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Gardening from Alaska
by Jeff Lowenfels

email: jeff@gardener.com

Jeff is the Past President of the Garden Writers of America, a columnist with the Anchorage Daily News, Host Alaska Gardens and Supporter of Plant a Row.


May 25, 2008

This weekend marks the official beginning of the outdoor garden season. I could warn you not to do it all in one weekend, but you are going to try anyway. Still there are certain rules you must follow.

First, the Cardinal rule: Harden off all plants. It takes about a week outside in the shade or dappled sunlight in order for indoor grown plants to adjust to the unfiltered rays of the sun and to drying impact of the wind. If you don’t harden off your plants, you are wasting your money and your time.

If following this rule means you have to wait to plant until next weekend, so be it. It is that important. And don’t assume that just because you buy starts from benches located outdoors that they are hardened off. Ask.

Rule number two: Before you plant anything, set up your watering system so that it is as hassle free as possible. There should be no leaks, no fuss and no muss when it comes to watering. You need enough hose to easily reach every part of your property. You may have to attach a few hoses to do it, but you should be able to put a sprinkler anywhere.

Hoses and the tools that attach to them should not leak. If they need new washers, get them. If hoses need repairing, fix them. Try “super glue” before investing in repair kits.

Lay down soaker hoses or sprinkler hoses in garden beds now and leave them there all summer. This will save you a lot of work and make it easier to leave watering chores to those who take care of your garden while you are fishing.

Every hose, each faucet and every tool, and I emphasize < every> that attaches to a hose should have a quick release fixture so that the item can be snapped on or off without twisting. You can buy these wherever you purchase hoses. There is one brass system and one or two plastic systems on the market. They are not compatible so once you decide on a system, you have to stick with the same brand.

An inexpensive timer to attach to the faucet will really save you a lot of time and enable you to water at night while you sleep with the assurance that your hose will turn off before flooding out the garden or lawn.

The third rule: Don’t waste a single minute on the lawn this weekend other than watering it. No fertilizing, no liming, no weed and feeding. Just water. Wait until the grass greens up in the next week or two and then you can see what else you might want to do to it.

Really. Don’t waste your time this weekend. There is a whole summer to deal with the lawn, but only a very short window to deal with annuals and tree and shrubs that are only on sale now. Besides, Scientific Gardening suggests that all the nitrates we dumped on our lawns in the spring actually selected for weeds. By not feeding during the dandelion season, we may be able to reduce their numbers.

The forth rule is a new one this year: Use mycorrhizal fungi when you put in transplants. Don’t waste your time or money on Vitamin B-1 starter products. I can’t find any scientific evidence to support their use and plenty that says these products don’t work. What do work are mycorrhizal fungi.

Let me clarify that. Trees, shrubs and perennials all benefit from the application of these fungi to the roots or to the soil just before transplanting. The fungi attach to the roots and then grow out and bring food back to the roots in return for the root providing sugars and proteins.

You can find mycorrhizal products at many of our local nurseries and mill and feed stores, but you may have to look for them. Sometimes they are labeled “Endomycorrhizae fungi.” If you cannot find them this year, complain. Really. Science has proven they work. No gardener should plant without having plenty of mycorrhizal stock on hand. If can’t find some where you shop, John Evans supplies it with his great compost tea kit (see both at his web site, www.alaskagiant.com ,) and also sells it separately.

There is some debate as to whether annuals live long enough to take advantage of the fungal-root relationship. My take is that roots are merely sponges and can only soak up whatever is within reach. Fungi not only extend the reach of roots, but also have enzymes and can produce different products and deliver them to host plants. The can be no harm in using these fungi on annuals and this includes vegetables, while the testing is being done.

Incidentally Cruciferae (Broccoli et al) and enopediaciae (spinach, beets) don’t form the fungal-root relationship so don’t bother wasting your time.

The fifth rule, and no doubt the hardest to follow, is to take a few samples of soil from your yard this weekend and have them tested. Ordinarily you would get a chemistry test. Scientific Gardening is predicated on the idea that the life in your soil influences the chemistry and not the other way around. So this year I am urging you to consider biological tests instead of the old pH tests. To find out more, go to www.soilfoodweb.com  or http://www.bbc-labs.com/  .Without a biological test you will not know exactly what your soil needs. You will be back to gardening as an art and not a science.

The final rule is to enjoy yourself. After all, science or not, that is what gardening is all about.

Fertilizers:

“commercial” fertilizers, cut back to 2/10 a pound of nitrogen per year for every 100 square feet which is just a over 2 pounds or 8-32-16, exactly 2 pounds of 10-10-10 and about 1 and 1/ 2 pounds of 16-16-16 per year.

“ Organic” fertilizers. For lawns as well as gardens use 3 pounds of soybean meal (7-2-2) or cottonseed meal (big bags at mill and feed stores) or cottonseed meal per 100 square feet does it for flowers, vegetables and shrubs as well as lawns. Fishmeal and fish bone meal works well, too.

Compost, Mulch and Soil. Sprinkle compost and soil on your gardens. Mulch heavily.

Delphinium Defoliators: Protect your young delphiniums by hand picking “curled leaves” which always hold an offending caterpillar or use any products containing “Bt” to kill them. Hesitate and loose flowers. I will be testing compost tea as a second solution

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