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Want a fabulous Alaska lawn? Here are 3 things to do now — and a few don'ts

  • Author: Jeff Lowenfels
    | Alaska gardening
  • Updated: May 12, 2017
  • Published May 11, 2017

(Jeff Lowenfels)

The birch leaves are the size of squirrel ears in most parts of Southcentral Alaska, and when that happens, we aren't supposed to have any more frosts until the end of the growing season.

Rules are meant to be broken, particularly when nature is involved, but you have to count on something these days, and if there are birch leaves on your trees, frost-free nights are one. Yippee!

Now this doesn't mean you can run out and plant whatever you want in your yard. As noted last week, it isn't just the ambient air temperature that counts; soil temperatures are just as important.

A few sunny days and folks go crazy aboveground because it's warm. But below the ground is mostly too cool, however.

All the nice weather has people asking questions about all manner of things. Let's start with lawns. In a nutshell there are only three things to do right now.

First, water the grass if we don't get rain. This alone will green it up. Second, clean up by running over dry lawns with a mower and leaving everything chewed up as lawn mulch. And finally, get that mower blade sharpened.

In case that wasn't clear enough, let me make myself even clearer for those fanatics out there (and, regrettably, I was one for years) who blindly pour money and sweat effort into their lawns in a knee jerk reaction to the Scotsman on TV or something: no thatching, no fertilizing.

Just clean up and water. Want a really green lawn? Water every day.

You might need thatching when the lawn is up and running, as in midsummer, but you cannot tell until then. Thatch is mostly recalcitrant grass stems. Thatch now and you will end up taking away decaying grass blades, which are not thatch, and could feed the lawn.

Oh, and dandelions. When you think hard on the subject — come to the conclusion nothing really works. If something did, we wouldn't be having this conversation every single year, would we?

Nonetheless, if you are going after yours, now is the time. I am told they are much more vulnerable now than later in the season.

It goes without saying (and it is really time we had a statewide lawn law) that you should use organic methods only: Clove, salt, vinegar, etc. — and absolutely no chemical pesticides.

Hand-pulling is good exercise. At a minimum, get a hold of the flowers before they go to seed by picking, mowing or hitting them with a 5-iron.

You may be tempted to rototill your garden beds. But this should be a one-time thing: Do it only when your beds are constructed. After that, the only soil you should disturb is the soil directly around the seed or plant you want to use.

No tilling. No double digging. Organics go on top of the soil and the soil food web works the goodies into soil.

If you need food faster, use a soluble organic food. This time of year you can put organic microbe food into holes and trenches where seeds and plants go. In any case, soil is probably a bit damp and cold still. Don't walk in the gardens.

Pull back mulch, if you haven't already. Keep it to reuse once the soil warms up. And, if you see bags of leaves and grass clippings (it's not thatch, I keep telling you) on your drives around town, consider picking them up for use in your yard now and this summer.

You can start to harden off plants now. Anything purchased indoors has to be acclimated to the cooling winds and our sun lest they dry up or sunburn.

It is pretty early so keep flats and containers up against a building at night, protected from wind. Find a nice protected location in the shade where you can leave your plants for a couple of weeks, that is it.

There's no need to move them back inside at night, unless you live in an area where nights are really cool.

Finally, you simply must visit nurseries. This is the buying season. Make a plan of what you need before you go so you don't go crazy.

Bring something to protect the car on the way home. Don't forget labels. Visiting nurseries is a key part of the Alaska gardening experience.

Talk to fellow shoppers. Ask questions. Observe what is going on at the nursery — and above all, have fun.

Jeff’s Alaska Garden Calendar

Alaska Botanical Garden Plant Sale: 9-10 a.m., members only; 10 a.m.-5 p.m., open to the public. Lots of perennials divided from the garden in addition to select fruiting plants and more. In addition to getting in an hour early, members also receive 10 percent off purchases, so consider joining first.

Buy seed for planting directly into the garden: Kale, carrots, lettuces, peas, snap peas, beets, spinach, beans, collard, arugula, tatsoi, mizuna, pac choi, and mache. These are all easy to grow and disappear from racks quickly, so buy now.

Potatoes: Start yours now outdoors. Leave room for hilling. Consider growing them in a deep container.

Other vegetables to start outdoors: Peas, spinach, onion sets, potatoes, chard, mustard, kale.

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