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Organics is a gardening 'craze' that's totally sane

Jeff Lowenfels

When I lecture Outside, people often ask, "What gardening craze are Alaskans into this year?" For some reason, gardening crazes are a hot topic of discussion among gardeners these days.

I've mentioned the chicken craze. People are enamored with the idea that they can raise their own chickens and harvest their own fresh eggs. As a result, there are a dozen new books on the subject, chickens and chicken paraphernalia are appearing in some nurseries as are all sorts of inventions to help make the chore of keeping chicks easier and less damaging on the yard. For example, there is a moveable coop so the yardener can fertilize the lawn without burning it with too much chicken poop.

Then there is the "Meadow" craze, an off-shoot of an underlying gardening theme that just about everyone other than Pennington and Scotts seems to be promoting: Get rid of lawns. I remember this craze in its last incarnation: prairie gardens. I suppose folks in places that never had prairie didn't understand and so the more romantic and generalized concept of a "meadow" has caused the shift. (Am I that old that I remember when this used be the "wildflower" craze and people were throwing down bags of wildflower seeds, whatever "wildflower" really means?)

Rain gardening is big this year Outside. I know we have a grant program for rain gardening here in southcentral, but I am not sure why. Rain gardens? To capture rainfall so that precious water isn't wasted watering gardens and lawns? Really? Here in Alaska we do not need a grant program to get people to construct gardens in the low spots of yards. A waste of taxpayer money, in my opinion since given our weather, all our gardens are rain gardens.

The biggest craze going on right now in the rest of the country, however, would have to be planting natives. Native plants are those that were in the area you garden before other gardeners came and brought with them favorite plants from former homes. This movement is not just about stopping the introduction of invasive plants, though that surely has to be the source of the movement. The introduction of plants that unwittingly spread and take over native plants will be a subject of another column, but know it is an extremely serious, long range problem for the Alaskan Ecosystem. Still it is not an Alaskan gardening trend.

In any case, it doesn't seem that Alaskan gardeners would be too keen on the idea of sticking with an only native palette. Perhaps this is because these plants are all around us on the vast amount of public lands here. Or it might just be that they are too easy to grow, lack enough color or might give the impression to neighbors that you are a lazy yardener. The big exception would be alpines and rock garden natives.

No, it seems to me that while we may dabble in these crazes, our big movement is "organics" and based on my observations, we were and still are at the forefront of this movement. Compost, compost teas, animal and plant meals for fertilizers, no rototilling and, no matter how reluctant, a grudging willingness to start accepting dandelions and clover in lawn seem to be prevailing.

Now some readers still bridle at the thought that Alaska is going organic in its gardening, but these are a dying breed (perhaps even due to the very chemicals some of us use) as they will be in the lower 48. Scotts can try all the thick-accented actors it wants to promote products that kill off the life in the soil and reduce soil structure. Bayer can push chemical science all it wants. In the end, the bees and you and me are going to win, however.

My prediction is they are going to start heavily concentrating on their organic products. This will happen because gardeners are recognizing the damage that we do using "unnatural" products in our yards. And most of us, are not stupid. We read the articles about products like Roundup and its dangers, not to pick on just one company. Best of all, we have educated ourselves so we realize when you use a chemical fertilizer you end up having to do lots more work. Most important, we are Alaskans and we are sick and tired of people Outside telling us we are rapers and pillagers. Demonstrating that this is not the case starts, it seems to me, in our own yards.

All of this is my opinion, of course. But what isn't is the fact that organic gardening starts at the beginning of the season. Alaskan gardeners should make sure that they buy organic soils and composts in which to start seeds. Real organic products, not those that simply say "natural' or use the word "organic" without agency or organizational certification.

From the start of the season, we should all be using organic foods to feed the microbes in soil and compost and not chemical fertilizers. It is not hard. All of our nurseries have recognized our organic gardening bent and they all carry the kinds of things we, as responsible, organic gardeners, need.

Jeff Lowenfels is a member of the Garden Writers Hall of Fame. You can reach him at and hear him on the Garden Party from 10 a.m.-noon on Saturdays on KBYR, 700 AM.

Garden calendar

Flower seeds to start in individual containers: Nemophelia (grow cool), canary bird vine, nasturtium, silene, mignonette, arctic poppy, California poppy, sunflower, morning glory, sweat peas, Shirley poppy, Marigold, Balsam, Zinnia, Clarkia, calendula

Vegetables to start from seed in individual containers: Cucumbers, squash

Flowers to start from seed: Nemesia, scabiosa, sweet alyssum, bachelor buttons

Yard: Remove mulch from garden beds if the snow has melted off them, but save it to put back on once the soil warms up. And be careful of new growth under the mulch. Gentle is the rule.

Transplant: Tomatoes and any seeds started that are showing any roots from the drainage holes.

Jeff Lowenfels