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Answering reader questions: Feeding birds, replacing dead spruce trees and getting poinsettias to bloom again

  • Author: Jeff Lowenfels
    | Alaska gardening
  • Updated: October 10, 2019
  • Published October 10, 2019

Email time!

First, I should have known that a column bemoaning the loss of nearly one-third of North American birds would trigger a fair share of emails, and I was right. All readers were concerned and wanted to know if feeding the birds will help. They also want to know when to start feeding

Of course feeding helps the 100 or so species of birds that overwinter here. Normally, Nov. 1 is the date those in the milder areas of Alaska can put up bird feeders without attracting bears. You don’t have to be smarter than the average bear to realize this needs to be adjusted to match the weather at the time.

So, if it continues to be relatively warm, with lots of days without freezing temperatures, hold off. We need to make sure that bears are in hibernation before we put out seeds full of bear-desirable fat. Gardeners should not be responsible for attracting bears. As Fish and Game says, in such situations, the bears always come out the losers.

Next, the discussion of what kinds of trees should be used to replace dead black spruce has begun, at least insofar as my email inbox is concerned. Pat Ryan, the “educanator” at the Alaska Botanical Garden, likes Sitka spruce. They are native to the area, grow very quickly and get to majestic heights. But, they are a spruce and susceptible to beetles. We also must make sure we are not entering a long period of drought, as they need water.

Lots of folks favor mountain ash. They don’t get very tall, do they? And there is surely something to having evergreen coverage all year long. Hemlocks have not had any traction; I need to go by the property in Anchorage where I planted one 30 years ago. Many think that planting black spruce is still the way to go.

We are discussing the problem. The approach of winter has stopped planting replacements. So, we have a long winter to consider what to do in Southcentral and other places that are in need of replacing dead spruce. I challenge any forestry officials who are listening in to give feedback on this extremely difficult and serious question.

Poinsettias need total darkness for more than 13 hours a day for a month or so if they are to bloom properly. My dad used to keep his in a closet with a light and a timer. If you have a poinsettia as a houseplant, give it a try. You can also put a box over your plant every night and not sacrifice the closet space.

OK. You may remember my poking fun at the unreal slew of articles last year touting the ability of houseplants to clean all manner of chemicals from the air. Finally, they have stopped. Maybe this is because a study came out clearing the air, so to speak, debunking the effectiveness of houseplants to do the job.

The study confirmed that the NASA study everyone pointed to as evidence is not a good example. Fans, airtight growing areas and other factors do show plants remove certain chemicals, but in such small quantities as to not be effective under non-lab conditions. Getting those results would require about 1,000 plants in a 10-by-10-by-8-foot room. Good luck.

This is not to suggest keeping houseplants is a waste of time. Now is as good a time as any to get yours ready for the winter by removing dead leaves (put them on the plant’s soil), checking for bugs — discard or use neem oil — and repotting them. Since Alaskans use lights all winter to help our botanical buddies (right?), our plants continue to grow. Give them room to do so.

And, finally, do get those lights up and running. It is time. If you don’t have a supplemental lighting system for houseplants, go to one of the state’s fine indoor grow stores and get the best you can afford. You might even consider one of those reflective tents that cannabis growers invented and use. A timer is absolutely necessary to make it easy for you to run these lights all winter long.

Jeff’s Alaska garden calendar

Pumpkin non-carving: Learn techniques for decorating a pumpkin without needing to carve it. You will also learn how to make homemade, pumpkin chai tea from real pumpkin! Sip and create your festive masterpiece. Alaska Botanical Garden, Wednesday, Oct. 16, 6-7:30 p.m. $25 for members, $30 for non-members. Registration at

Garlics: They can still be planted and there is still a great sale at the Alaska Botanical Garden Nursery.

Spider mites: Here they come! Check your houseplants for any sticky residue on leaves, yellowing leaves or tiny mites at the junction of leaves and stem. Neem oil is the remedy, hopefully.