Monthly Archives: June 2009

If you build it, they will garden

At my previous apartment, where we rented, I put in 7 garden beds, compost pile, cold frame, strawberry bed, apple trees, and various perennials. I asked the manager first, on the raised beds, and she said sure, so I went to town. Over the years (3 of them, to be exact) other tenants were interested and built two more beds, and container gardened, and shared ‘my’ beds. The space has now been totally taken over by tenants who are still there, and here are some pictures, taken yesterday, of the beautiful garden they are maintaining! The only downer is that one of the apple trees was all but killed over the winter by damage to the trunk, but it has some new sprouts below the damage but above the graft – so it may not be all lost!



raised beds

raised beds




My ideal community

I’ll just need to brush up on my german a bit – jah – ich spreche deutsch, kann ich heir leben?

Here is where I want to live. Or, you can all donate millions to my cause, I can buy up all the blocks near my place, buy a few muni employees and representatives, and recreate the model in Spenard!

Note the mention of only having row-houses due to the inefficiencies of single family homes – the whole reason I bought a 4-plex – shared walls! I would like to have townhouse-style units instead of upstairs/downstairs divisions due to the noise and connection to the ground floor issues, but we can’t have it all!

I am hoping to incrementally approach passivhaus standards with my exterior insulation projects. I can’t really go back and insulate under the slab, but I am planning to add R-20+ to the outside of the basement walls down to 4′ below grade then out 2 to 4 feet this summer, then to increase the upper wall insulation by at least R-20 next summer. I don’t like the idea of electric powered heat recovery ventilation. I am a purist, and in my ideal world all my house systems would withstand the lack of electricity. I like passive annual heat storage and its reliance on earth tubes for passive heat recovery ventilation. Oh well, I am still flushing my poop instead of composting it anyway, so no purism attained here yet! It is all a process.

Edible Perennials for Anchorage

backyardI am filling in my back yard with fruit and berry trees. So far I have 2 Norland apples, one Parkland apple, one Hyer-20 apple, one hardy (Arctic) kiwi (well – 2 actually – a male and female planted together), 2 Redlake currants, one Pixwell gooseberry, one Smokey saskatoon, various unknown strawberries, raspberries and rhubarb. My recent additions are a Summercrisp pear, which will need a pollinator, a Northstar pie cherry, and Compass and Black diamond cherry-plums. The trees come from Arctic Organics (local apples – at the downtown farmers market), Bell’s Nursery, Alaska Mill and Seed, and one apple that I grafted myself last year at the Pioneer Fruit Growers event (by far the cheapest way to go at $10 for 2 trees, one of which made it…so far). I also need to put in an order with St. Lawrence Nurseries. Among other things, I need a mate for my pear and some experimental (for Alaska) Hazelberts (hazel/filberts).

On many maps we are borderline hardiness zones 3/4 here. I have seen 4 listed as Anchorage’s official hardiness zone, and all my trees are 4 or better. I just typed in my zip on a site to find your updated hardiness zone (Arbor day foundation updated them with more recent data in 2006) and got a 5. That may be stretching it, but certainly we are heading that way. By most accounts, and I believe it, we’re not gonna escape warming of about 4 Celsius. At least. Of course, there are still some issues – our days won’t get any longer in winter or shorter in summer (barring a highly unlikely shift of the rotational axis of the Earth!), so we still have photoperiod adaptation issues. Our ground temperature won’t match that of places further south, so cold and shallow roots will still be something to pay attention to. Our summer growing season will lengthen, but not so much that anything goes. Varieties that can bloom, set and ripen fruit – chop-chop – quickly, will still be necessary. But I think it may pay to plant a broad variety of species, some of which are currently considered marginal; or cold hardy enough, but too long a season needed for bearing. Adaptation. Sigh. I’ll keep trying to burn less carbon too. Drier springs, the stress to native forests, and more variable, intense weather that may include some lower lows with the higher highs and unpredictable snow-cover (which can make or break a perennial’s winter) mean that climate change is not, truly, a northern gardener’s friend.

As for my growing brood of fruiting bodies – we’ll see how they do. I am discovering that my soil needs some work. Most of the yard is rocky at best, even with decent fertility (as evidenced by lush grass and dandylion and plaintain – which indicates well balanced/fertile soil). The pear and cherry went into a part of the yard that apparently had to be brought up to grade. A razor-thin organic layer holds dandylions, some grass, toadflax. Below this it is compacted sand for a few inches and then chunks of waste concrete! I dug the tree holes extra big. I mixed in a bit of the better and loamier soil from another part of the yard, and some half-decayed leaves (the only organic matter readily available). I will try to add extra nitrogen sources to counteract these decaying leaves this year – including the clover I planted as base mulch. I also need to get a bunch of manure and dig it in around the perimeter. Every year I will try to widen the area I have loosened and amended so that the roots don’t get potted inside the hard sand. That is, if these guys make it through this winter! At least the worms are everywhere in the soil – huge fleshy ones and little, naked pink ones. The trees make me happy. I am planting things in makeshift guilds – clover and peas around the trunks for nitrogen and mulch, strawberries in the outer leaf-mulch ring to grow into a permanent ground cover, berry bushes close by, siberian peabush between trees for nitrogen fixing and food (the peas) for the eventual chickens. My paltry annual beds are in sheetmulch beds, some attached to the mulch ring of the trees. I am whittling away the lawn! Somehow I am managing, with a lot of help from the kid, to keep most of it low with the scythe, no other mowing has been done this summer. There is still about again as much planting and sheet-mulching as I have done for next year, then perhaps we’ll be more into a longer-term maintenance/improvement cycle.

The potato is my friend

Thinking about becoming more sustainable food-wise…and up against the 2000 calorie diet on a fifth of an acre, times 6 people, it is obvious my eco-plex won’t be going it alone! We will always be reliant on external farms or game for the majority of our calories and nutrition. My CSA out in Palmer (that I pick up my first haul from the season from today) provides mainly leafy greens and other low calorie, but high nutrition veggies. For base calories, the potato and salmon is where it is at. I am doing poorly with both this year, and will likely need to purchase quantities. I have been focusing on planting perennial berries and apples, fun food and the only reliable source of local sweets (bees apparently get angry if you succeed in overwintering them, and are usually shipped up each year to beekeepers here – a reasonable compromise, but not truly sustainable. Birch syrup is another option if you have a whole lot of birch trees and firewood – but it takes 100 gallons of sap to one gallon of syrup – over 2x that of maple). I attempted to grow 4 tires’ worth of potatoes (a paltry amount to start with), but only one is sprouting – I think I rotted out the others with inattention. I will make this a priority for next spring – I feel the need to get good at making lots of potatoes, wintering them and saving seed potatoes. Not enough to feed me, they do grow plenty of potatoes in the valley, just enough to feel I make a contribution to my diet. I also want to get 3 or 4 hens next spring for eggs. And I need to figure out the fishing – I’ve never fished the local fish creek, but I should probably start because I’m not sure I’ll always have the time, energy, and access to a vehicle to truck on down to Kenai for dipnetting. There is merit, though, in the carpooled weekend on the peninsula to collect clams, fish, and seaweed (for the garden and or food).
In any case, I will have local stirfry and salad tonight! My first CSA pickup includes Pak Choi, spinach, mizuna, 2 heads of lettuce, arugula, radishes, scallions, and chives. Luckily I have gotten used to my 15 mile/day summer bike commute and am not craving mass quantities of fat any more.

State of the eco-plex

A quick update on where we are at – greening wise:

-Many low-flow devices installed. Still need to upgrade 3 toilets, 2 dishwashers, and clothes washer in the future (currently working on a pedal-power clothes washer). Many leaks/drips fixed.

-Energy efficient indirect hot water heater and outdoor temperature sensor added to already reasonably efficient boiler. 2 out of 4 thermostats changed out for programmable ones and faulty zone valves replaced. Report obtained for solar hot water, need to find the funds to do the project!

-green (using many used/second hand products) remodel of unit 2 bathroom.

-on-site recycling service and outdoor composting provided.

-energy audit completed for state’s home energy rebate program. Now need to find funds to place 4″ foam around whole exterior of building – big money.

-apple trees, strawberries, raspberry, rose, birch, hardy kiwi, currants, service berry, sheet mulch annual beds planted. Attempting to adhere loosely to permaculture design principles.

-some weather-sealing and pipe insulating.

-filling of two units with intentionally green-minded people. Still need to have a gathering or two, maybe time to publish a new apartment newsletter. Have offered garden space, but no one really jumping on that yet, despite interest. Many tenants are biking, composting, recycling, among other great things!

All of these things above are moving forward, but some have a long way to go yet…

Still to begin/conceptual stage:

-bike parking rack!! This should have been done, like, yesterday.

-community space

-greenhouse/solar space

-wood stoves

-roof water catchment

Finally, a picture of the finished bathroom!

unit2_bath As I have filled our old unit, unit 2, with a renter, the bathroom is to all intents and purposes done. I do need to go in and redo a bit of tub caulking, and put some plywood over a hole in the closet, but D. and S., super-nice people that they are, put up the trim a week or so ago. The top trim, though stock from that big box store not as bad as the other (though they are all the same), is lovely – a pretty blond wood with leaves on it. No, you are not mistaken, it isn’t visible in this picture. The wall design near the mirror includes some used glass beads and metal buttons from D., and a repurposed bike chainring.

So, to sum up – stretched over many months, but really only about a week’s worth of efforts:
-new underlayment (plywood and backerboard)
-second-hand Italian porcelain tile on floor
-new, ultra low flush toilet
-used wall mounted sink
-repair and paint (second-hand) on ceiling and walls
-remove medicine cabinet – replace with wall mirror (for improved sound-insulation from next unit)
-wall mosaic/design
-new wood trim (hemlock near floor; pine w/leaf design at ceiling – both sealed)

Bella! Wish our new bath looked as good as this one! A project for later – after I figure out how to finance putting 4″ of foam-board over the whole outside of the 4-plex!

My 6 year old is a bike commuter!

Well…I guess he has been a bike commuter for a long time, but we have hit a new level!

We lived rurally in Hawaii when he was born, with a big hill and lots of miles to town, so there he rode recreationally in the bike trailer, while papa biked off to work in town. I must say, as an attachment parent, I agonized over putting my tiny baby in the trailer so far from my body… but mostly he seemed to like it, babbling to himself. It was better received than the car seat. Honestly, though, I think trains and buses are best for babies, since you can hold them on your lap and nurse on demand without leaning awkwardly over a car seat, or stopping the bike.

For a year after we returned to Alaska we were too poor to buy a bike or trailer/child seat and no one gave us one. Finally, we saved up and got a Chariot and the bike and jogger attachments (we dreamed of the x-country ski attachments but never shelled out). I was still stay-at-home so commuting was for groceries and library books and such, which I still often did by foot since I had all day. Sometimes I piled bags of recycling on my toddler’s lap and we headed over to the recycling center.

At age 4.5 my boy was in preschool and I was working, so as often as the snow wasn’t too deep and the ice too slick for my bike studs, I pulled him to school. Summer, age 5, we got a trail-a-bike and he started helping me peddle to camp (except for a stint where he broke his arm and was back in the Chariot). This is still where we are for fast commutes, but for the weekend trip we have graduated to separate bikes! On Saturday we biked to the Ocean’s festival downtown (about 2 miles away) and on Sunday to a permaculture meeting about 3 miles from home, both with some real hills and traffic and all. He did great! I love that he is learning that this is the way to get somewhere. My mom biked to the store with me in the bike seat as a baby, but I mostly biked recreationally as a kid. Somehow I still turned out all right 🙂