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Jeff Lowenfels: Ah, at last — (indoor) planting season is here

Jeff Lowenfels

Ah, March! Now we are talking gardening activities. From the Eighth Annual Alaska Botanical Garden's Spring Garden Conference (March 14-15, reserve a seat at www.alaskabg.org/Events/event.html) to the stocking of local nurseries with lots of 2014 spring fare, you just know we are in the indoor phase of our spring gardening season.

Let's start with something to plant, albeit indoors. Most folks in America start sweet peas about four to six weeks before they are to be transplanted. (Well, truthfully, most gardeners in America simply plant sweet peas directly in the garden.) Here in Alaska, more and more of us are using an earlier date and continually pinching back the plants to keep them compact. The sweet peas will develop a great root system and flower almost immediately after transplanting instead of taking six more weeks.

So, now is the time to start your sweet peas. If you don't already know the routine, I will tell you: Sweet peas have a hard coating that makes it difficult for water to enter the seed so it will germinate. Gently rub just a bit of this off with sandpaper or nick it off with a nail clipper. Then soak the seed for 24 to 36 hours in warm water. (Warm water for 36 hours? Use a thermos.) The seed will be ready to plant in rich, organic soil.

Pinch the growing tip off once vines have three or four true leaves and pinch again once every three weeks until you take them outdoors in late April. Sweet peas go out early. It does help to grow them under lights until April. If not, the best light you have should be reserved for them.

This is very important: Make sure to roll sweet pea seeds in both mycorrhizal fungi and rhizobia. The latter is a special nitrogen-fixing bacteria that helps legumes feed themselves. The seeds, endo mycorrhizal fungi and rhizobia inoculate should all be available from your local nursery along with all the "stuff" you might need to start seeds.

Next, it is time to start thinking about tuberous begonias. If yours are in storage, get them out and expose them to light. This will cause them to come back to life. Either leave them in last year's soil or pull them out and put them on newspaper while new sprouts develop. Again, lights will help. So will a spritz of water.

If you need to buy tubers, quickly hoof it down to some of the local nurseries, always the best source for begonia tubers. Buy the biggest, fattest ones you can find. Make sure to label what you buy and be sure to distinguish between uprights and hanging begonias. It is hard to tell when they are sprouting and young. Early birds get the worm here, given how well these types of begonias do in Southcentral containers and hanging baskets.

While you are in the mood, you can also get your gladiolas out and start planting a few every week to stagger the blooms when they appear in mid- to late-August. Fortunately for those who still don't have grow lights, they will do fine in front of a south-facing window.

If you have last year's, toss the old corms as they are dead, but not before retrieving this year's, which grew just below the old ones during the last season. If you need to purchase glads, nurseries will have a great selection. This is one plant, however, that you can buy in bulk from box stores and probably get just as good quality. Either way, plant in shallow flats -- just burying the corm -- or use individual containers such as saved Styrofoam cups. Make sure there is drainage.

Finally, spend a bit of time this week outlining what you want to start from seeds and purchase them so you will have them. The rule is that you are not a real gardener unless you plant at least one thing from seed. A word of caution to the newbie, however. You can't grow everything, as you don't have enough room. Be selective. I will tell you when to start things, but you have to buy the seed. And while you are at it, get compost to start them in, purchase mycorrhizal fungi (often and incorrectly labeled "mycorrhizae) and rhizobia (for peas and beans and other legumes).

Finally, reserve that place in the ABG Spring Conference. You will find much of what you need, including great information, right there.

Jeff Lowenfels is co-author of "Teaming With Microbes" and author of "Teaming With Nutrients."

Jeff's Alaska garden calendar

• Houseplants: Give them a quarter turn a few times during the week so they won't grow too much in one direction due to the returned light.

• Flower seeds to start: Rhodochiton, fibrous begonias, snapdragons, carnations verbena, malva, dusty miller, petunia, lavatory, linaria, pansies, violets and pelargoniums

• Vegetables to start: Last call on celery

• Herbs to start: Thyme, oregano



By JEFF LOWENFELS