Don’t wait for breakup to prepare for start of gardening season

I was looking at some of my old columns this week, trying to clear up some space on my hard drive so I don’t have to buy a new computer. I came accross one for March 2, 2016. What was astonishing to me then was there was a complete lack of snow on even the Chugach Mountains. There was speculation that we would be able to start gardening much earlier than normal.

Today, of course, we think about the winter we had — and are still in the midst of — this year. If we had the same strain of thought as I did back in 2016, you might conclude we will never be able to go outside and garden this summer. More than 100 inches of snow will do that to you.

Ah, but this is not how things work in Alaska. As I noted a week or two back, our snow gets “dirty” and that causes it to melt faster, though one reader pointed out that too much dirt and the snow melts slower. Plus, we get so much daylight in the upcoming months that the snow can only last so long no matter how much we get.

The fact of the matter is that the spring geese always return to Anchorage around April 15 and the all-important birch buds always open sometime in early May, triggering the old pioneer’s rule: There are never frosts once the birch buds open and the leaves grow to the size of a squirrel’s ear.

So regardless of all the snow, we have about two months of indoor gardening left. And, I bet a lot of you know what I am going to say next: You need supplemental light under which seeds, bulbs and corms can be started. The light coming into a greenhouse might be enough to grow strong plants, but the light coming in from that kitchen window is not enough. You will get spindly plants.

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Listen to the ‘Teaming with Microbes’ podcast with Jeff Lowenfels and Jonathan White:

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Just as the leaves open like clockwork, March is the time of year nurseries start peddling their wares. That means snow or not, now is the time to start visiting them. Gather up the supplies you need — try to reduce plastic as you do so — such as labels, pots, seeds, soil, stakes and the like.


And, despite all the white stuff, it is definitely the time to buy seeds for this year’s gardens. You probably know my prejudice:. You are not a real gardener unless you start at least on item from seed. All the seed racks are out now ready for you. Yes, the early bird gets the worms, so don’t delay. By the same token, don’t let temptation and your snow-addled imagination get the better part of you when you stand in front of that rack and start selecting seed packets.

Don’t forget you will want to roll your seeds in endomycorrhizal fungi to get them infected and to establish a mycorrhizae. You will need to buy some from a nursery.

Again, even though there is snow, there are a few things to do outdoors in March. One chore I sometimes forget to mention is to start cleaning up after Fido. As layers of snow melt, you can get “things” while they are still frozen.

Next, if you have an outdoor greenhouse and can get the door open in the snow, you can start working on those pots filled with soil. Apply some kelp and compost and water them to activate microbes within. Clean up out there, too.

Finally, this winter’s snow crushed our lilacs and pushed branches down to the ground. You may need to resort to tying up or propping up limbs. Some are going to need to be pruned. It is probably best to do this chore when temperatures are above freezing so there is less chance of snapping limbs and branches. A big exception are damaged birch. The sap will be running up these trees as buds swell and will literally weep out of any cuts. I am going to wait until those birch leaves get to squirrel ear size before working on ours.

Jeff’s Alaska Garden Calendar:

Alaska Botanical Garden Spring Conference: The conference is March 23 and March 24 on the second floor of the Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center This fantastic, two-day, horticultural event is a must-attend event. You must register to attend and you should do it.

Corms to start: Gladiola.

Vegetables to start: Leeks, celery

Flowers to start: Hollyhock, sweet peas

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.