Gardening

Start preparing for the outdoor growing season now

  • Author: Jeff Lowenfels
    | Alaska gardening
  • Updated: February 7
  • Published February 7

Plants are displayed outside and in a covered area next to Sutton’s Brown Thumb Greenhouse. (Marc Lester / ADN)

February is the start of the indoor part of the Alaska gardener's outdoor growing season. I know this is hard to swallow, particularly when we have recently had real Arctic weather and the traditional date of April 15 for leaves the size of squirrels' ears is so far off. Just believe me here and don't count the months until that date arrives.

What this means for starters is that seed racks are popping up at the big box stores. This also means things are beginning to stir at local nurseries. It is time to start visiting both.

Approach both nursery visits and seed rake trips with a rough garden plan in hand so that you don't go crazy and buy one of everything. Making a plan is very easy. You sit down and spend a few minutes making a sketch of your gardens and boxes and then figure out what you want to plant where.

Only after you have a plant plan in hand can you safely walk into a nursery full of plants or stand before a seed rack and make some decisions. Heed my warning.

Frankly, some of us might even want to take a family member or friend when we hit a seed rack or visit nurseries. This time of year, a picture of a watermelon on a seed packet can really be too tempting, not to speak of a 3-inch potted fuchsia start.

Next, if you have lights under which you can grow plants, there are a few that could use your attention now. Lights? No, I won't do another rant on why you need to have some sort of setup. I will suggest, however, that unless you have supplemental lighting for your plants, you really are wasting your time trying to start things until about April 1, when the natural light is sufficient.

Of course, since you do have lights, it is time to bring out the stored fuchsia and pelargoniums or to buy a few from a nursery, though they will be for sale later in the season if you don't want to bother. They will be more expensive, however.

Start with the fuchsia stored in the crawl space. They need to come out. Clean them up. Make sure they are pruned and trimmed, as they will leaf out in a couple of weeks and start to develop. Give them a bit of warm water and expose them to light.

If you want, you can also buy fuchsia starts now. This is the cheapest way to populate a summer hanging basket. The plants are small, usually in 1- or 2-inch pots, and need to be cared for under lights. You pinch them back from time to time to get them to branch out. This definitely is the time to buy plants if you want to make "standards," which are plants that are trained on one stem.

Next, pelargonium (also known, incorrectly, as "geranium") plants that you kept growing during this winter need to be pruned and shaped now so they will grow properly and fill out their containers in a symmetrical way. Any cuttings you take while doing this can be set aside for a few days to harden and then can be rooted in damp sand, vermiculite or perlite mixed with a bit of soil to make new plants.

As for those pelargoniums stored in the crawl space or garage upside down in paper bags, take them out this month. Inspect each one, moving from tips down the stems to the roots. Remove any dead wood. Then repot the plants in well-draining soil that is full of organics and expose to light and growth should occur. (Yes, sometimes a plant will not make it. And if you left your garage door open when it was freezing outside, sometimes none will).

It is way too early to start tuberous begonias, so leave them in the crawl space. However, be sure to buy new ones if you see them for sale, as the big, fat ones are the best and go fast. It is not too early, however, to bring out rhodochitins if you have them. As with the fuchsia, give them warm water and exposure to light. Do remove the seed pods and plant some of the seeds they contain so you get some additional new plants.

And finally, don't forget about sweet peas. I like to soak my seeds in a thermos filled with warm water. You can clip the hard outer shell of seeds with a nail clipper to help speed up germination. Use well-draining soil with lots of organics. These plants are to be pinched back once a month or so to make them bushy. They are vines and will need something to grow on.

Jeff's Garden Calendar for the week of Feb. 8

Annual spring conference: Every year the Alaska Botanical Garden hosts a spring conference and every year the conference sells out. Do not be disappointed. Check out the details and buy your tickets today: alaskabg.org

Hypertufa trough making: Feb. 15, 6 to 8 p.m., limited class size at ABG's fabulous greenhouse (thanks to the Rasmuson Foundation)

Yacon sources: Several readers have been trying to order yacon tubers. Thanks to the heads-up from readers, you can get them from Strictly Medicinal Seeds, which is based in Oregon, or rareseeds.com. These are usually shipped as small plants in the early spring, so let them know you live in Alaska.