Jeff Lowenfels: At last, the transition to outdoor gardening arrives

Jeff Lowenfels

This is the week when the Canada geese return to Southcentral. With that arrival comes a fork in the Alaskan gardener's road. We are at the point where there are actually outdoor gardening chores as well as indoor ones. As far as this Alaska gardener is concerned, it is about time. I can't wait to get my hands back into outdoor soil, even if it is a bit on the cool side.

Of course, it goes without saying that the warning to stay off wet lawns still applies, and it applies to your gardens as well. Never walk in or on your thawing, wet, flower or vegetable beds. It compacts the soil and compacted soils are never good.

Only when a ball made of soil dropped from waist height crumbles should you walk and work in your garden beds. Even then, be careful when working around perennials. Don't damage emerging tips by stepping on or raking them or by pulling old leaves and stalks that are still strongly attached (which is what clippers are for). This advice is not just for the flower beds either. Garlic, onions, second year parsley and the like could be emerging, and their new growth should be avoided while cleaning and removing mulch.

If you can do so without walking in the garden, remove mulch applied last year. This will expose the soil and allow it to heat up. Let it remain and you will have ice patches and cold soil for far longer than you or your plants want. Use a rake and reach into beds. Keep the mulch collected so you can re-apply it once the soil warms up in two or three weeks. Just leave it at the edge of your gardens, along their borders. It keeps the grass from growing there, another advantage.

At the same time, clean up a bit. You know what to do. You should be able to reach in and carefully cut (not pull!) last year's dead stalks, straighten out wanted labels and gather the unwanted ones from last year's annuals, pull last year's stakes, string yarn and netting, etc. You want to start with a clean slate, without walking in the soil, of course. Do these things now, when there are not a lot of other chores to do.

Next, it's time to gather outdoor containers, both those kept outside and those stored indoors. You want the soil in these to be warm and properly moist so you can start planting in them (indoors). Pull dead plants, stakes and labels. Repair or toss rotting boxes, fix basket wires, clear drainage holes and replace soil if you think you need to.

It may seem a bit early, but trust me, now is when you should see to it that the lawn mower is working so that if it needs attention, there is time to get it fixed. In addition to the engine, how are blades? Need sharpening or replacing? Don't wait until it is time for you to mow like everyone else. You may be very sorry.

Many are tempted to get out there with the lawn mower once the lawn is dry, and there is surely nothing wrong with this. The idea is to use the mower to mulch up everything.

In the olden days we would pick up all this stuff and put it into bags to be sent to the landfill. The proper thing, however, both for the yard as well as the landfill, is to simply mulch over all the winter detritus and leave it on the ground. It's nature's way of returning back to the soil what was taken from it. Don't like the way your winter twigs and branches look when run over by the mower? Run over them again. They will pulverize and disappear. And if you are thinking about thatching, either by hand or with a power rake, forget about it. This is a chore to do when the lawn has fully greened up, not now when all that is above ground is dead grass that will decay and feed the growth that is coming.

Finally, bird feeders should be in storage, of course, along with all seed and suet.

Go to it. There will be many more things to do as the season advances, so get out the garden shovels. Just don't put the snow shovels away yet. We never know what nature will bring us during the transition to outdoor gardening.

Jeff Lowenfels is co-author of "Teaming With Microbes" and author of "Teaming With Nutrients." You can contact him on his website at

• Flowers to start from seed: Dahlia, shizanthus, nigella, phlox, portulaca, nemisa, marigold and nasturtiums.

• Vegetables: Broccoli and cauliflower.

• Gladioli: Lots of concern about the height some have reached. Not to worry, as you bury them a few inches deeper when planted outdoors.

• Nurseries: Don't wait. You should be buying plants and supplies.Jeff's Alaska garden calendar

Daily News correspondent