Jeff Lowenfels: Acting now means being ready to plant outdoors

Jeff Lowenfels
Erik Hill

Ah, you can feel that it is finally spring. The cottonwood smell, the warmer temperatures, the longer days and the return of the geese and swans, all finally wipe out the disappointment caused by daylight saving time.

In fact, as we await those squirrel-ear-size birch leaves, we are in the home stretch of the indoor part of our growing season. The traditional planting-out period is over Memorial Day weekend, and that doesn't give us much time. This is especially so when you need to toss in a week of hardening off before then (weather permitting).

You know my rule: If you don't start from seed at least one thing you grow this summer, you are not really an Alaska gardener. Now happens to be the time to start a few of the easiest plants, so pay attention if you want to qualify.

For starters, there are two relatives, canary bird vine and nasturtium. I won't bother you with scientific names but both are legumes; one is a climber and both are extremely easy to grow. These are big seeds, easy for little fingers to plant, and always produce lots of growth, so they make terrific seeds to start young gardeners on.

Soak these seeds in warm water (you can use a thermos) or even room-temperature water for 24 hours before planting. And if you roll these seeds in a specialized legume inoculant of nitrogen-fixing bacteria just before planting in individual containers, they will perform better. You can get this inoculant at any good nursery.

Marigolds are not my favorites but they are, without doubt, the easiest flower seeds to grow, and plenty of people go nuts over them. They come in all shapes and sizes, and are also terrific seeds for beginning gardeners, including kids. Seed racks are your source. Everyone has their favorite kind, so shop around.

What the heck, add scarlet runner beans, peas, beans and soybeans to the list of plants that will never disappoint or scare away a newbie or discourage a child.

Plant the seeds in individual containers, using the best soil you have and ensuring good drainage. They won't need anything but water from now until you put them in the ground, though I do recommend rolling all seeds in endomycorrhizal fungi (and, if they are legumes, the nitrogen-fixing bacteria inoculant mentioned) for the very best plant performance all season long.

Next, you can start potatoes. Now may seem a bit early but it isn't. First, you have to get some from your local nursery. Do not use potatoes from the produce department, as these are usually treated to prevent sprouting. And do not use any potatoes from Outside, as these may introduce diseases unwanted here in Alaska. (Toss any you did purchase, no matter what you paid.)

Then you have to "chip" your purchase -- that is, cut up your potatoes into pieces so that each has at least a couple of eyes. I like to put our spuds out in the light for a week so eyes sprout and develop a bit. Then I cut them up and let the eyes develop even more. They should be ready to plant in the ground or in containers by the time you start hardening things off.

Cucumbers and squashes require warm temperatures and almost always need a greenhouse or some sort of cover at night. If you are so equipped, however, now is the time to start these seeds. Giant pumpkins, anyone? These are just big squash! Get growing.

Since we are in the last indoor stretch, pay lots of attention to your existing seedlings. Watch for aphids, don't worry about thrips and keep a keen eye out for spider mites. Provide air circulation, perhaps with a fan, to ensure healthy plants and prevent "damping off" and other fungal diseases. Make sure the light is the best, turn plants and never, ever let your seedlings dry out.

If you see roots coming out of the bottoms of containers, you may have to transplant into larger quarters in order to prevent seedlings from growing into stunted, runty plants. It's only a few more weeks but why ruin the effort you have made so far?

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


Jeff's Alaska garden calendar for the week of April 4

Alaska Botanical Garden: Join. Simple as that. Discounts, classes and other advantages. See for membership and class information. Do it now at the start of the season for maximum benefit. And the garden is open!

Yellow jackets, etc.: Now is the time to put out traps for queens and "fake nests" to discourage them from making theirs close to places where you and your family work and play. You can get both at local nurseries.

Flowers to start: Harder, smaller seeds -- including nemophilia, silene, mignonette, arctic poppy, California poppy, morning glory and Shirley poppies -- need individual cups.

Flowers to start in four-packs or flats: Nemesia, scabiosa, sweet alyssum, bachelor buttons, marigolds, clarkia and zinnia calendula

Vegetables: Squash, cucumbers and edamame


Jeff Lowenfels