By Julie Riley, Cooperative Extension Service
I watched a short garden-planning video when I was new to my job. It featured Ray Morgan, my colleague in the Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service office. Ray was wearing snowshoes and measuring out the dimensions of his garden in a blizzard. I gasped. The next clip showed Ray with a can of wood ashes. As he threw out the ashes, he explained that their dark color would help to melt the snow. Unbelievable. I sent videos to all my friends in the Lower 48.
When gardening in Alaska, it helps to keep a few basic tenets in mind. The winter is long, the soil is cold, air temperatures are cool and the weather has become unpredictable.
As spring nears, encouraging the snow to melt makes sense. You can shovel off your garden but applying wood ash is easier and the ashes raise soil pH and provide a source of slow-release potassium. Once the snow is gone and the soil has had a chance to dry out, you can lay down a sheet of clear plastic. It’s great fun to see the soil temperature increase 10 degrees after a week of sunny weather.
It’s the warm-season crops that require temperatures of 70 degrees or higher to grow well. Snap beans and zucchini are least fussy of the warm-season vegetables. Other warm-season crops include tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, eggplant, corn and winter squash. Unless temperatures are warm, zinnia, cockscomb and heliotrope will not thrive.
Seasoned Fairbanks gardeners will tell you it’s safe to plant by June 1. But early in my career, I learned from University of Alaska Professor Don Dinkel that if you can, push your planting date up by as much as two weeks. It depends on the weather, of course. Plan to plant warm-season vegetables and flowers June 1, but try to get cool-season plants in the ground earlier.
If you’re growing your own transplants, you need to determine the dates you plan to plant outside. Figuring out the best time to start seeds indoors involves counting backwards from your outdoor planting dates. The amount of time a plant needs to grow inside varies depending on what you’re growing and your specific indoor growing conditions. Not every vegetable needs a head start. The list of flowers that can be seeded directly in the garden is much shorter. UAF Cooperative Extension Service’s publication, “Seed Starting and Transplanting,” offers suggestions on when to get started.
An abundance of gardening classes are being offered before the snow melts. Taking advantage of these indoor sessions will help get you organized before you can get outside to garden. The Fairbanks Soil and Water Conservation District has a long list of free gardening classes focusing on food production that begin March 27. I’ll be helping to teach the April 24 seed-starting workshop.
Calypso Farm & Ecology Center’s class about planning a home-scale food production garden is Saturday, March 25. You can sign up for the Fairbanks Garden Club’s Landscape Design School Course IV taking place the weekend of April 1.
Learn which vegetables are the most nutritious during the Tanana District’s Spring Extension Week, April 10-14. Other gardening classes during this special event will include Peonies for Fun and Profit and Growing Cilantro and Other Annual Herbs. The full schedule and signup will be available soon at www.uaf.edu/ces/tanana.
Julie Riley is horticulture agent for the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service. She has worked with home gardeners and Alaska’s horticulture industry for more than three decades and joined the Tanana District office this winter. Information on upcoming gardening programs can be found on Extension’s Tanana District website, www.uaf.edu/ces/tanana/. Julie can be reached at 907-474-2423 or firstname.lastname@example.org.