As first frost nears, gardeners should be planning for winter

This is the one column I don’t like writing. It is the one where I lay out what to do when that first frost is pending. I never repeat a column, but this one simply feels wrong. It is the same information every year.

No matter how I feel, what is important is taking care of those plants that shouldn’t be hit by a frost. There are two differences from when I first started writing this column almost 50 years ago. First, our frosts are later. I remember one in late August.

Second, back then this frost was an extremely serious matter. No one let their plants die of frostbite. Today, with universal availability of things to plant in the spring, many just let their plants die back and start over at the beginning of next season.

Not me. The plants we save usually do better as they age. Take fuchsia and tuberous begonias, two of the staples in Alaska containers that should not be hit by a frost and should be stored for the winter season. It is easy to bring yours in when a frost is threatened.

Fuchsia can continue to grow indoors if you have lights (which I know all Alaska gardeners at least my readers, do), otherwise trim them back into a foot-tall pyramid shape and store them in a dark cool spot that never gets below freezing. The traditional spot is a crawl space, but a closet in a cool garage will do. Temps should never get below 32.

Tuberous begonias can also be stored in their containers, but you can also remove their corm and store individually. Either way, let them die back for a couple of weeks. If you must remove the tubers because of space constraints, lift them after the plant has dried and store in sawdust, Styrofoam peanuts or even in paper bags as long as the tubers don’t touch each other. Again, they must be kept cool, but never frozen.

Our dahlias are still blooming and yours probably are as well. Thankfully, dahlias can take a frost or three, so let them continue to flower. When you do dig yours up, you will find the one tuber you planted this spring is now a banana-like mass of many. Each will generate a new plant next spring if you handle them properly. Let the green die back and then cut it off. You must leave an inch or so of the base of the stalk attached. If you break up the clump, a part of the stem should be attached to each tuber. Label, store in sawdust, Styrofoam peanuts or individual bags.


We like to keep our pelargoniums (aka geraniums) going all winter. They produce blooms in midwinter if you keep them cool and have lights (which you should set up or get now). Trim them back when you bring them in if they are leggy. Or, you can dig them up, place them upside down in a paper bag and store in a dark and cool place like the other things we bring in.

I see folks with potted hydrangeas. These can be brought inside and treated like a fuchsia. They will go dormant. Don’t prune as they probably set already buds for next year’s flowers. Oh, and rhodochiton can be stored in their pots, same cool location. The seeds in the flowers will all be viable, so collect as many as you can.

Gladioli corms can withstand frost. Dig yours up and store in bags. Toss any that show signs of rot. Don ‘t wash off the soil. And, label.

Finally, as we think about the first frost plants, garlics should be on the list — only planting them, not harvesting or bringing them in. Garlics are some of the easiest things you can grow in an Alaskan home garden.

I don’t need to give you any specifics here as The Alaska Botanical Garden has scheduled a garlic clinic via Zoom at 6 p.m. on Sept. 13. If this isn’t convenient, you can get a link to a recording of the workshop but only if you register in time on the events tab at Look out Gilroy.

Jeff’s Alaska Garden Calendar:

Alaska Botanical Garden’s online garlic sale: Friday, Sept. 16, 10 a.m. Expect a total sell out that day, so mark your calendar.

Alaska Apple Tasting: The Alaska Pioneer Fruit Growers Association (APFGA) invites you to a free apple and fruit tasting on Sunday, Sept. 11, from 1– 2:30 p.m. in the Anchorage Begich Middle School All-Purpose Room. Sample the many apple varieties grown locally and discover the ones that you want to grow!

Harvest: What are you waiting for?

Jeff Lowenfels

Jeff Lowenfels has written a weekly gardening column for the ADN for more than 45 years. His columns won the 2022 gold medal at the Garden Communicators International conference. He is the author of a series of books on organic gardening available at Amazon and elsewhere. He co-hosts the "Teaming With Microbes" podcast.