Wait to plant outside, newbies, until birch leaves are the size of this animal’s ear

Spruce bark beetles. The panic has set in as so many readers notice the telltale red needles. Increasingly, they will be in our headlines. What to do?

Good question. And a tough one due the Hobson’s choice involved. (That is, taking what is available or nothing at all.) In any case, first learn about the problem.

Start online searching for information about the beetles at the state Division of Forestry and the U.S. Forest Service. (You may also want to check out the Forest Service on pesticides.) There is a lot out there. This is a national problem. My guess is we cannot spray our way out of this. The insects always win. Plus, the stuff drifts for miles, and pretty much everything has some sort of negative effect on other insects, arthropods, fish and some mammals.

Hopefully you can maintain trees in such healthy condition that they will naturally fend for themselves. I will try and help. More in the coming weeks.

Moving on: I was finally asked the most basic Alaska gardening question this week: When can we plant outdoors? Timing is critical when it comes to gardening in Alaska. We start seeds indoors at set times because this is the only way to fit them into our outdoor growing window successfully.

The same goes for planting outdoors. If you wait too long to do certain things, you miss our season. Really, it is no different in other places. The same is true if you move too early. You just have to know when to do things. This is what I try and provide in these columns.

For the newbies among us, let me be the first to point out that we wait until after the birch leaves are the size of a squirrel’s ear to plant most things outside. This is a sure signal from Mother Nature that we won’t have a killing frost and that the winter is really over.

Even then we wait until the soil temperatures are right. A pea planted in 40-degree soil will take 30 days to germinate. The same seed only takes nine days if the soil is 60 degrees.

Finally, Alaskans need to add a week of hardening off for plants started indoors so they can acclimate to drying winds and UVA rays that they don’t experience indoors.

In sum, all of this means you can plant outdoors the last two weeks of May. Memorial Day is May 27 this year, so you will have a three-day weekend. Right now you should remove mulch from beds so soil warms faster. Keep it by the gardens; you will return it in a couple of weeks.

If you didn’t put down organic fertilizers last fall and think your soil microbes need feeding essential nutrients, go ahead and sprinkle it on now so it has time to work into the soil food web.

Jeff’s Alaska Garden Calendar

Flowers to start from seed: Dahlia, schizanthus, nigella, phlox, portulaca, nemesia, marigold and nasturtiums.

Vegetables: Broccoli and cauliflower.

Gladioli: Lots of concern about the height some have reached. Not to worry as you bury them a few inches deeper when planted outdoors.

Nurseries: Don’t wait. Early birds do get the best worms.

Jeff Lowenfels

Jeff Lowenfels has written a weekly gardening column for the ADN for more than 45 years. His columns won the 2020 gold medal at the Garden Communicators International conference. He's authored several books on organic gardening; his latest is "DIY Autoflowering Cannabis: A New Way To Grow." Reach him at