Random Acts of Sunlight

This summer I learned that random acts of sunlight, a broken lawnmower and tolerant neighbours can lead to a lot of delicious, surprising salad ingredients growing all over my backyard.

Instead of the monoculture of lawn, there’s a botanical array of 50 shades of green between the greenhouse and the door.

My landlords are away for the entire growing season, and the temporary tenants in the two-suite house have generously put up with what we agreed was a meadow-like effect.

The early, and deliciously obvious, arrivals were the wild strawberries, which we ate immediately of course—tender bursts of sun-drenched red sweetness that only occasionally made it as far as a bowl.

I froze a few for the absentee landlords to enjoy this October, but I’m pretty sure the rest were eaten on the spot.

Walking from the small greenhouse at the south end of the double lot, the next salad ingredients are strawberry blite and a tall plant that I didn’t notice until it flashed yellow blossoms: mustard.

The mustard leaves are tangy, and the early seed pods, before they harden, offer a sharp flavour that inspires any omelette.

Strawberry blite, or strawberry goosefoot, also offers delicious leaves for salads. For June and half of July, it produced its cherry-coloured seed clusters—”berries”—that are surprisingly juicy and add a sweet note against the zing of the mustard leaves.

Next is the ancient grains section. Lamb’s quarters plants grow thick in the sandy patch in front of the tool shed. I suspect this is because several dogs from the Humane Society shelter have lived there in their transition from shelter to finding an adoptive home, so the area is well fertilized.

I loved the buttery flavour of the lamb’s quarters leaves in May when they were fresh two-inch wonders and nothing else had sprouted yet.

It took no effort to convert others to the delicious taste of “wild spinach” even though they teased me to “pull up the pigweed”, as many call it.

Even better, some scattered patches of cultivated spinach also appeared in the sandy patch, so we ate baby leaves of both at the same time.

Then a detail in Bev Gray’s The Boreal Herbal: Wild Food and Medicine Plants of the North caught my eye. Not only is this cousin to quinoa high in vitamins A and C, but the seeds are edible.

The leaves and seeds form a complete protein when they’re eaten together.

But beyond pleasing the palate, the exciting part was this: lamb’s quarters seeds have been found buried in more than one cache in North America, and some seeds older than 1,700 years old have been found still able to germinate.

Sometimes it seems like the Yukon is so far away from everything. I look up from clipping chives and wonder: how did birds, people, animals, ever make their way up from the lusher climates to this latitude of extremes?

It’s pleasing to gorge on healthy food that insists on growing here, without chemicals or cultivation, and that connects to our past. Not for the sense of shining up the nostalgia glow, but for the sense of knowing that the earth produces tasty, nutritious food on its own (circumventing highways and pesticides) if we take time to let it go.

Moving on from the shed, the grasses behind the two cultivated gardens provided sun-shelter for some good, thick rhubarb, several patches of clover for the bees, fireweed with blossoms for the bees and for prettying up salads, and a profusion of chickweed.

The veggie gardeners will have to look away for a couple of minutes while I praise the antioxidant, vitamin-and-iron-rich deep green that chickweed is.

Yes, it grows like crazy and it has to be taken out—whap!—with a hoe when it gets too tall, since it doesn’t share water well with other plants.

And yes, when I process it in the blender, the taste is strong, too much like wheatgrass.

I don’t zap it into green shots. Instead, I mix it into smoothies with mellower flavours (lamb’s quarters, wild blueberries, yogurt) and it tastes just right.

Just before my front door and down the slope to the road, there’s a profusion of horsetail.

Given endless hours of free time, I could imagine making 100 percent biodegradable, chemical-free, locally-sourced hair rinse and blood tonic. (Instructions for this are also in The Boreal Herbal, which has become a constant presence in my greenhouse and kitchen this year.)

But this summer’s learning is all about the edibles.

Constant surprises spring underfoot as I go about the daily watering (what? more chives sprawling towards the hollyhocks?), so I have had enough on my plate, in every sense of the word.

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