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Blackberries, shade gardening, snakes? Imagining a warmer climate for Alaska gardens

  • Author: Jeff Lowenfels
    | Alaska gardening
  • Updated: July 17, 2019
  • Published July 17, 2019

Wow, the record-setting heat has everyone talking. Is this the new “norm” or just a meteorological fluke? Is it over or will it go into the winter months? Will any more fans or sprinklers be delivered to our stores? And how could we have run out of ice?

First of all, let me opine that this is not the last such spell we will see. Global warming is really real. Alaska is one of the canaries in the mine and things are definitely headed warmer. We not only have to acknowledge it, we have to deal with it. And now.

It seems to me that one of the worst problems with having hot spells here in Alaska is that as gardeners we can’t prepare for them. They happen “unexpectedly” and we are suddenly impacted. As gardeners, our job is to safely solve problems that accompany the higher temperatures.

Yes, I am talking about things we didn’t know existed, like the lilac leaf roller we didn’t know about. We also need to be concerned about the things caused by what we used to call unseasonable warming spells, such as the spruce bark beetle kills. These are just the beginning, you can be sure. Here come new invasive weeds and pests. (Oh, please, hold off on the snakes!)

Then there is the use of clear plastic to heat up soil and all those makeshift cold frames we use here. It doesn’t take that much extra heat to cook your crop in situ. Using clear plastic will become a preferred method for ridding an area of weeds because it will get so warm underneath it.

Ah, but just as important, we must figure out how to use the extra heat to our advantage. It is a shame, perhaps even a crime, to let such warmth go to waste. If we knew it was going to be warmer, we would try okra; Alaska has been the only state gardeners can’t grow it outdoors because it is normally too cool.

Or, if you knew that we would reliably have long streaks of warm nights, you would plant tomatoes outdoors and be assured of fruit. (They drop flowers when night temperatures hits 55 degrees or so). Cucumbers and peppers without a greenhouse, anyone? At the same time, if you have a greenhouse, it might be time to put in a more powerful exhaust fan.

Hmm, longer growing seasons will allow for fruit trees and different kinds of berries. (Oh-oh, more invasives). And, we are going to have to rethink WHAT should be allowed to grow here. All of a sudden we are going to be able to plant new things. How about Metasequoias, chestnuts, Bing cherries, any manner of apple or pear or peach? I am drooling, but also a bit worried we will introduce spreaders and change things even more. (Agh, blackberries?). This is coming and we need to give it a lot more thought than we ever have.

Gee, we might even rethink our use of raised beds, needed in the past to warm the soil. That won’t be a problem much longer if predictions take hold. Given the duration of our sunlight, we will also definitely need to look into shade gardening. Wow.

Lawn care will be very different. If you knew it was going to be so hot and sunny, you might have listened to the advice in this column and watered your lawn BEFORE the extreme heat hit. And you already would have hoses and sprinklers that reach every part of your property, so shortages of such equipment be damned.

Mowing? Now is when you want to let the lawn grow out. No reason to live with that burned look. When we get the confidence that these spells are the norm, maybe Alaskan Yardeners won’t even put in lawns. Won’t that be a time!

Finally, it isn’t just practices that will change -- or rather, need to change now. Animals, insects and microbes will change as well. Gardeners need to keep vigilant. Observation is one of our best tools. Change is happening. Look for it. Share what you see. We are all in this together.

Jeff’s Alaskan garden calendar

Keep watering: Lawns should get 2 inches or so between you and Nature. Vegetable gardens as well. Shrubs and trees like a good deep soaking once or twice a week as well. Welcome to the new norm!

Potatoes: Hill yours again.

Raspberries: If they’re ripe in your neghborhood then it is time to pick them before the birds do.

Botanical sketchbooks workshop: With Ayse Gilbert, Sat.-Sun. July 20-21. $255 for members and $285 for non-members of the Alaska Botanical Garden. See for details.

ABG shuttle: Shuttle service for Uncle Bob and Aunt Sally! The ABG now has a shuttle bus that goes from the Downtown Visit Anchorage Log Cabin to the Botanical Garden and back. Drop em off! See for details.