Katie English recently posted on the Dawson Community Garden Facebook page reminding us that it’s time for planning the coming season’s planting.
As January is upon us, so too is the gardening season. The New Year marks the time for getting your plans and dreams in order. Seeds are selected and ordered, gardens get planned and it is even the month for some of our earliest starters.
If you are anything like Katie, then seed variety and quality is of utmost importance. For a seed is where it all begins …. Seeds can be the carrier of many of the diseases we find later on our grown plants or starters, furthermore poor quality seeds can mean poor quality germination, so quality is important. Katie is big on heritage and heirloom seeds. She looks for high quality organic seeds so she can later save the seeds she obtains from her own growing for the future.
Katie likes to know the long history of the seed and how it was saved over generations, and looks for interesting varieties that you can’t find in the grocery store. She also supports the small companies that are working hard to save our heirloom varieties and to produce organic seeds. She points out that 60 per cent of the world’s seeds are owned by big chemical companies and avoids those seeds makes sure she does not support those corporations.
Monsanto, and a handful of other corporate biotech giants, such as Pioneer and Syngenta, have been using their profits to buy up small seed companies, acquiring more than 200 over the past 15 years or so.
They are doing so to dominate the seed market, not just by owning the source, but also to acquire the DNA of heirloom and open-pollinated seed varieties for use in their future GMO products. Most of the advantageous plant traits that megacorporations like Monsanto boast about bioengineering, such as drought tolerance, higher yields, or resistance to insects, are in fact the result of traditional breeding over many generations to produce superior seeds. Once the acquisitions are finalized, however, these biotech corporations can splice in their own modified proprietary genes, and patent the resulting seeds.
For those looking for organic or non-GMO seeds, here is a list of seed companies who have taken the safe seed pledge as presented by the Council for Responsible Genetics. Scroll down to see the list of Canadian companies.
The most notable thing about this photo is not that the pepper plant is dying – this is not an uncommon occurrence with houseplants under my care. And it is December, the month of low light in the North.
The most notable thing about this photo is that there is a pepper! In December, in the Yukon!
And this pepper was grown from a local seed!
As I ate local farmer, Grant Dowdell’s, delicious red peppers way back in the summer of 2017, I saved some of the seeds and stored them in an envelope over the winter. I didn’t get around to planting them until midsummer 2018, so the pepper plant was just starting to flower in the Fall when it was time to shut down the greenhouse. Rather than give up, I moved the pepper plant indoors. And, low and behold, a pepper grew!
I was inspired by Dawsonite, Meg Walker, who last winter managed to get a pepper plant to flower and produce little peppers in her windowsill – quite a feat this far North.
I am very proud of this little red pepper. It reminds me of both the resilience and the importance of a simple seed – the starting point in the food chain.
There are many aspects to becoming more food self-sufficient in our own communities. The cornerstone is our ability to save and re-grow our own seeds.
In an era where technology is considering the production of ‘sterile seeds,’ my red pepper reminds me how devastating that concept would be. If we can’t save our own seed, what hope is there for global food security?
With global populations and the effects of climate change on the rise, many people are sounding the alarm about potential threats to the world’s food supply. At the same time, the production of food has become a multinational corporate endeavour, often criticized for its negative impacts on people’s health, the environment, and the well-being of family farmers.
One solution being proposed is agroecology, a movement whose key aspect is nurturing the land where food is grown, striving for a healthy and balanced ecosystem. And it is a movement that is gaining momentum globally. Agroecology is being touted as both a mitigation and adaptation strategy for climate change, and meets the concerns of consumers who are increasingly demanding healthier food and a closer connection to food producers. Agroecology also dovetails with social movements around the globe – many with significant leadership by women’s and indigenous organizations – that are demanding a healthy food system built on both environmental and human rights.
The agroecology approach centers around small farmers with an ethical approach to their growing, rooted in an understanding that this strategy protects their livelihood. While this has echoes of a throwback to historical growing practices, it is in fact a future-looking strategy that includes applied research and policies centered around small farmers. According to the Agroecology Fund, a non-profit dedicated to fostering the movement, across the planet scientists, grassroots organizations, NGOs, consumers, universities, and public agencies are working with farmers to construct sustainable and nutritious food systems based in agroecology.
Agroecology seems well-suited to the North. Although the short growing season and harsh climate can be challenges for farmers, there are also the perils of a food system where 97 per cent of consumables are trucked in over long distances along a handful of vulnerable highways. Northerners are also, of necessity, resourceful, cooperative, and independent-thinking, and as a result very willing to support local enterprises.
Suzanne would not have been able to successfully complete her year of eating locally without the help and guidance of local growers. While these individuals avoid labels, it is safe to say their philosophical approach is an agroecological one — and perhaps serve as a model for the rest of the world.
One of Suzanne’s greatest challenges early in her year of eating locally was the problem of grain and flour. Farmers Otto Muelbach and Connie Handwerk of Kokopellie Farm had earmarked rye and barley for Suzanne’s use. But the moose got to the barley first, and weather, busted machinery and road closures almost did in the rye.
Happily, the rye was saved and Otto surprised Suzanne with a secret planting of Red Fife wheat. Baked goods were once again a possibility and so were healthy, whole grains for breakfast and dinner. But the barley was just a fond memory.
This year Suzanne planted several rows of hull-less barley from seeds ordered from Salt Spring Seeds, and farmer Grant Dowdell planted some too. Suzanne’s personal stock is about three bushels of seed heads, according to Gerrard; they don’t yet know how much grain that will translate into until they get around to threshing.
But once the threshing is done, a delicious world of barley-based recipes awaits, like this blissful wild mushroom risotto. Mmm, barley!
I now add a new exotic flavour that can be grown in the North – shiso leaves!
Until this year I had never even heard of shiso. I am now a huge fan, thanks to Carol Ann Gingras of Whitehorse, who introduced me to this herb and sent me some of her Yukon-grown plants.
One thing that I missed early on during my of eating local were spices from the Far East – cinnamon, cumin, cloves, nutmeg …
Birch syrup and ground juniper berries helped to fill that void, but now I have a new favourite – shiso – to add some Asian spice to a Yukon local diet.
Shiso leaves taste exotic! To me, it is the taste of cumin combined with a hint of cardomon. For others it has been described as a combination of spearmint, basil, anise and cinnamon.
Shiso (pronounced she-so), Perillafrutescens, is an Asian herb – used commonly in Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and China – and a member of the mint family. It was introduced to North America in the late 1800’s but only introduced to me in 2018! Although it flourishes in the southeaster USA, I would never have guessed how well it thrives during a Yukon summer.
Its large leaves can be used to scoop up food or as a wrap for fish, meat and sushi. The fresh leaves, sliced in thin strips to bring out the flavour, can be added to soups, stir-fry, rice, scrambled eggs, salads, even fruit – almost anything, really. The leaves can be air-dried or frozen to use during the winter. Dried, the leaves can also be used as a flavourful tea. The leaves are high in calcium and iron.
Apparently shiso buds and sprouts are also delicious and the seeds can be toasted and crushed and sprinkled on fish.
If you plant shiso in pots, let the plants go to seed and bring them inside before the first frost, then the plants will self-seed for spring.
Here’s hoping my shiso plants will self-seed so they can become a regular part of my on-going Dawson local diet!
Sister Island, a 42-acre property located just a couple of kilometers down river from Dawson City, has a long tradition of growing. Given to the Sisters of St. Ann in 1898 during the Klondike Gold Rush, the nuns used the island to grow vegetables famous for their quality, and raised cows, chickens and pigs to feed a hospital and orphanage in Dawson.
Sister Island has a long-standing reputation for growing great veggies. Photo by Lou Tyacke.
The island was purchased a few years ago by Lou Tyacke and Gary Masters, and the couple are keeping the island’s growing tradition very much alive. Visitors are also able to come and stay on the island.
Lou and Gary are originally from the U.K., and while the sub-arctic climate and short growing season they deal with is about as un-English as you can get, they are trying some new cultivars and livestock not typical to the Klondike. Among the fowl they are raising are some species more common to the British Isles than the Yukon. This year they are raising quail, pheasant, and heritage chicks as well.
Lou and Gary are trying some exotic species more familiar to the U.K. like quail, pheasant, and heritage chicks. Photo by Lou Tyacke.
There are also Tamworth pigs, a well-known species in the U.K. The animals seem well-adapted to their home, and when they are not chasing the farmers’ quad, love to take mud baths.
Lou and Gary have been growing turnips to help feed the pigs, but they are growing so well, the farmers are thinking they’ll be keeping some of the vegetables for themselves.
Louise Piché, one of Dawson’s great home gardeners, continues to defy expectations about what can be grown at 64 degrees north. Recently, she managed to grow an artichoke — perhaps the first ever raised in the Klondike.
If you’re inspired and want to try following in Louise’s footsteps, the cultivar is the Green Globe Artichoke, and the seeds came from Best Cool Seeds, the online store for the Denali Seed Company, a Michigan-based firm that specializes in cold-weather gardening.
There is nothing quite like the taste of the first cherry tomato, picked straight off the vine. Especially after 10 months without! It popped into my mouth with a burst of intense tomato flavour complimented by a long missed combination of sweet, salty and juicy.
And the taste explosion continued with the first freshly-picked cucumber from the greenhouse and the first fresh zucchini from the local Farmers Market. It is with great excitement that every Saturday morning I head to our local Farmers Market to discover which new summer vegetable will appear.
I find myself grazing on both spinach leaves and chickweed from the garden.
And then there is the lettuce! I used to think of lettuce as a vehicle for salad dressing. But this year, I can happily munch away on the leafy green all by itself.
I am sure that the fresh vegetables of summer have always tasted this good, but the flavours seem more intensely delicious to me this year. Perhaps it is simply the ten month absence of fresh greens from my diet. Perhaps it is an increased sensitivity of my taste buds, after a year without salt and pepper.
Whatever the reason, eating seasonally brings with it gastronomical joy!
With the first taste of lettuce, my desire for root vegetables instantly diminished. The potato, which has been our best friend and staple all winter, has been replaced with salad.
And salad has never been so gourmet: wild sheep and warm vegetable salad, smoked salmon salad, the sky is the limit!
Thanks to Dawsonite, Kirsten Lorenz, I have even found a salad dressing recipe that rivals anything I ever made or bought in the past. It is a flavourful combination of berries, garlic, birch syrup and rhubarb juice.
My experience last Fall taught me that hulling grain is no easy feat. In fact sometimes, as is the case for oats and buckwheat, it is virtually impossible for a home gardener. Therefore I was thrilled that Salt Spring Seeds carries hulless varieties of grain. After consulting owner Dan Jason, I decided to try Faust Barley (hulless) and Streaker Hulless Oats.
And look how well they are doing!
Gardening has never come easily to me. I struggle to grow brassicas while the local farmers produce them in abundance.
This year I decided to try my luck growing edibles that are not so easily found at our local Farmers Market. My raised beds are hosting oats, barley, amaranth, Tom Thumb popping corn and onions. The onions are not looking so good but, so far, the rest seem to be growing well.
With the idiosyncrasies of our short growing season, grains have often been difficult to grow in the North. Perhaps as a result of climate change, perhaps due to hardier cultivars, it seems that in the past few years growing grain is becoming more feasible.
So it is a good time test out the possibilities of back yard grain growing in the Yukon!
Fingers crossed that local barley and local breakfast oats will be on the menu in our house next year.
Last year’s grass is long, yellow and plentiful in our Whitehorse backyard, and the new green shoots are already showing underneath. It really is time to rake away the old and prepare for the new. But I’m getting ready for a trip overseas, there’s so much to do, and the inevitable looms — I will not get to the raking.
Every year it’s the same — we have great plans for the yard. We’ll build a food forest! Sow some grains! Cause passersby to stare in wonder at the glory of our garden!
And every year, I might manage, latterly, to stuff armfuls of old grass into the compost bucket, fill a few pots with edible flowers, and maybe cut down last year’s stalks of Artemesia tilesii in the otherwise empty garden boxes. Then it’s time for the trip to Scotland, or the long hike, or the paddling trip. And instead of staring in wonder, passersby shake their heads.
My husband offers words of comfort: “We’re not gardeners. We’re gatherers.”
Right. So, we’ll gather.
By the time we get back from Scotland, the dandelions that have colonised the yard will be in flower, smiling brightly between leaves of grass. We’ll have dandelion fritters for dessert. The spruce tips will be young and green in the higher altitudes, and this year we’ll make a special day trip just for picking. I’ll make spruce tip and juniper butter, spread it on freshly baked bread and pile hot-smoked salmon on top.
And, you heard it here, I will roto-till the garden box outside the fence, dig in a whack of compost, and plant the rye I’ve ordered from Salt Spring Seeds. If all goes well, we could be gathering grain in the fall.
Gathering has to be my kind of gardening — for now.
Spruce Tip and Juniper Butter
2 oz (56 gr) butter, softened
1 Tbsp (15 mL) fresh spruce tips, finely chopped
1 tsp (5 mL) juniper berries, crushed
1 Tbsp (15 mL) garlic scapes, finely chopped
Combine all ingredients in a small bowl and mix thoroughly. Spread on fresh bread and top with smoked salmon and sliced red onion.
Finding nutrient-rich soil in the far North can be tricky, but as Old Crow demonstrates, it’s not impossible.
Old Crow, home to the Vuntut Gwitchin, is the most northerly community in the Yukon, located 128 km (80 miles) north of the Arctic Circle.
A fly-in community of approximately 300 people, Old Crow rests at the confluence of Crow River and the Porcupine River. Vuntut Gwitchin means “People of the Lakes”, named after the many lakes at Crow Flats, the second largest wetland in North America, and the main hunting, trapping, fishing and gathering area for the Vuntut Gwitchin.
With no road access, grocery store prices in Old Crow are very high.
Old Crow has seen detrimental effects from climate change over the past decades. The permafrost is melting. Water levels and subsequently salmon stocks are declining. Lakes are drying up.
In adapting to climate change, more folks in Old Crow are growing vegetable gardens.
One couple, in the 1990’s, planted their vegetable garden about two miles upriver from Old Crow on the banks of the Porcupine River, about 50 feet back from the edge of the riverbank, in front of a drained out lake. The soil must have been nutrient rich as the garden produced an abundant crop of carrots and giant cabbages that Old Crow resident, Mary Jane Moses, still remembers well.
Take 26 minutes to watch “Our Changing Homelands, Our Changing Lives” to hear from Vuntut Gwitchin about climate change and food security in Old Crow
To learn more about Old Crow and the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation check out www.oldcrow.ca
And don’t forget to check out the Old Crow Recipe Page for delicious caribou, muskrat, rabbit, duck, ptarmigan and whitefish egg recipes!
In bygone days, when folks weren’t relying on freshly stocked grocery store shelves, the months of March, April and May were known as ‘The Hungry Gap”. The time of year when much of the winter’s store of food had run out and the potential of a new crop still awaited planting season.
We ate the last of our lettuce in September. Our last squash was consumed in February. We are close to finishing off the last of the carrots. And now we have no more onions.
In this new reality, where our consumption is almost entirely based on what we have stored away for the winter, I would have thought that consuming the last taste of onion would cause me anxiety. But it doesn’t. It doesn’t seem to matter as much as I had thought it would.
Perhaps it is because we are far from hungry. My worry last summer about not having enough seems to have resulted in over stocking. I think I have put away enough tomatoes for two years!
Perhaps it is because of our new reality of eating with the season.
Perhaps it stems from the challenge of cooking well with what we have instead of pining away for what we don’t have.
So we have run out of onions. But I still have garlic. I have one jar of dried chives. And I still have lots of dried herbs.
No more onions, no big deal.
Come July, the first taste of a fresh onion will be all the more delicious!
It’s planting time once again. For best times to plant seedlings in the North, check out Grant Dowdell’s Seed Guide. Grant is a long time farmer in Dawson with over forty years of market gardening experience in the North. He has generously shared both his favourite cultivars and the best time to start them indoors for a Yukon growing season.
I used to think you needed a prairie to grow grains, or at least a big field. Then I met Dan Jason, farmer, gardener, author, cook, and owner of the seed company Salt Spring Seeds. His dearest wish is that we all become grain growers, whether we have a plot of land, a box in a community garden or a backyard of clayey soil in downtown Whitehorse.
Jason lives and gardens on Salt Spring Island, and he is a legend in British Columbia. For the past 30 years, he has been finding, cultivating and saving the seeds from ancient varieties of grain; grain that has grown in different parts of the world for thousands of years, providing sustenance and a way of life for numerous peoples.
Jason is passionate about the beauty of these grains, in the field and on the plate; he loves the way they look and the way they taste, their grace and their nutritional benefits. In 2017, introduced by our mutual publisher, we collaborated on writing Awesome Ancient Grains and Seeds, a garden-to-table book with growing information and recipes for grains from amaranth to rye. Now he has me convinced that not only can I cook with grains, I can grow them too. “Growing grains is a lot easier than just about anything else,” he says. “It’s like planting grass.”
Despite our short growing season and cold winters, farmers have been growing grain for animal feed and green manure in the Yukon since the Gold Rush era. But we have a history of growing grain for human consumption too. Hudson’s Bay Company trader Robert Campbell harvested a “keg” (about seven and a half gallons) of barley at Fort Selkirk in 1848. In 1901, the Pelly Farm produced wheat and sold it, ground into flour, in Dawson City. Oats, wheat and barely were successfully grown at the federal experimental sub-station at the J.R. Farr farm on Swede Creek, 10 kilometres south of Dawson, in 1917.
In the present day, Otto Muehlbach and Connie Handwerk at Kokopellie Farm near Dawson have grown and harvested rye, barley and even wheat, keeping Suzanne Crocker and her family well-supplied with grain to grind into flour for baked goods in this year of eating locally.
In 2016 Krista and Jason Roske harvested 40 kilos of triticale, a rye and wheat hybrid, at Sunnyside Farm in the Ibex Valley near Whitehorse. I worked with their grain and flour all year long. Several years ago Tom and Simone Rudge of Aurora Mountain Farm on the Takhini River Road harvested rye and ground it into bread flour; it made beautiful bread.
But this is all grain grown on a larger scale, with the expectation of a fairly substantial yield–if not enough for the commercial market, then at least enough to contribute to the grain and flour needs of a small household. It’s unlikely that backyard grain growers will feed the family more than a few meals with their crop.
Their yield will be of a different sort—fun, satisfaction, and beauty in the garden at every stage of growth. And maybe a celebration or two.
This sesaon Randy Lamb, Yukon agrologist and chair of the Downtown Urban Gardeners Society (DUGS), which runs the Whitehorse Community Garden, plans to plant a 4 x 20-foot bed with barley from local farms, a hull-less barely from Salt Spring Seeds, and Red Fife wheat. “I should have enough to make bannock or pancakes for one of our season-end potluck socials at the Whitehorse community garden this year,” he says.
He plans to thresh and mill the grain himself, make hot cakes, and serve them with raspberry jam made with honey and berries from the garden. “My goal is to present it as “100-metre hotcakes”, based on the 100-mile diet theme.” That’s a pretty great incentive to grow some grain. Dan Jason would add, remember to eat your backyard grains whole, too. Or sprout them. “You get a lot back, sprouting your grains,” he says.
Jason thinks hull-less barley is a great idea, because it’s pretty tricky for the home gardener to remove the hulls from other varieties. He suggests rye, too, for the Yukon climate. “Rye is super-hardy. It can go to -40°C easily. And it’s easy to harvest, because the hulls are really loose-fitting. You just rub them and they come apart.” Flax and buckwheat are also good possibilities for the northern backyard grain grower. They’re hardy, adaptable and produce beautiful flowers.
Those who grew up in the Whitehorse suburb of Riverdale will remember oats and wheat growing in their midst, in the front yard of the Cable family’s house. Jack Cable planted the grains as green manure. “I was brought up in market garden country, so I knew that soil needed amendment, up here. It wasn’t a grain harvesting exercise, it was a soil-amendment exercise.” Urban grain-growing was so unusual (and still is!) that the 15 x 5–foot plot in the Cable front yard became a local attraction.
Cable’s intention was to grow a lawn once the soil had been amended. In my downtown Whitehorse backyard there is no lawn, but there is grass. Long, wild, tenacious grass. My intention is to replace some of that grass with grain. Jason suggests roto-tilling a few times first to dislodge the grass. He thinks I might even be able to grow amaranth—it’s worth a try. I’m hoping that raising grain turns out to be as low-intervention as raising the wild grasses, lambsquarters and dandelions currently holding dominion in my yard.
Would it not be the coolest thing, to walk through a Yukon community and see not mown lawns, but waving seas of grain growing in all the backyards? That would be some local attraction. As Randy Lamb says, “The locavore movement has been growing for years up here. Every season I’ve been adding something extra to my local diet. Veggies and berries are easy. Fruit, eggs, and honey take a little more effort. Grain is the logical next step.”
Guild is an old word denoting an association of like-minded people engaged in a common pursuit — armorers, cobblers, or weavers, for example. In Whitehorse weavers, sewers and felters have organized themselves into a Fibres Guild, and theatre-goers attend plays at the Guild Theatre.
On a small homestead on the Annie Lake Road, there’s a different sort of guild at work, involving players of another kind. They are plants; all kinds of plants from herbs to berry bushes to fruit trees, and they work together in a “food forest” planted and maintained by Agnes Seitz and her partner Gertie.
For the past several years Seitz has been slowly building what has become known in permaculture circles as a food forest, but is actually, she says, “comparable to a really extensive home garden.” This kind of home garden has been grown in tropical climates from the Amazon to India for thousands of years; such gardens are a low-intervention way of ensuring food security. In the mid-1980s, British gardener Robert Hart began experimenting with “forest gardening” in Shropshire, England, bringing those techniques into a more temperate climate.
In the Yukon several gardeners and homesteaders are experimenting with building food forests in a much colder environment, Seitz among them. “The idea is that a young woodland is the most perfect natural system and the most prolific one,” she says. “And that’s what we’re trying to copy, a young woodland.” A young woodland occurring naturally is basically self-sustaining. While a planted food forest is not entirely self-sustaining, it can come close.
Planting in guilds is a cornerstone in the building of a food forest. “You plant in such a way that throughout the season [the plants] support each other,” says Seitz. “There are nitrogen fixers in there, there are attractants that bring in the bees for pollination, there are plants that bring up minerals from the soil. You bring all these players together in a system that makes it so much easier on us.”
When she was starting out, “because we don’t have soil here,” Seitz brought in a truckload of compost from the City of Whitehorse dump. Five or six years later, now that the system is up and running, Seitz’s interventions are low-tech and low-key. She fertilizes with wood ash and human urine. “Humans are one more part of the habitat we are building there,” she says. “An apple tree needs about five pees a year to get all the nitrogen it needs.”
Seitz also uses “green manure,” turning plants into fertilizer using a technique called “chop and drop.” After harvesting, “you just cut the plants and let them fall, and they feed the micro-organisms and that’s how you build the soil.”
Seitz also grows a huge annual garden of organic vegetables, which she says requires lots of controls and lots of work. Square foot for square foot, the annual garden uses nearly twice the mount of fertilizer of the perennial food forest.
She estimates there are about 80 species of herbaceous plants in her 4,000 square-foot food forest, most of them edible, like sorrel, burdock, mint, lovage, a wide variety of chives and onions, and Old World plants like sweet cicely and Good King Henry. Mixed amongst these plants are nettles, fireweed, lambs quarters and dandelions. “Wild foods, what we call weeds, are an essential part of the system,” she says.
The next layer up is composed of berry bushes such as Saskatoons, gooseberries, red, white and black currants, haskaps and raspberries. Among the next layer, the fruit trees, are hawthorns, sour cherries, pin cherries, several species of apple, Siberian pear, Manchurian plum, Manchurian apricot, Siberian pine (there may be pine nuts in 12 or 15 years) and even hazelnuts.
The more exotic species are still “kind of a research project,” says Seitz. Though the hazelnuts are not yet fruiting, they have lasted three years. “It’s going to be interesting to see how they did with this really cold winter.”
Seitz has not planted low-bush cranberries, a favourite Yukon berry, because she can easily walk into the surrounding boreal forest to find them. “They’re right around the corner.”
But for just about every other kind of herb, plant, berry or tree fruit, she says, all she has to do is walk into her backyard food forest and “kind of like just – forage.”
It is the middle of winter and in my hand I hold a crunchy, juicy, sweet, locally-grown apple. Yes, that’s right, locally grown – in Dawson City, Yukon – 64 degrees north. Further north than Iqualuit, Yellowknife and Whitehorse.
It is all thanks to the ingenuity of John Lenart at Klondike Valley Nursery, Canada’s northernmost nursery. John has spent the last thirty years studying and grafting apple trees in order to cultivate varieties that can withstand the climate of the north. The nursery now has 65 cultivars and some of those varieties are ‘winter apples’ – meaning that they keep well in cold storage throughout the winter.
2017 was a tough season on the apple trees due to a late frost in the middle ofJune. But Klondike Valley Nursery has generously been sharing some of their personal apple supply with me for this year of eating local. And I can tell you that a crunchy locally-grown apple in the middle of winter is a treat beyond all measure!
Corn is notoriously difficult to grow in the North. Even with nearly 24 hours of sunlight in June and July, our growing season is just not hot enough for long enough. Last summer, Dawson had only 66 consecutive frost-free growing days.
When I was thinking about eating local to Dawson for one year, my mind went immediately to what I would miss. Popcorn was right up there! I know it is not an essential food item. But a large bowl of popcorn smothered in melted butter and nutritional yeast has, for years, been one of my favourite snacks and one of my comfort foods. Call me a ‘popcorn geek’ – since high school, I have carted my hot air popcorn maker around the country – to various universities and job sites. In fact, I still have it. And Friday Night Family Movie Night has always been accompanied by several large bowls of popcorn.
Grant Dowdell, who has been farming on an island up river from Dawson City for over 30 years, has the best luck growing corn in this area – in part due to his farming skills and in part thanks to the unique microclimate on his island. Grant has tried many varieties over the years and Earlivee (71 days to maturity) is the only one that has ever been successful.
That is until last year.
Last year, I asked Grant to grow Tom Thumb popping corn for me. With the shortest maturity date of any corn I know – only 60 days – Grant agreed.
I let the cobs dry for a month and then crossed my fingers and tried to pop them.
The kernels cracked, but didn’t actually pop. Having never popped popcorn that didn’t come from a store, I wasn’t sure if they were too dry or not dry enough. Distraction intervened and I let them hang for another month before I had a chance to think about them again.
This time they did pop! And they popped really well, with very few kernels leftover. The popcorn is small, but very tasty. So good the kids say it doesn’t even need butter! My winter is saved. Bring on Friday night movie night!
I definitely did not have a green thumb prior to starting this project. Never ask me to take care of your house plant. I’m not sure my thumb is yet brilliant green, but it is several shades closer than it used to be.
So this year I am excited to pull out the seed catalogues and decide what to order for the upcoming growing season. In the North, tomato seeds are started indoors the end of February and most everything else gets started indoors in March and April.
As you get ready to dog-ear pages in your seed catalogues, check out the seeds that have proven themselves to grow well for other Northerners on the First We Eat Seeds page. And if you have some favourites that grow well in your part of the North, let us know (there’s a contribution form on the page) and we will share it .
Here are my seed ordering tips for 2018:
Fothergill’s Perpetual Spinach. Spinach is notoriously difficult to grow in Dawson. Sure we have a short season. But our short summers are really hot! And regular spinach just bolts up here. Both New Zealand Spinach and Fothergill’s Perpetual Spinach grow well in Dawson and do not bolt. I tried them both last year, but preferred the texture of Fothergills.
My favourite tomato last year was Black Prince.
And while you’re at it, consider growing some GMO-free sugar beets. They grew well in several locations in Dawson last year. They are a delicious white beet to eat and the pot liquor you cook them in can be boiled down to make a sweet syrup!
Salt Spring Seeds, based on Vancouver Island, only carries organic, non-GMO seeds and is your one-stop shop for Fothergills Perpetual Spinach, Black Prince tomatoes, and non-GMO sugar beet seeds!
“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” – John Muir
New York chef, Dan Barber, likes to tell how he experienced an epiphany a decade ago watching his chefs constantly dipping into the flour bin located outside his office. He realized that he knew nothing — where it came from, or how it was grown — about this ubiquitous, and somewhat tasteless ingredient, which was pretty much in everything the restaurant prepared. He set out to find a healthy, holistic flour alternative, but what started simply as a search for organic, locally-sourced grains, led to a broader understanding of sustainable agricultural methods. He realized there were many secondary crops being planted by the farmer to nurture and protect the soil and yield, but not necessarily contributing to the farm’s bottom line. That’s when Barber realized he needed to integrate his culinary methods and list of ingredients to include all those being used by the grower.
Barber has long been a champion of the local, organic food movement. But his interest goes beyond just serving this type of fare in his pioneering farm-to-table Blue Hill restaurant. Now, with a new book, The Third Plate: Field Notes for the Future of Food, Barber is striving to change not only the way food is grown, but the consumption habits of Americans as well.
Barber’s relates how his pursuit of intense flavor repeatedly forced him to look beyond individual ingredients at a region’s broader story. In The Third Plate he draws on the wisdom and experience of chefs, farmers, and seed breeders around the world, and proposes a new definition for ethical and delicious eating. He charts a bright path forward for eaters and chefs alike, daring everyone to imagine a future cuisine that is as sustainable as it is delicious.
In Barber’s view, modern industrial food systems are actually disconnected from the whole because of their large-scale specialization and centralization of food products. For organic farm-to-table agriculture to be truly sustainable, the whole process, including those preparing and consuming the food, need to be treated as parts of an interconnected, holistic fabric.
Barber has now opened a second restaurant, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, a working farm and celebrated educational center in the Hudson Valley region of New York, where he both practices and preaches his philosophy. And the world is taking notice. He has received several accolades and awards for both his cuisine and his crusading efforts. In 2009, he was named one of Time’s 100 most influential people in the world.
In an article in The Atlantic magazine, Barber describes how one of his inspirations is John Muir, (a naturalist, author, environmental philosopher, and early advocate for the preservation of wilderness in the United States), who wrote: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”
On the last day of 2017, I’m looking back on a year of cooking with local foods and reflecting on the highlights. I was lucky enough to spend much of 2017 cooking and baking with a locally grown grain: triticale from Krista and Jason Roske’s Sunnyside Farm, located in the Ibex Valley close to Whitehorse. The Roskes acquired some seed from Yukon Grain Farm in the fall of 2015 and planted it on a portion of their land, intending to plow the plants back under to enrich the soil. But 2016 was such a good growing year that the plant actually matured, a rarity for grain in the Whitehorse area.
From that planting the Roskes harvested about 40 kilos of grain, by hand, and sold small quantities of whole grains, bread flour and pastry flour to customers in and around Whitehorse. I learned about their grain and flour from Jennifer Hall, executive director of the Yukon Agricultural Association, and a great champion of local farmers and their products.
The Roskes delivered one kilo each of grain, bread flour and cake and pastry flour to my house in early 2017. I was in the midst of developing recipes for a cookbook celebrating ancient grains, written in partnership with Dan Jason, a passionate organic farmer and owner of Salt Spring Seeds, and experimenting with all kinds of grains. (Awesome Ancient Grains and Seeds will be released by Douglas and McIntyre in early 2018. Stay tuned for Whitehorse and Dawson launch details!)
The Roskes’s bread flour made a beautiful sourdough pumpernickel-style bread, and the pastry flour produced gorgeous muffins, excellent quick bread, delicious beet gnocchi and most recently, lovely birch syrup shortbread cookies for Christmas.
That triticale got around in 2017. Chef Chris Whittaker of Forage and Timber Restaurants in Vancouver made tiny mushroom tartlets with the pastry flour at a Travel Yukon dinner last February, and in June, chef Carson Schiffkorn and I served whole triticale grain with a morel mushroom-miso butter to guests at Air North and Edible Canada’s Across the Top of Canada dinner at Marsh Lake. I served the very last of the whole grain, with more miso butter, for a media dinner hosted by Travel Yukon on November 26. Everybody loved the story of the accidental success of this beautiful, locally grown grain.
Triticale is not an ancient grain, but a hybrid of wheat and rye first developed in the late 1800s in Scotland and Germany, combining the grain quality of wheat with the hardiness of rye. In 1954 the University of Manitoba experimented with the viability of spring triticale as a commercial crop, and in 1974 the University of Guelph did the same with winter triticale. Winter triticale varieties are particularly good for short-season areas like the Yukon.
For the Roskes, hand-harvesting triticale grain “quickly lost its charm,” reported Krista. However, the success of growing triticale has whetted their appetites for more grain experiments, and Krista said they’re planting spring wheat in 2018. “Fingers crossed we will have wheat for flour by next September. I’ll definitely let you know if it works out!” Last time we spoke, the Roskes were contemplating buying more machinery — perhaps a small combine and a small grain cleaner. “It’s farm evolution,” said Krista.
I’m sad to say goodbye to the last of the whole triticale grains, but very happy that I will be returning from Christmas holidays in Ontario to a few cups more of triticale flour in my pantry at home. Birch syrup shortbreads anyone?
Local eco-chef and self-proclaimed foodie Benjamin l. Vidmar, has a dream. He wants to make the remote northern Norwegian community of Longyearbyen, Svalbard more sustainable, and to produce locally-grown food. Svalbard is an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, located about midway between continental Norway and the North Pole. The latitude of the islands range from 74° to 81° North, making them some of the most northerly inhabited places on Earth.
Like many communities north of the arctic circle, there is no viable soil in Svalbard. How does one grow local food if there is no local soil?
In 2015 Chef Vidmar started a company called Polar Permaculture Solutions, whose goal is to apply permaculture principles and ecological design to create a circular economy in Longyearbyen, and “to connect people back to their food.”
Working at the time as head chef at the Svalbar Pub, he noticed how all the food was being flown or shipped to the island. However, in the past food had been grown on Svalbard, and Vidmar wanted to return to that tradition — but with some modern enhancements and without having to ship in soil.
Vidmar started with hydroponic systems using commercial fertilizer, but felt he could do better. Why ship fertilizer up to the island, he reasoned, when there is so much food waste available to compost and produce biogas? Food waste in his town is dumped into the sea, and he took up the challenge to grow locally-grown food making use of available resources on the island.
Polar Permaculture researched what others were doing around the Arctic, and opted to go with composting worms, specifically red worms, which excel at producing a natural fertlizer from food waste. He got permission from the government to bring worms up to the island, which took a year and a half, but “was worth the wait.”
Vidmar’s company is now growing microgreens for the hotels and restaurants on the island. Fine dining chefs use microgreens to enhance the attractiveness and taste of their dishes with their delicate textures and distinctive flavors. During the growing process, worm castings are produced, and this natural fertilizer that can be used to grown more food.
In addition to composting with worms, Polar Permaculture has started hatching quails from eggs and is now delivering fresh locally produced quail eggs to local restaurants and hotels. Their next step will be to get a bio-digestor setup and to produce biogas with it. The worms are mostly vegetarian, but with a digestor, the operation will be able to utilize manure from the birds, as well as food waste that would normally be dumped into the sea. This will also allow them to produce heat for their greenhouse, as well as produce electricity that can run generators to power the lights. A natural fertilizer also comes out of the digestor, which will then be used to grow more food for the town.
What started as one chef’s personal journey has become a local permaculture operation that is reshaping the nature of the local food economy, and providing an inspiration for other Northern communities interested in food sustainability.
I love birch syrup and am grateful to Sylvia Frisch and Berwyn Larson who are raising their two daughters in the bush and producing birch syrup commercially. During the past 4 ½ months of eating only local foods, we have consumed 24 litres of birch syrup. I have discovered that the flavour of birch syrup alone can substitute for the ‘far east’ spices of cinnamon and all-spice. I have even been known to down a shot of birch syrup, straight up, during those moments when, in a previous life, I would have grabbed a piece of chocolate – to get me through a moment of emotional or physical despair.
I also love David McBurney’s local honey – it is pure, delicate, and divine. And it is treated like a delicacy in the family. It also makes the perfect sweetener to enhance other delicate flavours that would be overpowered by the robust flavour of birch syrup.
But there are times, especially in baking, when chemistry is required and a liquid sugar option just doesn’t do the trick. Now that I have local flour, and Christmas is coming, baking is on my mind. So what to do when crystalized sugar is required?
Birch syrup, unlike maple syrup, does not crystalize. I learned this last April while visiting Birch Camp. So, with birch sugar no longer an option, I ordered GMO-free sugar beet seeds. I have never had any luck growing regular beets, so I recruited others to grow the sugar beets for me – the great gardeners Paulette Michaud and Becky Sadlier. Unbeknownst to me, long-time Dawson farmer, Grant Dowdell, also had my year of eating local on his mind and ordered non-GMO sugar beet seeds to see if they would grow in the north. The sugar beets grew marvelously for all, confirming that they are indeed a reasonable crop for the North. They like warm days and cool nights – perfect for a Dawson City summer. I ended up with 350 pounds worth to experiment with!
Sugar beets contain approximately 20% sucrose, the same sugar found in sugar cane. One quarter of the world’s refined sugar comes from sugar beets. In Canada, Taber, Alberta is the industrial hot spot for growing and processing sugar beets into sugar. On a commercial scale, lime (calcium oxide) and carbon dioxide are added to form calcium carbonate which solidifies and pulls out any impurities – thus resulting in familiar white sugar. No such additions for a local home-made sugar, so the resulting sugar is brown with a richer taste.
There is a paucity of information out there on just how to make sugar from sugar beets at home, so I gave up on research and moved to trial and error. After all, with 350 pounds of sugar beets, there was room for experimentation and failure. And failure there has been! Although no failure has yet to see itself in the compost. The family seems more than willing to devour the failures – be they sugar beet toffee, sugar beet gum, sugar beet tea. Even burnt beet sugar has found a use. (Thank goodness because there has been a lot of burnt beet sugar!)
In the process, I have also discovered the wonder of the sugar beet – a root vegetable that was previously unknown to me. Sugar beets are often touted as a food for livestock or a green manure crop so I was expecting the taste of the sugar beet itself to be unpalatable. But it is just the opposite! Cooked up, it is a delicious, sweet, white beet. The sugar beet leaves are also edible. And amazingly, even after the sugar is extracted, the sugar beet pulp remains sweet and delicious. I’m afraid the local Dawson livestock will be getting less sugar beet pulp than previously anticipated this year.
One thing is for certain – processing sugar beets into sugar requires time and patience. Here are my step-by-step instructions on how to make syrup (easy) and sugar (difficult) from sugar beets.
Sugar was first extracted from sugar beets in the mid 18th century. In the early 19th century, during the Napoleonic wars when French ports were cut off from the rest of the world, Napoleon encouraged wide-scale sugar beet production and processing. France remains one of the world leaders in sugar beet production and most of Europe’s sugar comes from sugar beets, rather than sugar cane.
Consider adding non-GMO sugar beet seeds to your next seed order. In Canada, they can be found from Salt Spring Seeds and from T&T seeds. Sugar beets grow well in the north and are a delicious root vegetable in their own right. But don’t throw out the water you cook them in, as this water is sweet and can easily be used to make beet syrup and beet syrup candy. And, if you are brave, sugar! If you live in an area populated by deer, be warned that sugar beet tops are a great attractant for deer. Word is now out to the Yukon moose so perhaps next year Dawson’s sugar beet rows will require fencing!
Sheila Alexandrovitch has homesteaded on the Annie Lake Road, 40 kilometres south of Whitehorse, since 1981. Over the years she’s raised goats, llamas and sled dogs; she’s brought up her two children on the farm, and pursued an artistic practice there, working with materials like willow, beads, precious stones and wool. These days she raises sheep (producing beautiful felted work with their wool) and as always, vegetables. Lots and lots of vegetables.
Alexandrovitch is locally famous for her vegetable ferments, selling jars and jars of them at the Fireweed Market in Whitehorse and the weekly market at the Mount Lorne Community Centre on the Annie Lake Road all summer long. At Mount Lorne’s last, stock-up market of the year, on September 26, she and her helper stood behind two tables groaning under her ferments, and giant mounds of fresh carrots and potatoes. As I purchased a few pounds for our house, we struck up a conversation about root cellars — I knew she was pretty much self-sufficient, and curious about her storage methods.
Every winter, Alexandrovitch stores an impressive weight of vegetables in her root cellar — this year, she’s got 135 pounds of potatoes, 80 pounds of carrots, 40 pounds of beets, 20 to 30 pounds of parsnips, 35 pounds of turnips and 7 or 8 cabbages. Asked when she runs out of supplies, she replied, “I don’t. By the end of June I’m out of carrots, but I always have rutabagas and beets, and I always have potatoes. And by the end of June, we’ve got greens.”
The cellar that stores this bounty is a hole dug into the ground under her house, accessed by a trap door in the kitchen floor. The cellar is framed in with 2 x 6 boards, insulated with Styrofoam, sheeted in on the inside and completely sealed. In the 2½-foot crawlspace between the earth and the floor of the house, the walls of the cellar are exposed, so the above-ground portion is wrapped with Styrofoam and foil and banked with dirt.
The space is 7 feet long by 6 feet wide and around 4 ½ feet deep — about chest height for Alexandrovitch. There’s no ladder — she just lifts the trap door and jumps in. She piles whatever supplies she’s retrieving onto the kitchen floor, and then jumps out of the cellar, the same way you’d push yourself out of a swimming pool. (She finds this athletic feat unremarkable.)
In winter the temperature in the root cellar is around 2° or 3°C above freezing. There’s no air circulation system, but she’s never noticed any ill effects from ethlylene — not surprising, because most of the foods she stores don’t produce ethylene. (Learn more about the fruits and vegetables that produce ethylene here.)
Alexandrovitch keeps endive, leeks and chicory in pots, in another cold space, this one on her porch. She runs out of those greens sometime in January, but then she’s got all her ferments, plus frozen leeks and kale, kept in her freezer at a neighbour’s place. She has canned goods and grains in the root cellar, and she might drive to town for coffee, butter and oil, but she prefers to use goose fat—she’ll render 6 to 8 litres this year–or pork fat, which she’ll also render.
Alexandrovitch estimated that she spends about 95% of her time growing, processing, preserving and preparing her food. “But what a good way to spend 95% of your time,” she said. “It’s not so hard. It’s just a bunch of work.”
There is a local saying about the weather in Dawson City: “Nine months of winter and three months of tough sledding.”
It’s only a slight exaggeration. One thing for sure is that the shoulder seasons — Spring and Fall — are extremely short in the far north. This is yet one more challenging aspect of growing in the North.
We posted previously about the efforts by Otto at Kokopellie Farm to harvest his crop of locally-grown rye and barley so Suzanne could have some grain in her 100%-local diet. Otto did finally manage to harvest his rye and wheat on Oct 23rd. Turns out it was just in time. This is what Dawson looked like, one week later!
Shortly after posting my tale on Oct 23, I received a call from Kokopellie Farm. More snow was in the forecast so Otto decided it was now or never for harvesting the rye and the Red Fife wheat. And so the story continues:
After some serious labour with ropes, the wet snow was removed from most of the grain heads in the field. Unfortunately some of the grain was laying flat under the snow. Fortunately some could be resurrected via pitch fork and muscle power. Unfortunately some patches were already frozen to the grown and not harvestable. Fortunately there was still a good section standing. Unfortunately the wet stalks of the rye kept getting jammed in the combine requiring manual removal. Fortunately Otto was able to do this without injury. Unfortunately the engine of the combine broke down. Fortunately Otto was able to fix it. Unfortunately the combine engine kept breaking down. Fortunately Otto never gives up and was able to get it going again each time and finish harvesting the rye. Unfortunately it was getting close to dark, more snow was in the forecast and the wheat had not yet been harvested. Fortunately, Otto discovered the final issue with the engine, repaired it and was able to harvest the wheat before darkness fell! Yeah!!!
Many, many thanks to the tenacity, mechanical genius, ingenuity and hard work of Otto and Conny who were able to harvest the rye and wheat against all odds! Now it dries (under shelter) and can eventually be ground into flour.
The last of the crops has now been harvested. There is sourdough bread in my future. Let it snow!
I am often asked which food I miss the most. I had expected it would be chocolate or caffeine (very strong black tea was my comfort drink). Surprisingly it is neither. What I miss most is grains: cookies, pies, bread, bagels, rice, pasta – these items that were once staples in our household are no more. The potato is trying its best to fill the gap, but after 85 days without, grains are definitely missed.
It is not easy to grow grains in the far north, as our growing season is so short. But it has been done.
I feel like Northern grain is a character in one of those ‘Good News, Bad News’ stories:
The good news is that in 2016, Otto at Kokopellie Farm had a successful crop of rye and barley that he was able to grind into flour. The bad news is that I used up all I had last winter experimenting with wheat-free and salt-free sourdough bread recipes.
Fortunately Otto planted rye and barley again this year and it grew well. Unfortunately, in August, a moose ate the barley. Fortunately the moose didn’t eat the rye (because it was protected by a fence). And the GREAT NEWS is that, unbeknownst to me, Otto had also planted Red Fife wheat and it grew well (and was protected by the fence)!
Unfortunately, the combine required to harvest the grain was stuck 550 km away in Whitehorse, waiting for a bridge on the North Klondike Highway to be repaired. Fortunately the bridge repairs finished just in time for harvest season mid September. Unfortunately, while hauling the combine to Dawson, the trailer had several flat tires which caused another week’s delay. Fortunately, the combine did eventually make it to Dawson.
Unfortunately by the time the combine arrived in Dawson, it began raining and you can’t harvest grain when it is wet. Fortunately there was a brief break in the weather in early October. Unfortunately, there was no time to put the combine together because the root vegetables had to be harvested before the ground froze. Fortunately grains can withstand frost. Unfortunately, after all the vegetables were harvested it began to snow. Fortunately dry snow can easily be knocked off the grain. Unfortunately this snow was heavy and wet. Fortunately the combine is now fully assembled and ready to go. Unfortunately it is already October 23 and the wet, heavy snow remains on the grains.
Otto, a very pragmatic and optimistic farmer, still feels there is hope. The wheat and rye are still standing. Some cold, clear weather might dry up the snow and make it possible to remove the snow from the grain so it can be combined, but time is running out. I am not sure how this good-news, bad-news story is going to end. My moose anxiety resolved with a successful hunt. Now I have grain anxiety.
This has been an usually warm fall in Dawson City, Yukon. Last week crocuses, our first wild flower of Spring, were seen sprouting on sun-exposed bluffs, and one gardener reported pea shoots sprouting in her garden.
This type of mild weather is certainly not what you’d expect in a town not far from the Arctic Circle. Traditionally, on Thanksgiving weekend Dawson receives a snowfall that stays on the ground. Well, as it turns out, despite the atypically warm fall, this year was no exception …
On October 10th, Dawson saw its first snowfall, and all indications are that the snow will be sticking around.
That means it’s time to get those hoses drained and put away for winter, and to pull the last of the veggies from the garden before the ground freezes hard next week.
Recently Suzanne and family harvested the plants, hoping for a favourite family treat to accompany their movie watching. Unfortunately, first attempts at popping have been unsuccessful. Suzanne’s not sure if the kernels are not dry enough — or perhaps they’re too dry. She will keep experimenting, but any suggestions are very welcome. If anyone has grown and successfully popped their own popcorn, let us know.
Thanksgiving weekend is coming up. For Suzanne and family. a favourite Thanksgiving treat is pumpkin pie. Now, Suzanne does have 91 pie pumpkins in storage for the winter! Thanks to Grant Dowdell who grows great pumpkins on his Island about 10 km upstream from Dawson on the Yukon River. Grant has had great success with the Jack Sprat variety of pie pumpkin (check out Grant Dowdell and Karen Digby’s Seed Guide). Grant finds they have the best storage capacity of all the squash, storing well into May.
So, although Suzanne has no grains for a crust, she certainly has the pumpkins — as well as cream for whipping, eggs, and birch syrup for a sweetener. But she has no pumpkin pie spices such as cinnamon, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, or allspice. So what to do? Could she use dried and ground spruce tips or Labrador tea?
First We Eat collaborator Miche Genest has a great pumpkin custard recipe for Suzanne. Miche has suggested adapting it using cream instead of evaporated milk. plus birch syrup to taste instead of sugar, and adding an extra egg. For spices, Miche suggests dry-roasting low bush cranberry leaves in a frying pan, then grinding and adding those. Suzanne will give it a try and report back on the results.
If you have any suggestions for alternative pumpkin desert recipe, or a northern local alternative to pumpkin pie spices, let us know!
It’s been 65 days since Suzanne started eating locally, which means it’s also been that long since she’s had any grains! But there’s a glimmer of hope on that front, thanks to some buckwheat that was grown in Dawson this year by Stephanie Williams and Mike Penrose. They planted it as a cover crop for their yard and it grew quite well in our northern climate.
Suzanne has harvested the buckwheat groats. Now, if she can just figure out how to thresh them by hand she will try cooking it. (If anyone has experience with hand threshing, suggestions are welcome. Just contact us.)
Despite the name, buckwheat is not related to wheat, as it is not a grass. (It’s actually related to sorrel and rhubarb). It is one of the so-called ancient grains, having been first cultivated around 6,000 BCE.
Porridge made from buckwheat groats, known as kasha, is often considered the definitive Eastern European peasant dish. The dish was brought to North America by Ukrainian, Russian, and Polish immigrants who also mixed it with pasta or used it as a filling for cabbage rolls, knishes, and blintzes.
For Suzanne, this means it is ‘now or never’ for many of the veggies grown this summer. Suzanne is trying to gather enough for her family for the year and to store them all away.
On Grant’s Island on the Yukon River, the harvest for Suzanne’s family included 148 pounds of onions and 226 pounds of pie pumpkins, along with 10 large seed pumpkins.
Fortunately for Suzanne, she will continue to be able to buy root vegetables such as potatoes, carrots, turnip, beets and kohlrabi throughout the winter thanks to the amazing root cellar at Kokopelli Farm.
Saturday, Sept 16th will be the last Dawson Farmers’ Market for Lucy for the year. However, Kokopelli Farm will continue to sell for a few more Saturdays in town and to sell root veggies from the farm gate in Sunnydale all fall and winter. Lucy Vogt will continue to sell veggies at the gate at Henderson Corner into October.
The Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Teaching and Working Farm will be having their final public market on Wednesday 20 September at the Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre.
If you are interested in which onions and pumpkins grow and store well in the North: the onions that Grant grows are Expression onions, which store extremely well if they are well dried before storage. Grant’s pie pumpkins are of the Jack Sprat variety, and they store well in a cool room till May.
Despite the short growing season in Dawson City, Yukon (there were only 66 consecutive frost free days this summer), with almost 24 hours of daylight in June and July the growing season is intense. If you happen to be able to create rich soil to go along with the short, concentrated growing window, then Dawson can grow some mighty big vegetables.
Check out this romanesco grown by Paulette Michaud, weighing 7½ lbs!
Romanesco is a member of the cauliflower family. It was originally introduced by Grant Dowdell to the Dawson community and its unique beauty still turns heads at the Saturday Farmers’ Markets.
Cabbages also thrive in the unfettered Dawson summer daylight despite the short grown season. Take a look at this giant cabbage grown by Louise Piché.
Corn is a southern crop that has traditionally been quite difficult to grow in the North. But this year, many of those who attempted to grow corn in Dawson City have been successful. After a rocky start with late frost in June, the heat in Dawson in July and early August was beneficial for those who have been growing corn.
Some growers, like Sebastian Jones, Megan Waterman and Grant Dowdell, have had luck growing corn outdoors. Others, like Louise Piché, have done well growing it in their greenhouses.
Corn growing outside Sebastian Jones’s cabin. Photos by Suzanne Crocker.
As reported earlier, Grant Dowdell is growing a crop of popping corn for Suzanne’s family on Grant’s Island, and we’re pleased to report it is doing beautifully, despite some unwanted attention from a midnight marauding moose. Grant also has good success growing sweet corn outdoors.
The Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Teaching and Working Farm are also experimenting with growing corn. It’s good news to know that with some special care and cooperation from Mother Nature corn can indeed be grown in Dawson!
This year, Louise experimented with growing purple peppers, and reports they grew really well. These plants — a sweet pepper variety — are purple on the outside but white on the inside and very tasty.
The seed variety she used was the Purple Star Hybrid from William Dam Seeds (65 days to maturity).
But there were more interesting things growing in Louise Piché’s greenhouse this year. A white pumpkin! Despite its long days to maturity in a short growing season, the pumpkin is doing quite well in a Dawson greenhouse.
The plant is of the New Moon variety from Veseys Seeds. It takes 100 days to grow to a final size of 25 to 35 lbs.
To see the specific varieties of fruit and vegetables that one of Dawson’s great home gardeners has had success with, download Louise Piché’s Seed Guide.
As is often the case, the first frost in Dawson hit mid-August, on the Discovery Days Weekend.
On August 17th there was a 20-minute hail-storm down the Yukon River. Although this bypassed the town, it caught Suzanne and family while they were out berry picking!
Then on the morning of August 18th, temperatures dropped to -1°C in town and went down to -4°C along parts of the Klondike River Valley and at Henderson Corner. Some gardens froze hard, while others were frost touched. Most of the mature veggies, especially the brasicas, weathered the frost, but it is nature’s reminder that summer is over and Suzanne had better speed up her harvesting, as more frost filled-nights may be just around the corner.
Sister Island is a private 42-acre island just downriver from Dawson City, and has a longstanding agricultural tradition. Given to the Sisters of St. Ann in 1898 during the Klondike Gold Rush, the nuns used the Island to grow vegetables famous for their quality, and raised cows, chickens and pigs to feed a hospital and orphanage in Dawson. Suzanne visited there recently to meet the current owners, Lou Tyacke and Gary Masters, who are now farming there.
Suzanne was thrilled to discover that Lou was growing fennel as it is hard to come by in Dawson this year.
Lou is also successfully growing some other unique produce, not usually found in the North. This includes Jerusalem artichokes (a type of sunflower), which is grown for its edible root/tuber), and is growing very well in the Sister island greenhouse. She is also raising a variety of colourful carrots, as well as “black” tomatoes, which are actually vine tomatoes of the indigo rose variety.
Jerusalem artichokes growing in the Sister Island greenhouse (left) and some colourful carrots. Photos by Suzanne Crocker.
For Suzanne, the timing of the visit to Sister Island was especially fortuitous, as she arrived the day before she started her 100-per-cent-local eating. She was treated to one of Lou’s amazing cupcakes — a floral art form in itself — and a cup of tea. … which turned out to be her last cup of orange pekoe tea (and cupcake) for a year.
Earlier, we posted how Suzanne was looking forward to having some quinoa in her diet, thanks to conservationist and local grower Sebastian Jones. Quinoa is not normally a northern crop, but Sebastian has been experimenting with growing it in previous years. He’s had good success with the plants, although he has just never gotten far enough during the short season to be able to harvest the quinoa seeds before the fall frost.
This year, he planted early, and Suzanne was excited about the prospect of quinoa in her local diet, as there will be no rice, and minimal grains. Unfortunately, the quinoa has grown up … and turned out to be turnips instead. The culprit was a seed mislabeling issue, as quinoa seeds look similar in size and shape to those from turnips. Even after the plants had germinated, the power of positive thinking had convinced Sebastian for a while that he had a field of lovely baby quinoa seedlings — until the harsh reality, turnip root and all, could be denied no longer. “I don’t even like turnips,” Sebastian complained.
That may or may not be the end of the story. Suzanne has four struggling actual quinoa plants of her own in the ground, and her fingers are crossed in hopes that they take off. There are also some potential alternatives. She will be looking at the wild plant lambsquarter, also sometimes known as pigweed (which is a cousin to quinoa) to see if she can harvest and cook the seed this autumn in a similar manner.
Has anyone had any success processing lambs quarter seeds, or have some other tips for Suzanne? Let us know!
In a previous post we wrote how Suzanne and family were looking forward to some popcorn in their local-only diet, with the help of growers Karen Digby and Grant Dowdell. Having had success with sweet corn in the past, they planted a field of Tom Thumb popping corn especially for Suzanne.
The plants survived the mid-June frosts that savaged so many other local crops, but now there’s another, much larger, hazard afoot. It turns out a trio of moose have been hanging out at Grant’s Island. Of all the vegetables growing in the fields, the moose seem to have a particular appetite for Suzanne’s Tom Thumb popcorn plants, even more so that Grant’s sweet corn.
The family dog does his best to dissuade the marauding ungulates, but finds it harder to run off moose than bears. A scarecrow is now on the job and we will just have to see if it can keep the moose at bay and protect Suzanne’s precious popcorn. Grant’s Island is one of the rare microclimates in the Dawson area capable of growing corn outside, so Suzanne’s popcorn experiment is “all in one basket.”
An innovative project led by the Inuvik Community Greenhouse Society is helping small, isolated Arctic communities, where access to fresh produce is scare, set up their own greenhouses and start raising fresh food. In June, community greenhouse coordinators from Aklavik, Fort MacPherson, Paulatuk, Sach’s Harbour, Tsiigehtchic, Tuktoyaktukc and Uluhakaktok attended a week-long internship program in Inuvik.
The program covered everything from soil preparation through weeding, trellising, pruning, and soil care to harvesting and worm composting. The interns worked in the greenhouse and in outdoor gardens around the community, even receiving instruction in raising chickens.
At the end of the course, each coordinator delivered a 30-minute workshop to prepare them for giving workshops in their own communities. The coordinator from Aklavik focused on engaging young people in the greenhouse, since it has been shown that when youth participate in community greenhouses, vandalism decreases significantly.
Emily Mann, coordinator of the Inuvik Community Greenhouse, said that being gathered in once place allowed community coordinators to learn from each other and to establish a network for troubleshooting and sharing knowledge—the coordinators have since set up a Facebook page.
The interns are now busy in their own communities, reaching out, teaching workshops and bringing local people in to garden together. In Aklavik recently, local children made hanging flower baskets for the Elder’s home. Every Elder received one. As Mann said, flowers are important for pollination, but they help to build community too.
It may be time to start looking at lambsquarter in a different way. Much like chickweed, this common garden weed (sometimes also known as pigweed) is another often-overlooked plant that has great potential as a wild food.
A prolific grower, lambsquarter is well-suited to Dawson gardens, and does well in many Northern regions.
Lambsquarter leaves are delicious raw and are not bitter like many other edible foraged leaves. Suzanne reports that she loves the taste, and they are her new favourite foraged leaf to eat raw. Sometimes called “northern spinach,” the leaves can also be cooked and used as a spinach substitute in stir fries or baked dishes like lasagna.
The leaves keep well in the refrigerator for a couple of days, or for the long term can be dried or frozen and stored for later use in sauces, soups, or stews. Lambsquarter is rich in Vitamins A and C, so the dried leaves can be a great source of these vitamins in wintertime.
One cautionary note: lambsquarter absorbs pollutants so avoid harvesting near roads or industrial areas.
It is still alive and well and certainly growing — it is now 4 ft tall!
Photos by Suzanne Crocker.
Louise’s success with growing ginger from ginger root in Dawson has inspired her to try the same thing with a piece of tumeric root. It successfully sprouted, and is now growing beautifully. Will keep you posted how it does.
Chickweed, another common garden invader, is also an edible wild plant. Before you pull it from your garden, take some scissors and harvest as much as you can. Cooked chickweed tastes just like swiss chard!
Suzanne learned the hard way that it is better to harvest it for eating by cutting it with scissors, so you don’t have to painstakingly wash out the garden soil that gets trapped in the roots. After you harvest it, then go ahead and pull the roots from your garden.
Cooked, chickweed can be eaten on its own or added to stews, soups, or pastas, or used as a replacement for spinach in other recipes. It can also be used to supplement basil in pesto.
Chickweed can also be eaten fresh as a salad green, or instead of sprouts in a sandwich or in dips. And it can be juiced (like nettle) and frozen in ice cube trays or it can be blanched and frozen (like nettle) for a shot of green vitamins in smoothies, soups, and stews during the winter.
Chickweed is rich in vitamins C and A as well as the minerals calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese, niacin, phosphorus, potassium and zinc. Not that you will, but apparently, if eaten in excess, it can lead to diarrhea, and pregnant women should avoid the juice and just eat small amounts.
Louise Piché, one of Dawson’s great home gardeners, has success growing asparagus in the north and she generously shared some of her first asparagus harvest with Suzanne. It was the freshest asparagus Suzanne has ever tasted – delicious!
Louise’s secret? Check out Louise Piché’s Seed Guide. In the case of asparagus, buy roots, not seeds. Plant the roots in spring in 1⁄2 dirt and 1⁄2 sand. The harvest will be in the second year. Harvest by cutting from June till mid July, and then stop cutting.
One of the things Suzanne and her family really love eating is popcorn with butter and nutritional yeast. She’s hoping they’ll still be able to indulge their craving during the year of eating only local foods, thanks to Grant Dowdell and Karen Digby.
Grant’s Island is located on the Yukon River about 10 km upriver from Dawson. It has a microclimate unique to the Klondike area that has previously allowed Grant and Karen to grow sweet corn outdoors – something that is usually very difficult to do this far North. This year, they are experimenting growing Tom Thumb popcorn for Suzanne, since this variety takes only 60 days to reach maturity.
If it works out Suzanne may have some popcorn for the upcoming year after all. She will certainly have butter. Next she’ll have to look for local options for toppings as there will be no salt and no nutritional yeast available. Any suggestions for locally available popcorn toppings for Suzanne and Family? If so, let us know.
Suzanne’s preparations for her year of eating local suffered a setback this week as the lowest temperatures in 35 years descended on Dawson, bringing three days of frost . Microclimates abound in the Klondike, so depending on their location the severity of damage to gardens and farms varied, with the town only mildly affected, while outlying areas saw temperatures as low as -4.7°C.
Where frost did occur, even some plants that were covered suffered — especially brassicas (plants like cauliflower and broccoli) and beans. Many of those who suffered losses were veteran growers, who had taken precautions to try to mitigate the frost damage.
Klondike Valley Nursery in Rock Creek, where they are adapting fruit tress to the north, was especially hard hit. They lost their haskap berry crop as well as their early apples, even those that were in shelters with kerosene heaters. Only the apple trees that were in greenhouses heated with wood stoves made it through.
Lucy’s Plants and Vegetables in Henderson Corner has a sprinkler system that is thermostat controlled and turns on automatically when the temperature hits zero. The sprinkler system and the row covers saved the day. There was still some frost damage to early peas and early potatoes, but hopefully they will recover. The rhubarb was frozen hard, but there’s still time in the season for them to bring out new shoots.
Kokopellie Farms in Sunnydale irrigated their plants and put them under row cover but still suffered frost damage to some of their cauliflower, broccoli, lettuce and early potatoes. Fortunately for Suzanne’s hopes of getting some grains, their winter rye is doing well.
Growers have always been at the mercy of the weather, but occurrences like this one underscore the challenges of gardening and farming in the north. Northern growers have developed techniques for weathering frost, including irrigating well before and during the frost, covering crops, and moving what one can into heated shelters and greenhouses.
Do you have other ways of dealing with frost or some lessons to share with us? Let us know.
According to Environment Canada, the next three days will see the chance of frost in the Dawson City area. This is much later in the month than even the most pessimistic of local planting advice that Suzanne had to consider when planting her garden.
While this particular frost warning is a local issue — and even in Dawson, temperatures and exposure to frost will vary based on altitude, terrain. and proximity to water — it highlights a point about sub-arctic/arctic growing, and the quest for Food Security North of 60. Our colder climate brings its own set of challenges and risks.
Suzanne will be busy the next few nights trying to protect the plants in her garden by covering them with row cover and sheets. John Lenart at the Klondike Valley Nursery will be putting kerosene heaters in his greenhouses to keep the precious Dawson apple trees with sensitive blossoms warm during the next few nights. Lucy Vogt at Lucy’s Plants and Veggies will be irrigating her fields to help keep the frost away from her growing produce. Lucy has a sprinkler system attached to a thermostat. The sprinkler system automatically turns on when temperatures drop below freezing. Fingers crossed that Dawson gardens and farms will make it through the next three nights unscathed!
An avid gardener and inventor, 82-year-old Chris Bartsch claims tomatoes like to keep their feet warm. He says raising the temperature of the soil will work for all Yukon vegetables too. With that in mind he is working on a DIY solar collector for warming the soil and increasing food production in Yukon.
Claus Vogel is growing celery from celery!
This is a great way to get more veggie from the bottom of a veggie that you would usually cut off anyway. Take the base from a stalk of celery, rinse it off, and put it in a shallow cup of warm water on a window sill. Change the water daily and keep an eye on it to see if any regrowth begins. You’ll see remarkable results in days and if you want, you can transplant the celery outdoors and have a great harvest at the end of the growing season.
Apparently this also works with romaine lettuce and green onions, and veggies similar to celery like fennel and celeriac. Louise Piché was successful at re-growing ginger from a piece of store bought ginger root, and some adventurous people have even re-grown pineapples from the tops!
Anyone else had any success with re-growing veggies?
Louise Piché, home gardener in Rock Creek, has great success growing onions. She stores them in a cardboard box in a cool corner of her house and they last all winter. Here are what remains in May – still firm and looking good. Her secret to storage is to let them dry very well on newspaper in the greenhouse before boxing them up for the winter.
Download Louise Piché’s Seed Guide. Louise is well-known as a wonderful gardener in Dawson, and a frequent prize winner at the Discovery Days Horticultural Fair in Dawson City, Yukon.
In a beautiful article by Up Here Magazine, France Benoit opens the gate to her home and farm “Le Refuge“, which she has lovingly built and tended to for the past 25 years. On this property, by the shores of Madeline Lake in Yellowknife, France grows a variety of vegetables to feed herself as well as to sell in the local farmer’s market, of which she is a founding member.
One way to have celery year round from the garden is to grow celeriac root. Weird looking but quite flavorful, celeriac root is edible raw or cooked, and tastes similar to the stalks of common celery.
It grows well in the North, keeps well in cold storage all winter, and apparently can have a shelf life of approximately six to eight months if stored properly. You can serve it roasted, stewed, blanched, or mashed, or added to your favorite stews or casseroles. Peel it and chop it and use it in place of fresh celery in cooking. Excellent combined with potatoes when cooking mashed potatoes!
You may remember an earlier post where we mentioned Riley Brennan’s success growing an early crop of spinach in an unheated greenhouse in Dawson and France Benoit’s similar success with an early crop of Asian greens. Suzanne tried planting spinach seeds this year in mid-April in her unheated greenhouse and they have sprouted. Hopefully they’ll provide a crop of baby spinach by the beginning of June!
Another tasty, although not so pretty vegetable that grows well in the Yukon is the root called salsify. Don’t let the hairy dark exterior intimidate you. Peel it, and it tastes similar to a very sweet parsnip, and you can eat it raw or you can cook it as you would cook most root vegetables.
Salsify might not be easily found in the average grocery store, but it actually grows wild in many places in the world, especially the Americas.
But not everything is under the ground: the flowers from the salsify root are gorgeous to look at, and also edible! The shoots can be used like asparagus, either raw or cooked, and the flowers can be added to salads.
Louise Piché is experimenting growing ginger this year – by planting a piece of ginger root from the grocery store. So far it’s doing well!
Did you know you can re-grow other vegetables from what you buy in the grocery store? Apparently, you can re-grow celery, romaine lettuce and even herbs like mint and basil. All it takes is a little patience!
Have you re-grown any store bought veggies at home? How did it go?
Take advantage of your greenhouse in April and May, before you plant your tomatoes and cucumbers, to give you an early crop of spinach or Asian greens! Riley Brennan, of Dawson City, direct seeds spinach in her greenhouse as soon as the soil thaws in April. She leaves the greenhouse unheated and the seedlings don’t require any covering. By the time she goes to plant her greenhouse proper in late May, she has a crop of baby spinach to harvest.
If there is something exotic you wish to grow in the North, ask Louise Piché of Rock Creek, Dawson City, Yukon. Louise is a well known gardener in Dawson and a frequent ribbon winner at Dawson’s annual Discovery Days Horticultural Fair. She loves experimenting with new and colorful varieties. She has successfully grown peanuts and ground cherries (aka golden berries) as well as asparagus, giant pumpkins and buckwheat.
Louise has generously shared her ‘tried and true’ cultivars that grow well in Rock Creek, which you can view on our seed page. This year she is experimenting with ginger, turmeric, artichokes and pink potatoes.
And one of the biggest obstacles they have found is that the local soil lacks nutrients. Commercial soil works fine, but it is costly and it needs to be flown in, which impacts the sustainability of the project.
Yup! Suzanne has been munching on sweet & crunchy carrots from Kokopellie Farm all January. “They taste like they are freshly picked only even sweeter!” offers Suzanne.
Otto Muehlbach, whose farm is in Sunnydale (Dawson), has designed a large root cellar to store carrots, potatoes, cabbage, beets, and other root veggies all winter long. The trick seems to be 2-4 degrees C and keeping the humidity and condensation low. If you can find a way to get to Sunnydale, Otto’s fresh root vegetables are sold from his house on Saturdays between 2 and 5 pm as long as it is warmer than -30C.