Skip to main Content

Hilling potatoes, flowering lettuce, and other reader questions

  • Author: Jeff Lowenfels
    | Alaska gardening
  • Updated: July 4, 2019
  • Published July 4, 2019

The smoke kept me indoors looking outside most of last weekend. Other than watering and monitoring the chickweed in the carrots, I spent a lot of time reading and looking out the window.

What a joy to see all the robins. Somehow they have overcome the feral cat and magpie population explosion and proliferated around our property and, apparently, others’. So it is no surprise that I get several questions during the season asking how robins find their food and what their presence indicates.

The presence of robins in your yard mean there are lots of earthworms around. This is a good thing, as earthworms help build up organic material by pulling leaves into their burrows and pooping. They also aerate the lawn. Those tunnels and burrows act as reservoirs, too. Sure, your lawn is full of insects, but just watching robins with a pair of binoculars reveals that while they get their fair share of moths and other insects, they are mostly after earthworms. I looked it up and was stunned to learn that a single robin can eat 12 to 14 feet of worms a day.

How do robins find their worms? The late or early bird (sorry), uses unbelievably good eyesight to get a worm. You thought eagles had great vision? Robins can see the movement of your lawn as the worm moves through the soil. Wow. As a worm moves through soil it causes mere particles to move, not create an earthquake you could see from space.

Yes, robins might also feel the vibrations of things moving, but studies have shown that this alone will not get the bird a worm. When they cock their head while hunting, it is to see movement with monocular vision, one eye. And smell, in case you were wondering, has nothing to do with any of this. Robins do not locate by using olfactory senses.

Moving on, there are questions this week about the impact of the fire, of course. It is on everyone’s mind, along with the unusual heat wave. More specifically, the smoke is of concern. What does it do to plants? Well, not good things for those that are in the immediate area of the fire obviously, but further out, the answer is that there is very little, if any impact save for the diminution of light.

Sure, some seeds, not all by any means, need or like a chemical in smoke that triggers germination. However, these do not include anything you grow in your vegetable or flower gardens.

Next, there must have been a video on some newsfeed or another, showing someone harvesting potatoes. The plants in the video have not been hilled. I got several questions about the practice, asking why I say to hill. The answer is that by hilling you increase not only the root zone where the potatoes are produced, but also increase your chances of getting a decent harvest in the first place. Finally, when you hill properly, you keep the light from hitting the root zone, and there is much less chance of the potatoes turning “green.” This green is called solanine, a glycoalkaloid that is poisonous and can make you sick.

OK, here is one question my other half wants me to answer: When is the day to recycle plastic pots this year? Thanks to Alpar and others, it will be held on Saturday, Aug. 17, at the Alaska Botanical Garden. However, if you want to unload yours early, you can take yours to Faltz Nursery (1401 Labar St. Anchorage) during hours of operation. You must wash and sort. No wires; plastic only.

A loyal reader asks: what does it mean when your lettuce flowers? Oh, oh. It means it is way past time to harvest. Plant some more and don’t let it get to the flowering stage. Once lettuce flowers, it generally starts to lose its sweetness and can get “tough” and taste bitter.

Finally, one last important question: There is a lot of sap coming from my spruce trees, one reader writes. What to do? Water is the answer. The tree has most probably been attacked by beetles and is using the sap to try and push them out of their bore holes before they can do damage. It takes water to make sap. Try a couple of inches to the lawn twice a week.

Jeff’s Alaska garden calendar for July 5

Water. Water. Water: Your plants and the microbes that support them are not used to 80-degree weather. Check your soils. Water often and water deeply,

Beer in the Garden: 6-9 p.m. Thursday, July 11. There will be local food vendors, live music and local beers and ciders on tap. $23-$48 includes admission, vendor tasting and limited-edition tasting glass. At the Alaska Botanical Garden (4601 Campbell Airstrip Road).