In Praise of Native Landscaping: Permaculture Your Yard!

When I was a 10-year-old tomboy I had strong ideas about trees, I remember spending a tear-streaked afternoon with my arms wrapped around my favorite climbing tree, a red alder (Alnus rubrus), which my father was determined to fell (In his defense, light is at more of a premium than native trees in Southeast Alaska). In the end, I prevailed and that Alder, plus another some years later, survived. Their survival was because of both my stubbornness and my father’s love of native trees and shrubs. Over the years he transplanted many into our yard. He also loved other trees though and was an eternal optimist. He planted various maples (Acer), a Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), and some Birch (Betula) trees, a flowering plum and others into the yard. I remember a surge of enthusiastic excitement with the introduction of each new exotic tree as visions of fresh cherries, or plums danced through my head. None of them ever bore fruit however, and I survived the disappointment as the much-vaunted fruit trees gradually drowned or were eaten by porcupines, beavers or bear. In the end several of the maples, the birch and the Douglas fir did survive.
My early passion for those red alder trees is now bearing fruit in the form of birdwatching opportunities. The winter flocks of pine siskins and redpolls virtually ignore the maples and Douglas Fir, as they enjoy the alder seeds. In the Spring the alders flower and warblers hawk for insects in their branches while robins anoint their crowns with song each morning and evening, nesting in a secret crook in one of the trees. In addition to the red alder, the 2-acre yard of my family home has native crabapple (Malus fusca), Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis), Western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla), Sitka mountain ash (Sorbus sitchensis), red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa), salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis), cow parsnip (Heracleum maximum) , blueberry (Vaccinium spp.), skunk cabbage (Lysichiton americanus), devils club (Oplopanax horridus), rusty menzesia (Menziesia ferruginea), and winter chanterelle mushrooms (Craterellus tubaeformis). Red-breasted sapsuckers (Sphyrapicus ruber) and hairy woodpeckers (Picoides villosus) flit between the hemlocks, while song sparrows (Melospiza melodia) nest in brush piles, and red cross bills (Loxia curvirostra) and pine grosbeak (Pinicola enucleator) binge on crab apples and mountain ash berries.
This plethora of native vegetation and its location on a salmon lake also brings many mammal visitors to our home. Black bear (Ursus americanus), beaver (Castor canadensis), river otter (Lontra canadensis), porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum), and Sitka black-tailed deer (Odocoileus hemionus sitkensis) often grace the yard. It is not always an easy sharing of space, however. The black bears ruined several mountain ash trees by climbing them to eat their berries in the fall and their occasional transit through the yard causes a general evacuation of humans. Their presence also necessitates a cessation of bird feeding each spring as they come out of hibernation. Beavers felled several prized exotic crabapple trees, and porcupines have demolished raspberry bushes and been subject to dog attentions that required the dogs get expensive veterinary care. The deer’s passion for hostas often leaves them lopsided. The deer also enjoy the ‘lawn’ (quotes denoting the fact that it is more buttercup, dandelions, moss, and violets than grass). The lawn composition is because I stopped liming and fertilizing it a few years ago after noticing that the lily pads in the lake are being replaced by horsetail and that freshwater mussels have disappeared. I think it is possible that these effects are a result of changed water chemistry due to runoff of lawn fertilizer and herbicides.
We still maintain flower beds, a few pots of vegetables, and a rhubarb and raspberry patch but the native vegetation provides harvest values to us as well. We pick blueberries, salmonberries, and chanterelle mushrooms from the yard, and cut the occasional tree for fire wood. This year I’m going to try eating the cow parsnip for the first time as I’ve called a (sheepish) truce on poisoning it with Round Up. (Honestly, it’s the only thing I’ve ever used Round Up on and I’m not proud, but it does cause a terrible rash if brushed up against by a lawn-mowing human.) I’ve also been seeing that Scandinavians use mountain ash sprigs (they call it ‘Rohan’ which sounds much more edible) and I’m going to try that too!
So, look around your area, see what the birds and mammals are eating and bring some trees and shrubs home. You’ll save time trying to force the land to be something different from what it wants to be, and money buying exotics and make a lot of birds and animals happy in the process! (Also you can tell everyone you’re into Permaculture and you’ll sound really hip!)

Blueberry-Ginger Kombucha

Its wild blueberry picking season here in Juneau and I’ve snagged a friend for a sociable evening pick. It’s been an amazingly sunny summer and blueberries are plentiful and huge this year. Even shady areas that usually have wormy, small, pithy berries are yielding large, plump, tasty berries! We meander along the roadside between berry patches, chatting amiably as we go. Elsewhere I’ve seen bear poop full of blueberry seeds but this patch is unmolested, probably too much human activity. After a pleasant couple of hours, the gathering dusk encourages no-see-ums and mosquitoes to unbearable levels and we pack Ziploc© bags of blueberries into buckets and head for home at about 9:00 p.m.

There are five species of Vaccinium, commonly known as ‘blueberries’ in Southeast Alaska, each with distinctive flavor, fruit size, color, bush size, and habitat: early blueberry Vaccinium ovalifolium; Alaska blueberry, Vaccinium alaskaensae; alpine blueberry, Vaccinium uliginosum L.; dwarf blueberry Vaccinium caespitosum and red huckleberry, Vaccinium parvifolium. The most commonly picked species in Southeast Alaska are the early blueberry, Alaska blueberry, and red huckleberry. Tonight, I’m targeting the early blueberry! Since retiring I’ve switched from picking by hand to picking with a plastic berry rake. Although I miss the sensual experience of hand selecting each berry, I love the fact that its increased my production by about 50 percent! This is a slightly misleading estimate because using a berry rake adds an additional step of removing leaves with a filter tray back at home, but I find de-leafing frozen blueberries an enjoyable winter task.

I used to use all my berries for cobblers, jams, and pies, but I’m finding that I don’t need to eat that much sugar. This kombucha recipe is a great use for my frozen blueberry surplus, domestic blueberries can be substituted but wild berries have a higher antioxidant and vitamin content.

Kombucha is a fermented tea beverage. It originated 2000 years ago, in China where it was called ‘The Tea of Immortality’. From China, it migrated to Eastern Europe and Russia, and more recently to Western Europe, and the U.S.  Anecdotally, it is thought to have a broad spectrum of health effects, but western medicine has not yet verified or disproved them. Being well-versed in the health values of other fermented foods, I am inclined to believe the anecdotes, and am anxiously anticipating reading the results of future studies of kombucha health effects.

I discovered kombucha a few years ago, when a friend gave me a bottle; I was surprised how much I loved this trendy drink with its slightly vinegary flavor. After getting tired of shelling out $4/bottle at the grocery store, I got a mother or SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast) from a friend and started making my own. After an initial false start (involving a moldy slimy putrid mother) I am now producing several gallons a week and have shared my own mother with several friends. Here is my favorite recipe for blueberry-ginger kombucha!

Tools:

2 gallon jars

cheese cloth

large rubber band

large funnel

small funnel

hot water bath

Large sauce pan

6 18-oz swing-top bottles

canning jar grabbers

 

Ingredients:

Primary ferment

6 black tea bags

1 c granulated cane sugar

Mother (SCOBY)

¼ c vinegar

1 c unflavored kombucha

 

Secondary ferment

6 c blueberries

1 c water

½ c sugar

4 T grated ginger

 

Instructions:

Primary ferment

Add sugar to gallon jar. Brew tea, and pour into gallon jar while warm to dilute sugar. Add room temperature water to almost fill jar, leaving room for kombucha mother, vinegar, and kombucha. Do not overfill jar, there should be considerable air space between kombucha mother and cheesecloth cover. Cover jar with cheesecloth and secure with rubber band. Set kombucha in warm area (65 to 70 °F) out of direct sunlight and cover with towel. Brew for 7 to 10 days until desired sweet-sour balance and light carbonation is achieved.

Secondary ferment

Sterilize swing-top bottles, funnels, and gallon jar in hot water bath, remove and cool. Add blueberries, sugar and grated ginger to sauce pan, bring to a boil and simmer for 5 to 10 minutes. Cool to room temperature and then strain mixture through cheesecloth-lined large funnel into second gallon jar. Fill each swing-top bottle with ½ cup sweetened blueberry-ginger juice. Top off with kombucha and cap. Secondary ferment at room temperature for 3 days or until lightly carbonated, then refrigerate and enjoy at your leisure! A secondary ‘mother’ will form in each bottle, it is edible but slimy and flavorless, and can be strained out when the bottle is poured.