Jeff Lowenfels: Primulas are gardeners' remedy for cabin fever

GardeningFebruary 19, 2014 

This is the time of year when Alaska gardeners start to show signs of serious cabin fever. Catalogs don't cut it. Houseplants are in worse shape than we are, and you are not going to Hawaii anytime soon. Add to this that it has been a long winter and a strange one, weather wise, and you have enough cause for this pent up feeling.

Toss in the fact that it will be a couple of months, at best, before we can plant things in the ground, and even the non-gardener can see why things are so bleak. As the Old Sourdough says, "If your garden hose wasn't frozen to the ground, you might strangle yourself with it because of the long wait ahead."

Of course, the antidote to a gardener's cabin fever is to get something growing, something with color and a bit more lasting power than the spring flowering bulbs and the amaryllises that are for sale all over town.

Fortunately, we are lucky that this is the time of year primulas come onto the market. Whew, just in time, I say. This erratic weather is driving me nuts. Snow, green grass, snow, frost, cold, warm. Agghhhh. Give me a primula, NOW.

For those Alaskans who are not familiar with the word "primulas," you surely are familiar with this group of flowing plants, nonetheless. They are sometimes called "primroses, "polyanthus" or "cowslips" and are among the first plants to flower outdoors in the Alaskan spring. They bear bright, pansy-size flowers on individual stalks, several of which rise above a rosetta of textured, green leaves. In fact, I would bet that many of you already grow them in your perennial gardens.

If primula flowers were smaller, the plants might remind you of African violets, but they are bigger, pansy-size as noted, and come in all shades of yellow, burgundy, pink, orange, purple and more. Most have at least a two tone flower and all have textured, elongated leaves. They are easy to hybridize and so there are all manner of flower varieties ranging from simple to candelabra style. Two great online sources for viewing the many kinds of primulas are primulaworld.com and americanprimrosesociety.org/intro/starter-list-of-primula.

More important, these plants are usually found at local sources (nurseries, box stores and supermarkets as well as florists) from late January through Easter. You can't go wrong buying some and enjoying them for the next few weeks, then growing them on and transplanting them into an outdoor bed for re-blooming, perhaps, later this spring and surely the next one. In fact, sometimes they will multiply indoors and can be divided into several plants when transplanted outdoors. I love a bonus. Moreover, primulas actually require low temperatures and moist conditions and so most do very well outdoors in Southcentral. You can't lose.

You can grow your own primulas from seed. Just remember, however, you have to expose primula seed to low temperatures before they will germinate. If you want a quick fix for the winter blues, planting them now is not going to give it to you. However, it is fun and relatively easy. Usually, you plant seed in flats in the fall and just leave them outside.

Since there are so many kinds, primulas are a great group of plants to "collect." There are local clubs all around the world. Our local nurseries carry several types of seeds and plants and you can always order them online.

Indoors, you can plant seed that has been chilled for at least a month. These seeds require light to germinate, meaning they should be sprinkled on the surface of the soil and not covered. In addition, they will not germinate and will shut down after they do so, if the temperatures are too high. Under 55 degrees will do the trick.

But why wait? Go and buy a few potted and growing primulas. Keep them on the cool side, enjoy the color they present and heal yourself of your cabin fever.

Garden calendar

Alaska Botanical Garden Spring Conference: First weekend in March. You must register. Do it now to ensure space by going to www.Alaskabg.org. This is a must-attend event for all Alaskan gardeners. Do not put this off.

Veggie Seeds to start indoors: Celery can be started now. It is a slow grower, but if you have never had home-grown celery, you have never tasted celery as it should taste.

Flower Seeds to start indoors: Rhodochitin, AKA Alaska State Fair or Bellflower plant. If you have yours stored, take them out. If you have seeds, start them now. Old flowers contain plenty of seed.

 Find out about Jeff Lowenfels' books at tinyurl.com/TeamingWithMicrobes and tinyurl.com/TeamingWithNutrients.

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