The bumblebee and the crocus

It was a warm spring day, way up north in Kodiak, Alaska, and I was scrambling to take care of garden chores. (Spring happens that way here: One day it’s winter; the next day we’re experiencing 15 hours of daylight and it’s time to transplant seedlings). As I pruned currant bushes, a bald eagle shrieked from a nearby tree and from the corner of my eye I caught glimpses of fishing boats putt-putting out the channel on their way to the fishing grounds.

Pushing the wheelbarrow between raised beds, I couldn’t help but notice a patch of purple and white crocuses blooming through the not-yet-green lawn. Bumblebees were foraging among the flowers. I took off my garden gloves, walked over, and knelt down. Soon a large queen bumblebee, dusted with yellow pollen, crawled inside a blossom and began to wiggle around the base. Slowly. Eventually she stopped moving. Maybe her metabolism was slowing down. I leaned over and breathed into the flower. The bee shuddered and then became still again.

bumblebee, crocus, spring, flower, nectar, pollen, wild, alaska, kodiak, macro

The flower petals were closing in–clamshell style–like crocuses do at night. I left to fix dinner and returned a couple hours later. The flower had clamped shut, but I could see the top of the bumblebee’s wings inside. Would she be there in the morning? Did she crawl inside the flower knowing the weatherman was calling for frost tonight?

I Googled the words “bumblebees crocus” and learned some cool things about these amazing creatures from

  1. Most bumblebee colonies have a yearly cycle.
  2. Queens that have mated in late summer the previous year hibernate, usually in the soil, and emerge in spring.
  3. These queens haven’t eaten anything since the previous summer, so they are hungry. This is why it is vitally important that they find early flowers to feed.
  4. A bumblebee cannot fly unless her flight muscles are at 30 degrees C, so she has to brave the cold weather to feed or else she will sink into torpor and never wake up. She continues feeding and sheltering at night near the food plants in nooks and crannies for a few weeks until her body signals her that it is time to find a nest site.

I confess that I’ve become attached to these humble bumblebees and just ordered some books to help me identify them as the spring and summer progresses. I guess I’ll have to practice carrying my camera around with me in the garden…

Posted in Essays and inspirations, Our world, Photography | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Work smart. Save time: Spring cleaning tips for the house and garden (you can thank me later)

Unlike breathing, there are many life skills that we’re left to figure out on our own. Pumping gas, uncorking a bottle of wine or even… housecleaning. Thank God for my sister Mara. For many years, she worked as a house sitter and caregiver, which means having coffee with Mara is story time. For example, one gentleman loved to play Scrabble; another loved to make beef stew for her Thursday visits. (She doesn’t like beef stew). Another client, a widow, could never let go of magazines. When the tall stacks started to lean in towards each other and threaten to close off the circuitous paths throughout the house, the relatives were called in.

Mara might be a petit, size Small, woman, but she’s big at cleaning houses, which can send you into a panic when she stops by for a visit. Thank goodness she shares her trade secrets. Her work uniform, for example, is nothing fancy: A baggy sweatshirt from Goodwill that doubles as a duster and polishing rag for those missed spots.

When she learned we were opening a B&B in Kodiak, Alaska, Mara mailed a copy of Speed Cleaning, a book by Jeff Campbell. (Jeff was the founder of The Clean Team, a cleaning service in San Francisco). “It’s my go-to cleaning bible,” she said.

The subtitle, “Clean your entire house in 42 minutes with the Clean Team’s unbeatable system that makes every move count,” got my attention. Wouldn’t it get yours?

cleaning, home, house,

Here’s the book my sister sent me. When The Clean Team says you can “Clean your home in half the time or less,” they really mean it.

The Speed Cleaning method is not rocket science. It’s about working smart. The book and website/blog is filled with creative tips that make all cleaning jobs less cumbersome and less frustrating (who wants to spend a sunny day cleaning house?). Adding a dash of efficiency to house cleaning means you’ll have more time to go for a hike, hang out with your cat, wash the car, or relax in the sunshine.

Let me share my collection of spring cleaning tips for the house and the garden, collected from my sister, my weekly garden columns, and the Clean Team:

Spring cleaning in the house

Make every move count. Work your way around a room once, carrying all your tools and supplies with you. I like to keep everyone in a portable caddy. It really helps cut down the time it takes to clean your home. No more wasting energy by zig-zagging around a room.

Work from top to bottom. Don’t fight gravity, work with it! Start at the top and work your way down. One of my favorite tools: A microfiber feather duster. I always thought feather dusters were useless. Nope. As you clean things high up, the dust and bits of grime fall to the lower regions. That way, you don’t end up cleaning an area twice. Besides, you vacuum last.

Don’t clean things that aren’t dirty. This might sound silly, but you’d be amazed how much time is wasted cleaning and dabbing at surfaces that weren’t dirty in the first place.

The right tool: Recognize if the tool you’re using isn’t working. Shift to a more heavy-duty cleaner or tool (such as a retired toothbrush) if the task call for it. Better than expending unnecessary elbow grease.

Use both hands. Remember the famous line, “Wax on…wax off…” from the movie Karate Kid? The new kid on the block, Daniel, learns about focus, paying attention, muscle memory and efficiency as he cleans and waxes Mr. Miyagi’s car all summer. Perfect training for karate.

Whether you’re a martial artist, brain surgeon, or housecleaner, it’s all about being efficient with your tools. So if you’ve got two hands, use both of them. Spray with one hand while you reach for the cloth (100-percent cotton diapers are best) with the other. Scrub with one hand while the other wipes up behind it. It might take a while to perfect the motions, but all motor skills get perfected by practicing them over and over, right?

Pay attention. When you work with full attention on tasks, you’ll be working at the edge of your full abilities and this makes the work more fun. That’s right—cleaning can actually be fun if you concentrate on the task at hand. Don’t be thinking about what’s for dinner!

Concentrate all your thoughts on the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.
~ Alexander Graham Bell

Spring cleaning in the garden

bleeding heart, greenhouse, garden, lawn, flowers, perennials, Alaska

I love springtime in Alaska!

Be gentle. When raking branches, dead leaves and twigs, pay attention to the impact on the grass, nearby plants and shrubs. Snappy and quick often can damage more than heal. Plus, lawns might still be too squishy from heavy rains to hold up against heavy foot traffic and ambitious raking.

Prune and trim. Prune back weatherworn or winter-killed bushes and trees. Trim away brown-ness until you reach viable green. For edible shrubs like currants, gooseberries and any raspberry canes that bore fruit last year,  trim before the sap starts to flow. That said, not all trees and shrubs should be pruned early, especially some of the flowering ones like rhododendrons, azaleas, lilacs, and flowering crabapples. Best to prune them after blooming because early spring bloomers set their flower buds the fall before.

Be patient: It’s tempting to dive into the garden and de-winterize perennials by pulling back dead leaves, twigs and old stems. Best to wait a little longer to avoid damaging new, tender shoots and inadvertently removing seeds that are waiting for the right post-winter conditions to germinate. Clear signs of new growth is your go-ahead signal.

CobraHead, garden, tool, Johnny's, Seeds

The CobraHead. A universal garden tool if there ever was one. Available through Johnny’s Selected Seeds.

The right tool. Gardeners are notorious for grabbing what’s handy or just using their hands to dig a hole. Work smart, remember? My favorite source for quality hand tools is Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Maine. Many of their tools are inspired by wise, Japanese gardeners.

Take action against weeds. Write this on a yellow sticky note and post it on your fridge: One year’s seed is seven years’ weeds. 

Divide perennials and donate them to a plant sale or a friend who would appreciate new flowers. Spring is the ideal time for dividing primroses, blue poppies and rhubarb. Try to do this as soon as possible after the plant emerges. It’s amazing how quickly plants recover from this abuse if you catch them early when the weather is still mild and they’re raring to grow.

Going green makes lawn care easier. That’s right. According to garden writer Jeff Lowenfels (who, by the way, has the longest running garden column in the U.S. ) and organic lawn takes less effort than a chemical-ized one. Here’s his article about how to repair an old lawn that has become hard packed and ween away from chemicals.

Organic, lawn, care, soybean meal, molasses, grass, seed, compost, steer manure, shredded kelp, dolomite lime.

Our lawn in Kodiak, Alaska is nurtured with organic TLC: Applications of soybean meal, molasses, compost, steer manure, shredded kelp and dolomite lime.


House, cleaning, tips, talking dirt, speed cleaning.

Fabulous book, and a fun read!

After my sister sent me Speed Cleaning, I purchased another Jeff Campbell book called Talking Dirt. To everyone we hire to help with the bed and breakfast, I give them these books to study.

And though I’ve yet to clean our house in 42 minutes, I discovered one of my favorite tools called a “Zip It.” It’s a simple tool that clears clogged drains in sinks, tubs, and showers. It’s a plastic strip that has specially designed teeth which allows you to pull the clog out of the drain. Here’s a photo of the tool. I didn’t think you wanted to see the tool in action, cleaning my hair from our bathroom sink…

zip-it, tool, drain, hair, unclog

The BEST tool for cleaning hair (of which I have lots) from a drain.


Posted in Making life better, Organic gardening | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

How a medical emergency launched my new love affair with plants

It all began when a medical emergency cut short our vacation on October 22, 2016. Soon afterwards, I was invited to be the keynote speaker at the Alaska State Master Gardeners Conference on April 22, 2017. Earth Day. I knew I couldn’t just give a ra-ra speech about how to grow vegetables. What follows is the Powerpoint presentation I shared at the conference. I’m posting it on my blog with the hope that it will save someone’s life…

Thank you for inviting me to this conference. It is great to be here. I’ve always felt that to hang out with gardeners is to be among friends.

Alaska Master Gardener Conference

Soon after moving to Kodiak in 1984, I completed my Master Gardener training. Since then I’ve tried to share the good gardening word. That’s why we’re all here, don’t you agree? I look forward to exchanging ideas and learning amazing things about fermentation, grafting, high tunnels and more.

I’m here today with a mission for all Master Gardeners: To encourage people to grow and eat more fruits and vegetables. Now more than ever. Let me explain, by telling you a story…

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Last October, my husband Marty and I were camped in Capitol Reef National Park, in southern Utah. Capitol Reef is our favorite national park, in the land of red rocks and narrow canyons. It’s relatively unknown and crowd-free, with glorious hiking trails and night skies. And orchards.

Orchard, Capitol Reef National Park

Three thousand fruit trees that were planted by Mormon pioneers in the 1800s and are now maintained by the National Park Service. Apricots, cherries, peaches, pears, apples, almonds, and plums…Best of all, you can pick all the fruit you want.

One night, after dinner, Marty called his daughter Amy. I sat across from him, typing on my laptop, working on my garden column.

“Hi Amy, we’re now in Capitol Reef. You should see the golden trees set against the red rocks. And tomorrow we’re going to pick apples and……”  I looked up. Something was terribly wrong. Marty was trying to speak, but his words were garbled.

Oh my God, he’s having a stroke! And then, out of the blue, this thought popped into my head: Wait a minute, Marty can’t be having a stroke. These things aren’t supposed to happen on vacation. And it’s his turn to do the dishes!

I turned to my computer and Googled STROKE. Four letters popped up on the screen: F-A-S-T.

Signs of a stroke. FAST

F, stands for face: “Smile, Marty.” He looked okay.

A is for arms. “Raise your arms!” Perfect.

S is for speech: “Marty, where are we?” He shook his head.

T is for time: The description read, “If you observe any of these signs, call 9-1-1 immediately.”

Fortunately, Marty’s speech and memory returned to normal within a few minutes. Now what? I spotted the Utah map on the table and read the, “What to do in case of an emergency” information: The closest hospital was in Richfield, 40 miles away. Hmm. I looked out the window. Great. It’s pitch black and it’s Saturday night. Marty and I discussed the pros and cons of driving our 30-foot RV on dark, country roads and decided to leave in the morning.

After breakfast, we packed up and hit the road, driving past family farms and rolling hills. I whispered a prayer, “Lord, I know it’s Sunday, but please have a doctor on duty.”

We parked the RV across the street from the hospital and checked in. Five hours of tests later, the doctor came in and sat down.

Hospital tests

Marty, in the Richfield, Utah hospital where he received top-notch care.

“Mr. Owen, it appears you’ve experienced a TIA. It’s also called a mini-stroke. A TIA is caused when blood flow to part of your brain is temporarily blocked. When you get home, share these lab results with your doctor.”

Kodiak, Alaska airport Benny Benson

Sunset over the Benny Benson Airport, Kodiak, Alaska

We flew home to Kodiak, drove straight to the health clinic, dropped off the results from the hospital, and then headed to the house.

As we opened the front door, the phone was ringing. It was Marty’s doctor. I’ll call him Dr. Greg.  “Marty, you gave me a scare. Having a TIA is a serious warning sign because now you’re more likely to have a full-blown stroke. I can recommend medications and suggest you take a baby aspirin every day, but that does not fix the problem, which is the plaque that’s built up in your arteries. Another option is to change your diet. Start by watching the documentary called, ‘Forks Over Knives.’ It could save your life.”

Forks Over Knives

That night, we signed onto Netflix and watched as the film Forks Over Knives presented scientific evidence that a Standard American Diet loaded with meat and dairy causes many of our most deadly diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and… stroke. And that these same diseases can be prevented and even reversed by adopting what’s known as a whole-food, plant-based diet.

We learned that a whole-food, plant-based diet is an eating plan that includes lots of plant foods in their whole, unprocessed form, like vegetables, fruits, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. It does not include animal products, like meat, poultry, fish, dairy, and eggs or processed foods like oils or sweets.

Whole Food Plant Based diet

That was a mouthful for us, but the evidence was clear. And Dr. Greg was certainly an inspiration. Four years ago, at 5-ft, 9, he weighed 230 pounds and was shaped like a pear. His cholesterol levels were off the charts. Today he exercises regularly and weighs 160 pounds. He dropped the fried chicken for pizza, minus the cheese and salami.

After watching Forks Over Knives, Marty and I decided to give plant-based eating a try.

Whoa, habits die hard. I’d always believed that by growing our own veggies and cooking mostly from scratch, that our bodies would be alright. Yet what I’d been serving Marty all those years–some of the same stuff that’s killing millions of Americans–had been silently killing him.

Leading causes of death in the United States CDC

Leading causes of death in the United States (from Center for Disease Control data, 2014). Chart design by Marion Owen.

What you’re looking at are the top 15 causes of death in the United States. The red bars represent diseases caused by obesity and diet. At the top is heart disease. More than 600,000 Americans die of heart disease each year. That’s one in every four deaths in this country. Heart disease is not limited to adults, either. Recent studies show that heart disease is showing up in children.

You know, for all that our heart does for us, we take it for granted. We don’t give it much thought as we go about our busy days. To bring attention to your heart, I’d like you to do this exercise… Make a fist with your left hand. Now cover that fist with your right. That’s the size of your heart. Our bodies contain about 5 quarts of blood. And your heart beats that 5 quarts of blood through your body 2,000 times. Every day. 2,000 times!

Don’t you think we could take better care of our heart?

When I describe what we eat these days, people say the most interesting things. Like, “Wow, no eggs or cheese? That sound pretty extreme.” Extreme? I think using a saw to open up your chest for open heart surgery is extreme.”

At the heart of the problem, is the Standard American Diet—what most Americans eat—is loaded with too much fat, sugar, meat, dairy, and refined, processed junk. We haven’t always eaten this way. The eating pattern in our country began to change right after World War II.

Standard American Diet

From the Mother Jones article, “The Standard American Diet in Three Easy Charts”

Like most Americans, I was told that eating meat helped kept you strong and healthy. I was also taught that if I didn’t drink milk every day that my bones will crumble. Sound familiar? Well, guess what? Our bones are crumbling. According to the International Osteoporosis Foundation, countries like the U.S. and Australia that consume the most dairy products, have the highest rates of bone fractures.

Meat dairy

Thanks to the Standard American Diet, more of our friends and family members are getting sick and dying prematurely, despite all the procedures and pills we prescribe. We have the most advanced medical technology in the world, yet our life expectancy has dropped for the first time in 22 years. And our children…

The youth of today may live shorter lives than their parents.
~ New England Journal of Medicine

You know what makes me cry inside? We’ve become so accustomed to chronic illness that we consider heart disease and strokes as natural parts of the aging process, like wrinkles on your skin. Let me tell you, there’s nothing natural about my grandfather dying of high blood pressure at age 49. Or my mom and dad dying early from preventable diseases. No one ever counseled them about nutrition.

Hold on here. Since most premature deaths in the country are preventable and related to what we eat, you’d think that nutrition would be the number-one subject taught in medical schools. Sadly, it’s not. You know why? There’s no money in writing prescriptions for broccoli.

Vegetables healthy diet

Let food by thy medicine and medicine by thy food.
~ Hippocrates

I don’t want you to be discouraged because things are changing for the better. For example, Kaiser Permanente, the largest HMO in the United States which covers about 9 million people with 15,000 physicians, publishes educational brochures to help make plant-based diets the “new normal” for patients and physicians.

Meanwhile, until America catches on to the value of plants as preventive medicine, Marty and I find ourselves in the minority. This was obvious at a recent family gathering. My siblings had questions and concerns. Understandably. We’ve all been led to believe that you must eat meat and eggs for protein, and drink milk for calcium. It’s all marketing hype. Let me share the Top Three questions they asked us. It might help with some of your questions, too:

First question:
Where do you guys get your protein?

Well, how do hippos, horses, elephants, gorillas and cows get their protein? And brown ears. Did you know that 75 percent of a brown bear’s diet is plant-based?

You’ll be happy to learn that protein is easier to get than you think. Even lettuce and tomatoes contain protein. All whole plant foods have some protein in them and by eating a balanced, plant-based diet you get all the protein you need. That goes for Richard Gere, Paul McCartney, Bill Clinton, and athletes too, like NFL defensive lineman David Cater, and tennis champion Venus Williams. And regular folks like Josh LaJaunie from Louisiana. Take a look at this before-and-after photo…

When Josh turned 32, he weighed 410 pounds. He joined a gym and began working out; even started jogging. Then, after watching Forks Over Knives he switched to a plant-based diet and today he weighs 190 pounds and competes in ultramarathons. But his greatest achievement? His whole family has adopted plant-based diets.

Second question:
No dairy? Where do you get your calcium?

Cress calcium

Move over kale! Cress is the numero uno green.

Calcium, folks, does not come from cows. It’s not cow-cium. The best way to get usable calcium is to eat a variety of plant foods. The mother lode of calcium? Kale. And quinoa, chickpeas, sesame seeds, spinach, almonds, and cress. (Cress, by the way, now tops kale as the healthiest green). And figs. A half cup of figs has as much calcium as a half cup of milk.

Third question:
Marion, what about olive oil? Isn’t it plant-based and good for you?

Olive oil

Olive oil, coconut oil and other oils are highly refined. Which means all the good stuff, vitamins, protein, minerals and fiber, has been removed. What’s left is fat which causes plaque to build up and clog your arteries. And with more calories per gram that any other food, oils are not part of a healthy diet.

Ah, yes. Today is Earth Day [talk was give on April 22, 2017] and it’s springtime in Alaska. Queen bumblebees are emerging from their underground burrows, and it’s time to prepare the garden, which means starting seeds and pulling weeds.


For the last part of my talk, I’d like to share some of the peaks and valleys we went through while transitioning to healthier eating plan and provide suggestions for how to get started…

One day, soon after we watched Forks Over Knives, I stepped into the kitchen and began pulling food from the shelves. No more mayonnaise, frozen chicken breasts, chips, or sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil. It felt great, almost liberating, like pulling weeds after a long winter.

pulling weeds

Then I stood back and stared at rows of empty shelves. It was time to go shopping…

For my first plant-based shopping spree, I’d made a list alright, but I didn’t realize I needed to bring a sleeping bag with me! Steering my cart up and down the aisles, I ended up reading so many labels (Is it oil-free? Is there milk in it?) it took me over 3 hours before I reached the checkout line. As I began placing items on the moving belt, the clerk looked at me, and my cart, and started chuckling. “We were beginning to think you were going to spend the night here!”

Trader Joe's

As for planning plant-based meals, I knew it was important to eat a variety of plant foods, but how much of what …? I never gave it much thought before. I mean you could live on Yukon Gold potatoes and technically you’d be following a plant-based diet. But it wouldn’t be healthy. Then I discovered a checklist called, The Daily Dozen while reading Dr. Michael Greger’s bestselling book, How Not to Die, which is available through Amazon.

Plant based recipes cookbooks

Being a visual kind of gal, I re-created Dr. Greger’s Daily Dozen chart on a dry-erase board and set it on the kitchen counter. Here’s how The Daily Dozen works… On the right are the kinds of foods you want to eat each day; on the left are the ideal number of servings.

Now as a child I ate my share of Tater Tots and fish sticks, but these days, I actually cook… a lot. During the summer for example, I feed eight people almost every night on our Galley Gourmet dinner cruises. And I love to cook So, when we converted to a plant-based style of eating, I was afraid it would be boring and too restrictive.

Galley Gourmet dinner cruise

So I was pleasantly surprised to find that this new world of food was refreshing and quite satisfying. There are thousands of tasty, easy-to-make recipes out there that don’t require eggs, oil, or milk. Sound impossible? Try this recipe…

I serve this tasty sorbet to nonbelievers. What a cool way to eat more greens. I call it sneaky nutrition.

I don’t always create winners, though. And I know when something’s a flop, because Marty will say, “Well, that was different.” Case in point: At first, we really missed cheese, so I tried to create a fake cheddar cheese from sweet potatoes, agar flakes, and cashew butter. Hmm, not so good—I tossed it into the compost pile. Hopefully the earthworms won’t mind.

But the parmesan cheese substitute blended from almonds, cashews, nutritional yeast and salt? That was a keeper.

But then, somewhere along the line, I became sort of a food Nazi…

Another story for you: When I was about 10, my parents gave us a science kit called the Visible Man. Now that I think back on it, maybe it was their prelude to The Talk. Imagine a 16-inch model with see-through skin which shows the major veins and arteries. The kit comes with the skeleton, vital organs, and brain. The idea is to paint the organs and then assemble the kit. We learned a lot, but we had fun, too… putting the bladder in the skull and the brain in the abdominal cavity. So keep the Visible Man in mind while I tell the rest of this story…

While vacationing in Arizona this winter, I’d been really stressing out over food. How much oil was in a slice of Dave’s Killer Bread? Will the restaurant throw us out if we ask for no cheese on the veggie burger? Because of my love for Marty and concern for his health, I fretted over every food choice to the point where I made myself sick with worry.

I called the health clinic in Kodiak. “Dr. Greg, I’m scared that we’ll eat the wrong things. I mean, it’s not like Marty is the Visible Man, where I can see what’s going on inside him!”

“Marion,” he said. “It’s OK to eat animal protein now and then. Just keep any servings to the size of a deck of cards.”

We should all be eating fruits and vegetables as if our lives depend on it–because they do.
~ Dr. Michael Greger,

I’m sure some of you are thinking, “Marion, it’s too late to change how I eat.” I’m telling you, it’s never too late to begin a plant-based diet. You will see results in as little as 3 weeks: Your cholesterol will plummet, you’ll have more energy, and you’ll lose weight. Without trying. No more stiff and swollen joints, no more gout, no more bloating after meals, and no more… constipation, thanks to all that great dietary fiber. Think of all the time you’ll save by not sitting on the toilet for so long!

If you want to be as regular as a Swiss train, eat a plant-based diet. It will be a moving experience.
~ Rip Esselstyn, author of Plant-Strong and the Engine 2 Diet

Another thing that’s not so humorous. If, instead of beef, chicken and butter, more people ate sweet potatoes, carrots and beans, everyone’s health would improve and Medicare costs would drop by the billions of dollars. And let’s consider the health of our planet…

According to the U.N., plant-based diets may help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and have a gentler impact on the environment. In fact, “livestock emissions,” might be more dangerous for the environment than automobile emissions.Seriously though, did you know that around the world, more crops are grown to feed animals than people? It’s adding to climate change. Every year, thousands of acres of rainforest are cleared and converted to pastures for soy production and cattle grazing. Trees are the lungs of the earth.

The earth.  The conference theme is, “Every day is Earth Day, when you’re a Master Gardener.” This spring, I started my broccoli, lettuce and turnips with renewed enthusiasm… I’m more passionate than ever about growing veggies. It’s hard to describe the freedom that comes with eating this way…

I hope what I’m sharing has inspired you to make changes toward a healthier lifestyle. Please understand, you don’t have to go cold turkey, so to speak. Affirm your goals, celebrate the small victories, and don’t give up. It’s like standing at the bottom of a tall staircase. You don’t ever feel you can’t get to the top just because you can’t get there in a single leap. You look at the stairs and think, yes, these are doable steps. One, two three…

Here are 7 steps to help get you started on a plant-based journey:

1. Get your blood tested. LDL, HDL, triglycerides. Understand what these numbers mean.

2. Bring cooking back home. Cook from real ingredients. And invite kids into the kitchen. If you don’t know how to cook, try to learn. My mom always said, “If you can read, you can cook.” Perhaps the easiest way to get your feet wet as far as shifting to a plant-based diet, is to change a favorite recipe to be plant-based, say making split pea soup without ham, or tacos with beans, rice and veggies without the meat and cheese. Served with a salad made from home-grown veggies… It’s like saying “I love you” with food.

3. Don’t eat fast food. Period. Fast food is like poisoned honey. It might taste good at first, but in the end, it’s a killer.

From Women’s Health magazine

Not a very pleasant image, is it? It got my attention though. It was in the March 14, 2014 issue of Women’s Health magazine that began with a direct appeal to readers: “We’re guessing that you would never even consider smoking cigarettes, given how awful they are for your health, right? But an alarming new study suggests that the Standard American Diet may be as harmful as smoking.”

Plant-based diets are the nutritional equivalent of quitting smoking.
~ Dr. Neil Barnard (Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine)

4. Change your relationship with food. A healthy relationship is one that loves you back. You might love macaroni and cheese, but it doesn’t love you back. Next time you’re online, Google “plant-based.” You’ll discover blogs, recipes, and workshops. And you never know, your neighbor might be ditching the macaroni and cheese, too! And check out the database of 2,000 videos on

5. Encourage schools to bring plant-based menu options into their cafeterias. The same goes for prisons and other institutions. We all need to eat, but everyone deserves healthy food.

6. Step out of your food comfort zone. Grow or buy 3 fruits or vegetables this year that are unfamiliar to you. If you’re never grown cauliflower for example, give it a try. If anything, to make awesome coffee and chai un-milkshakes. Just replace the ice cream with almond milk and frozen cauliflower bits.

7. Be patient with yourself and with doctors. When the film Forks Over Knives was released in 2011, it helped spark a medical and nutritional revolution. Americans have a long way to go,  but with each passing day, more and more people are adopting a whole-food, plant-based lifestyle. You can see this, even in Anchorage. At a Costco store last December, we discovered many products that were labeled “Plant Based.”

In closing, the past 6 months have convinced us that Marty’s stroke was the best thing that ever happened. For one thing, our blood numbers have returned to normal. I’ve also gained a higher regard for my garden and a new appreciation for the human body and how best to nourish it.

My husband Marty, relaxing…

Which reminds me. Your body is like no one else’s. Take care of it. It’s the one you walked in the door with; it’s the suitcase that carries your soul, that spark of God within you, as you travel on this earth. And in that spark, is the wisdom to choose those things that will give you freedom, happiness and health. And who wouldn’t want good health? Because when you don’t feel well, it’s difficult to play with your grandkids, take in a symphony, enjoy your garden, or sit quietly to meditate on God.

I’m not a physician, but if I had one wish, it would be that every doctor’s prescription would look like this:

In the beginning of my talk I said that Master Gardeners have a mission: To encourage people to grow and eat more fruits and vegetables. My goal today was to tell you why it’s so important.

I hope I’ve inspired you to begin the journey back to optimum health, for the earth, for ourselves, and for our children.

Thank you, and God bless you. And thank goodness chocolate is plant-based!

Posted in Diet and health, Essays and inspirations, Food and recipes | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

Is every snowflake perfect? What about us?

The glow from a small porch light defined my coordinates on the globe: A trampled patch of snow, the size of a manhole cover, located between a sliding glass door and an outhouse ‘privacy’ tent. Inside the tent, my camera equipment sat perched on milk crates, shielded from the falling snow.

It was 12 degrees in Anchorage, Alaska. I was staying at a friend’s house, though the 2 AM hour found me not in bed, but standing outside on their back deck. If a neighbor happened to be up at that hour, perhaps to pee, and looked across the yard, the scene might have appeared like a silent film: A short person, dressed in baggy pants and a down jacket with pajama tops poking up through the collar, shuffling in tight circles while holding a card at arm’s length. A narrow, white beam from a headlamp, darted around the card’s surface like a tiny stage light.

What the neighbor wouldn’t have been able to see was the snowflake ballet I was witnessing in the light of my headlamp, as hundreds of tiny white snow crystals sifted down like tiny parachutes. As each one touched down on the black foam core, their 20-minute journey to earth was complete.

I have a fascination–nay, a love affair–with snowflakes. Some of my earliest blog posts, such as Are Snowflakes Alive? share my profound joy of tracking down beautiful crystals and photographing them. It’s a thrill, like reaching the top of Everest, when a snowflake’s crystalline structure comes into sharp focus.

This night though, I was deeply frustrated. For three days, my efforts to photograph these sky crystals had been hampered by high humidity in the atmosphere that encased each snowflake in an armor of rime.

On this early morning, I scanned the black card for the perfect flake. Finding a potential candidate, I carried the card into the tent, scooped up the snowflake with a narrow paintbrush, and placed it on the microscope slide. Holding my breathe in anticipation (and saving the snowflake from a death-blast of warm breath) I brought the crystal into focus. Here’s what I saw:

snowflake, snow crystal, real snowflake, photography, macro, winter, snow, Alaska, Marion Owen, Kodiak

“Darn,” I thought, feeling crushed. “Another bad one. I might as well go back to bed.”

Just then, a special clarity came over me and a thought filled my consciousness. “Do you still love me?”

It came to me clear as a bell. I don’t really know how to describe it, except that the words sounded bold, as if someone had shouted in my ear.

Transfixed, I stared at the snowflake through the view screen on the back of the camera, the question, “Do you still love me?” still ringing in my head.

It’s hard to describe what happened next, except that I felt full, connected, non-judgmental and filled with love. My whole attitude shifted and for the next couple hours I danced about, childlike, capturing and photographing dozens of “imperfectly-perfect” snowflakes. It was pure joy, like discovering new friends.

Here are the very snowflakes I discovered that night:

snowflake, snow crystal, real snowflake, photography, macro, winter, snow, Alaska, Marion Owen, Kodiak

snowflake, snow crystal, real snowflake, photography, macro, winter, snow, Alaska, Marion Owen, Kodiak

snowflake, snow crystal, real snowflake, photography, macro, winter, snow, Alaska, Marion Owen, Kodiak

snowflake, snow crystal, real snowflake, photography, macro, winter, snow, Alaska, Marion Owen, Kodiak, B&W

snowflake, snow crystal, real snowflake, photography, macro, winter, snow, Alaska, Marion Owen, Kodiak

snowflake, snow crystal, real snowflake, photography, macro, winter, snow, Alaska, Marion Owen, Kodiak, black and white

snowflake, snow crystal, real snowflake, photography, macro, winter, snow, Alaska, Marion Owen, Kodiak, rime

snowflake, snow crystal, real snowflake, photography, macro, winter, snow, Alaska, Marion Owen, Kodiak

That night, oblivious to the coldness soaking into my feet and bare hands, I learned something about myself. For one thing, the question, ‘Do you still love me’ might well have been, “It doesn’t have to be perfect, you know.” (I think I’ll come back to that one in another post).

I also realized that we are all broken or blemished in some way. We carry baggage in the form of habits, desires, and indifference–tendencies that hold us back from knowing who we really are. That’s why we’re here on this little red schoolhouse called ‘earth.’ To learn, to grow, to improve our lot.

And you know what’s cool about the journey? You never know when or where your answers and inspirations will come from. A billboard, a comment from a friend, a newspaper article, or a snowflake.

Exciting, isn’t it?

Cheers and blessings,

Marion Owen, Kodiak, Alaska, photographer

Relevant links you might enjoy:

Striving for Excellence vs. Perfection, by Victor Cheng


Posted in Essays and inspirations, Photography | Tagged , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Ansel and the Snowflake

It was 8 PM and I’d been trying to photograph snowflakes all day. But try as I might, the wind was howling and I could only “harvest” bits and pieces blown off the roof. Feeling a little discouraged—realizing that this would be the last chance to photograph snowflakes until next winter—I retreated inside.

Three hours later, a thought tap-danced across my concentration: “Go outside and try again.” So I pulled a pair of insulated pants and a parka over my pajamas, donned a hat and gloves, and headed into the night. This snowflake was the first one to land on my black sampling board and “sparkle” in the light of my headlamp. I picked it up with a paintbrush (like scooping up a pancake with a spatula), and set it on the microscope slide. Holding my breath so I wouldn’t melt the snow crystal, I quickly adjusted the camera settings. As it came into focus, I nearly cried…

snowflake, snow crystal, real snowflake, photo, Ansel Adams, snow, winter

Thanks for stopping by. Be inspired. Be happy.

Marion Owen, Kodiak, Alaska, photographer

Posted in Essays and inspirations, Photography | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 28 Comments

Goodness gracious great balls of chocolate!

For health reasons, Marty and I recently adopted a plant-based diet, a personal story I share in this post. No more animal protein (meat, dairy, eggs) or processed oils. Suddenly the cookbooks I’d consulted for 40 years were no longer my kitchen buddies. In darkness however, I found light: Chocolate is plant-based! Here is my new, favorite recipe for Chocolate Chews, a fantastic diary-free and gluten-free treat. Jerry Lee Lewis would have said, “Goodness gracious great balls of chocolate!”

chocolate, vegan, plant-based, dessert, balls, sesame seeds, cocao


1/2 cup almonds
1/2 cup cashews
1/3 cup tahini or almond butter
1 cup raisins
2 tablespoons ground flax seeds
1 tablespoon chia seeds
1 tablespoon hemp hearts (raw, shelled hemp seeds)–optional
1/4 cup unsweetened powdered cocoa
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup maple syrup or honey
1 tablespoon orange zest or 7-10 drops orange essential oil
1/2 cup sesame seeds (or unsweetened shredded coconut)

Put almonds and cashews in a food processor and pulse until crumbly. Transfer them into a bowl. Then add tahini and raisins to the food processor and blend until well mashed. Follow with the processed almonds and cashews and the remaining ingredients, except the sesame seeds. Pulse until well combined. Transfer the mixture back to the bowl and using a small ice cream-cookie scoop or tablespoon measuring spoon, scoop out the mixture and roll into balls. Roll each ball in the sesame seeds, place them on baking sheet and chill for at least an hour. For long-term storage, freeze them first and then transfer the chews into a reusable container or Ziploc bag. Makes 24-30 chews.

When I first made these treats, I brought them to a Christmas potluck. In no time, they were all gone…

I’d love to know what you think. Thanks for visiting. Cheers,

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



Posted in Food and recipes | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

My New Year’s resolutions after a health crisis renews my love affair with plants

Zion, National, Park, Utah, sunshine, hiking

Marty pauses in the morning light. (Zion National Park, Utah)

In October 2015 my husband experienced a mini-stroke. We were traveling in our motorhome at the time, camped near Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park. While Marty’s 5-minute episode didn’t leave any outward signs of damage, we knew that inside, something was wrong. “You should consider adopting a plant-based diet,” his doctor said. We did. And the journey has reopened my love affair with plants.

Since I’m writing this at the cusp of a new year, I came up with a list of resolutions. They have a garden theme. Forgive me. I’ve written a weekly garden column for 20+ years. Now if you’re not a plant-hugger, don’t click away from this post, because what I have to say may improve–or even save–your life.

“If we don’t change our mind, we’ll never move our behind.” ~Dr. Terry Mason, Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health. (A fabulous and inspirational speaker, Dr. Mason champions a holistic approach to health. Watch one of his presentations here).

Rake leaves as if you’re Dancing With the Plants. Or think of your shovel as your new dumbbell. What’s up with this? According to the CDC’s (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) article, Gardening Health and Safety Tips, spending just 2.5 hours a week in a moderately intensive activity, such as gardening, can reduce your risk for obesity, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, heart disease, stroke, colon cancer, and premature death. Got it?

radish, seedling, sprout, organic, garden

Magic in a radish seedling.

Be a plant ambassador by introducing at least one person to gardening this year. Gardening does so much more than give us a workout that helps prevent disease. Read on…

Start more plants from seed. What can be more magical than planting a seed and watching the miracle of new life unfold? Just ask a child. Of course there are practical reasons: Saving money, having more varieties to choose from, getting a jump on the growing season. (My favorite seed catalogs for cool climate gardening include: Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Fedco, Territorial Seeds).

The other beauty about gardening… is that it can be done by people almost any age or ability. Similar to caring for a goldfish, caring for a plant can teach a young child responsibility (as well as a bit about science, nature, and nutrition, if the plant is also a food).
~ From Physical and Mental Benefits of Gardening, Huffington Post

flower, bumblebee, pollen, daisy

Bumblebee at work.

Please donate more vegetables to your local food bank. Or volunteer. Many food banks accept financial contributions and assistance in sorting, packaging, and distributing food.

Beautify the world with more flowers. Many crops, from almonds to zucchini, need pollinators to bear fruit. And it is scientifically proven that gardening lifts the spirit and wards off depression: it is difficult not to enjoy life when surrounded by flowers. When I was co-authoring Chicken Soup for the Gardener’s Soul, this theme came up time and time again in the thousands of stories submitted for the New York Times bestseller.

Enjoy more homegrown food. Nothing nourishes the body, tastebuds, and soul like tasty and healthy food that you grew yourself. Whether you add a new raised bed to grow vegetables, cultivate salad greens in a half whiskey barrel, or lease a community garden plot, resolve to enjoy a bigger harvest this year.

Employ more natural solutions to manage pests. Get to know the various pests that frequent your garden, then take steps to deflect problems before you support conglomerates like Monsanto by reaching for the toxic synthetic pesticides. Better to use earth-friendly products that are safe for people, pets, birds, and other creatures.

Broccoli, vegetable, healthy, garden, organic

Having a little fun with broccoli and flowers

Build your plants’ defenses, and yours. (I’ll explain in a moment). Pests are more likely to attack weak plants. Sickly plants aren’t just the result of too much or too little water. Tests show that plants fed a high-nitrogen fertilizer such as Miracle Gro develop weak, juicy stems that attract more pests (aphids!) that plants raised using organic methods.

As for your defenses, here is what Better Homes and Gardens printed in their November 2015 issue about building a strong immune system:

  • 7 hours of sleep per night will make you less likely to get sick.
  • You are 32 percent less likely to catch a cold if you give and receive hugs frequently, thanks to their stress busting effect.
  • 40 minutes a day of moderately intense exercise, like a brisk walk, can cut your risk of cold and flu in half.
  • Meditate every day and you could slash your chances of coming down with a cold by 76 percent.

Believe in the tenacity of plants. “Plants want to survive and live,” reminds Amy Pennington, author of Apartment Gardening. “They will go to great lengths to make sure their genetic strain lives on. They don’t need constant monitoring—they just need a helper.”

Taking it all in while hiking in Grand Canyon National Park's North Rim. More than the grandness, I liked The Big Quiet.

Taking it all in while hiking in Grand Canyon National Park’s North Rim. More than the grandness, I liked The Big Quiet.

Take better care of indoor plants. It’s the least we can do for the greenery that graciously brightens the interiors of our homes, hospitals and offices.

Memorize the names of more wildflowers. After a little practice, they will become familiar friends along trails, roads, parks, and forests.

Collect kitchen scraps for making compost or vegetable broth. “Compost,” says New York Times garden columnist Leslie Land, “is the all-purpose answer to everything.” Vegetable trimmings, thrown in a pot of water, makes an excellent, nutrient-rich soup stock.

dew drop, droplet, macro, photography, Marion Owen, flower

Forget-me-not flowers inverted in a dew drop.

Allow nature to soothe and rejuvenate by spending more time in the garden. In our hectic world it’s too easy to think of gardening as just another task on the to-do list. As corny as it may sound, take time to smell a rose or observe nature’s beauty in a tiny dewdrop.

Embrace your own people-plant connection. Why are our spirits so uplifted by flowers? What compels us to behave like lemmings, massing along roads and hiking trails to immerse ourselves in nature? And what draws us so powerfully to savor scenic overlooks? (Highway engineers and national park planners acknowledge this urge). Our ties to the natural world of plants are subtle and often overlooked.

Charles Lewis, author of the marvelous and pathmaking book  Green Nature, Human Nature, describes the positive influences that nature can have on humanity. It’s so much more than how plants provide us with food, clothing, and flowers…

“When people who garden find new friendships with neighbors, when a walk in the woods brings relief from pent-up tension, or when a potted begonia restores vitality to a hospital patient, we can begin to sense the power of these connections.”

So back to our motorhome. It was Saturday, October 22, and we’d just finished dinner when Marty had his mini-stroke. He was on the phone, talking with his daughter, when suddenly he couldn’t form words. We were 40 miles from the nearest hospital in Richfield, Utah. At dawn, we broke camp and starting driving. We didn’t talk much, really. Just listened to peaceful music on the radio and let the views of rolling pastures and sparkling lakes soothe our concerns for the future.

Marty’s mini-stroke was a wake-up call in many ways. For example, I’ve had to learn how to cook all over again. But that’s another story. And although I’ve been a master gardener, teacher, and garden writer for many years, what happened in October changed my view, my appreciation, of plants. Did you know that chlorophyll and hemoglobin bear a striking similarity in structure? Ah, that’s yet another story.

I hope this blog post changes how you think about plants and gardening, too.

Blessings to you for the New Year, and all year,

Marion Owen, Kodiak, Alaska, photographer

Kodiak, Island, ocean, hiking, park, storm

After returning to Kodiak Island, Marty and I went for a hike to watch storm waves crash against the rocks. It felt good to be home.

Posted in Essays and inspirations, Life coming full circle, Organic gardening | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments

Sustainable Santa knows if you’ve been good

holiday, lights, boats, festival, winter, Christmas, stars, Alaska, Kodiak

Harbor Lights Festival in Kodiak, Alaska with stars overhead. (Photo by Jason Humphreys)

During this year’s annual Harbor Lights Festival in Kodiak, Marty and I joined hundreds of friends and neighbors to walk the docks and vote for our favorite Christmas-y boat. One little boy looked up at us and with firm conviction declared, “Santa Claus is coming to town!” Yes, Santa Claus is coming to town and as the song says, “He’s loaded lots of toys and goodies on his sleigh.”

Most of us love family holiday traditions and potlucks. “In the air, there’s a feeling of Christmas,” that surge of caring and neighborliness that blossoms this time of year. There’s also a surge of—dare I spoil the holiday spirit—of waste. Lots of it. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the volume of household waste generally increases 25 percent between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, creating about one million extra tons of waste in the winter wonderland. If all you want for Christmas is to generate less waste and help the planet heal, there are plenty of ways you can go green for the holidays.

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas

It’s an eye-opening experience to watch kids tear open gift-wrapped packages. Even more enlightening is the appearance of Mount Holiday Debris. Most of that waste (packaging and boxes, greeting cards, used batteries and old electronics), can be recycled, reused or re-gifted, recyclable or not. Here are a few pre-cycling tips:

  • Wrap your gifts in earth-friendly wrapping such as bandanas, nautical charts, handkerchiefs, magazines, or newspaper (the comics!) you’ve decorated with hand-stamped designs. Avoid ribbons, bows, greeting cards and wrapping paper that contains metal fibers and glitter.
  • Decorate your tree with ornaments, sure, but instead of tinsel, consider strings of popcorn and paper chains from magazines.
  • Rather than wrapping gifts for youngsters, hide the presents and turn Christmas morning into a treasure hunt.
  • Save wrapping paper, cards and ribbons to use next year.
  • Take the Huffington Post’s No Paper Challenge, by Lauren Berg
recycle, Christmas, cardboard, fiber, precycle, reuse, recyclable, boxes

Decisions, decisions, decisions…

Deck the Halls!

Turn off (use a timer) or unplug lights during the day to save energy.

O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree!

If you purchased (or harvested) a real Christmas tree or greens, please recycle your tree responsibly.

My true love sent to me

There are plenty of gifts that don’t require lots of packaging or wrapping. Experiential gifts celebrate the gift of giving without the extra waste of packaging and paper. They also provide opportunities for the recipient to experiences new things in the way of music lessons, yoga classes, or event tickets. How about gifts of State Park passes, memberships to local museums, and donating to a local charity in someone else’s name? They all provide ways to invest in your community at the same time.

I love promissory notes, gifts that keep on giving: Notes for cleaning, gardening, admission to workshops, coupons for homemade dinners, family getaways, or sharing hikes with a friend. How about investing in your family and friends by contributing to a child’s savings account or education IRA.

Santa, hat, sustainable, recycle, logo, recycling, Christmas

Santa knows if you’ve been bad or good so be good for goodness sake! Being good means making thoughtful and conscious buying/giving choices. Remember, small is beautiful. Storing large items has become the albatross around the neck of many Americans. Honestly folks, we don’t need more stuff. Get this: The average American home size has nearly tripled over the last 50 years and one in ten Americans rent a storage unit. Keep your gift-giving simple. One thoughtful present is better than five wrapped packages of unwanted gifts.

Can we talk briefly about hoarding? It’s a problem for many people around the world. Maybe you know a friend or family member who suffers from “Rubble without a cause.” I won’t get into the dynamics of compulsive hoarding as a disorder except to say that if you can clear out some of the clutter in your home (or be a “clutter buddy” and help someone else do it) and recycle or re-purpose what you can, you will giving in ways you never imagined.

Oh, bring us some … (what is figgy pudding?)

If you’re entertaining this season, here are a few tips to consider:

  • Use reusable cups, plates and utensils.
  • Set out cloth napkins and tablecloths instead of disposable ones.
  • Recycle at your holiday party.
  • Prevent food waste with menu planning and smart shopping.
  • Buy local foods.

Do you see what I see?

I’ve listed many tips for making this holiday season an extra special, green one. After the holiday dust has settled though (dust is compostable, by the way), consider two things:

  1. Adopt some of these tips for the whole year
  2. Using the power of the pen and your buying power to encourage companies to rethink some of their packaging methods. Tell them you want a Christmas that celebrates environmentally friendly lifestyles so that everyone can be singing “Joy to the World!”
Letter to Santa, Santa, giving, gifts, naughty, Christmas

A sweet “Letter to Santa” I found in North Pole, Alaska.

Posted in Essays and inspirations, Our world, Vote with your dollars | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Kitchen Conundrum: How to store ridiculous-sized spice jars

kitchen, design, unreal, fake, gawdy, showy

Barbie Doll kitchens. Heaven forbid you’d knead bread on the counter, let kids and dogs romp on the floor, or place a compost bucket by the sink in these kitchens.

There are a lot of fake kitchens out there. While designing our own kitchen, I came across many soul-less rooms featured in House Beautiful-type magazines. One look at the photos and I’d think, “Are you kidding? Knead bread on the counter? Keep a compost bucket by the sink?” In the process though, I realized there are two major hurdles for every kitchen: Where to install the sink and how to store herbs and spices. Allow me to share a few discoveries with you…

Deciding where to put the sink (the busiest zone in the kitchen) was easy. We live on the ocean in Kodiak, Alaska, so duh, I gave it and myself, the best view in the house. As for storing spices and herbs, the solution wasn’t so immediate. Spice containers come in a ridiculous number of shapes and sizes. And though I loved to cook, I didn’t want to waste time wading through dark cabinets to find that tin of Colman’s mustard. The solution: A large, shallow drawer where jars are laid on their side, labels facing up.

Years have passed since that “drawer revelation” but when I fetched a jar of nutmeg from the drawer the other day, I stared at the label and wondered, “How old is this nutmeg?” Maybe you have a bottle or two of ancient herbs hanging around. Is it still fresh? Should you bother hanging on to it? Hopefully this post will inspire you straighten out your own spice cabinet and at the same time, provide insights about those seasonings that lift every recipe from bland to grand.

Kodiak, Alaska, kitchen, B&B, garden,

Views from our kitchen in Kodiak, Alaska are a never-ending movie. In this case, the vegetable and flower gardens and the Alaska Marine Highway ferry, the Tustumena. Sometimes, and occasional whale passes by… (Marion Owen photo)

Q: What’s the difference between spices and herbs?

A: Spices are aromatic seasonings that come from the roots, seeds, bark, buds, or fruit of certain plants. Herbs are the flavorful leafy parts of certain plants.

Q: Do spices spoil?

A: Seasonings don’t spoil per se. After all, most herbs and spices are irradiated to control insects, mold, and other organisms that cause decreased shelf life. As a rule, unopened spices last up to three years and whole spices last twice as long as ground spices.

The shelf life of spices varies, and remember, you never really need to worry about them going “bad” like other foods do. For example, a bottle of curry powder that’s been around a questionable amount of time probably won’t make you sick; it will just be less potent so you’ll need to use more. Many folks abide by a one-year rule when it comes to discarding most spices. Seems short to me. Spices aren’t cheap and I certainly don’t want to replace all of mine each year. Here are a few “to toss or not to toss” guidelines:

  • Ground spices (nutmeg, cinnamon, turmeric): 2 to 3 years
  • Herbs (basil, oregano, parsley): 1 to 3 years
  • Whole spices (cloves, peppercorns, cinnamon sticks): 4 years
  • Extracts: 4 to 6 years (except for vanilla, which lasts forever)

Sound pretty straightforward? Sure, but unless you keep a “purchased on” or “harvested on” checklist or pay attention to “best by” date stamp, it’s a pain to keep track of how long each and every spice has been kicking around.

store, spices, herbs, seasonings,

I cook a lot of meals from scratch so a large drawer where I could lay containers on their side was the best solution for me.

Q: How do you know if spices have lost their punch?

A: Begin with your senses: Spices should have a strong fragrance, taste potent, and have a rich, natural color. A lack of any of these things means that the spice or dried herb is past its prime and not worth keeping. If a spice has some fragrance left but is far less potent than it used to be, just double the amount called for in a recipe. Otherwise, toss it, compost it, or use it in a soup, stew or other not-so-critical recipe.

And don’t feel guilty if you have to toss and replace a spice. It won’t do any good taking up valuable real estate in your kitchen. By the way, if a spice is rather ancient, you may not want to throw the packaging away. Many folks collect antique spice bottles and tins.

Q: What is the best way to store cooking spices and herbs?

A: You want to keep seasonings within arm’s length of your food prep area, but far from any source of intense heat. In other words, avoid decorating the back of your stovetop or windowsill with a row of bottled spices. It’s a double-edged sword: Heat accelerates flavor loss. And the steam from cooking can cause ground spices, blends, and dehydrated vegetable powders to cake into a sold brick.

Strong, direct light is no friend to dried spices either, so if you purchase seasonings in bulk, store the overflow in dark containers, preferably in a cool spot. And while it might be a no-brainer, keep your cooking spices tightly capped and use dry measuring spoons. Sounds silly, but try to avoid dipping even a slightly wet spoon into the container.

Spice, herbs, how to store, containers, bottles

Spices and herbs come in so many shapes and sizes it’s hard to find a convenient space to store and access them.

My parents encouraged me to learn how to cook, starting with salads and advancing to chocolate soufflés. Mom was a casual cook, but Dad was a nut for orderliness. I used to tease him about arranging his army of Spice Islands jars alphabetically, a method you might find useful if you have a lot of people (kids, grandkids, Girl Scouts) who cook in your kitchen. But if that’s not your style, then grouping seasonings by cuisine might feel better.

Today, for health reasons, my husband and I are following a plant-based diet (no meat, dairy, or processed oils). And most meals I prepare from scratch. Sure it’s time consuming but it’s worth every second. How does my spice drawer look today? Baking spices are corralled together in one area, with savory Indian spices in another. The largest group (all-purpose seasonings like garlic powder, oregano, cayenne pepper, thyme and so on) fills out the middle section. It’s time saving and worth every second.

My note to you: As we enter the high baking season, may your gingerbread men contain an extra pinch of cinnamon and may your holiday be filled with “sugar and spice and everything nice.”

Thanks for visiting.

Marion Owen, Kodiak, Alaska, photographer


Gingerbread men, cookies, ginger, Christmas cookies, baking

Here’s smiling at you!

Posted in Food and recipes, Kodiak Island, Alaska, Where curiosity leads me | Tagged , , , , , , | 8 Comments

A pumpkin pie recipe that’s sure to trigger conversations at the dinner table

Our food journeys are most pronounced during the holiday season. We wrestle with thawed-out turkeys, shop for once-a-year ingredients, and open cookbooks to pages stained with last November’s cranberry sauce. For Marty and I, this season opens with dramatic changes as we embrace a plant-based, vegan diet. Our new “no meat, no dairy” mantra means restocking the pantry from top to bottom: Out with butter, cheese, and milk; in with more fruits, veggies, nuts, and whole grains. And tofu.

Tofu. That bland, soggy, and rectangular solid is America’s most popular meat alternative. (wheat gluten is a better protein alternative, but that’s another story). Meanwhile, I mention tofu because it helps form the base of my new favorite pumpkin pie recipe, replacing my multi-layered, Northern Lights Pumpkin Pie recipe that held the top post for many years.

Pumpkin pie, recipe, vegan, no dairy, no eggs, Thanksgiving, dairy-free, egg-free

Fragrant with cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and allspice, this recipe which I’m calling Pumpkin Pie for the Soul,  delivers a silky, rich experience. Made without eggs or milk, though you wouldn’t know it. “You can fool a lot of people,” says “They can’t believe it’s made with tofu.”

The recipe I’m sharing began as a recipe.  Then I added my own twists. It’s great as a stand-alone (crust-free) custard, but for some folks, a pie isn’t a pie without a crust. And since we’re in discovery mode, take a look at the pie crust recipe that follows. It’s magic, requiring just two ingredients. To top it off I invite you to try the cashew topping that resembles a rich, whipped cream.

Pumpkin Pie for the Soul

2 cups pureed pumpkin, butternut squash, sweet potato or yam
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
1 (10 oz.) package soft tofu (not low fat)
1/8 cup molasses
1 pie shell (recipe follows)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Cream all ingredients in a food processor. Pour mixture into pie shell and bake for about 50 minutes. Serve warm or chill and top with cashew cream (recipe follows pie crust recipe).

Two-Ingredient Pie Crust

While researching dairy-free pie crust recipes I discovered the 2-Ingredient Pie Crust on Helyn’s Plant-Based Kitchen blog. “Lo and behold. A perfect crust!” she says. “So simple and so nutritious. I was amazed, astounded and shocked that no one had thought of this before.”

  1. 1-1/2 tightly-packed almond flour (use 2 cups for a deep dish pie)
  2. 1 tablespoon ground flax seed (If all you have is whole flax seed, simply grind them in a nut/seed grinder or coffee grinder)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Mix flax meal with 3 tablespoons water and set it aside for 10 minutes. Process almond flour in a food processor and while it’s running pour in the flax mixture. Pulse until the dough is soft, smooth, and sticking together. Drizzle in more water if needed. Turn dough out onto a sheet of plastic wrap, press it together tightly, shape into a disc, and chill for 30 to 60 minutes.

Roll the dough in between two sheets of plastic wrap and then turn it out into a pie plate, leaving a sheet of wrap on top. Press the dough up the sides of the pie dish. If it doesn’t look perfect, don’t worry. This is not a competition. Finish the edges using your fingers or a fork. Dock the crust (poke it all over with a fork). Bake for 15 minutes until the edges of the crust are golden.

Cashew cream topping

Plant Strong, vegan, Engine 2, diet, Esselstyn, RipChanging to a vegan diet has been fairly seamless since I love to cook. (Every summer I develop menus for 100+ gourmet dinner cruises). Yet I was pleasantly surprised when I learned about this multi-purpose sauce that required no sour cream. Many thanks to Rip Esselstyn’s New York Times bestseller, Plant-Strong.

Sweet or savory, this creamy topping is an easy to make and versatile, dairy-free recipe. Made thick and seasoned with herbs, it’s delicious on crackers, used as a dip, or a spread for burgers and wraps. Add a little more liquid and flavor on the sweet side, it becomes a topping for cakes and pies that holds up well, unlike traditional whipped toppings.

Directions: Cover 1-1/2 cup raw cashews with water (add enough to cover with an inch of water) for a few hours or overnight. Blend in a food processor or high-speed blender until smooth, adding water to make the thickness you like. Store in the fridge or freezer. For a sweet topping, blend in 1/2 teaspoon vanilla or 2 teaspoons maple syrup and 1/2 teaspoon lemon juice.

Nothing will benefit human health and increase chances for survival of life on earth as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.
—Albert Einstein

I just turned 60, so why vegan?

marion owen, Kodiak, AlaskaWhile Marty and I have personal (health) reasons for avoiding meat and dairy, the over-riding facts spur us on. Check this out: One in three Americans and one in six children are obese. We’ve heard all this before–maybe numbing us with such figures–but you’d be crazy to ignore these recent findings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): Nearly half of all Americans use some kind of prescription drug and nearly one out of every two adults have at least one chronic illness.

In an article published in the Cardiology AdvisorHeart Disease, Stroke Among Top 5 Causes of Death, Per CDC, heart disease continues to top the list of likely cause of death among Americans.

Despite doctors’ attempts to medicate away our illnesses, Americans are sicker than ever.

So what is the leading cause of heart disease? Plaque. According to the Mayo Clinic, “Plaque buildup thickens and stiffens artery walls, which can inhibit blood flow through your arteries to your organs and tissues.” The bottom line: heart disease is correctable by adopting a healthy diet, getting exercise, achieving an optimal weight, and by not smoking.

For decades, the studies have been mounting: One of the fastest ways to stop heart disease in its tracks is by adopting a plant-based diet. In the Harvard Medical School’s Heart Health Letter the article, Halt heart disease with a plant-based, oil-free diet supports that eating more plants is the key to optimum health. “Diets that emphasize vegetables, whole grains, and legumes can even reverse the amount of cholesterol-clogged plaque in your arteries.”

You can’t be an environmentalist if you’re not eating a plant-based diet. And you can’t walk the walk in the world of the future, the world ahead of us, the world of our children, not eating a plant-based diet. — James Cameron, film director

The evidence over the last 25 years supporting a low-fat, plant-based diet is overwhelming. Just ask former President Bill Clinton who, after undergoing quadruple bypass surgery in 2004 and another surgery in 2010 to insert a pair of stents, regained his health and lost 24 pounds after adopting a plant-based diet.

So as you sit down to your Thanksgiving dinner remember to give thanks. Then ponder what you’re eating. If you’re inwardly flustered and confused, consider what Bill Clinton shared in his interview with AARP, “I wanted to live to be a grandfather,” he said. “So I decided to pick the diet that I thought would maximize my chances of long-term survival.”

Thank you so much for visiting. Happy Thanksgiving to you all,

Marion Owen, Kodiak, Alaska, photographer




P.S. Who’s eating a plant-based diet:

  • World-famous track runner and Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis says he had the best race of his life at the 1991 World Championships, after he turned vegan to prepare for the race.
  • Mahatma Gandhi
  • Former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson turned vegan in 2010, and has since loss 100 pounds.
  • Leonardo da Vinci
  • Former vice-president Al Gore
  • And the list goes on…









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