Our summer in beans

For Alaskans who grew beans in this year’s abnormal heat, the harvest exceeded expectations.

It may have even induced a little panic for those who sowed generously. Pleas from fellow Anchorage gardeners normally associated with runaway zucchini started showing up in my Facebook feed, in the context of beans.

Fortunately, our household ended up with just the right amount for two bean eaters’ annual needs.

Well, to be honest, at the end of the summer, I could have used couple more pounds of snap-tender beans to experiment with lacto-fermented recipes. But at that point, all but a few pods were swollen and ready for shelling.

I can’t complain though. This summer was a sizzling success story for beans. We vacuum packed them. We made a few beautiful jars of tightly-packed dilly beans. We “quickled” them with kombu and lemon. I added them to cabbage ferments, stir fries, and stews.

Shelling half-runner beans for freezing and drying.

This year I eschewed dependable, prolific bush beans and only grew runner bean varieties: my favorite St. George red-and-white variety; a few mystery beans saved from last year that grew to resemble the St. George variety; and a white-flowered, half-runner variety re-gifted by a gardener friend.

From the get-go, the half-runner beans had tough shells, so I let all of those mature into shelling beans. Until flowering ended, they attracted hordes of bees.

At the end of the summer, I shelled a dozen or so of the driest half-runner beans for possible replanting in the deck trellis next summer. The rest went in the freezer, because I’m no expert (yet) in deciding when to dry out fresh beans versus freezing them.

Piles and piles of speckled St. George runner beans for the freezer.

Thanks to this summer’s large crop, the months ahead should provide many opportunities to try runner beans in a wider variety of winter recipes. Now … if only we had as much salmon in the freezer!

Moss Phlox

Up close with spring buds

Updated Monday, April 29

One of my favorite garden tasks in April is monitoring the buds of trees and shrubs, and the new growth of perennials like rhubarb and sorrel.

Below is my garden’s current status in pictures. (I’ve updated this post to include a few more photos taken this weekend and removed the gallery feature, which made it difficult to read captions.)

NOTE: Over the last couple days I’ve been experimenting with the macro setting of a Canon Powershot G5 X purchased a few months ago. It’s a bit tricky to lock in focus but so far beats my efforts with a basic iPhone 7, which lacks portrait mode. I love having full control of the aperture!

Emerging rhubarb
Rhubarb plants in spring look like baby aliens. My rhubarb patch seems to start growing quite a bit later than other rhubarb patches in warmer parts of Anchorage.
Garden sorrel
Garden sorrel is usually the first herbaceous perennial in my garden to send up new shoots. The tart greens contain oxalic acid, as does rhubarb, and are delicious in soup, salad, pesto, or cooked down into sauces.
Redleaf rose buds
The redleaf rose (rosa glauca) is a natural beauty with single-petal pink blossoms, bluish-green leaves, and reddish stems.
Aurora haskap bud
Haskaps, also known as honeyberries, are the first shrubs to leaf out in my garden.
Their elongated berries look like blueberries but taste more like raspberries.
Black currant buds
Black currants have an intoxicating smell and flavor. I love having them in my garden
but I think they need a better, wetter spot to flourish and produce more berries.
Mount Royal plum tree
I planted Mount Royal and Toka plum tree saplings in 2018. Due to our poor soil, I planted them in raised beds. I hope they will bloom at the same time and cross-pollinate!
Fruiting spur of a Norland apple
Fuzzy fruit spurs, flower buds, and leaf buds on a young Norland apple tree.
Serviceberry shrub
The late Verna Pratt recommended planting serviceberries as a native edible in Alaska. The flowers are beautiful. The berries are large and juicy but a bit bland.
Buds on a Romeo cherry bush
This petite Romeo cherry bush is only a few years old yet produced several cherries in 2018. Romeo is part of the dwarf sour cherry “Romance” series developed by the University of Saskatchewan and planted by many local fruit growers in recent years.

The alchemy of angelica

Second in a series

If you read my previous post on angelica, you already know I’ve been entranced by this magestic plant in the Parsley family.

So far this year I’ve consulted botanists and herbalists in Alaska and the Lower 48, experimented with dried angelica root infusions, given a presentation to our local Herb Study Group, submitted an article for the Anchorage Master Gardeners newsletter, and agreed to give a presentation to another local group next year.

Much of my research has focused on native species of angelica in Alaska. In this post I’m circling back to my original plan to study garden angelica (Angelica archangelica), a Nordic subspecies with a rich history in folklore, magic, healing and my favorite – food. (Note: I highly recommend clicking on the link above to see garden angelica growing in its native habitat and learn its fascinating history.)

The Herb Study Group – volunteer caretakers of the herb garden at the Alaska Botanical Garden – hold monthly meetings in the “off season” that include discussions on various herbal plants. Many of us in the group are intrigued by angelica, whose giant, flowering stems are one of the herb garden’s most striking features.

The group’s decision to discuss angelica this spring was timely for me because I wanted to learn about harvesting its roots. Last year, I purchased a tiny bag of A. archangelica root, of unknown origins, to make rhubarb bitters for flavoring desserts and beverages. With time and opportunity, I wanted to produce my own supply of dried root.

Culinary uses of garden angelica have evolved dramatically over thousands of years – from cooked vegetable to tart candy, from medieval plague fighter to monastic liqueur flavoring. Depending on the preparation, angelica’s flavor can resemble celery, mild licorice or juniper berries.

In modern Europe, angelica stems are boiled to make candy, and essential oils distilled from the root and seed are used to make herbal infusions and flavor alcoholic beverages such as gin, Chartreuse, and Galliano.

I gravitate toward simpler recipes. I remembered a writer friend’s article about an old-school cocktail recipe called The Alaskan, which she adapted with locally-distilled gin and Chartreuse. I thought it would be fun to make a “do-it-yourself” version of Chartreuse, making The Alaskan recipe even more Alaskan. In the future, I hope to cook angelica leaves and stems as a vegetable dish or dessert. Jekka’s Herb Cookbook includes some appetizing recipes for angelica – including Braised Lettuce and Angelica Flowers. Online I’ve found recipes for jam and a lazy method to make candied angelica with honey.

For my faux Chartreuse infusion, I used a recipe from Homemade Liqueurs and Infused Spirits featuring eight herbs and spices, much fewer than the alleged secret blend of 132 in Chartreuse. The homemade version was delicious but didn’t look like the real thing due to my omission of artificial or natural dyes. It doesn’t need to be used as an alcoholic beverage – it makes a good drizzle for fish and poultry or an herbal marinade.

Garden angelica produces a huge root – up to three pounds – in the fall of its first year of growth. That’s the best time to harvest and dry the roots. It should be possible for an Alaska gardener to develop a personal supply of A. archangelica root lasting many years.

Find out more: You are welcome to download the angelica fact sheet I created for the Herb Study Group, which includes information on various angelica species, their uses, and cultivation and harvest notes.

Amaranth

Ancient grains in an Alaska garden

Usually I’m pretty good at remembering how I met a fascinating new plant.

For amaranth, however, my memory is hazy. My best guess is I first laid eyes on a Love Lies Bleeding (Amaranthus caudatus), dripping from a friend’s front porch flower box.

Initially, my gaze focused on the plant’s long, magenta locks (other varieties come in lime green or even coral seed heads). Similar to my experience with runner beans, it took a few years of growing amaranth to appreciate its edible qualities.

My current favorite for floral arrangements is Red Spike Amaranth (A. cruentus).

Widely cultivated in ancient Mesoamerica and other regions for food and religious practices, gluten-free amaranth is by no means a cold climate plant. But even though A. caudatus (pictured above) and A. cruentus (to the right) look like divas, they don’t act that way. Amaranth germinates and reseeds like a champ, and needs limited attention during the growing season.

I’ve cultivated Love Lies Bleeding from saved seed for many years. In 2016, I grew out nearly every seedling that germinated – quite a lot – and peddled them to all of my gardening friends. That summer I created at least three new amaranth fans in metropolitan Anchorage.

Gluten-free popped amaranth takes a few messy seconds to make on the stove. Make sure to strain out the un-popped seed.

This week I popped a half pint jar of seeds I saved a few years ago. (You need to boil or “pop” amaranth seeds to digest them.) I hope to use my remaining popped seeds to make a small batch of traditional Mexican snack bars

Growing and harvesting amaranth is a simple way to learn rudimentary skills in threshing and winnowing. Amaranth likely isn’t a viable commercial crop here but growing it at home might be fun for families who want to try harvesting small batches of their own grain.

The amaranth genus includes some invasive plants that plague farmers, including pigweed, which has arrived in Alaska. I admit to a certain fondness for the plant, due solely to ‘Old Pigweed’, a favorite Mark Knopfler tune.

Growing and Harvesting Tips: For big, happy plants, provide fertile soil, sunlight, and lots of space. You can plant amaranth in containers and move them under the eaves of your house if you experience rainy falls that diminish seed production.

In the fall, snip the long flowering stalks when they are completely dry. Store them carefully and whenever convenient for you, thresh and winnow them. If the chaff blows in your face, wash it off carefully. Speaking from experience, rubbing chaff off your face is rather painful!

In my garden, amaranth grows much better than another ancient grain, quinoa, which develops seed over a longer season. I’ve also found it easier to harvest the seed from amaranth, perhaps because my quinoa seed never matured properly. All of the amaranth varieties I’ve tried produce edible salad greens and large quantities of seed. Plus they make amazing floral arrangements.

Eating runner beans

Ode to runner beans

In our household, runner beans are the vegetable equivalent of sockeye salmon, another abundant species that fills up Alaska freezers every year.

I started growing cold-hardy runner beans after learning that pole beans need a lot of summer heat and wouldn’t produce well in our garden. Bush beans would do well, but I wanted a climbing variety to train on a rustic, homemade trellis.

I learned about runner beans (Phaseolus coccineus) from a Master Gardener friend who grows them ornamentally. Looking at the varieties in the Territorial Seed catalog, I was impressed by their vigorous growth (8-10 feet tall!) and colorful blossoms. They even tolerate a light frost!

Runner beans
St. George runner beans twine up a trellis with dill and sugar snap peas.

Runner beans are an annual feature in our garden. They give us massive floral displays all summer and copious amounts of homegrown beans to harvest for winter meals.

Many gardeners who grow runner beans spurn eating them because the texture is coarser than a typical snap bean. I think runners have great bean flavor and the sturdy pods hold up better in the freezer. I harvest them after the pods grow nice and long but before they toughen up.

For beauty’s sake, my favorites are the St. George and Sunset varieties but I’m always looking for unusual ones that I haven’t tried yet!

Growing and harvesting tips

Alaska companies Foundroot and Best Cool Seeds sell Scarlet runner bean seeds with solid red blossoms and lush green foliage. You’ll have to look elsewhere for additional varieties.

I clipped this excellent 2009 article on growing runner beans from Vegetable Gardener magazine and re-read it almost every year. It has interesting factoids and detailed instructions for growing them. One important point is that you need bees in your garden to pollinate the bean flowers. I notice that our runner beans don’t get adequately pollinated until the raspberry canes nearby are blooming.

The article above points out that you can eat runner beans in three stages – snap, shell, and dried. Due to our short season and rainy fall, we almost always eat runners as snap beans. One year I hit the jackpot and harvested shell beans. We enjoyed the large, mottled purple beans simmered in a pot with fresh sage, water, and a glug of oil. I’m still waiting for that to happen again!

I grow bush beans for fresh eating and runner beans for freezing. Unlike other vegetables, I notice no difference if I don’t blanch runners before freezing them. I just wash, cut, and divvy them up in meal-size portions. They preserve well in vacuum-sealed freezer bags. I typically add the frozen beans to stews and pasta dishes near the end of cooking.