new skill takes practice, so does developing your intuition. It’s like exercise. At first the muscles rebel. Then, after a while, it begins to feel more natural, without the initial struggle and awkwardness. I have a friend who uses her intuition all the time while working in the garden. “I’m not very exacting on things,” she told me. “I just ‘intuit’ what needs to be done.”

I believe her. Each one of her cabbages yielded over 30 quarts of sauerkraut.

Last week, on my way home from the gym, I stopped by Strawberry Fields Nursery to pick up some potting soil. There, in front of the building, was a beautiful clump of purple primroses. I came for dirt, but discovered so much more. What a pleasant surprise.


Addendum (April 12, 2016): After posting this article I found a great quote by Luther Burbank:

Every child should have mud pies, grasshoppers, water-bugs, tadpoles, frogs, mud-turtles, elderberries, wild strawberries, acorns, chestnuts, trees to club, brooks to wade in, water-lilies, woodchucks, bats, bees, butterflies, various animals to pet, hay-fields, pinecones, rocks to roll, sand, snakes, huckleberries and hornets; and any child who has been deprived of these has been deprived of the best part of his education.
~ Luther Burbank, from “Training of the Human Plant” (Published in 1907)

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Libby’s Story: Fighting Cancer with Food (and a sweet recipe for moose nuggets)

When Libby McClaren was diagnosed with cancer, the doctor recommended immediate surgery to remove the tumor from her bladder, followed by chemo and radiation treatments. Libby doesn’t recall how she reacted but she needed quiet time. “I don’t like to be rushed into things,” she said. After talking to her husband Clancy, and her two sons, she unplugged the phone and rested over the weekend. That was seven years ago, and Libby is still alive, thanks to a diet loaded with fresh vegetables and fruit. And love.

family, love, cancer, daughter, food

Libby and daughter Mamie (Photo courtesy Libby McClaren)

While this is Libby’s story, I’m sharing other personal crusades with hopes that they will inspire you, your family or friends in times of need…

It’s not headline news that to maintain a healthy lifestyle we need to exercise regularly and eat right. But sometimes we shun healthy choices or we ignore the signs of a downward spiral, as in Libby’s case. “You take some childhood trauma, genetic weaknesses, 13 mercury fillings, a questionable water source, a poor diet, a few parasites and amoebas from that trip down south, add 45 years of stress and voila! Your weakest organ takes a bullet.”

“The funny thing,” she said, “Is you don’t even know it. You’re just tired. All the time. By the time I wised up I was 53 years old.”

Uh, Oh… The Western Diet is Broken

The information is out there to help us make healthy choices. Trouble is, in the so-called Western diet, says Michael Pollan (author of many bestsellers including Omnivore’s Dilemma), “Food has been replaced by nutrients, and common sense by confusion–most of what we’re consuming today is no longer the product of nature but of food science.”

The result is what Michael Pollan calls the American Paradox: “The more we worry about nutrition, the less healthy we seem to become.” Thus, his manifesto: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

It was in the 1980s that food began disappearing from the American supermarket, gradually to be replaced by “nutrients,” which are not the same thing. [Michael Pollan, in The New York Times article, Unhappy Meals]

garden, vegetables, greenhouse, Homer, Alaska

Lunch from the greenhouse in Homer, Alaska (Photo courtesy Libby McClaren)

Living With Lyme Disease (Diana’s story)

If you’re new to looking at food this way (and want to change how or what you eat), begin by keeping it simple. My friend Diana applies ‘food as medicine’ choices to cope with Lyme disease, thyroid issues and complications from head injury complications.

“I avoid almost all processed, multi-ingredient foods,” she says. “I also find my health is better if I limit the amount of foods in my diet that are high in sugar. The other thing I feel has made a difference for my body is keeping my meals simple in terms of just 2-3 ingredients at a time and eating small amounts frequently.

Diana also listens to her body. “Since I place a high priority on being as healthy as possible, and know that for my body, food is a big part of staying well, I’ve learned to pay attention to how I feel in the hours and day after I eat various foods to figure out what actually works for my body at this time.”

In the long run, Diana tries to be careful but not to be rigid about her choices. “On special occasions I will eat foods that are not ‘perfect’ for me and enjoy every bite!”

Fats are Good? Bad? What to Believe? (Betsy’s story)

Remember when we were told that fats were bad for us? Here’s another story for you…

When Betsy’s (not her real name) daughter developed an eating disorder, she plunged into research. “I learned that our brains need fats,” Betsy said. “But everyone, including the elementary schools were preaching the non-fat foods message and my daughter took it to heart.”

Soon her daughter’s brain became malnourished which triggered the eating disorder. “In order to recover her health we had to feed her lots of calories, including fat calories, to gain back the weight and re-nourish her brain. Today she is a thriving young adult.” Betsy still cringes when she sees advertisements declaring non-fat foods as ‘healthy.’ “All foods are OK, even junk foods, if eaten as a treat in moderation.”

We don’t have to wait for a wake-up crisis. We can take the journey to ideal health by making thoughtful food choices that will enrich our lives and enlarge our sense of what it means to be healthy.

David Spiegelhalter, a professor of risk assessment at the University of Cambridge, says that each day you eat 5 servings of fruits and vegetables, you add 2 hours to your life. [From the article, Measuring MicroLives: How to calculate the exact impact of daily choices on every precious minute of your life. On Slate.com.]

Knowledge + Wisdom = Power


Libby, the fish whisperer (Photo courtesy Libby McClaren)

boat, fish, sons, family, Alaska

Libby poses with sons on a fishing boat in Kodiak, Alaska (Photo courtesy Libby McClaren)

Like Betsy, Libby dove into research, eventually opting out of surgery. Her family didn’t know what to think. “What do you want to do?” her fisherman-husband asked.

“I want to go to the Gerson Clinic in Tijuana, Mexico,” she said. “They’ll train me in a therapy involving fresh fruits and vegetables and maybe my body can correct itself.” But there was a catch: The price tag for two weeks at the clinic was 11,000 dollars.

Enter Libby and Clancy’s friend, Wayne Tipler of the F/V Mar Pacifico, a commercial fishing boat in Kodiak, Alaska. Wayne had a few fishing quotas leftover from the season. And when Wayne learned about Libby’s illness he said, “Let’s go fishing for Libby!” So with the fuel, bait, gear, and crew time donated, the Mar Pacifico headed out to the fishing grounds.

“They caught the quota,” said Libby, “and presented me with a check for 11,000 dollars.”

Two weeks of de-toxing at Gerson did a lot to educate Libby about food, diet and time. “A simple organic diet (meatless, no dairy, no sugar) has an amazing effect on a body in crisis.”

Time, however, was her biggest challenge. “I stopped hurrying and learned to slow down” because preparing and eating well takes time. “If you think you are saving time by getting that sack of cheap burgers on your way home, it’s a delusion. If you make it a habit, you will pay in health problems later.”

Pointing the Finger…

Libby blames no one for her odyssey. “There are options and choices which carry consequences, good, bad, or nothing,” she says. “We can’t control everything so we have to be ready to make adjustments, like tacking in the wind with a sailboat. I bear the results of the decisions I make.”

She does, however, point a finger at the medical profession. “Doctors are not educated to view food as medicine,” said Libby, adding that no matter what your situation is, you need to take responsibility for your own health. “What goes into our mouths plays a big part in health issues.”

squash, greenhouse, organic, vegetable, Alaska

Clancy, the green thumb, poses with a spaghetti squash in the greenhouse (Photo courtesy Libby McClaren)

Today, Libby and her husband live in Homer, Alaska where they raise organic food in two high tunnels, also called hoophouses. “I’m no longer a food Nazi,” she says, “but there is no doubt that food played a major role in my maintaining stability despite the still present tumor.”

Life for Libby

Libby feels blessed to have attended all three of her kids’ weddings. “I am so happy I got to see those things happen. Life is so full of delightful things!”

Today her diet now consists of oatmeal or local chicken eggs and Ezekiel bread for breakfast, plenty of veggies (or soups), moose, and fish. And to stimulate the growth of beneficial bacteria in her gut (now known to boost digestive health) she eats lots of home-preserved sauerkraut and fermented greens with every meal. Whole grains, hummus, and smoothies blended with homemade kefir made from local raw goat’s milk rounds out the menu.

As for desserts, Libby adopted a healthy spin to sweet cravings. “We grow lots of strawberries and I freeze them to make a fruity ice cream.” For a special treat, Libby goes for Moose Nuggets…

Libby’s Moose Nuggets

6 Tbl nut butter, such as almond
3 Tbl coconut oil
3 Tbl maple syrup or honey
2 T raw cacao
1/2 tsp vanilla
Pinch salt
1/2 cup crushed nuts such as cashews or pecans

Mix well (a food processor works great) and stir in nuts. Butter your hands and roll your “nuggets” or use a cookie scoop. Place on parchment paper in a closed container. Store in the fridge. Libby’s note: I like to use organic ingredients and I usually double the batch. You can play with the amounts. For example, add more cacao or different nuts per your taste.)

While Libby’s journey has been far from easy, it’s not been without love and support from friends and family, allowing her to see all three of her children get married. And what’s life without a little humor tossed in.

“Once I wanted to give up and just go to sleep,” she said. But her husband Clancy had other ideas. “You can’t give up.”

“Why not?”

“I’m too old to start dating again.”

cancer, family, love

Libby and husband Clancy (Photo courtesy Libby McClaren)

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In praise of: Oranges (but not that frozen stuff)

Growing up in the rainy Pacific Northwest, winters were gray and summers couldn’t come fast enough. But tagging along with Mom to the grocery store provided some relief. Wheeling the cart along the bins of colorful fruits and veggies, she’d stop and motion for me to pick out an orange. Cupping the orange in one hand, I’d peel away the skin in one piece, like a puzzle, and place it on a loaf of bread for safe keeping. Then as we navigated the remaining aisles, I’d savor the fruit, section by section.

[Note: Watch for future posts in my new “In praise of” category]

oranges, fruit, vitamin c, recipe

Today I’m so fond of oranges that I can’t just eat the fruit, I have to zest it first to use later in smoothies, breads and a ton of recipes, like the one I’ll share at the end for Zesty Orange-Ginger Halibut. Meanwhile, it’s winter, and I must write my weekly garden column. So I decided to celebrate oranges. But watch out: By reading this, you’ll learn some not-so-savory facts about frozen orange juice.

In Alaska, we love oranges as a winter fruit, with most of the crop arriving from California and Florida. While most of us are familiar with the many health advantages to eating oranges (I’ll cover some interesting bits in a moment), here are some quirky facts that will help you appreciate oranges even more.

Oranges are actually a modified berry that grow on evergreen trees that can reach up to 30 feet tall and live for over a hundred years. A single citrus tree is like a giant bouquet, bearing as many as 60,000 flowers, but only 1 percent of those flowers will turn into fruit.

And those Navel oranges we love so much (did the name really come from the belly-button formation opposite the stem end?) — they are seedless, which means they can’t reproduce through pollination and thus require “budding” or grafting to create new trees.

Orange trees were first grown in China and it is believed that Christopher Columbus brought the first orange seeds and seedlings to the New World on his second voyage in 1493. Today, oranges are the largest citrus crop in the world: 20 percent of the total crop is sold as whole fruit; the remainder is used in preparing orange juice, extracts, and preserves.

Speaking of juice, do you know how orange juice is really made? According to the Huffington Post, all that “100% orange juice, not from concentrate” stuff you’ve been drinking is technically not from concentrate but it’s not really 100% orange juice either.

Once the juice is squeezed and stored in large vats, a process begins to remove oxygen. Why? Because it allows the liquid to keep for up to a year without spoiling. Removing that oxygen however, also removes the natural flavors of oranges. So in order for your morning OJ to actually taste like oranges, drink companies hire flavor and fragrance companies (the same ones that make perfumes), to create “flavor packs” to make juice taste like, well, juice again.

Thus any brand allegiance you might have between say, Minute Maid or Tropicana, is due to the specific flavor pack the company uses. Since these flavor packs are made from orange byproducts and are chemically altered (yikes), they don’t have to be considered an ingredient, and therefore are not required to appear on food labels.

oranges, orange juice, frozen, Bakersfield, winter, fruit, peel, zest, recipe

Oranges, ripe for the picking, in Orange Grove RV Park (www.orangegrovervpark.com), Bakersfield, California. Marion Owen photo.

Back to the sunnier side of oranges. Sweet, juicy oranges make a delicious and healthy snack or addition to a meal. And, of course, oranges are well known for their vitamin C content among other powerhouse nutrients. But did you know that after chocolate and vanilla, orange is the world’s favorite flavor? ‘Tis a great introduction to the recipe I promised:

Zesty Orange-Ginger Halibut

1/4 cup fresh orange juice
1 tablespoon orange peel zest
2 teaspoons minced fresh cilantro (optional)
1-2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger root
1-2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
3 tablespoons cooking oil
1 tablespoon butter
Halibut, cut into 1 to 2-inch cubes

In a small bowl, stir together the orange juice, cilantro, ginger, garlic, soy sauce, zest, sesame oil, and red pepper flakes; set aside. Heat the olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Cook the halibut cubes until golden brown on each side, 2 to 3 minutes per side. Pour the orange juice mixture into the skillet and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and simmer until the for a few minutes and the sauce has thickened slightly. Remove halibut to a plate and drizzle with orange sauce to serve.

The rest of the story: When Mom and I were going through the checkout line, the clerk didn’t bat an eye when I set my orange peeling on the scale. Fond memories of a neighborhood grocery store.

Thanks for stopping by. 

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