Lowenfels: Get grow lights and start seeds now

Jeff Lowenfels

There are two traditional things to do in March when it comes to gardening in Southcentral. First, start growing things indoors. Those who have lights can start seeds, something those who don't can't really do until after the start of April. (Still there are some things that need to be started, tubers and such, which don't need lights).

The second March tradition for gardeners is the Alaska Botanical Garden's Annual Spring Symposium. It starts with a keynote address this Friday, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. and then continues with a full day of seminars Saturday including lunch and a luncheon talk and hors d'oeurves later that afternoon with the speakers.

This year the annual symposium is titled "Traditions and Transformations" and it's a great theme if for no other reason than the new location. Having outgrown UAA, the event will be held at the Millennium Hotel to accommodate the ever increasing number of gardeners who attend each year.

Of course the title has something to do with the subject of the keynote speaker, author Gary Paul Nabhan, a world renowned nature writer, food and farming activist and pioneer in the local food movement. He will also lecture on Saturday as will a couple of dozen local experts. These will cover everything from raising chickens in our urban setting, growing fruits in our yards and gardens, rock gardening how-to, growing micro-greens indoors, growing veggies organically and integrating bee keeping with gardening. Oh, and more.

There are always vendors (you can buy your seeds) and good food. The Millennium is working hard to provide local, in keeping with Gary Paul Nathan's visit and talks. This is always a fun as well as stimulating time and everyone walks away better at gardening in the north.

Check out the sessions at and register online: at alaskabg.org. The cost is $90 for members and $105 for non-members but this includes lunch (accompanied, I might add, by a talk by this columnist). Remember, the reason the ABG is holding its annual conference at the Millennium this year is because in the past it always sold out and the ABG had to turn gardeners away. As of this writing, there is space still left; but do not delay. This is a "must attend" gardening event. Do not wait. Sign up now.

As for starting things, there are 12 weeks between now and gardening outdoors and you need to add in a week or so for hardening off plants. That means you can start leeks and celery this week when it comes to vegetables. You really should use lights or you will be wasting your time.

On the flower side, if you have lights you can start hollyhocks (which require quite a bit of room by the time the 11th week rolls around, so consider if want to grow them) and digitalis.

For those who don't have lights, don't fret. You can start gladiolas. These are grown from corms and they don't need as much light, just a well exposed window and low temperatures. I like to plant them in individual coffee cups, with drainage holes added or in shallow flats as they can be planted deeper when transplanted. The trick is to start a few every four days or so to stretch out the blooming period.

While visiting nurseries to buy seed and glads, make sure to stock up on tuberous begonias. It is a bit too early to start, but not to buy so you are ready in a couple of weeks. And, it is always fun to get some fuchsia starts in one inch pots and grow them out. For this, of course, you need lights. If you don't have some why not buy a system now. You can use it all next fall and winter, and I will stop pestering you to do so.

Jeff Lowenfels is the author of "Teaming With Microbes: The Organic Gardener's Guide to The Soil Food Web." His "Garden Party" radio show will return to the air at 10 a.m. on April 7 on KBYR 700 AM.

Garden calendar

Local Nurseries: Many are open and it is time to start visiting and buying supplies. Tuberous begonias, gladiolas, seeds, flats and composts for starting seeds.

Alaska Botanical Garden Spring Conference: March 9-10. Register now at alaskabg.org.

Class at Mill and Feed: 10 a.m. March 30. "Garden Lessons Learned Along the Way" will feature a slide talk by Robbie Frankevich, who has been designing, installing and managing gardens in Alaska for over 20 years. Class is free, please call to register 276-6016.

Grafting workshop: April 13 at Dimond Greenhouses.


Jeff Lowenfels