How has the summer of 2013 been for Anchorage gardeners?
"Absolutely glorious," said Cherie Jordan. The long stretch of sun and 70-plus days has been "fabulous for gardening," she said. "Not only is it making our plants go wild, but it's been a pleasure being in the garden working in the sun -- compared to a normal Anchorage summer of rain and slugs."
Jordan's Airport Heights garden is one of six on this year's Anchorage Garden Club Tour, which takes place on Sunday.
Marge Arnold, co-chair of the tour, said stubborn chilly temperatures had people worried in May.
"Things looked doubtful. Nobody's perennials came up. The Garden Club had to push back its annual plant sale because no one had anything ready.
"Then we got a week of hot weather, followed by a short cool spell, and now all this sun, and everything has rebounded and then some."
Arnold said her dahlias are now five and six feet tall.
"They're never this tall by this time of year," she said. "It's amazing."
But the way winter hung on for so long this year took a toll, gardeners say.
"We lost perennials we've had for years," said Sherry Tomlinson, whose Turnagain home is also on the tour. "Including most of our bulbs. We have vines that are just now opening. My mock oranges aren't producing as many blooms this year. The hostas just started two weeks ago. Things are very slow or not there."
Tomlinson also noticed another "odd phenomenon."
"I have old stands of varieties of perennials that are usually around four feet tall. They're coming up but they're short -- and it looks like they're getting ready to bloom a month early. They're fine. Just short."
She was philosophical about the challenges.
"A gardener just has to accept change," she said. "It's part of the flux of gardening. It makes it interesting. It also offers an opportunity to rethink things."
"We've lost perennials before," Jordan said. "You just have to be patient."
And patience paid off for those who left their dormant plants in the ground.
"A month later, here they were," Arnold said.
Among the highlights of this year's garden tour is the formal English cottage theme garden with a greenhouse "bursting with heirloom tomatoes," owned by Judith Hassinger and Larry Peterson. In contrast, Martie and Lestor Black have gone for a whimsical approach, with a concrete elephant, containers made of tires and a solar-powered water feature.
Cathy Sage wants other gardeners to note the cages that protect her trees from moose. The material is inexpensive but attractive, she said. "Moose still nibble around the outside, but the main branches don't get pulled and torn."
An antlered moose skull is positioned near the raised beds framed by a trellis and a metal silhouette of a moose calf nibbling on a tree. Other yard art depicts pets and birds. The rusty color of the underside of ornamental rhubarb leaves matches the rusted wire mesh around the stairways.
"I'm really an amateur gardener," Sage said. "I think I'm trying to be an interior designer, except outdoors."
Tomlinson takes pride in the fact that she starts most of her annuals from seeds indoors in March and that no pesticides are used on the property, "so pets can enjoy the garden too."
Jordan's spread is like a miniature urban farm, with a focus on container gardening, water features that attract wildlife and some backyard poultry that "are always pleased to have company." They include two rescued Peking ducks, Darkwing and Ducky Mae. "They are the best little slug-eaters," Jordan said.
A variety of flowers fills the garden of Mollie and Jim Crittenden, who consider the place "a sanctuary."
"Here we are part-scientist, part-artist, part-philosopher, part-plowman," they write.
Participants on the tour have to think hard about inviting the whole city into their floral retreats.
"There's always a mob," Arnold said.
But, for the most part the thousands who make the tour each year behave well.
"I did this 15 years ago," Sage said. "I had some little plants growing along the side of the walkway and nobody stepped on them. They're gardeners too."
"Gardening's a blast," Jordan said. "But it's usually just your family and friends who see it. It's nice to show the rest of the world what you've been doing."
Arnold recalled a conference of northwest gardeners that took place in Anchorage and coincided with the tour.
"We took them around to the houses and they said, 'You don't charge for this?' Because anywhere else, they do. But the Anchorage tour is free. This is the way we give back to the community."
Reach Mike Dunham at email@example.com or 257-4332.
By MIKE DUNHAM