Gardening

What’s up with this cold, slow-growing summer in Southcentral Alaska gardens?

As you might imagine, a lot of Alaska gardeners comment about what is going on in their yards when they run into me. Lately, most have been complaining about having a really slow season. They surely don’t need to tell me!

Now, I realize there haven’t been any real deviations in the weather here, such as the unusual heat dome experienced by Seattle, Portland and Sacramento. In fact, there is every likelihood the sun will come out tomorrow and remain a warming force until mid-August, when the seasonal rains begin. But, until it does, I am joining the “what is going on this summer?” chorus.

For example, normally when I walk into our outdoor “tomato” house this time of year, it is full of insect activity — enough bees flying around that I have to make sure I have my epi pen with me. And there are always at least a couple of dragon or damsel flies madly flapping against the windows as they try to find their ways outside. This year, despite opening the door on a daily basis instead of relying on the vent openings, I have yet to see a dragon fly or a bee.

Now, perhaps the neighborhood bee keeper isn’t doing her thing this year, but where are the other insects? Right now, I don’t see aphids in the birch trees. In years past they were here by now. Our meadow rues are normally covered with masses of them from the time their first flower buds appear, and I mean literally covered with them. Not this year! Ours are clean as a whistle. And so far, none of those little black thrips are clinging to peonies or other flowers.

I realize insects, and especially aphids, multiply faster when temperatures are warmer, and they may yet come if things warm up. Since there aren’t many aphids, there seem to be very few wasps and yellowjackets which feed on them. I have seen a few, and this makes sense as the queens wintered over after last year’s “normal” summer, but I wonder what happens next year if aphid populations don’t appear to support this year’s brood. If we get a warm season next summer, will we have enough predators to control an aphid population explosion?

Any problem getting tomatoes to fruit are easy enough to take care of by hand pollinating. Tomatoes like buzzing insects to pollinate, so the latest advice is to put an an electric toothbrush on stems to vibrate the pollen out of the flowers. Of course, making sure the vents and doors are wide open is important. However, these should be closed on cool nights because most tomatoes won’t set fruits, once pollinated, if night temperatures drop below 55 degrees. And this year we have had plenty of them. Don’t forget to pollinate pepper plants and anything else you have in your greenhouse.

Remember the leaf miners that deviated our lilac leaves the past couple of years? They appeared the year we hit 90 degrees on the Fourth of July. They have not shown up this year and I don’t expect to have many complaint questions about them.

It isn’t just the tomatoes in the greenhouse that are late. Things are slow in the gardens, too. Even the hated weeds seem far behind. And, by now we usually harvesting snap peas, but ours have barely started to flower. Our cosmos are barely blooming and this year’s zinnias were a bust, perhaps due to the rain and wind where they were planted, but perhaps as a result of the cool days and nights.

Fortunately, most of the plants we grow are cool-habitat plants, and while even they struggle during a summer such as this, they were chosen for the very reason that they can endure cool temperatures and our relatively short season. Kales and cabbages are doing great around town. It is the marginal crops that suffer. Where is our bee balm (Monarda), for example?

And while people are noticing fewer song birds and almost no swallows (not to mention geese) because of the apparent drop in insect populations, this summer, area lilacs and honeysuckle kept their blooms much longer than normal. Even on a cool, damp day, walking by a lilac bush is a fragrant treat worth sacrificing insect-pollinated tomatoes. Who can complain about having lilac blossoms for an extra two weeks?

And much to my chagrin, the rhubarb flourishes (alas) when we have weather such as this summer’s and that means pies, tarts and and the like. For some, that is a real bonus to a summer such as we are having. Me? I would rather have a warmer, sunnier, buggier summer with less rhubarb and more tomatoes. Who knows? We may still, as it is not too late.

Jeff’s gardening calendar for the week:

Slugs and snails: Never too early to put our beet or yeast traps.

Kohlrabi: Harvest when they are nearing tennis ball size.

Staking: You know which plants need support. Do it.

Wind breaks: Perhaps the best thing you can do to speed up the garden is to block winds.

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