Jeff Lowenfels: Springtime chores can make your garden flourish in summer

Jeff Lowenfels

It never fails. Write about hardening off and mail comes in from readers who didn't harden off their plants last year and think I'm wrong. I assure you, I'm not. They were just lucky.

I get an equal number of comments from folks who didn't acclimate their plants and lost much of what they had. Sometimes it's quick, as leaves turn white before the sun sets. Other times, the plants linger.

The bottom line? Why risk an effort to prove that America's longest-running columnist is wrong? It's simple to acclimate all plants grown indoors to living outdoors. Want to plant next weekend? Begin the hardening-off process this weekend.

Next, rototilling an existing garden is now considered a huge mistake. It hurts the soil's food web that allows you to grow healthy plants. This doesn't mean you shouldn't clean up your vegetable gardens, including a light raking. Remove all of last year's labels and line out beds and rows. Set up and test your watering system. Pull early weeds and gather up mulch.

Speaking of mulch, now is the time to collect bagged leaves from neighbors who have been cleaning their yards and leaving bags of great mulch for the refuse folks to pick up. Leaves make terrific mulch for perennials and around trees and shrubs.

If you happen upon someone who has thatched (foolishly, because it is way too early to tell if a lawn needs it), then you can use these grass bits as mulch on vegetables. Otherwise consider seed-free straw or wait for the first lawn mowing and collect some grass clippings then (again, preferably from a neighbor who doesn't see the sense in leaving them to feed the lawn).

I tend to harp about Mycorrhizal fungi that associate with plant roots and get food for the plants in return for carbon they absorb from the same plants. There is a reason. You get better plants. You can buy these fungi from local nurseries. They should be used on everything except Cole crops. Roll seeds in the stuff or sprinkle it on transplants. In most cases, these fungi will provide all the food your plants need.

If you have not already, clean up raspberry patches. Remove dead cane and trim plants if you desire -- but leave them at least three feet high. These plants do best when they get water. Make sure they are on your watering rotation.

The same can be said for strawberries, which need water whenever things start to get dry. You don't need an existing patch for strawberries, either. More and more gardeners treat these fruits as annuals, and you can buy plants now. Just don't delay because they need to be in the ground or a container soon.

Just because it isn't my favorite doesn't mean I shouldn't push you to check your rhubarb plants. Rhubarb is surely ready for first harvest or close to it. To harvest, twist the base of a stem rather than cut it. The leaves are poisonous. They will do wonders on rust stains in toilet bowls and dishwashers, however. Tie a few in a stocking and toss in the tank and leave for a few weeks or put the stocking into the dishwasher and run it, empty of course.

Your delphiniums should be sprouting and if so, now is when delphinium defoliators -- small but very hungry caterpillars -- emerge to eat tender young leaves. Hand-pick and destroy these or spray plants with products listing "Bt" on the label. Check plants every day for a week to make sure you get them all. If you see leaves rolled up, you haven't.

As for lawns, you might want to start watering yours to get it to green up. Only then should you think about fertilizing. I urge you to consider setting up an automatic watering system that includes a timer, hose and a sprinkler that travels along the hose. You can find these in several hardware departments and stores around town.

Now is also a great time to aerate a lawn. You can rent a machine. And, yes, first dandelions are up. Use hand tools or a safe, organic herbicide like ADIOS or BurnOut. At the very least, pick the flowers so they won't go to seed.

This year, it's a buggy outdoor gardening season. Take it easy. The season is just starting.

Jeff's Alaska garden calendar

-- Potatoes: Get a bag from a local nursery and cut up so each piece has three or so eyes. Leave on a box or flat outside and let the eyes grow for a week or so.

-- Nurseries: Good time to get what you need.

-- Plant outdoors: Peas, chard.

-- Alaska Botanical Garden: It's open and starting to green up. Why not join before you visit at You'll get the early word about nursery sales coming up there.

Reach Jeff Lowenfels at or 257-4200.



By Jeff Lowenfels