Gardening

Alaska Gardening - Perennials

Story and Media by
Wendy Wesser
Media by
Cecil Sanders
Written by
Wendy Wesser

So...you’ve been playing all summer and didn’t get those garden projects done that you dreamed of and planned for all last winter. No worries, the cooler weather and rains we often have in August create an ideal time to work on your yard. August is a good time to plant berry bushes, shrubs, trees, and is a great time to plant perennials. Friends, family and neighbors will be dividing many of their perennials now and they are often willing to share extras. When you visit your local greenhouses in August your budget will go much farther since they are typically selling their remaining stock at discounted prices. You may not have time to get everything done on your wish list this year, but you still have plenty of time left to play in your garden.

One of the biggest mistakes people make when planning garden projects is attempting to do too much in one Alaskan summer. Each winter I develop a long list of new dream projects for my gardens, but when reality hits I usually pick only one or two new items to concentrate my efforts on. This year I narrowed my goals to growing enough spinach to supply us over the winter and to successfully grow cucumbers. Well, my spring spinach crop failed miserably. A combination of long, hot days in June and not enough water caused the first spinach crop to bolt in mid-June, despite my use of shade cloth. I will plant a fall crop of spinach and see if I have better luck when the days are cooler and nights are a bit longer. 

Thanks to my step-dad, who built me a mini-greenhouse attached to our woodshed in May, my cucumbers are healthy and producing very well. I think cucumbers might just be the easiest vegetable I have ever grown with the exception of radishes. In Alaska they don’t do so well in outside gardens, but if you grow cucumbers inside a greenhouse or in a sunny area of your home, keep them watered, and give them something to climb, it is hard to go wrong. I am looking forward to trying a couple more varieties of cucumbers next year. If I set my heart on completing everything on my winter dream list I would be able to do very little during the summer other than garden. My husband would, understandably, be quite grumpy if I expected him to make our yard his first priority over fishing, hunting and biking activities. Neither of us prioritized working on yard projects over taking a road trip up the Haul Road in early June with friends. Our Alaska summers are simply too short, so unless you are a farmer, can afford to hire help, or do not plan to leave your home much, you too may be wise to simplify your garden plans. 

Almost every year I dig up one of my existing perennial beds to rejuvenate an area. August is a great time to do this, but if I have a flower bed overrun with weeds I might dig it up in June or July if that is when I have time and am inspired to do it. Most of the time I excavate an existing garden bed by choice, but this year my husband discovered that two walls of our garage need significant repairs. The raised garden beds next to the foundation, which were there when we bought our home, were a big contributor to the base plates of the walls rotting out. The lesson here is use caution when building garden beds next to your foundation. Never allow the soil level to be higher than the foundation or the siding. 

Since my husband wants to take care of our walls as soon as possible, I need to rescue a peony, several orange trollius, a yellow trollius and a french lilac. In times like this a nursery garden bed is very handy. This is a garden bed just for holding plants in transit. My permanent garden beds are already full so we will rototill a quick nursery bed in an out of the way area of our yard to temporarily store the ousted plants. We also have to pull out an old-fashioned lilac tree and a Virginia creeper vine that my great-grandparents planted decades ago which is heartbreaking. I take solace remembering the grand old lilac tree has produced many new lilac trees through its prolific suckers shared with family, friends and neighbors. The Virginia creeper vine also has been shared over the years so it will never die completely. I’m not sure it is possible to kill off that vine even if I wanted to. I plan to move the vine to a more appropriate location, away from the house. Virginia creeper is quite aggressive and I cringe when I think about what it has done to our garage roof. My husband found the vine growing through the walls inside our garage attic! The lessons here are do not plant trees, even lilacs, too close to your home and remember that Virginia creeper can grow through siding and in the dark, so think twice before planting it next to your home.

For those of you who are running out of time for your garden dream projects this year, try concentrating your efforts on your most desired garden features that take a few years to get established. Some favorites in our garden that took two to five years to become established are peonies, raspberries, lilac and crabapple trees. Do a bit of research on your favorite shrubs, trees or perennial plants that you want as focal pieces in your yard, so you know what conditions they require to be successful. The plants, trees and shrubs I choose for our yard have to be hardy and able to compete with weeds or other perennials. We really have a wide variety of options available for cultivation in our Alaskan yards. For a great list of proven hardy varieties for your area of Alaska check with your local cooperative extension service office. Their recommendation lists are available online at no cost. As you start cultivating and planting the different areas of your yard you will soon find what works and what doesn’t. Don’t be afraid to try something new in your garden because a book says you can’t. You can break the ‘rules.’ Have fun experimenting in your garden and share your successes and failures with others. Among the best gardeners I know personally are some who have never read a book on gardening. They just get out their shovels and dig.

Lessons Learned the Hard Way 

Lesson #1 | Do not fertilize nasturtiums

Now I really do know better, but I made a common garden mistake again this year. There are a few flowers that do not appreciate good care and one of those is the easy to grow nasturtium. Who else has huge beautiful foliage on their nasturtiums and few if any blooms? Well if you planted them in a rich pre-fertilized potting mix like I did, you probably do. Nasturtiums do not require fertilizer and will reward me with many more blooms if I remember this next year. If you have another plant that has a lot of healthy green foliage and is not flowering as expected, look up its fertilizer needs. It is likely that your plant is getting too much of or the wrong kind of fertilizer. 


Lesson #2 |  Lilacs do not appreciate nitrogen

Another common problem relating to fertilizer is with lilac trees planted in the middle of a lawn. If the lawn is cared for and fertilized with a lawn specific fertilizer, like 22-4-4, the lilac is receiving too much nitrogen. Nitrogen is great for creating green grass and lots of leaves, but when the lilac is busy growing those healthy leaves it does not put as much energy into producing flower buds. 


If you’ve learned lessons the hard way and are willing to share them, please send me an email at wendy@alaskagardens.com

No items found.

Alaska Gardening - Perennials

Gardening

Author

Wendy Wesser

Writing, history, gardening, and traveling are a few of Wendy Wesser’s interests. She grew up in Alaska, living as far south as Metlakatla and as far north as Fairbanks. Her family’s history of six generations in Alaska reaches back to the Gold Rush years. She loves reading, hearing, and sharing Alaskan stories of newcomers and oldtimers alike—Last Frontier Magazine has provided her the opportunity to work in this very venue.Alternate bio for articles: Wendy currently resides in Wasilla, Alaska, but has also lived in Metlakatla, Ketchikan, Juneau, Anchorage, and Fairbanks. She enjoys sharing her life experiences of hiking, skiing, gardening, winter camping, etc…, as well as helping other Alaskans (old, new, current, or past) to share their own tales. Since she always says, “Yes!” to the next adventure, her backlog of stories is varied and almost endless. 


So...you’ve been playing all summer and didn’t get those garden projects done that you dreamed of and planned for all last winter. No worries, the cooler weather and rains we often have in August create an ideal time to work on your yard. August is a good time to plant berry bushes, shrubs, trees, and is a great time to plant perennials. Friends, family and neighbors will be dividing many of their perennials now and they are often willing to share extras. When you visit your local greenhouses in August your budget will go much farther since they are typically selling their remaining stock at discounted prices. You may not have time to get everything done on your wish list this year, but you still have plenty of time left to play in your garden.

One of the biggest mistakes people make when planning garden projects is attempting to do too much in one Alaskan summer. Each winter I develop a long list of new dream projects for my gardens, but when reality hits I usually pick only one or two new items to concentrate my efforts on. This year I narrowed my goals to growing enough spinach to supply us over the winter and to successfully grow cucumbers. Well, my spring spinach crop failed miserably. A combination of long, hot days in June and not enough water caused the first spinach crop to bolt in mid-June, despite my use of shade cloth. I will plant a fall crop of spinach and see if I have better luck when the days are cooler and nights are a bit longer. 

Thanks to my step-dad, who built me a mini-greenhouse attached to our woodshed in May, my cucumbers are healthy and producing very well. I think cucumbers might just be the easiest vegetable I have ever grown with the exception of radishes. In Alaska they don’t do so well in outside gardens, but if you grow cucumbers inside a greenhouse or in a sunny area of your home, keep them watered, and give them something to climb, it is hard to go wrong. I am looking forward to trying a couple more varieties of cucumbers next year. If I set my heart on completing everything on my winter dream list I would be able to do very little during the summer other than garden. My husband would, understandably, be quite grumpy if I expected him to make our yard his first priority over fishing, hunting and biking activities. Neither of us prioritized working on yard projects over taking a road trip up the Haul Road in early June with friends. Our Alaska summers are simply too short, so unless you are a farmer, can afford to hire help, or do not plan to leave your home much, you too may be wise to simplify your garden plans. 

Almost every year I dig up one of my existing perennial beds to rejuvenate an area. August is a great time to do this, but if I have a flower bed overrun with weeds I might dig it up in June or July if that is when I have time and am inspired to do it. Most of the time I excavate an existing garden bed by choice, but this year my husband discovered that two walls of our garage need significant repairs. The raised garden beds next to the foundation, which were there when we bought our home, were a big contributor to the base plates of the walls rotting out. The lesson here is use caution when building garden beds next to your foundation. Never allow the soil level to be higher than the foundation or the siding. 

Since my husband wants to take care of our walls as soon as possible, I need to rescue a peony, several orange trollius, a yellow trollius and a french lilac. In times like this a nursery garden bed is very handy. This is a garden bed just for holding plants in transit. My permanent garden beds are already full so we will rototill a quick nursery bed in an out of the way area of our yard to temporarily store the ousted plants. We also have to pull out an old-fashioned lilac tree and a Virginia creeper vine that my great-grandparents planted decades ago which is heartbreaking. I take solace remembering the grand old lilac tree has produced many new lilac trees through its prolific suckers shared with family, friends and neighbors. The Virginia creeper vine also has been shared over the years so it will never die completely. I’m not sure it is possible to kill off that vine even if I wanted to. I plan to move the vine to a more appropriate location, away from the house. Virginia creeper is quite aggressive and I cringe when I think about what it has done to our garage roof. My husband found the vine growing through the walls inside our garage attic! The lessons here are do not plant trees, even lilacs, too close to your home and remember that Virginia creeper can grow through siding and in the dark, so think twice before planting it next to your home.

For those of you who are running out of time for your garden dream projects this year, try concentrating your efforts on your most desired garden features that take a few years to get established. Some favorites in our garden that took two to five years to become established are peonies, raspberries, lilac and crabapple trees. Do a bit of research on your favorite shrubs, trees or perennial plants that you want as focal pieces in your yard, so you know what conditions they require to be successful. The plants, trees and shrubs I choose for our yard have to be hardy and able to compete with weeds or other perennials. We really have a wide variety of options available for cultivation in our Alaskan yards. For a great list of proven hardy varieties for your area of Alaska check with your local cooperative extension service office. Their recommendation lists are available online at no cost. As you start cultivating and planting the different areas of your yard you will soon find what works and what doesn’t. Don’t be afraid to try something new in your garden because a book says you can’t. You can break the ‘rules.’ Have fun experimenting in your garden and share your successes and failures with others. Among the best gardeners I know personally are some who have never read a book on gardening. They just get out their shovels and dig.

Lessons Learned the Hard Way 

Lesson #1 | Do not fertilize nasturtiums

Now I really do know better, but I made a common garden mistake again this year. There are a few flowers that do not appreciate good care and one of those is the easy to grow nasturtium. Who else has huge beautiful foliage on their nasturtiums and few if any blooms? Well if you planted them in a rich pre-fertilized potting mix like I did, you probably do. Nasturtiums do not require fertilizer and will reward me with many more blooms if I remember this next year. If you have another plant that has a lot of healthy green foliage and is not flowering as expected, look up its fertilizer needs. It is likely that your plant is getting too much of or the wrong kind of fertilizer. 


Lesson #2 |  Lilacs do not appreciate nitrogen

Another common problem relating to fertilizer is with lilac trees planted in the middle of a lawn. If the lawn is cared for and fertilized with a lawn specific fertilizer, like 22-4-4, the lilac is receiving too much nitrogen. Nitrogen is great for creating green grass and lots of leaves, but when the lilac is busy growing those healthy leaves it does not put as much energy into producing flower buds. 


If you’ve learned lessons the hard way and are willing to share them, please send me an email at wendy@alaskagardens.com

No items found.

Author

Wendy Wesser

Author & Media

Wendy Wesser

Media Contributor

Cecil Sanders

Read This Next