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Gardening

Gardening season has arrived in Alaska. Do these chores now.

  • Author: Jeff Lowenfels
    | Alaska gardening
  • Updated: May 14
  • Published May 14

The birch leaves are bigger than squirrel-ear size. We have frost-free nights. The dandelions are back. What other proof do you need? We can outdoor garden now!

So, heads up: There are so many things to do now that I can only list a few.

Let’s start with watering. You have to be prepared to do it, particularly when the growing season commences. The first rule is to be able to get a hose to any part of your property. The second, leak-proof and automate your watering system. Nothing complicated here: washers and quick connects on all hoses and tools, no leaking hoses allowed, at least one timer gadget so you don’t have to hang around to turn off the water, a traveling sprinkler and, if at all possible, a source of warm water, especially when soils are cooler.

Yes, the dandelions are back. Spraying them is simply a bad idea. It’s a lot of work, and if you are honest with yourself, even the chemical heads among us have to admit it doesn’t work. Why else do you have to do it all the time? We only have two flushes of flowers a season. Mow the seed heads down during those one or two weeks. If you must spray them, use organic formulations only. This is a “must adhere to” rule.

On the fun side for those who didn’t grow up eating it every single breakfast of the year, it’s time to start harvesting rhubarb, or it will be very soon. Do it properly: grab the base of the stalk at the end and twist it. You can divide rhubarb clumps at any time by simply splitting yours in half or quarters with a spade. I would wait for a few more harvests. Yes, rhubarb leaves are poisonous, but you can toss them into a compost pile.

Ripe rhubarb is the sure sign to clean up raspberry patches if you have not already. Dead branches will be obvious as they will have caps from last year’s fruits. Cut them to the ground. I leave ours on the lawn by the patch and run them over with the mower. Great lawn fertilizer. You can still snip back live canes to the height you need to contain them.

Check your peonies. They should be emerging. If you have used mulch for a few years, it may have turned into soil and “buried” the tuber deeper than it should be. You get leaves, but no flowers. Carefully remove the mulch on and immediately around your plants to fix things.

They are baaaaack. Time for those delphinium defoliators. Look at the tips of plants and you will see black or green caterpillars, small now, but soon they will get fat as they munch on your plants. You can hand pick twice a day. What else do you have to do these days? Products with the bacteria Bt or spinosa are what you apply to kill these caterpillars. These will not work on the sawfly larvae that attack gooseberries and currants. Check daily as soon as leaves are full size and spray with a diluted liquid detergent mix.

Cotoneasters have leaves that curl up? Another caterpillar. Check yours. Too many to hand-pick, so consider Bt products again.

Now is when equisetum (horsetail) pops up in gardens. Either start pulling or bury with mulch. Did you know that young shoots are edible (called “wild asparagus”), especially if fried in butter and garlic? (Of course, even this column would taste good in butter and garlic!) Actually, go after all weeds now to prevent them from flowering.

Time to get plants if you didn’t grow all you need. Nurseries are still full of stock: annuals, row crops, trees, shrubs, labels, stakes, soil, mycorrhizal fungi, seed potatoes, organic fertilizers and more. Do go to several and help keep them in business. We want them to survive. Just respect the virus. And, respect your vehicle. Bring a tarp, old sheet or blanket to keep the soil off the upholstery.

Finally, sweep the driveway and pick up the trash on the street in front of your property. It doesn’t really sound like a gardening chore, but if you do nothing else, it will make the place look a bit better.

Jeff’s Alaskan garden calendar

Alaska Botanical Garden: Garden trails remain open to the public, but restrooms and indoor facilities are closed until further notice. Staff is still available by phone and email: 907-770-3692 and garden@alaskabg.org. For information about nursery sales and classes: alaskabg.org.

SAF tree distribution: The 2020 Society of American Foresters Tree Sale distribution date has been tentatively moved back to Saturday, June 20, due to the virus. Things are changing daily, so stay tuned. You must order trees: alaska.forestry.org/TreeSale

Spruce bark beetles: Yes, they are back and flying this month. Answers for what you can do: alaskasprucebeetle.org/frequently-asked-questions.

Correction: I hate it when I make a mistake in this column! Forgive last week’s goof. Sugars are transported up into the branches of trees traveling through the xylem in the springtime, not the phloem which is their normal pathway.

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