Are home gardeners changing Alaska's environment?

Jeff Lowenfels

There's no question that we're headed for a fall. There is just a hint of it in the air, but more obvious is the appearance of fireweed and butter-and-eggs. By now, gardens are on auto-pilot and, if properly mulched, need little but an occasional watering, deadheading and harvest.

Ah, but there are the fireweed and the butter and eggs. Fireweed is a native plant. The butter and eggs comes from Eurasia and has spread throughout North America. It is an invasive. The possibility that gardeners might be introducing new invasives has given rise to a fiery debate among those that consider these things: Could our hobby be responsible for drastically changing environments?

This is not an idle question for Alaskans. Non-natives can take over and push out existing native species that support our wildlife. Just look at all the white sweet clover (Melilotus alba) that lines our highways.

Or consider that many of us live on properties with a Siberian pea shrub (Carnage arborescens) that are prone to spreading. And, of course, the European bird cherry (Prunus padus) is now on the invasive list after all these years of cultivation for those lilac-like white flowers.

I remember buying some Hieracium caespitosum, aka hawkweed, from a nice old gent over in Mountain View way back in the late 1970s. Who knew it was an invasive? It sure seemed to fit with the butter-and-eggs (Linaria vulgaris) that graced the property at the time. Again, such a pretty little flower.

At the very least Alaskans, gardeners and non, should explore the list of invasives, get to know them and perhaps even volunteer to help eradicate them. A great place to hunt around for more information is, which has loads of sites to explore. While these plants have the potential to change our environment in drastic ways, there are already programs to try and deal with them.

What about the future, however? We are all gardening on the edge of the wilderness, from the condo garden to the one on the edge of town. One slip and we may find ourselves responsible for changing Alaska in a way we didn't intend. Space doesn't permit an extensive discussion, but every homeowner who has landscape trees, shrubs and a lawn must read Doug Tallamy's "Bringing Nature Home."

I think of this when I see a Ligularia clump in the middle of a Chugach right of way (I know they didn't plant it). And recently, I came across an article about the invasive properties of hardy kiwi. Yikes! The picture showed very "kudzu-like" coverage, blocking out everything else. Mine are planted on the edge of the property and growing wild. Uh-oh.

We always like to say that gardening is the last of the Last Frontier. We can still find plants that have not been tried here and bring them in and get them established. We pride ourselves in being able to push the envelope of what is possible to grow.

One of the excuses Alaskans use to import non-natives into their gardens is that our season is too short and our winter is too long for these things to spread. Perhaps that is why I am seeing what looks an awful lot like Japanese barberry, Berberis thunbergii. I even thought about planting some myself when I saw it didn't present berries for a few years. Ah, but there is a warming going on here and, by last year, the ones I walk by on my daily exercise jaunt did have berries, and ripe ones at that. So far there don't seem to be any birds that eat them, so they probably haven't spread.

This question -- is the way we garden drastically changing our environment? -- goes beyond putting trees in the middle of the median of our roads that just so happen to attract moose. No, this is one about whether we need to change how we garden so we don't change the state. Do we need to be much more careful?

Some might think this is a topic more suited for the ADN opinion pages, but I think it is better placed here, where gardeners will read it and, hopefully, start the (polite) debate amongst themselves.


Lawn repair and installation: It takes about 25 days for all the lawn seed to germinate once put down. You should get to it now.

Butter and eggs: Get those plants and especially those flowers. They will come back to haunt you if you don't!

Alaska Botanical Garden: Check out the new buildings and plaza. Join.

Harvest and Plant a Row for the Hungry: Do not let food go to waste. Harvest and enjoy. Or donate it to Beans.


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

Jeff Lowenfels