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The summer may be ending, but gardening doesn’t have to

  • Author: Jeff Lowenfels
    | Alaska gardening
  • Updated: August 31, 2017
  • Published August 31, 2017

It's time to answer some more gardening questions. We are hitting cooler weather and I can sense a feeling of "the end" in the tone of many of these queries. So, right off the bat, let me point out the overarching theme of these columns: Gardening is an ongoing process. There is no beginning or end.

So, the first and most often asked question: "What is your prediction for the date of the first killing frost so we know when to harvest our vegetables and cut flowers?" Ah, a question I hate to even attempt to answer, given my luck and all. I have no idea when we might get below-freezing weather.

I do know, however, that you should harvest your vegetables and fruits when they are ripe and ready, not simply because the end of the season is nigh. This is a difficult lesson for Alaska gardeners to learn. Pick it when it is ready. The exceptions, of course, are Brussels sprouts and potatoes, both of which are crops that taste better after being exposed to some below-freezing nights.

Potato plants, like Brussels sprouts, benefit from a hard frost. But harvest the rest of your garden vegetables as soon as they are ripe. (Getty)

A set of related questions come along these lines: "What plants need to be taken in before the first killing frost?" This is an easier one. Fuchsia are the big category of plants that need to come in so as to avoid frost. Pelargoniums (aka geraniums) should also be protected from them. Tuberous begonias can withstand a frost or two and some say dahlias and glads are better off for the cold treatment, as long as it is just a few nights of below freezing.

Some ask about their baskets and want to re-use the plants next year. These are mostly fuchsia, pelargoniums and tuberous begonias. You can store them in your crawl space or semi-heated garage or, if you don't want to fuss with them or can't due to lack of appropriate storage spots, find a commercial winter-over location. However, the early bird is ensured the worm. Don't assume there is enough commercial space for all of the well over 100,000 hanging baskets that adorn Southcentral Alaska right now.

A reminder that amaryllis and other houseplants that may be vacationing outside need to be cleared of hitchhiking slugs and aphids and brought inside before really cold weather hits. Consider taking in coleus, fibrous begonias and any other annuals that look like they have enough life left in them to make it worth the effort to pot them up.

Next on the list of questions: "I know you are going to write about lights once we come indoors, but if I want to get some right now, what kind should I get? Fluorescent, LED or high-intensity discharge?"

Of course, knowing me, you know I will indeed have more to say about the subject of indoor lighting for plants. All Alaska gardeners need it. The basic answer is to determine what your lights are going to be used for. If you are growing a crop, be it cannabis or tomatoes, then you should consider HIDs (high-intensity discharge) or some of the newer LEDS. If you are simply taking care of your African violets and letting some of your houseplants experience moments of summer in the middle of a dark winter, a much simpler setup consisting of fluorescents is probably best.

When it comes to indoor lighting for growing plants, one thing is sure: There is always something new. If you have not looked at the newer lighting systems and lamps, do so. Anchorage and Fairbanks have several stores that now carry these systems. They are not just for hydroponics, and I urge all to go and check them out to get an idea of what you can do in your home, be it in a closet, the living room or an empty crawl space.

Finally, a reader asks, "What should I do about my worm bin now that we are approaching cold weather?" I am a big advocate of worm bins. One pound of red wigglers will eat one pound of kitchen scraps a day. They make very rich compost.

Bin worms, however, do not do well over the winter here. In fact, I am pretty sure none survive in adult form. They do carry over in egg form, little lemon-like structures. So, you could leave yours where it is and start again next spring. At the very least, drag it into the garage.

Or, you could think about finding a place where your bin can co-exist with you during the winter. There are too many winter months during which you could be making great vermi-compost to let them go to waste. Again, consider a semi-heated garage, perhaps, or a space in the mud room? Hey, how about someplace at the office or in a child's classroom? If you keep your brood properly, the bin won't smell nor have flying insects to bother you.

Meanwhile, as you begin to think about the indoor season, don't forget to appreciate the outdoor gardening time that remains for us.

Harvest, mow, rake, weed and enjoy.

Jeff’s Alaska garden calendar

Potatoes: Wait until frost. If you want, stick your hand into the root system and pull out a few "new" potatoes to try.

Tomatoes: These are actually perennial and you can continue to grow them indoors for years if you want. Consider bringing one or two inside if you have lights and room.

Garlic: Time to start thinking about planting. Visit the garlic page on the Cooperative Extension's website for the best information. There are also classes at the Alaska Botanical Garden this month. Buy what you need now. Planting time is near.

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