Thursday, November 20, 2014

Well, Al Gore was right, sort of

reflective orange poles

We are having a remarkable winter here in Alaska. My swamp-dwelling sister in the southern USA is enjoying colder weather. You read that correctly. Alaska is warmer that most of the nation. Cue the music from the Twilight Zone now.

Yep, it’s a heat wave, or climate change, or whatever. I have never seen green grass at the end of November in Anchorage before, and I’ve been here forever. Our lawns are typically covered with a foot or more of snow, not up for mowing consideration! (If you were wondering, the answer was no. The mower was put to bed for the year.) I even inserted those tall, orange, reflective pole guides through the garden for the snow blower (don’t ask)!

Yet here we are. What to do? The alpine skiers are getting desperate. The cross country ski types had a least a thin base to ski on the trails, for a while. It’s pretty spotty to non existent in my part of town. There’s always ice skating. Two years ago at this time I was skating on glass ice at Finger Lake in Palmer, Alaska. I could literally see fish frozen in the ice it was so crystal clear. Aside: When skating on lakes here, one can’t be the nervous type and truly enjoy it. There will be cracking noises. Sometimes very disturbing ones. Like the cracks and booms are having a conversation together. “Look at that fool! Let’s make her wish she had never laced her skates! Ha ha! Crack! Boom! Creak!” Last week a friend told me her son had fallen in to his thighs at Potter’s Marsh while ice skating. I guess it’s true. We are getting warmer.

My studded tires, which were installed the moment I suspected the snow wouldn’t melt away, are now just loud and useless as I roar down the freeway. I don’t dare take them off though. That would be tempting fate.

I would be more excited if the killing frost date was pushed back in proportion to the warm weather now. As it is, everything died at the typical time, and now it’s just dead stuff with no snow. Which is how it is in other, more southerly locales, I guess. At least the Halloween jack-o-lanterns used to freeze so I could easily heave them into the yard for the moose to graze. Not so much now. Eew.

smushed pumpkins


How’s the weather? Is your area experiencing some strange temperatures?

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The curtain falls, but not today


Deschampsia, Physocarpus, Achillea, Festuca, Calamagrostis

There is a persistent garden legend around here that has begun to annoy me. I heard it again the last week of July from a new-to-gardening friend. I told her that her container plants looked really thirsty (my thoughts were more like, “All that money you spent on those annuals is going to go down the drain if you don’t water them today!” Yeah, they were really that close to death. Her response? “It doesn’t matter, right? They are just going to die in a week anyway.”

smells great too

Au contraire, my friend. I have plants blooming into October (stop laughing everyone)! I told her she had a good month or 6 weeks left of her container and to keep watering it.

Salvia, Sedum, Carex (collected locally), Dianthus, Alyssum, Stachys

What was blooming, September 23rd, in my garden*:

1. Salvia

2. Achillea

3. Alyssum

4. Dahlia

5. Petunia

6. Papaver

7. Verbascum

8. Penstemon

9. Periscaria nummalaria aurea

10. Viola sp.

11. Sedum

12. Moss

Sagina subulata 'Aurea'

What was blooming, October 17, in my garden:

1. Salvia

2. Achillea

3. Alyssum

4. Penstemon

5. Moss

*You’ll notice this list is not very specific as far as variety, but my computer (to put it in the evocative language of someone that lives at my house but shall remain unnamed) “took a dump” and my plant list is looking something like $%^&&*>"*!@#

There was quite a drop off in types of plants in bloom over the course of about a month, but still, it’s something! It should give heart to those who assume Alaska has a three month window of bloom that ends like a guillotine on midnight, August 31st.  And for the record, it hasn’t snowed yet at my house. Woohoo!!


What is the die-off date in your area?

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

I don’t need the reminder, thanks

This is not my dream, Mr. Crosby

Today, Bing Crosby told me his favorite dream. We are not on speaking terms, Bing and I, but he got up in my grill, as the kids say. How can I ever forget the moment?

There I was, pushing my cart along, searching for bulk commodities at an enormous food warehouse, and then out of nowhere, I’m walking past the sound of a voice crooning “I’m dreaming of a whiiiiite Christmas… just like the ones I used to knowwww.” I was momentarily stunned and distracted from my important quest for sliced apples with the thought “#$%^” and then the thought “but it was only Halloween and Thanksgiving at (that other store) today! I guess it really is colder on this side of town.” Alaskans don’t need or like to be reminded that snow is coming, so take your dream, Bing, and stuff it.

What’s the rush, I say. Either pace yourself with dignity, retailers, or just leave everything up all year. Need an Easter wreath in September? No problem, (store) has it on aisle 175, just shy of the St. Patrick’s Day edible glitter for your cupcakes and after you hit the Valentine’s Day throw pillows.

I want the dignity of enjoying autumn without thinking any of these three things: 1. how many hours it’s going to take to set up the Christmas tree, 2. what, oh what to buy for the in-laws, and 3. whether we should do a ham or turkey this year. It is getting colder, I admit. But that could be said for 9 months of the year here. I am trying in vain to live in the moment and merchants aren’t helping.

I don’t wear a coat yet (a vest doesn’t count). I haven’t put my bicycle away. The lawn still needs to be mowed (blech) and the dandelions are in bloom. So that means it is not Christmas, nor even Halloween.

My plants, for the most part, are still alive in their containers (albeit the favored ones are in the house because the piano movers came on Friday and everything in their path to the front door would have been demolished). My variegated Carex is still going strong after two summers outside and a winter in the house, so back in it came. My most expensive plant (grumble, mutter), the Phormium, also came inside. “Is this the final resting place for this octopus plant?” someone asked me yesterday. It is both a maroon curtain to the kitchen and a jump rope for the dining room. I haven’t decided if I will bring the dark-leaved Begonia into the house or it will die a sudden, cold death like the petunias and the orange Dahlia. But you get the point, right? It is barely autumn, let me have a minute more with my season!


Do you live in the moment? What holiday décor is up around your area?

Monday, June 23, 2014

Help! New to Alaska garden scene, what to plant?

Periodically I get an email from a new-to-Alaska gardener. It usually runs something like, “wow, I didn’t know people gardened in this forsaken hole. What are some plants that come back every year?”

Firstly, quite a few long-time Alaskans don’t seem to be aware they can garden here, either (93.56%, according to a number I just made up). Secondly, besides dandelions and a handsome crop of chickweed, I have cultivated quite a few easy care plants that an Alaska newbie should know about. “Easy care” meaning you aren’t doing the horticultural equivalent of burning money. I do that too, but don’t recommend it for beginners. Bad for morale.

wild Geranium

1. Geraniums. Found a geranium at a home improvement store? Most likely a Pelargonium (an annual). Perennial geranium leaves aren’t as thick as Pelargonium leaves. Also, you won’t find true geraniums planted at the grocery store or gas station. You may, however find Pelargoniums there in abundance. I don’t judge.

If you place geraniums in full sun and do not water them, then no guarantees. Otherwise, I’ve found them to be cheerful in spring and early summer. Sometimes my Geranium ‘Johnson’s Blue’ foliage actually gets a decent gold or even orange in the autumn.

2. Peonies. There is an explosion of interest in peony farming in Alaska. Apparently we have peonies in bloom at a time of year that no place else in the world does, hence a demand from the cut flower market. Point is, they do really well here with a minimum of care. Don’t bury too deep or plant too shady. You will stake and manure in spring, sorry.

unloved, water, abandoned Iris: still ticking!

3. Irises. They grow well here, almost too well. Trying to lift and divide a mature clump is quite a chore, but hey, I say that about everything. You’ll often see our own blue-purple native Iris setosa in gardens around here, but there are other colors and kinds.

4. Primula. I haven’t grown many primroses, but there are special interest garden groups devoted to them across the state. Lovely in spring. Some have interesting leaves throughout the summer, some not so much.

5. Monarda. Bee balm can get a touch of mildew on occasion for me, but very easy.

6. Hostas. Many sizes, colors, textures. They can do full sun here, but appreciate a good watering until established. And maybe after that, too.

7. Delphiniums. I hesitate to include these because to the absolute necessity to stake and hover for pests, but oh well. They can be magnificent in the English cottage-style garden and they are plenty hardy.

Papaver nudicaule 'Champagne Bubbles Pink'

8. Poppies. Oriental, Icelandic, Himalayan, we love them all and they love us back. Also, the annual types won’t return for another show but have always reseeded well for me.

9. Sedums. Many different types and kinds. Raised beds are good because drainage is essential for longevity. Bonus points for a gravel top dressing.

10. Trollius. All kinds of yellow and gold colored flowers available. Pretty hard to kill and takes shade.

11. Aquilegia. Lovely for spring, beware leaf miners and sawfly larvae.

12. Lilies. Asian types are some of the easiest, drainage and soil prep important. Staking is usually a must.

Deschampsia 'Pixie Fountain'

13. Ornamental grasses*. Many different kinds are hardy here, the key being the words “cool season.” Grasses (like Miscanthus, Cortaderia, etc.) that are “warm season” growers do dreadfully or not at all in this cold place. Some easy-to-grow picks: Deschampsia (tufted hair grass) any and all cultivars (but ‘Schottland’ may be my fave), and Calamagrostis x acutiflora (feather reed grass), all cultivars I’ve seen are great (but ‘Avalanche’ might be the winner…for today).

*I ask you not to buy the variegated grass Phalaris ‘Feesey’s Form’ and then write me complaining it took over your yard. I do not recommend it except for contained plantings, like, um, containers. In fact I find it quite stunning in a container. Caveat emptor!

Good luck, new Alaskan gardeners! You can do it with a little luck, cash, back breaking labor, a snow covered winter and a long, sunny summer interspersed with drizzly days that water everything. Maybe an electric fence around the garden, too. Bears and moose also enjoy gardens in Alaska.


Any plants that new gardeners should not try?

Monday, February 17, 2014

Oh say, can you sing that a different way?

uaa playing bowling green in anchorage 

Volunteering in school has its rewards, chief of which are hearing a room full of 7-year olds, with their hands over their hearts, sing to José in the morning. “José, can you see, by the dawnzerly light?” Somewhat further down the list of rewards in no particular order are: being sneezed on full in the face, being touched by fingers that were just in a nostril, and being kicked in the shin repeatedly.

Also, you may not know this, fellow Americans, but we do not sing the *Star-Spangled Banner. It is the “Star Sprinkled Banner”. With difficulty, I managed to choke back a laugh when I heard that phrase belted out in the classroom. (Considering 98.5% of Americans think a “spangle” is a member of Ghostbusters, this is one change that Francis Scott Key could endorse.)

But it’s not the kids I want to write about today. No, no, they are earnestly singing their little hearts out, unselfconsciously and delightfully. No, I want to offer some friendly advice for those good souls who sing our national song at sporting events.

A few tips, from the captive audience:

1. Read the music through. Knowing the words to the song really does help.

2. There are no vocal talent scouts or studio execs in the stands in Anchorage, Alaska, so proving you have a 5 octave range is unnecessary.

3. Vibrato is like wearing perfume. A very little will do.

4. Random pauses, unless one is choking (up), are just annoying. If fans have time to go for a beer and get back before the song resumes, consider taking fewer breaths.

5. Spectators pay to watch the game, so don’t go too long. (National anthem pace is more sprightly than funeral dirge pace, at least in the USA.) Some YouTube videos of the song clocked in under a minute. Let that be your guide.

(My editor/Last Frontier Garden attorney wants me to add this list is not meant to castigate any particular performer.)

a zamboni wetting the ice rink down

*The Star-Spangled Banner:

“O say can you see by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave,
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”

written by Francis Scott Key


Heard any good renditions of your national anthem?

Sunday, January 5, 2014

A rip roaring good time with the sod ripper

I don’t understand how “sod off” got to be an insult. In my experience, not having to deal with the back breaking work of sod removal in the garden is a sublime, yet too infrequent situation. In my Little House on the Prairie phase, I removed turfgrass with a shovel. I felt really bad for Pa and whatever horse helped him turn over all that prairie sod.

expanding the gravel garden, one roll at a time

That phase ended September 5, 2013. On September 6th, the sun shone, the birds sang, the dandelions withered, and I rented a sod remover and joined the Machine Revolution. Hallelujah!

sod cut old school style: with a shovel

You might be wondering if it is worth the $. My roommate of 15 years, who shall remain unnamed, did indeed wonder this very thing. After watching me remove about 20 square feet per day, the proverbial snail’s pace (see pic above for messy results), unnamed roommate realized one of two things would happen. Thing 1: it wouldn’t get done before winter. Thing 2: it would get done but I would be a cripple.

a beautiful thing: rolled sod

Since regular readers know my fondness for lists, this post has two. If you answer yes to more than one question in the list below, the rental is worth the money. You’re welcome.

Reasons to Rent the Sod Ripper

1. are you over the age of 20?

2. do you feel arm wrestling Conan the Barbarian or Zena, Warrior Princess would be a challenge?

3. do you have more than 200 square feet to remove?

4. are you pressed for time, perhaps the season’s first blizzard is upon you or the crew delivering 10 tons of (fill in the blank) hardscape product just called and will be there tomorrow for sure by 3pm?

5. is there a slight incline involved anywhere in the removal or disposal area?

Since I feel sure all but one or two of you qualify for the sod remover rental, a few friendly words of advice. Words of advice that should be laminated and clipped to every sod ripper in the world, I humbly add.

Tips for handling the Ripper

Tip 1. In my opinion, anything called a “ripper” should be handled with caution. (I think rippers are close cousins to mangles. If handling a ripper scares you, they are also called sod cutters. Would you rather rent a cutter?) If you are tiny, frail, clumsy, weak, or just plain intelligent, get a friend to help. (If nothing else, they can call 911 when the ripper jumps out of the ruts and cuts your toes off.)

My partner in sod removal is 6 feet 4 inches and 180 pounds. He couldn’t have ripped our yard on his own, considering our particular brand of ripper weighed more than 300 pounds. We barely managed it together and I’m not much smaller than he is. How we got it back into the truck to return to the rental company is a tale for another day. I will only tease you with this: hill, ramp, pulley, bad language. 

sturdy boots and snazzy outfit mandatory

Tip 2. Flat land is best. Hills are tricky. If your land requires grappling hooks, crampons, or rope to traverse, forget it. If your lawn mower regularly gets away from you and propels itself like a runaway train down your hilly sward, just get your shovel out. Sorry. Our land is sloping and it took two large adults to steer the machine down the hill and around a corner without losing control. Up the hill was almost impossible.

can you tell this is on an incline?

Tip 3. Is it the rainy season? Would mud be an apt description of the soil? If you were to stand on the bare soil, would it swallow up your foot? The Ripper doesn’t like mud, at all. Dry or average soil is best. Proceed at your own risk if the soil is very wet.

the results of the ripper

Bonus tip. Your toddler or pet should not be around while the Ripper is ripping.

Yet another bonus tip. Safety glasses, gloves, sturdy boots, and a sense of your own mortality would not be excessive in this situation.

Last tip for now. Any shallow cables or utility lines should be marked. We ended up nicking the phone line and had to have it repaired. Whoever heard of burying a line an inch below soil level?

looking uphill toward the driveway at the ripper's handywork

Good luck with the ripper. You won’t regret it, and your back will thank you. It was $60 well spent. And yes, my sod removal job was completed before the blizzard, if you were wondering.

Done any sod ripping in your day?


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