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Planting outdoors while there’s still snow on the ground? It’s not so crazy, and this might be the year to give it a try

  • Author: Jeff Lowenfels
    | Alaska gardening
  • Updated: March 5, 2020
  • Published March 5, 2020

I am operating under the assumption we will have another warm summer and fall. I could be wrong, but shouldn’t we at least plan to try to take advantage of the added heat, just in case I am not? Yes, we should, and one way is to start things a bit early indoors. Many of us already do this. Another way is to start things early, only outdoors, which most of us don’t. Perhaps we should.

OK. The loyal reader knows the rule: We’ve had our last frost for the winter when the birch leaves open and reach the size of a squirrel’s ear. Obviously, that is not happening this week. However, early April is only weeks away. Still, there are some things which can be planted outdoors even before the leaves open.

Of course, I have to be careful here. In order to plant directly in the soil, it can’t be covered with snow and has to be thawed a few inches down. Some years we have lots of dumps in March, right? I know more than one gardener who shovels off the vegetable garden to get to the soil earlier. However, even if gardens are covered with snow, many Alaskans now grow their plants in large containers. In that case, just knock the snow off and see if there isn’t something on the menu you want to try.

So what to try? Most Alaskans know that peas are a crop that can be planted a month or so before the last frost. They germinate in soils that are as cool as 45 degrees. It doesn’t matter if you want snap peas or snow peas or even old-fashioned shelling peas. I suggest staggering starts so you don’t have too many peas — is that possible? — all at once.

Early planting of peas may be obvious, but how about radishes? Who knew they can take the cold and can be planted six weeks before the birch leaves announce spring? I am not a big fan of the simple, red radish, but nowadays there are all sorts of interesting radishes to grow. Here again, you don’t want a whole row of radishes to ripen all at once. Plant a section of a row every seven to 14 days starting now if you desire.

Amazingly, carrots will do fine if planted a few weeks before frosts. Here in Alaska, however, this works best with those grown in large containers or troughs, but don’t let me discourage you from trying them in an in-ground garden. You can have success there as well. The only thing you need to keep in mind is that it can take carrots three weeks to germinate in cool soils. Mark the area well.

How about potatoes? You can plant them a couple of weeks before the last frost and even earlier if you plant in containers. You will have to get your “chits” ready early, but that is no problem as you only have to expose the tuber to light to get eyes to sprout. And, once planted, you will want to put mulch over them.

Finally, beets will also germinate if planted before the birch leaves reach squirrels’-ear size. Remember that what look like beet seeds are really pods with up to six seeds in each. You will have to thin your beets, but you can do that once it warms up a bit more. Replant or eat the thinnings.

In fact, thinning is just as important for preleaf-out crops as it is for those crops you plant after the last frost. They are the same plants no matter when you plant them. You know what size things grow to, so thin to give them enough room.

Watering, too, is a concern. If we have too much rain, seeds can root. Melting snow is a real problem, too. This is why some gardeners plant in cold frames. It is also why many gardeners wait until they see those leaves.

Jeff’s Alaska garden calendar for the week of March 6

Buy mycorrhizal fungi and rhizobium bacteria to treat seeds

Flowers: Gladiola, hollyhock, digitalis (foxglove)

Veggies: Celery, Leeks