Alaska Life

Jeff Lowenfels: Ready for an early gardening season?

OK, in the old days we would have about nine weeks or so to go before planting outside without fear of a frost. None of us can be so sure of that now, not since El Nino started dating Global Warming (which no one in Alaska can deny -- period) last fall. What we can say with pretty much certainty is that Planting Out Day is going to be earlier this year.

In addition to warmer temperatures, the soil did not freeze very deep this year. That means the soil, the most crucial item when it comes to starting gardens, will be warmer earlier.

The Alaska gardener can view this in two different ways. Some will recognize that this earlier stuff actually will give us leeway, a bit more wiggle room time-wise, when it comes to getting things in. Others will recognize the opportunity to get things in earlier -- with the reward of earlier and, in some cases, bigger harvests. Plus, there is the possibility of maybe getting more than one crop out of some of our flowers and vegetables.

We are close enough to April 1 for several things to start to happen. The most significant is that those without lights can start seeds. I am not suggesting you turn off lights if you have them, nor am I implying that you still shouldn't go out and get a light set-up. Growing seedlings under lights helps even if it is the middle of the summer. However, we at least have enough natural light now that you can grow things at your brightest, south-facing windows.

Right at the top of the list for many gardeners this week is starting tomato plants. You know the drill. Open pollinated seeds are probably the best, but a few hybrids are fine. Don't plant too many. Use great compost soil and, what is the new rule? Roll seeds in good endomycorrhizal fungi propagules. Remember to label, as always.

Notice I did not limit the advice on tomatoes by saying you will need a greenhouse. Sure, this may be the year that temperatures at night remain high enough to set fruit, but I was thinking more that you should consider one or two plants for indoor growing if you don't have a outdoor greenhouse, which is usually required for tomatoes. Tomatoes can be grown at any south-facing window. And, if you have lights ... well, you know you can use them in the summer.

On the flower side, many will take the opportunity to start pansies, violas and snapdragons. The latter is a particularly good example of the kind of things you should start at home. It is hard to find tall snaps, so the best bet is to grow your own. Cover the seed flat with newspaper when it comes to snaps. They won't germinate in the light. And, again, don't forget the mycorrhizal fungi rule.


Next, that snow last week contained a bit of nitrogen for our lawns and gardens. How nice. For my way of thinking, along with the element supplied by mulched clippings, that is all the nitrogen you need to use on your lawn and maybe even your gardens. I mention this for two reasons. Fertilizer goes on sale in the Lower 48 box stores, and they assume we are ready to buy as well. Hold off. How do you know your lawn needs feeding until you see how it greens up?

The second reason I mention this is because gardeners use way too much fertilizer, particularly with nitrogen -- four times as much as farmers! I could simply tell you that you don't need so much fertilizer. Instead, let me point out that too much supplied nitrogen, like too much phosphorus, causes plants and microbes that feed and protect them to act differently. They become dependent. They become weak (and I do not mean to sound like Donald Trump here). Go easy on fertilizer. Look for low numbers, with all numbers in the trilogy on packages to be well below 10. This goes for your seedlings and houseplants, too. Back off on using so much fertilizer.

Finally, as I mentioned last week, you simply must start to visit nurseries. Wandering aimlessly though a nursery on a cloudy, or heaven forbid a snowy, day like what we saw last weekend, is part of Alaska Gardening. However, you know the rule here! Bring a list with your needs so you won't get carried away. This is a good time to buy the few select seed packets you will use this year. All the racks are finally up and are still full. And the good tubers go fast, including potatoes, which are not usually started for another month or more. Be forewarned.

Jeff’s Alaska Garden Calendar

Flowers to start from seed: Dahlia, schizanthus, nigella, phlox, portulaca, nemesia, marigold and nasturtiums, snaps, malva, petunia, dusty miller, pansies, violas, tuberous begonia

Vegetables: Tomatoes. Broccoli and cauliflower -- usually started in two weeks, but this year ...?

Gladioli: Lots of concern about the height some have reached. Not to worry as you bury them a few inches deeper when planted outdoors.

Herbs: Thyme, oregano

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