Don’t let fading fireweed kill your enthusiasm for yard and garden

Alaska Dispatch News

I am not sure where the old sourdough phrase “When the fireweed turns to cotton, summer will soon be forgotten” comes from. For me it is preferable to attribute it to the allegedly Alaska Native legend which suggests we have six weeks before the first snow when the fireweed finishes its last bloom.

Right now, the fireweed on our property has ended its purple display. If there is truth to the six-week idea, we should have snow by the 17th of September. Oh no!

Frankly, in all my years gardening here, I have never really counted the weeks between the end of fireweed blossoms and the first snow. I guess it is time for a bit of citizen science — and I hope you will join in. Let’s put the myths to test.

Of course, right off the bat, I have to question the veracity of the six-weeks statement. There are places all over the state that are still sporting beautiful fireweed. And, on the other side of the coin, I walk by a lot of fireweed plants that have completely fuzzed out, suggesting that in those areas, the snow date could be Sept. 10. That doesn’t make sense, especially since these clumps are only separated by the length of our driveway.

Then, too, what defines this first snow? It may be that we have six weeks to termination dust? Let’s start keeping some notes and try to nail this thing down. Six weeks until termination dust makes much more sense to me.

More basic, which plant is the marker? Should we be using the first fireweed we see that has finished blooming? Or would it make sense to wait for the last of the fireweed to stop flowering?

My hypothesis is we will find the six weeks to snow myth a bit too specific. It might have made sense once, but we are in a warmer, later snow clime these days.

The idea that the end of fireweed displays means the summer is coming to an end has some merit, however. Even if it doesn’t snow by Sept. 17, we will have lost lots of daylight and evenings will be chilly. There will be no questioning that summer is at its end. The trick, I suppose, is for yardeners not to let the prospect of winter presented by fading fireweed get in the way.

Summer is coming to its end but we can continue to harvest from gardens into October if we are a bit lucky. So don’t give up just because your fireweed is spent. There are lots of flowers to enjoy. The lawns will need mowing. And, if you planned and planted properly, you will have flowers and vegetables right up until we actually do get a good snow cover.

Ah, did I say “planned and planted properly?” There is the rub! If you wonder what these plants are in your area, spend a bit of time — notebook in hand — wandering around the Alaska Botanical Garden in Anchorage, the Georgeson Botanical Garden in Fairbanks, the Alaska State Fair Grounds and the Palmer Visitor Center in the Mat-Su, the Jensen-Olson Arboretum in Juneau or the Pratt Museum garden in Homer. They necessarily put plants in that will — and do — keep their displays interesting right up until the end.

And, don’t forget planting and harvesting garlic, fall chores. Potatoes — which you should still be hilling — along with Brussels sprouts, will need nurturing until the first frosts. Of course you can use time in the fall to plant spring flowering bulbs.

I know I am not the only one who quotes the six weeks to snow rule without having really tested it. Let’s track this fireweed-first snow thing. The point you need to keep in mind while we do, is that we are here and now. Don’t focus on events six weeks —more or less? — ahead and call it quits. You live in Alaska; winter is always coming soon.

Jeff’s Alaska Garden Column

Botanical gardens and arboretums mentioned above: These are fountains of information and they need your support. Check out their websites to find out how.

Mushrooms: It has been quite a year for amanitas in our yard. How about yours? All Alaskan yardeners need a mushroom ID book. I am not suggesting you eat them, but you should know what they are just as you would plants in your gardens. Read “Teaming With Fungi” if you think you can or even should get rid of them.

Lawns: This is the time of year where I point out my advice really works. I am quite sure yours is beautifully green. If you leave the clippings and mulch in fall’s leaves, all lawns need is water.

Butter and eggs: Get them before they go to seed. And don’t stop with the ones on your property. I fear our roadsides and alleys are no longer defensible against this pesky weed.

Jeff Lowenfels | Alaska gardening and growing

Jeff Lowenfels has written a weekly gardening column for the ADN for more than 45 years. His columns won the 2020 gold medal at the Garden Communicators International conference. He’s authored several books on organic gardening, and his latest book, "Teaming With Bacteria," can be pre-ordered on Amazon. Reach him at