Spring gardening in Alaska is tricky

Cecilia, the 12 year old “grand,” spent two hours in the greenhouse with me. We transplanted annual starts that had been broadcast and were ready for a larger home. There is a batch that she will take to her own garden when the timing is much more conducive to outdoor life than it is now.

The crux here is that she is so interested in gardening — actually, has been right along. But to have her right here paying attention and making the project function was a bonus. What a perfect time in a person’s life to learn a skill. And, make no mistake, gardening is indeed a skill. An intuitive one but a skill nonetheless.

People have approached me and asked to follow me around in the garden, depending on what I would be doing. Well, in theory that sounds just fine — to the one asking. But the reality is I don’t know what I’m going to do until I get out there and take a look. But Cecilia has no agenda, she is willing to do whatever task is at hand. At some point, between the two of us, it will all come together. And what a pleasure it is indeed.

On one of my look-arounds I noticed that the bramble patch also known as the rosa rugosa “Hansa” was prime for trimming. My intention is to not let this get out of control ever again. Last year I cut it down to the ground and, of course, it grew like crazy and all to the same height.

So now I cut it in tiers. The first one about 18 inches and the next a little taller and the next taller yet, with the whole mass getting an overall trimming so it won’t fall into itself. The effect is to give it a mound shape, with blooms at every indistinct level. Hopefully, there will never ever be a tangled mass of prickly canes that I need to be dressed in armor to approach. When in bloom, all is forgiven.

The minor bulbs that I truly adore are so very ephemeral, I find myself taking pictures and looking at them as each day goes by and the blooms fade. Right now the clutches of puschkinia are putting on a show. Pale blue and only about six inches tall, looking very frail but truly tough as nails, I deeply appreciate its presence. When Cecilia was here we checked out the crocus and watched them open with the sun. You really can’t beat that. At least not this time of year.

In the greenhouse this afternoon I noticed the onions Jane gave me are gorgeous and mine are not. She started hers two weeks before me but it isn’t that. The key difference is that she planted each seed in a cell of its own. I broadcast mine in a three inch pot and then separated them into individual cells. I don’t have enough room to start all of the alliums in their own cell. That’s why I broadcast and when they are ready to move they are in the greenhouse and not under lights in the guest room. This is a dilemma. There are three kinds of onions, leeks and shallots. That’s a lot of seedlings needing light. I think in the future I’ll start them when the greenhouse is up and running and skip the lights. But I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

The fall planted garlic is up and looking sort of alright. I mulched them, following most of Cheryl’s suggestions for how she does hers — throwing the spent pea vines on top. I won’t do this again. Not at this elevation. I will revert to spruce boughs, the air circulates quite nicely and the garlic shoots up nice and green instead of the pale, puny shoots out there at this very moment.

Pay attention to your own location, elevation, microclimate, prevailing wind — all of these things add up. What works for one, in this case Cheryl, didn’t work for me. Pay attention.

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Trees. I thought I would make a couple of phone calls and ask a few pointed questions to those who would know, get answers and share them with you. Well. I called the Division of Forestry in Soldotna first. I gave the receptionist the gist of what I needed to know and she referred me to John Winter, Stewardship Forester here in Homer. When the spruce bark beetles destroyed the trees about 30 years ago and the forest service handed out thousands and thousands of seedlings, my burning question: What kind of trees? and How did they do? Winter wasn’t here when all of this happened but answered the first part with ease: Lutz, birch, lodge pole, scotch pine, siberian larch and Colorado blue spruce. But the second part — how did they do is a mystery. Everyone who was involved with the project has retired and left a zero paper trail. Go figure.

So I called Dave Brann (The Hero of Homer, in my opinion) who developed the Demonstration Forest off Rogers Loop with a double handful of those give away trees.

A volunteer effort ensued and some of the trees are still there but missing labels. Go take a look,you’ll find a few gems, and have some fun figuring out what they are. Dave also has a knack for stuffing his suitcase with seedling trees from his home state of Maine. He has a Norway spruce, sub-alpine fir and balsam fir at home to show for his effort. What faith to plant trees and wait to see what happens. We need more Dave Branns.

Next I called Jim VanOss. He too planted lodgepole pines on his grazing lease. Hundreds. They grow but the bull moose love to rack them. He loses 10 to 20 every year just from moose rack damage.

Only in Alaska.

Those of you at elevation take heart. Your ground will thaw (mine, at elevation 396 feet is not completely thawed), your perennials will bloom, you will get your vegetable garden planted and everything usually catches up to the gardens that started sooner. It is one of those amazing acts.

Have faith.