Sunday, December 20, 2009

Why Do I Garden?

The Last Frontier Gardener gets lucky: Alopecurus pratensis 'Variegatus' with Geranium 'Johnson's Blue'

A former high school teacher of mine once asked a similar question to our sophmore honors English class.  His actual question was more terse: "Why?"  After a few blank looks most people started scratching something, anything down on paper.  I filled a page and a half with answers to any and every question I could think of (the Tindall effect! nature versus nurture! igneous intrusive! Jane Austen!) before the time was up.  Turns out the answer he wanted was "because" or "why not?"  Those could be my answers to the gardening question as well if I wanted to be blunt or sassy.  I'll try a little harder than that to convey my answer to a question that can be inexplicable or elusive.

It's a little embarrassing to admit that my first reason for gardening is control.  I am a bit of a control freak about some things.  Having a yard to tinker in to create a certain effect is very rewarding.  And probably just as expensive and exhausting as therapy.  When I moved into my current abode, I inherited one tree, one shrub, and turfgrass. I called it "the fish bowl" because it was so exposed.  There was no privacy, no beauty, and little functionality.  After almost ten years of blood, sweat, and tears, I have made this space into something private, dynamic, functional, and beautiful (to me at least).  Not to say mother nature doesn't laugh at me and my control tendencies.  Weeds, weather, and wild animals all play a part, whether I want them to or not.

Nassella tenuissima lights up a container planting in autumn

The second reason must be that I've always loved the outdoors.  As children growing up in Alaska, mom shooed the six of us outside with great regularity.  "Go play outside."  The cruelty of that woman, forcing us to go use our imaginations in the fresh air!  We roamed the neighborhood and its wild edges having grand adventures.  I still like being outside and having (garden) adventures even though mom is not here to make me.

Now don't laugh, but my third reason is I am a sensualist.  I greatly enjoy having all my senses engaged in my gardening space.  The smell of sweet peas and stock, the movement of ornamental grasses swaying in the breeze, the sound of birdsong, the touch of a furry lamb's ear leaf, and the taste of my homegrown herbs, fruits, and veggies are all sensations I dream of in winter and revel in when it's summer.

Bergenia spp. and Picea abies 'Ohlendorffii'

I could fill pages and pages just like in high school English class, but I will conclude with a fourth and final reason I garden: roses don't spontaneously bloom beneath my feet.  It may be a "labor of love", but labor it is.  I've got to put in some effort to make a garden!

P.S. This post is in response to a call for a 500 or less word essay by gardens of the wild wild west on "why I garden."  I discovered the contest last night and stayed up late thinking/writing about it because it is a good question (and because the contest closes on December 21st).  If you'd like to share your reason(s) for gardening, please leave a comment below.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Wintertime survival list: no chemical stimulants required

A patch on the hubby's Scout uniform.

Perhaps you are unaware of the Boy Scout motto.  And you are wondering just what it has to do with a wintertime survival list for gardeners.  Having lived with an Eagle Scout for nigh on eleven years, I have picked up this much: "Be prepared."  Now, I don't know how to tie any of those fancy-shmancy knots, I don't have a pocket knife, and my firestarting tends to involve a lighter of some kind, but I have found that when I am prepared, I am not (as) afraid, so I am going to apply the Boy Scout motto to that trial of trials (at least for northern gardeners), winter.

Perhaps you are wondering just why it is sometimes termed "old man" winter.  Me, too.  I have been thinking about the wonderful qualities of some elderly men I know and I don't think those qualities apply to the term.  No, probably more like "stubborn old cuss" or "hornery, mean, son of a gun", you get the idea.  Or just picture Clint Eastwood in any of his movies.  "Do [you] feel lucky punk?  Well, do ya?"  A really cold winter, with a furious north wind that (skip ahead, squeamish ones) freezes your boogers when you inhale through your nose and dries the moisturizer right off your face, that's old man winter.  I should add, he sucks the hope right out of a despondant gardener waiting for spring and the first green, growing thing.  To aid my sanity and arm myself against such an entrenched and ancient foe, I have devised a short list of survival techniques that get me through the really tough months.  For me here in Alaska, those challenging months are January and Febuary.   

Part of my home garden library: bliss!

1.  garden books and magazines: Sometimes I will find myself staring at the same picture for a few minutes, daydreaming I am actually there.

My skis making an appearance with one of the "moose-repelling" pinwheels I've written about in other posts.

2. outdoor activities: I don't actually hate winter, so I am learning to do things like ice skate and cross-country ski.  I've also set a goal to be outside twice a week doing something with the family.  We'll see how it goes....

Working on a post for the blog.

3. blog: A fun, new (for me) way of chronicling my garden adventures.  I also enjoy reading/checking out pictures on other blogs, and learning about other gardens/gardeners, too.

My smelly soccer bag.

4. pursuing new interests: Over various winters, I have taken up indoor soccer, sewing, and singing in a choir (I'm an alto).

5. refining my "gotta-have-it" plant list: I could do this for hours, and I often do.  Much to my own annoyance, I tend to use scraps of paper and sticky notes and once, in Seattle at a flower show, I used a napkin.  Very classy and organized, no?

Beautiful, yes.  Bleak, yes.

I prepare myself for the bleak months by trying to fill time spent not gardening, with other productive, edifying, and enjoyable activities.  I fully realize every gardener and climate is a bit different, so I ask: What are the tough months where you garden?  And how do you cope?

Monday, December 7, 2009

Where'd the sun go?

It's 9:34am, and the only sun around is the one I drew.  Wishful thinking.

It's 9:30am and still dark out.  I can't whine too much: folks in Barrow, Alaska said "bye-bye" to the sun until late January.  It does become hard though when one heads to work in the dark, works inside, and heads home in the dark, too.  I suppose it's a bit like working on the dark side of the moon or underground.  You just have to take it on faith that the sun came up, because you sure didn't see it.

I snooped around online and found some interesting weather stats at  To help me get my worldwide bearings, I found that gardeners in Anchorage are at about the same latitude as Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Olso, Norway, Stockholm, Sweden, and St. Petersburg, Russia.  And those northernmost Alaskans in Barrow are at around the same latitude as Hammerfest, Norway and Wrangel Island, Russia.  Christine, you're thinking, what the heck does latitude have to do with your missing sun?  And I'd have a three word answer for you: the Arctic Circle.  Contrary to popular opinion, it's not a social group, alcoholic beverage, or hunting technique.  It's an imaginary line that crosses Alaska about 125 miles north of Fairbanks (our second largest city), at 66 degrees 34 minutes north latitude.  Put your finger about where you'd guess the middle of Alaska to be and your probably not far off.  This Arctic Circle is the point at which the sun doesn't set for a day in summer and doesn't rise for a day in winter according to  Thankfully, my garden is well below said line.  I can't imagine the sun not rising for even a day in winter.  The light is scarce enough as it is in Anchorage, but our 5 hours and 28 minutes of daylight on our shortest day, December 21st, seems bountiful compared to nothing at all.

It's 3:15pm and the sun has already set below neighboring rooflines.  A bit discouraging, isn't it?

Northern gardeners tend to celebrate (in a subdued fashion: I usually have my face pressed up against the window, eyes glazed over) December 21st.  Not because it is the official start of winter (puh-leez, that was months ago), but because the winter solstice marks the start of our ascension back to the land of light.  We get a bit more daylight each day culminating on summer solstice, June 21st, when gardeners in Anchorage enjoy 19.5 hours of daylight in a 24 hour period.  Barrow gets 24 hours of daylight.  Yes, you read that correctly.  Those poor light-deprived folk enjoy continuous daylight from May 10 to August 2.  It's feast or famine above the Arctic Circle when it comes to photons!  Just don't plan a Barrow visit between November 18 when the sun goes down and doesn't break the horizon again until January 23.

The last rays of sun illuminate the Chugach Mountain range to the east of Anchorage, 4:52pm.

I also found out that what I thought was the official start of winter, December 21, is actually termed "astronomical winter" and the "official" winter start, as far as how records are kept is December 1.  Yeah, who knew?  "Meteorological" winter, or the winter that has to do with the arrival of cold weather, and not some magical number on the calendar, starts earlier the farther north you live.  Read all about winter at the NOAA National Weather Service link above.  I had no idea things like when it got cold and snowed were so fraught with details.
What all this long-days-in-summer/short-days-in-winter stuff means for Alaskans, other than we grow really huge vegetables, is that we also have a lot of sleeping pattern issues.  My kids try the old "but it's not dark yet" in summer when it's bedtime.  And they also use the winter-time equivalent, the old "but it's not light yet" when it's time to wake up.  I can't blame them, I said the same things to my long-suffering parents as a kid, too.  It's hard for a body to adjust sometimes.  Alaskans (and other far north locales) have high rates of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), suicide, and depression often associated with the shortened or seasonally fluctuating amounts of daylight.  Where, oh, where did the sun go?  Australia, do you have it?

So I think I've figured out the Arctic Circle.  Now if someone could just explain to me what the Mason-Dixon line is...??

P.S. I couldn't resist sharing a funny memory (as it is pertinent to the post topic): A nationally well-known garden speaker was visiting Alaska for a statewide gardening conference a few years back and gave a talk on "moon gardens." She had a beautiful slide show to accompany her encouraging dialog and vivacious manner. Among other things, she emphasized using flowers that open up at night, scented white flowers in particular, inviting friends over to enjoy sunset, and lingering in the garden before retiring for the night, etc. She had me convinced, enthralled would not be too strong a word, but then one elderly, longtime Alaskan gardener raised her hand and said a bit shrilly, "But how can we enjoy a moon garden here? It doesn't even start to get dark until two in the morning!" And I'm thinking to myself, oh yeah, I forgot that bit. To her credit, the speaker did not walk out or say "oh, how awkward" and she did manage to sputter and stumble through her talk.  I'm guessing she won't be coming up to speak to us again and I still have yet to see a moon garden in Alaska.

Monday, November 30, 2009

A beautiful day at Crooked Lake, Alaska

You think you have come so far as a gardener, culturing your plant palette, educating yourself on design, exposing yourself to a wide range of garden styles.  And then you look out the window on a beautiful winter's day and realize you don't know squat.  Two types of trees, a dumpy little cabin, a frozen lake, and a dash of snow against a blue-gray sky: solid design and no gardeners involved.  Humbling.


We spent a long weekend in the valley doing all those things that people do in twenty degrees.  We went cross-country skiing, ice skating, snowmachining, and built snow caves.  We drank hot cider and hot chocolate by the gallon.  And we watched Pollyanna and Star Trek (insert joke here).


Giving thanks is especially apropos this time of year.  I don't think a short list of things I am grateful for would be out of place on the blog.  Maybe some of mine will ring a bell for you, too.

  1. I am grateful for my gardening mistakes.  And for those that gently point them out.  ("Just what do mean, did I hill my potatoes up?")  How else am I going to learn? 

  2. I am grateful for quality garden tools and equiptment (Felco number 10, I love you!).  I find I injure myself less with well maintained and well designed tools, very important for a clumsy person such as myself.

  3. Technology.  Faster internet connection (I was on dial-up for years), power point presentations, blogs, online ordering, etc.

  4.  I am grateful for a wonderful gardening community, willing to share their successes, failures, and insights.  In my experience, gardeners are some of the most friendly people around.

  5. I am grateful for my family aka my gardening enablers and laborers.

  6. I am grateful for seasons: there is always something to look forward to and always something to be glad is over and done with.

  What are you grateful for?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

What an odd bloom!

My first impression of the inflorescence on Sesleria heufleriana, blue-green moor grass: odd.  Any grass blooming in black and white is a bit unusual to me.  I should probably disclose I am a grass-aholic, so any wierd, unusual, or unknown hardy grass is on my gotta-have-it list.  I may be the only person in Alaska growing any kind of Sesleria.  I hope not, but I've never seen one on a garden tour, at a public garden, or for sale anywhere up here.  I've never even heard the genus name uttered aloud.  How's that for obscure?  Ornamental grasses are just now gaining traction in gardening circles here in the 49th state and this unusual beauty is not flying off the shelves.  It's not even on the shelves.  Thankfully, with increased awareness should come increased demand, and perhaps even local availability.  A girl can hope, can't she? 

Briza media on left with Sesleria heufleriana at right, C. 'Overdam' top and bottom of photo.

Warm season grasses tend to sulk in our cool, short summers.  I have a laundry list of unfortunates that haven't made it.  Luckily, cool season grasses seem to thrive here in Anchorage.  I never met one that didn't grow for me, and blue-green moor grass is no exception.  Taking into consideration it's size at planting last spring, which was a measly 4 or 5 blades, it is nothing short of amazing that blooms appeared that same year.  I have three specimens happily inhabiting my gravel-covered front yard (see picture, below), nestled amongst Briza media, and Calamagrostis x acutiflora 'Avalanche', 'Eldorado', and 'Overdam'.  Other near-by perennials include yarrow (Achillea 'Paprika' and 'Terracotta'), Monarda 'Marshall's Delight', and Salvia 'Dear Anja.' 

Achillea 'Terracotta' top left, Calamagrostis 'Overdam', 'Eldorado', and 'Karl Foerster' background, Sesleria heufleriana midground with Briza media in front, and Monarda 'Marshall's Delight right foreground

I acquired the plant in spring of 2008, so my experience is short and sweet, but thus far it has withstood the vagaries of weather (no mean feat here), the comings and goings of kids on foot and bike, and fertilization by dog.  Not too shabby.  Additionally, it has not been bothered by the moose, a major point in its favor for Alaskans.  Blue-green moor grass is low maintenance and good looking, the horticultural "holy grail" for me at least.  I am definitely looking forward to trying other members of the Sesleria genus in my zone 3/4 garden in the future.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Planning for winter beauty

With the onset of another Alaskan winter and a dusting of the white stuff, some gardeners go into hibernation.  Others head to Hawaii or Arizona.  Others still, resign themselves to the inevitable and decide to enjoy the austere beauty that we call the winter landscape.  It's not challenging to find grandeur in the wilds of Alaska, but is any of this beauty to be found in your garden?  If you have not noticed it before, perhaps some adjustment is called for. 

Some are just a bit too enthusiastic with fall clean up.  Picture a mixture of Paul Bunyan and Mary Poppins.  Everything must be spit-spot and the hand pruners are slicing away vigorously for three days straight.  The chores are not done until every perennial is cut to the nubbins and every annual yanked out.  For many years my own garden looked this way in late autumn.  After the big cleanup, a heating pad and pain meds, I would look resentfully at the cause of so much pain and effort and my thoughts would be something along the lines of "good riddance."  I am softening my views, it seems.  Increased demands on my time prevented a perfectly clean sweep one autumn and that winter I noticed something I had not in years past.  My garden was interesting.  Even in winter.   

I'm not suggesting that a Paul Bunyan-type gardener go cold turkey.  Start slow if you like.  Increased attention is being paid to perennials that shine in the fall.  Perhaps those might be left intact.  What about plants with interesting seedheads or very woody, rigid stems that might make it through a winter?  Do I even need to mention ornamental grasses?  Of course I do.  If you have them, leave them intact through the winter (Phalaris pictured above).  What about your container plants?  I used to pluck each one out and fling the whole bit on the compost pile every fall like clockwork.  With my new combination of insight and laziness, I leave many plants in the containers (example below).  I might as well, they are going to die anyway.  I'd rather enjoy the show.

Trees add a lot of interest to the winter landscape.  Those blessed with established, healthy trees can just enjoy the show.  When it comes to planting a new tree, a person with a small yard needs to be especially choosy, but even those with serious acreage need to decide carefully when it comes to placement near the home.  Evergreen trees, like spruces and pines, add bulk and presence.  They are great background plants in summer that can come to the foreground after all the deciduous trees lose their leaves.  Some varieties have needles that turn colors in fall or winter for increased interest.  Deciduous trees are also attractive in their own way without their leaves.  Some varieties have attractive bark, like birches (pictured below), that can be featured with a little planning, others have brightly colored berries or fruit.  Some shrubs also have interesting bark or berries for winter, like Physocarpus (ninebark) or Viburnum.  They are especially valuable in small yards or near the house, where you don't want some thirty foot evergreen tree blocking the little bit of (precious) winter light that comes into the home.

Ah, what to say about hardscape (in other words, everything but the plants themselves) in the winter garden?  A dusting of snow can conceal many things but it can be revealing, too.  How is your space divided?  Rocks, timbers, concrete, plastic, or metal.  Is the overall shape pleasing, jarring, satisfying?  A straight line (like a path to the front door) can be very agreeable, but so can a gentle curve (like a path through the garden).  When covered in a thin layer of snow, the outline can be discerned.  Textures come into play: smooth, like concrete, versus rough, like gravel.  Directionality is a feature: vertical, like a copper trellis, versus horizontal, like a raised planter.  All these things can add appeal or interest to a garden in winter.

One more thing that can be very interesting in the winter landscape: land contours.  Slopes, inclines, knolls, rises, mounds, or hills.  All wonderful for effect.  And what effects they can be: humor, awe, mystery, drama.  It reminds me an instance when I was completely re-designing the front yard a few years ago and was trying to contour a small rise for privacy.  I imagined a tree or two planted on it and a few shrubs would shelter the path to my front door very nicely.  A neighbor thought I was making a burial mound.  Ha, ha.  Obviously my little contour was a touch too suggestive.  I pursed my lips and set about smoothing the edges out a bit.

So to conclude, there are many different ways to add interest to the garden in winter.  Take stock of your space and see if plants, hardscaping, and land contours might aid you in achieving an effect worth looking at in the cold months.  It's the next best thing to wintering in Hawaii.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Hoarfrost: not a moral judgement

I noticed two things when I woke up this morning.  One, it was way too dark to be time to rise and shine.  And two, it was so darn cold that there was hoarfrost on everything.  Of course I felt duty bound to snap a few pictures even though the indoor thermometer read 6 degrees F for outside.  Ugh. 

Just what is this mysterious and beautiful thing we call hoarfrost?  I have included a link to an article published by University of Alaska Fairbanks by T. Neil Davis if you want the details, otherwise a quick summation.  When air cools down it does one of two things, 1. turns to dew if the dew point is above freezing (32 degrees F) or, 2. turns to hoarfrost if the air is dry (the dew point is below freezing).  Davis mentions in his article that it occurs in different forms, including needles, plates, cups, and feather-like.  My second question, just why is it called "hoar" frost?  I flipped open the ol' Funk and Wagnells dictionary and found that "hoar" means one of three things, none of them about prostitutes.  Number three definition: "White or grayish, as with frost."  My eye went down the page a bit to "hoarfrost," which is "frost whitening the surface on which it is formed."

Part of enjoying a garden year 'round is appreciating the strange and wonderful things cold weather does to our plants.  Hoarfrost might be the only thing I can appreciate about my garden in 6 degree weather.  That and the lack of chores to do out there.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Boutique or box store: the old debate

I think an old Chinese saying goes "Buy the best and you only cry once."  I didn't understand just how true this saying could be until I acquired my first pair of Italian leather shoes.  It was foot heaven:  they looked great and felt great.  Expensive, yes.  Worth it, yes.  And none of the aggravation of poor quality coming apart at the seams after the second use.  But do you need high shoe quality if you are going to the beach in flip flops or slogging in the mud in galoshes?  In other words, does the purpose justify the price?  In one camp you have the highly crafted, rather expensive item you only want to buy once versus the convenience and affordability of just buying a disposable and cheap item repeatedly as you need it.  Just how am I going to relate that to some kind of Alaskan gardening experience? 

Tools.  Because I take atrocious care of my tools (occasionally rinsing the dirt off is about as far as it goes), I usually don't buy the best.  I have a shovel in the "better" category, and it's my favorite shovel out of the four or five in my collection.  Sturdy, no sliver handle, and a thick blade that has moved more earth than I care to admit.  Has withstood outside storage in our sub-zero winters with a shrug.  My hand pruners are Felco's (pictured above), a gold standard in the gardening industry and for many gardeners that name is enough to guarantee good performance.  I have the rare left-handed pair, normally a small fortune when compared to hand-pruner prices at the home improvement store, but picked up on clearance at Alaska Mill and Feed.  They have lasted when the others broke or went dull.  Enough said.  I have a short pitchfork, the kind with wide tines, in the "good" category.  Still going strong but rusting, and the plastic coating on the handle has become gooey so gloves are a must.  Hand trowels.  How many do you own?  I must have a dozen of varying quality.  The very best of the bunch is still rust-free and unbent, the worst, long since broken and consigned to the trash. 

Conclusions: better tools last longer and better tools are more expensive.  A good pair of quality hand pruners at least is a necessity.   

I put gloves in their own category.  I must buy three or four pairs every year.  The best I've ever had were a red pair of West Country Gardener landscape gloves.  They cost quite a bit more than the grocery store 3-pack, but lasted a good deal longer.  They also were better tailored and warmer to wear, a real plus for an Alaskan woman sick of bulky, thin gloves tailored (I'm guessing here) for men that garden in warmer climes.  Those quality gloves were my faithful gardening companions for three years of really hard manual labor before finally developing holes in the fingers.  They can occasionally be found at some of the nurseries around town.  I would pick up another pair in a heartbeat.  Also good for tasks requiring dexterity (in other words a really well-fitting glove), Foxgloves brand gloves.  I have tried on many pairs and they feel really comfortable.  You can find them at many nurseries around town.  Another somewhat spendy glove.  I don't shun the cheap gloves, but I seem to go through them like it's going out of style.  The coated, waterproof ones come in many cheerful colors (I have purple this year).  They are useful for many garden tasks, such as weeding, muddy tasks, and planting perennials, but they wear out pretty quickly. 

Conclusions:  Have a good pair (pictured above) and several cheap pairs. 

Plants.  Best in this category does not necessarily go hand in hand with expense.  Some of my best specimens were had for a song, and even free, from generous Alaskans.  Conversely, the very newest, most hyped plants (for example a variety of hosta just released for sale this year) will be expensive, sometimes extraordinarily so.  Do plants live up to the hype?  Often in zone 3 and 4, not so much.  I like to let the very new varieties kick around for a few years before I try them.  By then there is a better idea of zone hardiness and performance.  When I was a greenhorn gardener, I took published zone hardiness as gospel truth.  These days I'm a zone cheater.  Sometimes my own experience contradicts the published literature.  I keep seeing feather reed grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora 'Karl Foerster') listed as zone 5.  It drives me crazy.  I would try it in zone 3 and even recommend zone 2 gardeners take a chance on the guy.  But sometimes cheating zones with expensive plants can be, well, expensive.  So with the really new plants, or those not known to grow here, caveat emptor, let the buyer beware. 

Conclusions: If you're wondering about the hardiness and performance of a plant, new release or old standby, head to the Alaska Botanical Garden, off of Tudor and Campbell Airstrip Rd.  That will provide a starting point.  Also, utilize any neighbors that garden.  Most gardeners I know are more than happy to blab about plants if you have any questions.  Another of my favorite resources is the Master Gardeners Association.  They often have a booth at the spring home and garden shows around town.  This is a group of people that collectively have hundreds of years of gardening experience in Alaska.  If you don't catch them at a show, they can often be found answering garden questions during the summer at the Cooperative Extension office.  Call 'em up: 786-6300 in Anchorage.

So what's it going to be for you?  I have never regretted buying high quality items for my (feet and) garden.  The choice is yours: buy once and cry, or buy over and over on the cheap. 

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Prescription for winter blues: garden books

What's the difference between an indespensible and inspirational reference book and a rectangular, three-dimensional, 75 dollar dust magnet?  Answer: only difference, how often you pick it up and use it.  There are plenty of reviews out there that describe certain garden books as "must-have" that I respectfully disagree with.  I should know, I have a small library of garden books I rarely, if ever, pick up and read.  I have listed below a few (that are especially relevant to gardeners up here in the north country) that I refer to time and time again.  Granted that there are not libraries worth of garden books just for Alaskans.  There are however, several books of note for gardener's in cold climates.  Let's dive right in, shall we?

Growing Shrubs and Small Trees in Cold Climates by Nancy Rose, Don Selinger, and John Whitman and published by Contemporary Books is a nice compendium of popular trees and shrubs to try.  The first part of the book deals with each genus and includes sections on: how they grow, where to plant, landscape use, planting, transplanting, how to care for, problems, propagation, and special uses.  The varieties of each genus and their height/width and hardiness are listed, as well as sources.  The second part of the book is all about the basics of growing shrubs and small trees.  The authors also rate varieties from one to five stars based on ornamental attributes.  Lots of pictures, too.

Dirr's Hardy Trees and Shrubs: An Illustrated Encyclopedia by Michael A. Dirr and published by Timber Press is divine on a winter's day.  Dr. Dirr is regarded as a worldwide authority on woody plants.  This book lists more than 500 species and about 700 different varieties.  Lots and lots of pictures.  And plenty of Dr. Dirr's trademark candor and wit.  A must-have book intended for gardener's in zone 3-6.

Growing Perennials in Cold Climates by Mike Heger and John Whitman does for perennials what the "woodies" book in the series (mentioned above) does for trees and shrubs.  How to grow, where to plant, companions, planting, how to care for, problems, propagation, special uses, and sources are listed for each genus.  A handy variety guide completes each section complete with ratings up to five stars.  The second part of the book deals with the basics of growing perennials, from site selection to tools and supplies.  There are pictures for each genus (not enough in my opinion).  There is also a rose book in the series for those northern gardeners that suffer from that addiction (I'm in recovery).

As far as Alaskan books go, Lenore Hedla's The Alaska Gardener's Handbook, is a classic.  It can be found at the Loussac library, at bookstores new or used, or check  It was one of the first garden books I ever read.  Great for the beginning or new-to-Alaska gardener.

A couple of useful regional handbooks with applications in AK are: Tree and Shrub Gardening for Minnesota and Wisconsin and Perennials for Minnesota and Wisconsin, both by Don Engebretson and Don Williamson, published by Lone Pine.  They might be difficult to find locally; I got mine online.  Most of the picks are hardy in zone 3 or 4 and there are pictures on every page.  This is the sort (and size) of book that is handy to pitch into the car in the summer as a reference while out shopping at nurseries.

Yes, I freely admit I am an ornamental grass fanatic.  Even if you are trying grasses for the first time, you will enjoy the pictures taken by Saxon Holt in Nancy Ondra's Grasses: Versatile Partners for Uncommon Garden Design, published by Storey Books.  This was the first grass book I ever purchased and it really opened my eyes to their beauty and uselfulness.  The book is very readable, not to dry or overly-detailed, but it's the photography that sold me.  I could reccommend it as a coffee table book, it's that gorgeous.

While we are on the topic of grasses, anything by Rick Darke (a worldwide authority) is desireable.  My current favorite is Grasses for Liveable Landscapes published by Timber Press.  Everything you might wish to know is covered.  Don't worry, there are plenty of inspiring pictures to hold interest!  The encyclopedic portion is indespensible.  Many, many ornamental grasses are hardy for us in Alaska: run, do not walk, to the library to check this one out.

This just scratches the surface of books tailored for cold climates, but I can reccommend all the above books to any Alaska gardener.  For more selections, search "cold climate gardening books" online.  And have your wallet or library card handy.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Prescription for winter blues: garden magazines

So what do you do in the wintertime?  Downhill skiing, ice skating, snowmachining, ice fishing, sledding, skijoring, mushing, cross-country skiing, walking, snowshoeing, etc.  If you are an Alaskan, gardening is not on the list.  I don't count watering the houseplants as gardening.  How does the avid gardener get through these lean times?  Well, books and magazines help.  If we can't participate in something, we like to watch someone else doing it, right?  How else can armchair quarterbacks, C-SPAN, and travel shows on cable be explained?  Garden mags can be a lifeline on a long, dark afternoon.  The colorful pictures transport us to gardens in Seattle, LA, or Conneticut.  Anywhere is good, so long as it is somewhere that's not under four feet of snow.

The problem is, as with all products, there are inferior ones out there.  Some garden mags just don't deliver.  When I buy a garden magazine, I want to see a lot of gardens, find out the new products, hear from the experts, etc.  I don't want lots of casserole recipes, home decor tips, and lifestyle articles.  So when I am on the hunt for a quality garden mag, I usually confine my pick to a few names, gleaned from long experience and a good chunk of wasted cash.

The British just "get" gardening.  I have never visited (someday, I hope!) the place, but many world-famous gardens are located in Britain: Sissinghurst, Foggy Bottom, and Great Dixter spring to mind, but there are scads more.  They also turn out some spectacular garden magazines.  Plenty of pictures, great colors, experts, behind the scenes, current gardening events, new products, and more.  Check out: BBC's Gardens Illustrated.

We have some nice publications on this side of the Atlantic, too.  The great thing about some American garden mags is you have a hope and a prayer your region (and plants that thrive there) might be occasionally featured.  Our climate in Alaska is (mostly) very different from England, and anywhere else in America for that matter.  In Anchorage, with our measly 16" of annual precipitation, we are a far cry from London's 23", Seattle's 37", and Conneticut's (Hamden) 47 inches.  Every town/state/region has different weather, so it makes sense to have regional features in the magazines.  I'm just glad a few gardening editors have caught on to the fact.  I might enjoy reading about and looking at Seattle gardens, but I am ecstatic when an Alaskan garden or gardener is featured.  It's like an affirmation Alaskans actually exist as part of the gardening community.  Check out: Fine Gardening (my favorite), Garden Design, Horticulture.

 Next time you are cruising through the bookstore or grocery store, make a detour to the magazine aisle. There are more garden magazine choices at the bookstore, but if one is not handy, surf the web for them.  Garden magazines are also great for perusing whilst waiting for one's feet to thaw after a long day of mushing.  Happy trails!

For next time: great books for Alaskan (and other cold climate) gardeners

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

What's happening outside on November 4th?

In a word, nothing.  But perhaps that's a little unkind and abrupt.  Still no snow in my part of town.  It's 31 degrees outside.  To put that in perspective, my refrigerator temperature is currently set at 39 degrees.  All the bergenias in the yard have an unhappy, droopy look.

Contrast that with how perky they looked last month.

The Cornus alba 'Prairie Fire' is clinging to its last three leaves.  The golden hair grass, Deschampsia flexuosa 'Aurea', is still looking dapper amongst the wreckage.  Also the brownish sedge, Carex flagellifera, is still effective in the background of the picture below. 

Did I find anything else trying to shrug off the inevitable?  I bought cross-country skis.  Does that count?

Monday, November 2, 2009

Cool landscaping around town: part 1

I used to despair of ever seeing really interesting commerical landscape design in Alaska.  Instead of interesting, imaginitive, or evocative landscaping, most of the stuff seemed to be gas station design on a grander scale.  Not so in the last few years.  I have been pleasantly suprised by some recent designs, one of which I will share today (blurry drive-by photo of west side, below).

When I first noticed the landscaping at 188 Northern Lights, a recently completed office building in midtown Anchorage, I just about ran up onto the curb with the car.  There were boulders set into the sidewalk (on the north side), interspersed with plantings.  And the plantings!  Unusual choices for the 49th state.  Wow.  I'd like to see more thoughtful designs like this.  Planting tall, narrow varieties (to avoid the maintenance nightmare of trying to wack things back down and into size in a tight urban space) was smart.  Also, ornamental grasses were utilized, one of my favorite groups of plants.  The inflorescences were left to stand over the winter.  That flat out stunned me.  I thought for sure a "clean-up crew" would cut everything back, thus ensuring minimal winter interest.  From my observations, onamental grasses are still unusual in residential landscapes up here, but in commercial landscapes, there are almost non-existent.  

The plantings at this building are (my best guess): Calamagrostis x acutiflora 'Overdam', Rosa glauca, Populus tremula 'Erecta', and Hemerocallis 'Stella D'Oro'.  I realize many people think daylilies are gas station plants, but they are still unusual in Alaska.  In the interest of full disclosure, there is a small patch of turfgrass on the south side of the building.  That disappointed me a bit.  As all Alaska gardeners know, the southern exposure is a treasured piece of real estate.  However, the rest of the design is smashing so I can overlook one generic choice.  Drive by and enjoy it some time (the northwest corner is pictured below).

Hopefully, this is the start of a trend in commercial landscape design here in Anchorage.  I'd call it the "Making an Effort" trend.  Hope springs eternal, right?

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Pinwheel update: the posts are in for good, short of a hurricane

For those keeping track, I have had three sessions with my welding guru to work on the moose pinwheels.  I never dreamed when I came up with the concept that it would take so darn long and require so much effort.  The rebar posts have finally been installed, with the aid of an Eagle scout, an engineer, and a laborer.  Luckily, I am married to him and he had no choice. 

Additonal aid rendered by an ax, a hammer, a log (don't ask), a ladder, a post-hole digger, and a few choice phrases I will not repeat here.  You'd think after all this I was laying the foundation for the Sistine Chapel or something.  This is all I did:

Yup, that's it.  I have two more pinwheels to make.  After a couple of coats of epoxy on the pinwheel edges (to prevent any visitors from getting maimed on a windy day), I can move on to my next project.  And my welding wish finally came true: I did get to don the leather chap/apron (and strike a Charlie's Angels pose) at my latest welding session.   


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