Chokeberry

Aronia, also known as chokeberry, thrive in Kodiak's climate as an attractive shurb that also produces tart berries that are rich in antioxidants. Marion Owen photo.

Let me begin with a gentle apology. You see, most weekly garden columns, or any column for that matter, focus on one topic. But in Kodiak, there is so much going on that it’s hard to not allow a few subjects to share this page. And this week is no exception. It’s harvest time, jamming and pickling time, the season for prepping the garden for next spring, and so on.

Let’s start with planting. Yes, while you’re yanking out tired calendula flowers and lettuce, spinach seeds need to be planted. Now you might be thinking, “But it’s September. Why are you telling us about spinach?” It just so happens that the first two weeks of September is the best time to sow spinach for harvesting next spring.

Kale and cress might be the rock ’n’ roll stars of veggies, but spinach is the best winter green for Kodiak. It loves cool temperatures and tolerates winter weather if, and only if, the seeds are sown early enough for the plants to establish roots.

Here’s the deal: Sow spinach seeds (available at Sufliff True Value or online) in outside beds, greenhouses or hoophouses. Favorite varieties include Olympia, Space and Tyee. For outdoor raised beds, you’ll want to provide some cover, either with solid or perforated plastic. The plants will grow to two to four inches in height, and then when Oct. 20 rolls around and day length drops below 10 hours, growth slows to a crawl.

During the winter months, keep soil barely moist (not soggy). Too dry and the seedlings won’t have enough root structure to produce leaves in February and March.

Then around Feb. 20, the day length for our latitude crests over the 10-hour mark and, like magic, the spinach plants resume their growth, which means you can potentially be eating fresh greens in March.

While you’re waiting for your spinach seeds to germinate, why not make a batch of mixed pickles? This is my favorite refrigerator pickle recipe. They are easy to make and require no processing in a boiling water bath. You can mix all kinds of veggies together: cucumbers, carrots, green onions, chopped bulb onions, green beans, bits of cauliflower, zucchini, you name it. 

Refrigerator Pickles: Cucumbers, Cauliflower, Carrots, whatever

(Yield: 2 quarts)

For the brine:

4 cups water

2 cups white vinegar (For a sweet and sour pickle use cider vinegar and add 1 cup sugar to each 2 cups vinegar)

8-10 cloves garlic, peeled

6 teaspoon non-iodized (kosher or canning) salt

Several sprigs of fresh dill

1 teaspoon celery seed

1 teaspoon coriander seed

1 teaspoon mustard seed

1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns (optional)

For the vegetables (a total of 6 cups for 2 quarts):

Cucumbers, sliced into 1/8-inch slices or into cut lengthwise into sticks

Carrots, small whole, or cut in half lengthwise

1 handful large green onion pieces or green beans

Pieces of cauliflower, etc.

Crushed red peppers

In a stainless or other nonreactive pan, bring water to a boil, reduce the heat, add the garlic and let it simmer for about for five minutes. Add the vinegar and salt (and sugar if you are going to use it), raise the heat and bring to a boil, stirring until everything is dissolved. Remove from heat. (Recipes don’t call for this step, but at this point I pour the liquid through a strainer to catch the garlic.) Into each 1-quart jar, place a few sprigs of dill and a pinch of red peppers. Divide the seeds and garlic between the jars. Then pack the jars full (not too tight) of cucumbers, carrots, green onions, green beans, cauliflower, whatever. Bring the brine back to a boil, pour it over the vegetables to cover completely, let cool, then cover and refrigerate. The pickles will taste good in just a few hours, better after a couple of days. They'll keep for three to six months.

For the last word, and topic, I’d like to introduce you to aronia berries. With all the emphasis on eating locally grown foods (wild and domestic), it’s nice to find trees and shrubs that work double duty in your garden, as an ornamental and as a food source.

Aronia, also called chokeberries, are an overlooked member of the rose family, Rosaceae. You can eat the berries fresh, but because of their tartness, most people process them as jams, jellies, juices, teas (Poland) and wine (Lithuania). (While there are red and black chokeberries, I’m only familiar with the black chokeberry thriving on the cliff in our front yard.) The deep purple, almost black berries, mix well with black currants and blueberries. Aronia berries are also used as a flavoring or coolant for beverages or yogurts.

Aronia berries’ deep color should give you a clue that they contain a healthy amount of polyphenols, especially anthocyanins (antioxidants). In fact, chokecherries contain some of the highest anthocyanins measured in plants, said to contain three times the antioxidants as blueberries.

But that’s not the end of aronia’s beauty. After a summer of lovely white blossoms which give way to berries, this shrub really comes into its own in the fall when its leaves turn a pleasing yellow, orange and red.

To connect with local gardeners and growers, visit the Kodiak Growers Facebook page and local farmers’ markets. To contact Marion, send her an email (mygarden@alaska.net), or head over to Facebook, Instagram at marion_owen_photography.com or her blog at marionowen.wordpress.com. Or pick up the phone, 907-486-5079.

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