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?


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