Alaska gardening Q&A: Signs of life in the snow; getting ahead of aphids

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An observant reader noticed a big, fat earthworm in the snow. This is unusual. When cold weather arrives, worms either lay eggs and end up freezing to death, or they burrow deep. This one was alive and wiggling.

This was not one of our famous “iceworms,” the inch-long animals that actually need cold and will melt in the warmth of your hand. I don’t know why this particular worm moved to the surface.

Worms that go below the frost line undergo “worm hibernation,” a process known as “estivation,” a great crossword puzzle word. The worm forms a ball and uses a mucus-like covering to keep from drying out while it waits for warmer weather. Obviously, the occasional worm, usually on a sunny day, wakes up and checks things out. It is pretty amazing.

Next, a reader wants to know what to do about aphids that ruined her gardening experience last summer. She wanted to know if aphids winter over and if there is anything she can do now to make things aphid-free this summer.

The thing about aphids is some females do overwinter and actually produce living young in the early spring without having to mate. In addition, eggs also overwinter on plant debris and hatch in the spring.

This is why gardeners are advised to clean up plant debris in the fall. Of course, this advice contradicts the idea of respecting the Law of Return, and even if you do clean up, you are not going to get rid of them all.


The trick is to prevent aphids in the first place. The number one attractant of aphids in my book — and lots more experts agree — is the use of too much nitrogen. This creates tender new growth that calls out to aphids!

Trap plants outside the garden — meadow rue works great — are a good idea. Also try garlic, chives, leeks, catnip, fennel, dill and cilantro.

Spraying plants in early spring with a hard blast of cold water to knock aphids down is another. And a spray of a liquid dishwashing soap and water should be helpful.

Really bad aphid infestation may call for a commercial mix like Safer’s or Azamax. And, don’t assume those starts you get at nurseries are aphid-free. Top tip here is to check all plants before you buy.

Next, when is the right time to prune trees and bushes? This is a timely question as now is when you should prune, with the exception of lilacs, because they set flowers right after they finish blooming in the summer. This is because outdoor plants have converted their nutrient supplies into starch and stored this in their roots for the winter. In the spring, the starch is converted into sugars and moved back above ground.

If you wait until spring to prune, you end up depriving the plant of its nutrients. So go for it. Get those snowshoes on and take advantage of the extra height. Do it now. Spring is actually just around the corner. Really!

Finally, when will I start the seed calendar that accompanies this column? For the newbie, I list when you should start — most — seeds indoors so your plants will be big enough to transplant outdoors around the third week of May. Your wish is my command as I started the calendar this week.

Pick and choose a few plants to start from seed. You can’t possibly grow them all. That is what our nurseries are for. And remember my rule: You are not a real gardener unless you plant one thing you start from seed.

Jeff’s Alaska Garden Calendar (Jude: Happy Anniversary)

Alaska Botanical Garden Spring Conference: March 8-11. for more information.

Vegetables to start from seed: Celery, leeks.

Flowers to start from seed: Sweet peas, hollyhock, digitalis

Flowers to start from corms: Gladiolas can be started now through April 1 for a succession of blooms at the end of August.

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 2022 gold medal at the Garden Communicators International conference. He’s authored several books on organic gardening, and his latest book, "Teaming With Bacteria," is available on Amazon. Reach him at