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All your Alaska springtime garden questions, answered

  • Author: Jeff Lowenfels
    | Alaska gardening
  • Updated: March 14, 2019
  • Published March 14, 2019

Arugula seedlings. (Getty)

Mail time! I can tell the sap is beginning to run in the Alaska gardener’s veins. A reader wants to know how long her seeds will remain viable. Like most of us, she has lots of opened and unopened packages from previous years. You can determine how old your seeds are by looking at the date on the package indicating for which year the seeds were packed. This is required information on seed packet labels. Hopefully, you didn’t rip that part off and toss it away when you opened the packet.

Next, success will be influenced by all manner of factors having to do with how and where you stored them. As much as I want to suggest keeping seeds in an airtight container in the dark at 40 degrees with no fluctuations in temperature, if you are like me, you probably just folded back the package so the seeds wouldn’t spill out. Then you tossed it into a basket or old shoe box. Of course, the only good answer to this one has to be that there is really no way to know if seed is still good other than trying to germinate it. The only real risks are that you will miss the right time to have them start for the season and you will possibly have a hard time finding viable replacements if they do fail to grow as they have been sold out. The solution is to take a few seeds and try to start them early so you will know if they are going to get you through this season.

How about soil? Is there an expiration date on it and, separate question, can you use soil that has already been planted in? Finally, should it be sterilized? Soil does not have an expiration date so if you have bags of the stuff that you purchased in previous years, it is OK to use. It should be conditioned by re-wetting. I would suggest adding a handful of compost to kick-start the microbiology or even drenching with compost tea. No, soil should not be sterilized. It needs to have lots of microbes in it as these are what release and convert nutrients into the charged particles they need to be to feed a plant. The kinds of pathogens we are concerned about during germination result mostly from poor air circulation, not the condition of the soil. And, it is perfectly fine to reuse soil. Again, it helps to make sure that the soil has lots of life in it so a handful of compost or a drench with compost tea would make sense. Also, since it has been used before, it may need additional nutrients. Frankly this shouldn’t affect germination.

Hey, what should you do about the chlorine in the water you use on your seedlings? Ah, not only does municipal water have chlorine in it, it also has chloramine. The chlorine will evaporate from water. I suggest you get a watering can and fill it and leave it for a couple of hours. The chloramine will not evaporate out. It has to be tied up chemically. Some growers use Tang for this purpose. However, the organics in your soil will accomplish the same thing. You can either put a handful of compost into your watering can or let the soil on the surface complex out the chloramine.

Finally: Is it too late to plant the spring flower bulbs I didn’t get into the ground or pots last fall? And, should I be saving the tulips and daffodils that I have in pots to reuse next year? It is too late to plant last fall’s bulbs. What were you thinking? Toss them onto the compost pile and turn them in when you can. And, unfortunately, you can’t reuse those forced bulbs, so give them the same treatment.

Jeff’s Alaska Garden Calendar

Flowers to start from seed: Rhodochiton (15 days to germinate), fibrous begonia (15 days to germinate, don’t cover seed), dahlias (seed). Herbs to start from seed: sage. Vegetables to start from seed: celery; leeks.

Willow Garden Club: Thursday, March 21, Willow Community Center, 6:45 p.m. meet-and-greet and 7 p.m. program.

Winter Plant ID: Alaska Botanical Garden with Dr. Marilyn Barker on Saturday, March 16, 1-3 p.m.,

Seed-starting workshop: Tuesday, March 26 (and repeated Thursday, March 28) at the Alaska Botanical Garden. 6-7:30 p.m. Learn tips and tricks for growing strong and vigorous starts and receive three seed packets and one seed starting-flat with soil. $40 for members and $50 for non-members,

Annual Master Gardener Conference: Open to all gardeners. April 6, UAA’s Lucy Cuddy Hall. Featuring auction and market. Registration and fee with an early discount: