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Gardening

Birch buds are finally open. It’s time to harden off your plants.

  • Author: Jeff Lowenfels
    | Alaska gardening
  • Updated: May 10
  • Published May 10

New birch leaves start to sprout near Potter Marsh in 2015. (Bob Hallinen / ADN)

In case you haven't grasped the key fact when it comes to gardening in the state of Alaska, let me write it down: Alaska gardening is all about timing. You have to pay attention, or you will fail.

Actually, this is true for gardening anywhere, but here especially because our growing season is short. If you miss the very short window to start or plant something, you have to wait until next year.

Our first special bit of timing is just upon us: The birch buds are (finally) open and their leaves are the size of squirrels' ears. This means we won't have any more night frosts, and it's safe to leave most plants outdoors to harden off.

As an aside for the uninitiated, "hardening off" is a mandatory process whereby any plant grown indoors is acclimated to outdoor sun and wind lest it get sun or windburn. Leave plants outdoors in the shade, protected from the wind for two or three days and then gradually increase daily exposure to sun. Take a week to do the chore. Again, it is mandatory if you want to prevent burned leaves, stunted or even dead plants.

The second bit of special timing has to do with nurseries. Alaskans are blessed with the finest in the country, by far. And now is the time to visit as many as you can in order to get plants you will need that you didn't start yourself from seed.

In part, this timing is important because you have to actually leave a week for the hardening off process. You can't just buy and plant. Timing is also all-important here because there are often limited quantities of material and too many (if that is possible) gardeners. The early shopper gets the worm in this case. And, the very early shopper gets the best worms as well.

Then there is timing when it comes to planting. The timing here has to do with temperature. The soil has to be warm enough to support either germination or living roots. You can probably plant peas in the ground now as they do fine when soils hit 40 degrees. You can also plant lettuces, spinach and kale, Swiss chard and onions.

It will be awhile before the timing is right to plant garlics, leeks and turnips, as they require 50 degrees. Cabbages, broccoli and cauliflower, beets, beans and carrots can go into the ground at 60 degrees. The reason we don't normally grow pumpkins, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash and corn without a greenhouse is because they need a difficult-to-acquire-in-Alaska 70 degree soil temp to germinate and grow.

Timing is also crucial when it comes to fertilizing a garden. Organic fertilizers usually take a few weeks to "get going," so apply some to the surface of your gardens in the fall or now when the birch leaves open. Lightly water it to keep it down despite wind. The microbes will start to cycle it and it will get "mixed" into the root zone when you plant in a few weeks.

And, just to be clear, do not rototill or double dig your garden. This severely impacts the soil food web. The new rule is: The least amount of disturbance to your soil is the best way.

And, of course, timing is all-important when it comes to your lawn if you want to do battle with dandelions. They usually green up before the lawn and are easy to see this time of year. The little ones can be pulled with a weeder, the larger ones will need to be dug to get all the roots. You can also pick flowers during the impeding first flush.

The timing of applications of organic herbicides such as clove, vinegar and citrus should be based on temperature and moisture. I hate to tell fellow Alaskans these all work best at times when the temperature is over 65. However, they also work best when the weeds are young and when they are actively growing, as they are now. So, wait until the next good sunny days when the lawn soil is dry (and may that not be so rare this summer).

And, God forbid, if you plan on defying sense, jeopardizing everyone's health and ignoring my stern advice and happen to want to use a chemical weed killer, check the label for information on what the temperature has to be for it to work. Then reconsider when it gets that warm.

Finally, timing has a lot to do with simply getting things done. You probably need some sort of loose plan to make sure you get to all the things that need to be done at a normal pace. Too many of us simply wait for Labor Day weekend and try and do all things gardening at once. That is bad timing.

Jeff's Alaska garden calendar for the week of May 11, 2018

Alaska Botanical Garden: Now is a great time to join. Lots going on. Great sales and discounts. Do it now for the family! alaskabg.org

Plants: What are you waiting for? It is time to be buying from nurseries. Take them home and start hardening them off by pitting them in shade, protected from wind.

Hoses: Get them set up. No leaks.

Lawns: Water is all they need. Do not fertilize and do not thatch. Both are a waste of time this time of year.

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