Spring is late: What to do while you’re waiting to plant outdoors

Invariably when I chat with readers these days the discussion turns from plants to the possibility of a really late spring this year. Late, meaning the birch leaves won’t reach squirrel’s ears size — signaling no more frost — for a long while yet.

It is all the remaining piles of melting snow that is the trigger, of course. Because bad things usually happen when I make weather predictions in these columns, I tend to just shrug and pass on my grandfather’s oft-repeated words of wisdom: “You can’t control the weather.”

However, I do think it is OK to dispel the notion spring weather has much to do with when birch leaves will reach the size of squirrel’s ears. The fact of the matter is that most of the timing of leaves has to do with the fall temperatures, not those we are experiencing now.

This is because birch trees — and others — have developed a way to know when it is safe to open leaves for the season, when they won’t get cut down by a hard frost. These trees only get one chance at it. How do they do it? They count the days — or total hours — of below-freezing weather. Once they reach the right amount of time in dormancy, they know it is safe to produce leaves. Yes, they do need several warm days to get the system running, but if those days happened, say in January, the trees would not bare leaves.

I don’t happen to remember what last fall’s weather was like and when we started to have frosts, but today I do see a red hue in the canopy of birch trees, so leaf-out can’t be long.

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I was thinking one last thing regarding birch buds and when they might open. Birch flower before leaf-out. A little citizen science is in order before buds open. The onset of allergies starts for many; birch pollen can be quite the histamine inducer.


Might we get a week or so’s jump on the appearance of squirrel’s ear size leaves by noting when the runny eyes and sneezing starts? If you have birch allergy, please keep track of when the pollen causes a reaction and compare that to when they show. Who knows, instead of squirrel’s ears we might use sneezing to tell us when frosts are about to end.

In any case while you are waiting for the lawn to dry and those leaves to appear, it is a great time to test your soils. You should do this every few years as it is the only way to know if your soils are lacking some nutrients. Remember, many commercial fertilizers do not contain all of the soil nutrients your soils might need.

My go-to labs for testing are both Outside: Kinsey Agricultural Services and Logan Labs. If you are organic — and you should be — tell them so recommendations will fit your system. If you know of a great local lab, let me know.

The other test you should conduct will actually let you see if what you are adding to soils is increasing their microbial biomass. This kit, a microbiometer, is available at Know that biomass equates to available nitrogen. Each test is about $10 and you can do it yourself, right out in the garden. Compost working, for example? Test before application and then a few weeks after.

Next, pull back mulches now so soils will warm up faster. Be very careful as there may be new growth sprouting already. You will want to put these mulches back a week or so after those birch leaves finally do appear.

Jeff’s Alaska Garden Calendar

Join The Alaska Botanical Garden: There is so much this organization has to offer gardeners. Don’t delay. Nursery sales and so much more.

10,000 free trees from Anchorage Audubon: Wow. White spruce seedlings to replace some of Anchorage’s tree loss! Visit (Yes, the wonderful Mr. Whitekeys!) Volunteers needed. Do check the website as there is an extensive distribution plan for late May. This is a very important effort and volunteer help is needed. Contact by emailing

Native Plant Month: The Alaska Native Plant Society is the real deal, too. They are sponsoring this informational month in hopes you will plant and protect Alaska native plants. To join and for more information: Do check it out.

Vegetables to start from seed: Summer squash, cucumbers and pumpkins.

Seeds to get ready to plant next week or so outdoors: Potatoes, peas, spinach, mustard, chard and kale

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.