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Alaska Life

Jeff Lowenfels: What does this weird winter weather mean for gardeners?

  • Author: Jeff Lowenfels
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published March 4, 2016

As I write this, it is 40 degrees for the second or third day in a row. It has me pacing around the stand-up desk.

Anchorage temperatures were nearly 10 degrees above average in January (the third-warmest on record, so far) and in the Arctic Ocean, sea ice stopped forming for two weeks in February. As of mid-February, no place in the state had reported temps lower than minus 50, a first.

Snow? What snow? In Southcentral Alaska, even the famed Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race has been forced to haul snow in from the state's Interior. And you wouldn't recognize Fairbanks. It is -- literally -- baked Alaska.

This seemingly unseasonable weather has readers asking all manner of crazy questions, demanding information that normally isn't needed for months or would be better used in Florida. I am reminded of reports of early prairie settlers who, upon smelling smoke from fires they could not see, panicked and did all manner of crazy things to deal with an unpredictable situation.

I am looking at mountains with no snow halfway up them. Our back lawn is totally devoid of the stuff. I actually saw someone thatching his lawn. It took all I had not to pull over and tell the guy we don't thatch lawns anymore. You don't mess with a yardener in Spenard during an ultra warm, snowless February, for goodness' sake!

Surely, very soon more folks will come out of the woodwork, worrying about the too-early appearance of daffodils and tulips and even some perennials. What can I possibly say to calm nerves?

I could ask if they mulched last fall as advised. And I do note that most of these plants have built-in antifreeze that will let them survive, but if things go like they are now, even those that can't produce antifreeze will start growing and be susceptible to a hard frost (if there is another one).

It would be all too easy to suggest now that we are going to be able to plant outdoors at the end of March instead of the end of April. Who would remember? I could get away with it. I think.

The truth of the matter, of course, is that -- like David Brooks and all the other political pundits who predicted Donald Trump's early burnout -- I really have no way of knowing what will happen. Actually, voters are much more predictable then nature. In any case, I don't want to join the ranks of poor predictors.

I could pick the global warming scab and repeat that Alaska is the canary in the world's coal mine: summer days doubling in numbers over the last hundred years. So why are we so surprised about the warming trend now? We have, actually, been moving up Planting Out Day ever since I've been writing this column. Memorial Day, then the weekend before and now a full two and even three weekends earlier.

I have learned, however. This is Alaska. We need to concentrate on how to use this change in weather to our advantage. If this trend continues, then there is no question Eliot Coleman's season-extending tricks will work. And then some.

If this trend stays, we all would do well with some cold frames as we would finally have enough above-freezing days to make them worthwhile. If you can get your hands on one or more, install them now so the soil under them will thaw and you can start planting and experimenting.

How about adding a few heating cables to the cold frame set-up? Or try them "naked" on a small bed up against the house. See if you can jump-start some outdoor herbs, and maybe even peas.

Have you considered the idea of starting plants early out in that unheated porch this year? If temps get higher, earlier, we can and should! And if the temperatures are getting higher so we have a longer season, maybe we should try to start at least one thing that we don't normally grow both in terms of length of season as well as increased warmth during it. How about corn for Southcentral? Okra, anyone? Worth a try this year?

And then there are all the outdoor greenhouses. Warmth and light are the reasons we don't use them until May. But after April 1, a greenhouse that is warm enough surely gets enough daylight to grow all manner of things. There is no question that those who have these greenhouses should anticipate early usage this year. And if it gets warmer on this end of the season, there is every reason to believe it will stay warmer on the back end, increasing growing seasons by up to two months. You should plan for that as well, perhaps trying some longer-season tomatoes.

Still, I am no smarter than David Brooks, remember. If we have an early season, so much the better, but it could easily drop to below zero the day this is published. In the end we won't be in the ground until those birch buds leaf out and become the size of a squirrel's ear. And only nature knows when that will be.

Jeff’s Alaska Garden Calendar

Columnist's private announcement: Happy anniversary, Judith. Thanks for the support on all these columns (and so much more) over all those years! You are the best gardener I know.

Alaska Botanical Garden: The Alaska Botanical Garden's 10th annual spring gardening conference, an all-day event, is on March 19. For more information, including tickets and reservations, go to

Nurseries: They are BAAAAAAAAACK. Actually, some are open all year. Time to start visiting and gathering soil, labels, seeds and other starting gear and supplies.

Jeff Lowenfels has been writing this column for 40 years and never missed a week. He is the author of the best-selling, award-winning books "Teaming with Microbes" and "Teaming With Nutrients."

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