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Want to help your plants limp through the Alaska winter, or grow a jungle indoors? Either way, it’s time to get lights

  • Author: Jeff Lowenfels
    | Alaska gardening
  • Updated: September 3
  • Published September 3

Who’s familiar with the old joke about prisoners yelling numbers after “lights out,” each call followed by great peals of laughter? For those who are not, the punchline is they tell the same jokes so many times that they assigned numbers to them.

This joke comes to me because ever since I first started writing this column — back shortly after Russian explorer Vitus Bering bumped into Alaska — the arrival of September has triggered the important column listing what to do with outdoor plants to save them from the first frost.

Well, we are into September, so here it is: No. 34! Don’t get the joke? That’s OK. It is shorthand for the annual pre-frost column. If you are a subscriber, just Google: “Gladiolus, dahlias, begonias, winter.” And, thanks for indulging me. This saves me from having to try to figure out how to make the same chores sound different for the 40th umpteenth time.

Instead, let me add to another column: No. 42. For the new reader, this is the annual appeal for all who read this column to get some sort of lights for indoor use during our longer-than-summer winter. I know it is way early for this reminder. We have plenty of daylight to sustain our indoor plants, but I want to make sure I get your attention this year. The pandemic is not gone, and just as outdoors gardening was a savior during an isolating summer, you can bet indoor gardening will be all the rage this winter.

This year I want to emphasize that you really have two choices. You need to use a set of lights simply to help your houseplants limp through the darkest months of Alaska winter. You have an investment, and a few weeks under lights will protect it. Anyhow, these kinds of lights are “camp lights,” because you use them to give your indoor plants a little pick-me-up.

Or you can plan on really getting into this indoor plant thing and set up a really nice lighting system under which you can do more than just maintain plants. This should be good enough to start seeds, grow some lettuce, tomatoes and petunias as well as help maintain those needy houseplants. Depending on your interest, with the right system you can specialize in orchids, grow food or re-create Hawaii.

Either way, you need a set of lights. You can order via the internet or buy locally on your next trip to where you buy hardware and bulbs. You can also go to one of the local indoor grow shops, probably your best bet. There you will get the best advice and almost anything you can buy online.

It is not just lights that you will need to take you through the winter. Don’t forget soil, labels, containers, an automatic timer and the like, all of which should come from local sources, preferably one of our fine nurseries. Many are going to be closing for the winter, and we want to make sure they come back next spring.

For most who are interested in growing food, herbs and flowers, LED lighting systems are the way to go. I don’t have the space here to cover the subject, so a bit of research, especially if you want to grow specialty crops indoors, is in order. Again, don’t overlook local sources.

And, before the hard frosts do come, order seeds and plants that you need. You won’t find many seed racks in Alaska now — much less in the middle of the winter — but all your favorite mail order places are shipping to Lower 48 customers who are now planting fall and winter gardens. You should, too, only yours will be indoors.

Jeff”s Alaska garden calendar

Alaska Botanical Garden: Garlic sales. Buy online, pick up at the garden, or request curbside pickup. alaskabg.org. Keep an eye out for a list of varieties.

Birch “seeds”: People are commenting on something they call birch seeds. Actually, it’s a mixture of birch seeds and what is called birch scales. Yes, there seems to be an extraordinary amount this year and it is early. Usually, this stuff is seen on snow.

Potatoes, Brussels sprouts: Wait for the first frost if you can.

Gardens: Harvest. What are you waiting for?

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