Lowenfels on gardening: Time to harden off outdoor plants

Jeff Lowenfels

I suppose that this time of year you really don't need me to tell you what to do, especially once the birch leaves reach squirrel-ear size! An Alaskan gardener's instinct is to go to nurseries in May and start buying stuff as we wait for the Memorial Day Weekend to plant out. It all seems pretty obvious. Still, some things are not all that obvious.

Let's start with hardening off plants. This process is so important, it bears repeating every spring. (I apologize to the loyal reader who has heard it every single season since 1976). Simply put, everything grown indoors (and I mean anything), needs to be acclimated to the outdoors, lest it gets sunburned or dry in the winds. In gardening, the process is known as "hardening off."

I used to have a complicated formula for how to harden off, but it has become much easier over the years. Just leave your plants outdoors in a location protected from the wind and in full shade. After a minimum of three days (more is better), move them to dappled sunlight and leave them be for a at least three more days. They will be good to transplant after that.

OK, it also may not be obvious that you should garden without using dangerous-to-your-health-and-mine chemicals. Simply put, gardening is a hobby! It's something that impacts everything living on your property (and all who surround it). It's a crying shame that these chemicals are still sold anywhere, let alone the 49th state, as we Alaskans know better.

As we get into the outdoor season, make sure to carefully read labels. Look for the Organic or OMRI certifications. In gardening, the word "natural" pretty much means a product is not organic. If there are ingredients you can't pronounce, chances are the product is not organic.

RoundUp is one of the chemicals, in my opinion, that should be banned here in Alaska until all the studies warning of its harms are disproven. In any case, it's now clear we ingest enough from store bought foods without adding any more to the family diet just for the purpose of killing weeds. Use ADIOS, clove oil or vinegar-based products instead.

There's also a right and wrong choice when it comes to fertilizers, which is not always obvious. Once again, organic rules. Miracle-Gro and the other chemical fertilizers surely work, it's just that they do harm in the process. Organic fertilizers also work, but they do not. Look for trilogy numbers below 10-10-10 on labels. Use kelp, soybean meal, granulated molasses and other easily obtained "non-chemical" fertilizers. Trust me: they work just as well as the chemical ones.

And, finally, it is not always obvious that you need to keep it safe out there. I know you are Alaskan and you don't need me to tell you how dangerous a lawn mower is. That's why you always wear shoes when you mow and wait for the lawn to dry, especially if you have any steep slopes to cut. Never put your hands anywhere near running blades, no matter how frustrated or rushed you are.

Gardening dangerous? You bet when it comes to many of the tools of our trade, things like chippers, hedge trimmers, flame-throwing weed killers, compression pump sprayers, chain saws, ladders, blowers and even string weed whackers. These puppies can all do serious damage to the body if not used properly (with all the attendant gear such as ear protectors, safety glasses, etc.) and on the right job.

Gardening is not rock climbing or paragliding. It is not supposed to be thrilling in that way or remotely resemble a life- or limb-threatening activity. Plan carefully, dress properly and use the right tool for the job. Oh, and my wife would want me to add: don't be afraid to hire a professional.

Finally, it may not be obvious that outdoor gardening is right around the corner. Memorial Day is Monday, May 26, this year. Subtract a week from that weekend for hardening off and you can see that it is obviously (to continue with a theme) time to visit nurseries and gather your plants.

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

Jeff's garden calendar

• Veggie seeds to start outdoors: Peas, spinach, mustard, onion sets, potatoes and chard.

• Veggies indoors: Pumpkins and squashes.

• Alaska Botanical Garden: Join now to get the advantage of The Garden's nursery sales. The first one is May 24. (alaskabg.org)

Jeff Lowenfels