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Lowenfels: Mulch is your best defense against weird temperatures, lack of snow

Jeff Lowenfels

If you lived in Portland, Chicago or New York City, this would most definitely be the year to be in the cross-country ski or sledding business. Not so, unfortunately, here in Southcentral Alaska. Your Outside friends and relatives are looking at snow in the Lower 48, but most of us are looking at bare lawn.

So the questions come in about this state of affairs. Most center around what will happen to our plants this spring. We had such a disastrous time of it insofar as perennials went last year. This year seems to be presenting its own set of obstacles to their survival.

Clearly, the big thaw we had is over. We have not had any 40 and 50 degree days of late, but when we did in mid January, some plants started waking up. Some of the starch stored in their roots converted into sugars and started to move up into the crown mixed in water. This sap is the only time sugars are in the xylem, normally reserved just for water (see my book "Teaming With Nutrients." You really should know how plants work). So new cells in the crowns of these perennials were being fed and were growing. As it happened, the days were lengthening too, so some of these plants were really fooled into thinking it was OK to start growing.

Then we were slammed into reality with normal, cold weather. This might have been alright had there been some accompanying snow cover along with the deep freeze. That would have knocked some sense into those plants. Unfortunately, that is not what we got. Now we have plants that have been cut to the quick without the benefit of the insulation provided by snow.

Once again, the solution is mulch. If you put it down thick enough last fall, few of your plants would have woken up in the first instance, even with the Florida-like temperatures. And, since there is no snow on the ground, you can still apply it to give your perennials a better than even chance of surviving.

I distinctly remember suggesting that you collect extra bags of leaves last fall so that you would have some for mulching in the spring and to use during the summer when they are not normally available. Now is the time to use those leaves. You can replenish your supply for next summer by picking up bags this spring from those who errantly clear them out of their yards.

If you do have bags of leaves, they are apt to be frozen. Toss them into the garage where they can thaw and then put them over perennials as needed. These will then form a blanket to keep them frozen if and when we have another thaw.

Next: Several astute readers asked about the temperatures in their over wintering storage spots where fuchsia and tubers are kept. They should have remained fairly even, but nonetheless, go check yours. It is time to move some things anyhow. Those fuchsia can even be taken out and put into a cool or cold room where they can get some light and start to sprout. In fact, you should start seeing some 1-inch fuchsia starts locally soon.

I would not bring out stored tubers or corms, but do give them a spritz of water and make sure they are not sprouting. If they are, there is too much light. Do take out all spring flowering bulbs and expose them to light to get them growing and flowering before it actually is spring. Water them once and wait until they take off before watering again. Discard any that show signs of fungal infection, i.e. rot.

Finally, you can start those pelargoniums stored in the garage, the ones that are hanging upside down in bags. Pull them out of bags, and starting at the tips of branches, cut down until you hit "green" tissue. Pot them up and give them good light. They do well at 55 degrees.

Finally, as is often the case, let me remind all Alaskan gardeners what gardeners Outside are learning this year. In gardening, nothing is predictable and there is nothing you can do about the weather except guess what it will be.

Find out about Jeff Lowenfels' books at tinyurl.com/TeamingWithMicrobes and tinyurl.com/TeamingWithNutrients.

Garden calendar

Annual ABG Spring Conference: This is a must-attend weekend of lectures, food and fun. You must register and the early bird gets in. Simple as that. Reigster now by going to www.alaskabg.org.

Seed Racks: Keep alert. They are coming. That doesn't mean you need to buy one of everything.


Jeff Lowenfels
Gardening