Friday, August 15, 2014

Importance of hardening off plants and soil testing prior to planting

By Natalie Jo Cossette, an Alaska Master Gardener.

The month of May rolled around and I was chomping at the bit to get into the garden. I tried to satisfy my urges with starting seeds in the garage under lights but it wasn’t enough. The beautiful weather called to me and I knew better than to put my plants outside before the last weekend in May. But the raised bed I’d constructed last year was ready and I hadn’t been able to have a garden for four seasons, so I rolled the dice. Winters in Alaska can be very long, but with the hot spring we were experiencing, the trees were leafing out, the perennials were well emerged and the robins had returned. I planted my baby broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage starts on May 24, but by the week’s end, we had two nights that hit freezing temperatures. I also made the huge mistake of not hardening off the starts. I hadn’t given them a chance to grow a thick skin or acclimate to the elements. They were definitely set back because of my lack of patience.

Additionally, the soil in my newly constructed raised bed came from the local high school’s football field. They were tearing it up for a new turf field and raising money from the sale of the sod and soil. The price was right and I figured it would be fine because it had been growing a nice lush green field of grass. Why wouldn’t it produce a nice lush green vegetable garden? Indeed the grass needed good drainage, so the soil was full of small pea sized gravel and a lot of sand that made it quite heavy. It’s definitely not ideal for growing anything with a deeper root system than a few inches, especially carrots. By the end of July, my carrots are barely over two inches tall with very thin taproots. The soil structure will benefit from being amended with a significant amount of organic material to increase water retention and allow for better root growth. A soil test is also in order before next summer to determine what nutrients are lacking. The broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage have grown twice their size since May 24 and have produced nothing while the sugar snap peas and green beans I sewed from seed are stunted and yellow at their bases indicating a lack of nutrients. I have fertilized with organic fish emulsion that seemed to help, but since I didn’t start with a good foundation, I couldn’t expect too much.

Lessons learned: Always harden off your plants even if Mother Nature teases you with warm temperatures. Never plant a garden in soil that hasn’t been tested. You will probably be wasting your time, efforts and resources. My lack of self-restraint has certainly been a detriment to the success of my garden. I will be better prepared for next year and hopefully my pantry will show the fruits of my labor!

Love for the neglected Crabapple Trees: A lesson in pruning



By Andrea Hood, an Alaska Master Gardener

My small yard is edged by two crabapple trees planted by the amazing couple that built this house so long ago. Every year, in spite of being ignored by the new residents and abused by snow hurled from the plows and occasional windstorms, they have produced small, tangy, beautiful fruit. This year, while they are sleeping, they will get some TLC.

The idea is a bit overwhelming. They are now overgrown beautiful monsters. This is going to be a multi-year treatment plan. Sustainable Gardening: The Alaska Master Gardener Manual contains an excellent chapter on pruning. This and other helpful publications are available at: www.uaf.edu/ces

I know it sounds strange to think of this in the middle of the abundant season, but waiting until winter last year was a mistake. I couldn’t remember the mental notes I made while harvesting the previous fall.

This fall, I will keep careful notes on paper of which branches are productive and the size and number of fruit. In addition, I will mark with tape the parts on which I plan to work. This dormant season, I will eliminate any low, tangled branches and choose (as advised by the manual) no more than two large limbs. Then of course, I will observe another growing season and make new plans next summer. So this summer, throw a glance up at your trees and jot down a note or two and dream of spiced crabapples for many seasons to come.

Alan Jackson was right, it is okay to be “Little Bitty”: A small garden plot in Alaska


By Andrea Hood, an Alaska Master Gardener

This has been a growing season of revised expectations, and you know what? It has turned out just fine! Finding a great spot to garden can sometimes be a challenge. For those of us with the gardening bug, winter time is for dreaming of glorious spaces filled with fruiting vines, flower laden bushes, and vegetable patches overflowing with zucchini and tomatoes. In the spring, we receive or catalogs and make lists. All of those plans were shot earlier this year with news of an expanded driveway. Our otherwise perfectly reasonable landlord had decided to level out and fill with gravel the very large, well-drained area on the south side, yes south side, of the house. This is the very area that contained our five hard-dug, edged garden beds and one strawberry plot.

Finding a new dream spot…
Alaskans will forgive my brief period of self-pity. Yes, gardeners need to be adaptable, especially in our northern state, but sometimes it can be overwhelming. Really, should covering a south facing spot even be legal? Temptations to give up floated around the brain. I decided to revise my garden plans and find another way.
I didn’t have the money or equipment to dig new beds in time for planting, but I did remember reading an article in Mother Earth News Magazine about making quick garden beds. I found Barbara Pleasant’s article titled, “How to Make Instant Garden Beds” on motherearthnews.com. A quick trip to Lowes and less than $60 provided me with seven nice garden spots. I cut drainage holes in the bottom, removing the top and added seeds.

Smaller Plans and big satisfaction…
Harvesting kale, lettuce, and scallions from my smaller plots has been a rewarding and enjoyable experience and as always, gardening as taught me a new lesson, mainly to appreciate a previously overlooked spot of dirt and try again.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Wait


By Dana Fedorchuk, an Alaska Master Gardener

Like a new page, Spring gives the feeling of newness and fresh opportunities. Posting my first blog post in Spring feels right in touch with the seasons, just like a planting the garden. In many parts of the world, planting begins with Spring, but here in Alaska we wait.

We wait because of that evening chill in the air.
We wait because the Farmers Almanac tells us to.
We wait because of the handful of snowflakes that fell with the chilly breeze.
We wait because of the time we didn't wait and green things became shriveled and brown from the frost.

Even when the temperature soars to the high 20s in mid-May, experienced gardeners
shake their heads and advise each other to wait. Even more than gardeners have to be
detail-oriented, with good skills of observation, and tuned-in to the elements; gardeners
need patience.

So whether you are looking forward to planting, anticipating the first green seedlings,
forecasting the harvest, or dreaming over seed catalogs for next year; the skill that the
gardener needs most is the ability....to....wait. I'm waiting for June 1 to get these sunflowers situated in their beds. What are you waiting for?

Thursday, August 8, 2013

An Alaskan Landscape

By Amy Reed, An Alaska Master Gardener in Anchorage, AK

Footprints outside the window.
This is my first time writing a blog, and I am excited to share my adventure with my new flowerbeds!  My husband, daughter, and I moved to Anchorage from Eagle River this past winter. Because our new yard was covered in snow, I had no idea what I was in for come spring!  The new house abuts the Chugach State Park, so from the grizzly bear prints in the snow, I knew I would be sharing the yard with nature. 

When the snow (FINALLY) thawed this past spring/summer, we were surprised to find how many perennial flower beds the previous owners had planted.  My in-laws were visiting at the time, and I put them to work helping me unearth the beds from the mounds of leaves, dead branches, and clippings. It was a daunting task, and it took almost three solid weeks to clean out all the beds around the house. I kept hearing shouts of, “Come check this out! There is a path here!” and “What is this plant?”  My favorite phrase, however, was “Do you think this tree is alive?”  My husband had the time of his life cutting down trees with his new chainsaw and chopping them into firewood. After renting a chipper, we were left with a mulch pile about seven feet high by eight feet across.  It was incredible!  I felt like I was being so “green” to spread the paths near the house leading up to the State Park with the mulch.  Little did I know that all it did was provide our friendly neighborhood bear with easier access to our yard! 

One of the main projects my husband and I overtook was leveling the previous owner’s raised garden beds. You might ask, why would you do such a thing?! The four raised beds were enclosed in an eight foot tall cedar board/wire mesh fence with a beautiful door.  In the center of the garden was a birch tree in a raised bed. The entire enclosure was a really neat concept, and for most gardeners a welcome sight as they would not have to construct their own raised beds. However, I decided that the area would be better suited as a firepit for my family to enjoy rather than another garden area. I started the deconstruction of the garden the last week of May while the ground was still frozen. It took almost a week of manpower tugging and snipping out the fencing and using a crowbar to remove all the cedar boards.  As I got further into the project, I was excited to see all the good soil that was still in the raised beds. It was basically a compost pile due to the dry leaves, sticks, and mulch that had accumulated in the beds.  The boards surrounding the soil, however, were quite rotten, and I felt that we had made the right decision to use this area for another purpose.  My husband used his tractor to remove the final posts and level the area.

The firepit.
We then contacted two guys in the area to help us construct our fire pit. They first laid weed control paper down, spread gravel, and hauled massive stones into the area for seating. A pit was excavated out and lined with stones. The final result was amazing!  It was a hard decision to remove the fenced in raised bed garden, but in the end, we had an area that we would use as a family for a long time.

I decided to take the Alaska Master Gardener Online Course, because I felt that it was now my job to keep the flowerbeds around the house alive and thriving. The owners before us obviously made it a labor of love to landscape with so many different perennials and create stone pathways around them. Growing up in Pennsylvania, I was only accustomed to growing marigolds and morning glories. After I married, we settled in Texas for five years, where xeroscaping was the name of the game. Water restrictions were so frequent there; my husband and I learned the art of conserving and landscaping with drought resistant plants.  Now, having been in Alaska for over six years, I am learning slowly by trial and error and also picking many a greenhouse owner’s brain about what works well here.  I felt I had just enough knowledge to not completely destroy my yard.  Now, having finished the Alaska Master Gardener Online Course, I feel I have at least more information to aid in keeping my landscape alive and thriving. Or at least now know where to get the information when I need it!

Multicolored delphiniums in the yard.
It has been an incredible summer watching the different flowers, from roses, to multiple colored delphiniums, to peonies bloom. 



When walking by every bed this past week, the constant buzz of bumblebees drones loudly.


Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Marigolds: Edible, Beneficial, and Beautiful

By Mary Hinkley, an Alaska Master Gardener in Tok, Alaska

 
I believe in marigolds.  Though marigold’s pest resistant qualities are mentioned on many of their seed packets, I feel they’re under rated. Most of my raised beds have a marigold border. This serves two purposes; the garden is beautiful and it’s safe from pest invasion. Early this season I went to the local nursery to get some for my greenhouse and found that it was too early for their marigold crop, so I bought some seeds, went home, and planted eight flats.
The vibrant orange of marigolds contrasts well with the blue lobelia. Photo by Heidi Rader.
I love marigolds. I remember my mother always included them in her garden; she said it was for protection. In fact, in the Northeast, where I’m from, most everyone I knew planted them and it was a known fact that they kept pests away. Snooks tells of the time he gathered a bushel of corn from his garden to give to his sister. His garden was pest free and protected due to its marigold border. However, when he left the bushel of corn on the porch overnight, away from protection, the raccoons devoured every ear by morning. They didn’t touch the standing corn, twenty feet away in the marigold-framed garden.

Here in Alaska, I’ve had two encounters with cutworms all year; I found a young bean plant taken off at its base and a severed young marigold. It seems that whatever worm did that, if he lived to tell about it, he never came back for more and warned all of his friends of the nasty encounter!  I don’t think marigolds are poisonous--just very distasteful. The bean plant succumbed, I believe, because the marigolds were still quite young and hadn’t established themselves.  Everything else in my garden is still standing.

I planted marigolds around cabbage to keep cabbage worms away. I’ve never read that they do, but thought I’d try it, and so far, so good.

'Giant Yellow' marigolds. Photo by Heidi Rader.
I learned something else about marigolds with the cabbage patch. They don’t like the cold. When I planted my cabbage in mid-May I edged the patch with marigolds and used row cover at night. The cabbage survived, but even with the row cover, not one marigold made it through the first night. I waited for another few weeks before I planted more.

The onion and garlic bed even has a marigold border. I wasn’t going to do it; I thought that they were pungent enough to keep any pest at bay. Then I talked to a friend who told me of a season he lost an entire crop of onions due to some kind of underground attack, perhaps nematodes. He said they looked perfectly fine until he harvested them, but then there was nothing in the bulb. The next day I edged the garlic and onion bed. I’ve found that the roots of marigolds are as protective as their leaves and flowers, and they work below the ground as well as they do above it.

Thanks to marigolds the rabbits leave my lettuce alone, peas and carrots as well. My asparagus patch is marigold free because there just wasn’t room for them. However, it’s surrounded by other marigold bordered raised beds and the asparagus has fared well to this point.

Marigolds come in many varieties and sizes and are even edible--particularly the 'Golden Gem' and 'Tangerine Gem' varieties. Their colors range from bright yellow to orange to maroon. They have lovely flowers with a kaleidoscope of color combinations and when I’m watering my garden they always make me smile--plus they attract beneficial insects.

'Lemon Gems' make the perfect addition to any salad.

 

 

 

 

Edible, beneficial and beautiful, marigolds are my greenhouse guardians and keepers of my garden.


 

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Tater Tires for Season Extension and Increased Potato Production in Alaska

By Mary Hinckley, an Alaska Master Gardener in Tok, Alaska


Several years ago on a trip Outside, Snooks and I discovered Andean Fingerling potatoes. Up until then we’d become increasingly disappointed in grocery store potatoes. They seemed to have lost their savor, containing only starch and no flavor. We agreed that they were more like filler than food. But in a health food store we discovered potatoes called 'Red Ruby Crescent.' Brand new to us, we decided to give them a try and paid the outlandish price of five dollars for a two-pound bag. We boiled them up for dinner and liked them so much that if the store had still been open, we’d have gone back for more. Delicious, like the potatoes of old, they were thick, smooth, creamy and with added butter, superb. We revised our opinions about potatoes right then and vowed to grow fingerlings.

At the time we were in our motor home in southern Missouri and our garden consisted of several 5-gallon buckets. We started the potatoes in one of these pails, on a small layer of dirt. We covered them with more dirt and watered. As the plants grew we kept covering them with dirt and paid attention to water. It was quite hot in Missouri and although our tomato crop flourished, heat may have been the reason our potatoes never got very big. Fingerlings are small to begin with, but these looked more like the bullets than potatoes. We decided to try again when we got back to Alaska.

Once back home, Snooks developed a growing process that was so successful with potatoes that we decided to use it for all our greenhouse crops as well. First, he starts with regular old tires. Any kind of tire will do and we use different ones for different things, but for potatoes we use the largest tire we can. First he cuts out the sides of the tire. Then the gorillas come in to help turn it inside out, but it doesn’t really take great strength or gorillas as turning gets easier once you develop your technique. Once the tire is turned inside out we have a planter, a tater tire!

Tires ready to plant. Photo by Mary Hinckley.

We wash the tater tire off and place it in the garden. A layer of fresh dirt is set in and seed fingerlings on top of that. The seed potatoes are covered with more dirt and watered. As the plants grow the process is repeated We make sure enough of both is added. The plants are watered even more once they flower.

The potatoes are ready to harvest when the plants start to die, usually after the frost. We cut them off at ground level. Now the tater tires really come in handy; all we do is flip them over. No digging, just hunting, gathering and brushing off the dirt. Each tire yielded 10-15 pounds of potatoes. We reserve the biggest ones for next year’s planting and bag the bulk of the harvest to store under our house for winter use.

Fingerling potatoes. Photo by Heidi Rader.
'Red Ruby Crescent' potatoes were a great discovery for us and as they are an Andean potato, they adapt very well to our Alaskan climate. We’ve grown other fingerlings here but have found our favorite to grow and eat is the 'Red Ruby Crescent.' Another reason the discovery was so good was because it resulted in the development of tater tires. They have proven to be very good planters. Though the Andean potatoes like cooler conditions than in Missouri, our cool, Tok spring was too harsh for the crops of some other potato farmers here. But our black, tater tires drew heat and kept our potatoes comfortable enough to grow.

We also use tater tires in our greenhouse. The inside planters consist of two stacked tires. In the bottom one Snooks puts fresh horse manure and above he puts our soil, a mixture of Tok dirt and aged horse manure. As the early, spring sun hits the greenhouse the tires heat up, more heat is generated by the manure so the soil in the top tire gets even warmer. So far, by incorporating this stacked system into our insulated greenhouse we’ve extended our growing season by more than a month.

Both as season enhancers and season extenders, tater tires work for us.

For more information, check out Growing Potatoes in the Alaska Garden.

And ALWAYS be sure to buy and plant Alaskan certified disease free potatoes. This is the best way to prevent potato diseases such as the late blight outbreak of 2011 in Alaska.