CHAPTER 2 - April

The following subjects will be covered for the month of April:

  1. Gardening Schedule - April
  2. Nip Those Gardening Problems in the Bud
  3. Prepare Those Fair Dahlias for the Fair's Flower Show
  4. The Lowly Earthworm Earns its Keep in Alaskan Gardens
  5. Herb Gardener Shares Her Secrets
  6. Herb Notebook
  7. Competitive Gardeners Can Reap Lots of Local Awards
  8. Greenhouse Gardening is Blooming

Gardening Schedule - April

*Reference: "Starting Dates for Vegetable and Flower Seeds to Grow Transplants"--University of Alaska Cooperative Extension.

    Date       Time Frame to          Vegetable          Flower              
               Setting Out at the                                            
               end of May                                                    
   April 6     8 weeks                Outdoor tomatoes*  Dahlia(seed and     
                                                         tuber), Dianthus,   
                                                         Aster, Ageratum,    
  April 13     7 weeks                Parsley All herbs  Alyssum, Oriental   
                                                         Statice, Bachelor   
                                                         African Daisy,      
                                                         Godetia, Layia,     
                                                         Matricaria, Phlox   
  April 20     6 weeks                                   Zinnia,             
  April 27     5 weeks                Cabbage,           Marigolds,          
                                      Cauliflower,       Nasturtiums,        
                                      Broccoli,          Schizanthus         

* Each seedling should be transplanted into a pot after the first true leaves develop.

** Since roots should be disturbed as little as possible, plant 3 or 4 seeds in a 3 - 4 inch pot. Before or after transplanting into the garden, thin to one plant.

Nip Those Gardening Problems in the Bud*

*Reference: The Potting Bench; University of Alaska Cooperative Extension. Wayne Vandre, Horticulturist and lecturer at the Master Gardening Class in Fairbanks, Alaska.

If you haven't guessed it by now, there is a lot to be considered when you decide to garden in Alaska.

If you are anything like me, you long to have your hands in the soil and watch new seedlings grow into beautiful plants during our summer's long daylight hours. There are several problems that you might run into along your gardening avenues. I will pick a problem or two each week and try to solve them for you.

One problem a gardener has is at the early stages of seed transplants. It is called "damping off." When seeds or seedlings rot away before or soon after emergence, it is many times because of "Damping off." Damping off can occur at three stages of the plant's growth. The first is the seed stage at which time the seed rots before germination can take place.

The second stage is after the seed sprouts but before the sprout emerges from the soil surface. Since failure at both of these stages may be confused with poor quality seed, the true cause may go unnoticed. Seed stored under adverse conditions such as heat and humidity are also more susceptible to damping off.

The third stage is post emergence. This may occur up to several weeks after the plants have emerged but the possibility decreases as the plant increases in age and becomes established.

Before you blame all losses of seedlings on damping off, you should consider the other possible causes in each situation. Excessive soluble salts can kill seedlings or may stunt or yellow the plants. Toxic fumes from creosote or pentachorophenol-treated wood also have caused rapid death of young plants in cold frames or greenhouses and symptoms are very similar to damping off. Wooden benches and structural supports in a greenhouse should be treated with copper naphthenate preservatives and not the other two.

Identification of damping off can usually be done by examining plants at the earliest indication of symptoms. Carefully take the plant from the soil and determine if the tissue at or below the soil line has become soft, water soaked or off-color. Roots and lower stems often turn brown or black. The stem just below or above the soil line may appear smaller in diameter at the point of infection from the fungus that causes damping off than the healthy stem tissue.

Soils usually contain one or more fungal organisms capable of causing damping off. Factors that inhibit germination greatly increase chances of damping off. Cold, wet, poorly drained or poorly aerated soils slow down or inhibit germination. Injuries to seeds or seedlings also increase chances of disease as does insect damage, fertilizer burn and high nitrogen levels. Sterilized soils that have been re-contaminated can be especially troublesome because the organisms can multiply and spread very rapidly.

There are four factors to consider in avoiding damping off. These are: environmental conditions which are ideal for seed germination and seedling development, destruction of disease-causing organisms in the soil, preventing their reintroduction and using protective fungicides as required. A list of fungicides that have been of value to home gardener or commercial operators are Captan, Benlate, Truban, Banrot or Terrachlor. If you buy any of these, be sure you know what you are using and how it is to be applied.

Prepare Those Fair Dahlias for the Fair's Flower Show*

*Reference: Interview with Grant Matheke, horticulturist at the University of Alaska Experiment Station; Puget Sound Dahlia Association booklet.

It depends whom you are talking to when it comes to deciding which flower is the most beautiful to grow in Fairbanks. Grant Matheke, horticulturist, from the University of Alaska's experimental greenhouse thinks that the dahlia, available in a multitude of types, sizes and colors, is the most fantastic.

Grant says that when you go to buy the dahlia tubers, you will be happiest if you do not got through the various seed catalogs. If you order from a specialist such as Puget Sound Dahlia Association, 5444 129th Ave. S.E. in Bellevue, Washington, it will make you a happier grower. If you purchase them locally, be sure to pick out the firm ones with an eye growing above the tuber. Do not pick the shriveled or thin-necked ones.

Dahlia growers like a good potting soil. There are potting soils produced in the state of Alaska, such as Lee Risse's Triple-R-Brand from Fairbanks. Use this type of potting soil when you plant your tubers into a 6-inch-diameter and a 7-inch-deep container. You can plant them into larger containers if you have the space in your house. Be sure not to use a vermiculite or African violet type of soil, as it is too light to support the big dahlia plant.

Put a 1 1/2 inches of potting soil into the bottom of your container. Set the tuber in with the eye up and cover it with an inch of soil. As the sprout grows on the tuber, continue to put more soil into the container. Doing it this way gives the plant a better start. A good starting time is mid-April.

The plant will be about a foot tall when you set them into your garden, which should have a well-prepared soil. Rotating the pots from time to time to keep a straight plant, you can put them near a south window in your home. Pinch off the buds at the third set of leaves. This will give you a bushier plant.

Fertilize your plants once before they are set out into the garden with a soluble fertilizer such as 10-52-17 or 20-20-20.

In preparing your garden soil be sure to use 31/2 pounds of garden fertilizer, 20-20-20, per 100 square feet. Before you lay out the 1.5 mil clear plastic, use an herbicide to help cut the chickweed and other weed problems. A suggested herbicide is Premerge.

Using the method described in the University of Alaska's Cooperative Extension's bulletin on raising everbearing strawberries, lay down your plastic. Make holes in the plastic with a sharpened bulb cutter and not a knife. Remember that the plastic should be 3 feet wide in order to warm our sub-Arctic soils. You can use the plastic tent row method, if you want an earlier start on your dahlias. Keep an inch or two opening at the top for good ventilation.

Above all, be sure to harden off your dahlias for a week before transplanting them into your garden. An hour the first day, two hours the second day, four hours the third day, six hours the fourth day and eight hours the fifth day are suggested.

If you want large flowers, take off the side buds. Thus puts all the energy into one large blossom. As the other two buds come on below, you can remove them also.

When you set your plants into the garden, be sure to stake them with at least a 3/4- inch stake. Do not stake them through the root system, as plant injury will occur!. The dahlias will grow to be 4 feet tall or more in a southern part of your garden in full sun, depending on the variety you choose.

You can treat your dahlias with Orthene if you get an aphid problem. They are a relatively tough plant. Sometimes they get a virus, i.e. mosaic. The leaves will be off-green with shades of yellow-brown throughout. If this happens, dig out the plant and burn it.

You should let your plants grow until about June 20. This will give them a chance to establish root systems. Then, you should water them with a soluble fertilizer (20-20-20). When they start flowing use 9-45-16 soluble fertilizer. From the first week of August, do not add any fertilizer with nitrogen in it. You should use a fertilizer such as potassium phosphate to encourage tuber growth.

Loosening the soil with a spading fork around the dahlia plant, you can easily dig up the tuber after the frost has killed the top growth. Lift the tuber out of the soil and shake off the dirt. Wash it off with a spray of water. Let it dry in a cool place, which is not in the direct sunlight or by a radiator. Make sure the surface is completely dry but not to the shriveling stage.

Label them with a string tie. Wire ties will cause wounding. Dust them with sulfur or a fungicide and put them into a barrel with dry vermiculite. You can divide them in the fall or spring. Before you do, cut off the last years tuber with a sharp knife. Store them in a 35deg.F or 40deg.F temperature.

See you at the Tanana Valley Fair Flower Show!

The Lowly Earthworm Earns its Keep in Alaskan Gardens

Reference: Interview with Eloise DeWitt and her book "A Beginner's Guide to Successful Gardening in the Fairbanks, Alaska Area.

As I have been spending a lot of time in my mud boots lately, I can't help but think of the hard-packed loess soil I try to do my gardening in.

Even though over the years I have added a lot of organic material, it still lacks a lot. The other day I had the nicest conversation with Eloise DeWitt, a lady who takes gardening and soil composition seriously. DeWitt grows earthworms that produce better than a half a dump truck load of castings each year!

Castings are the earth produced by the earthworms. Earthworm castings are excellent sources for plant nutrition, being many times richer than good garden soil. She uses them generously in her vegetable garden, enriching each row with a wheelbarrow-full. By using earthworm castings in her garden plus compost, the use of chemical fertilizers is eliminated almost entirely.

In DeWitt's book, "A Beginner's Guide to Successful Gardening in the Fairbanks Area," she mentions that earthworms will not survive Alaska's rigorous winters. However, their egg casings will withstand any amount of freezing and will hatch as soon as the ground is sufficiently warm, which in Fairbanks, Alaska is sometime in late June or early July. Depending on our summer season, these hatchlings may or may not have time to grow to maturity and breed by the summer's end, leaving a supply of egg casings in the garden soil to hatch the following summer. For this reason, she finds it necessary to keep a good supply of worms indoors for about eight months of the year, beginning in September through a week or two in May. You might turn your nose up at this. However, it is an odorless experience.

She uses four galvanized washtubs in which to bed her worms for the winter months. They are about the right depth and hold a sufficient amount of bedding material for the worms to feed and multiply. Whatever container you use, good drainage is necessary. Earthworms prefer a rather wet soil, as their bodies quickly dehydrate in the absence of moisture. On the other hand, should the soil become too wet, they will drown without sufficient drainage.

The worms must have plenty of food or they will starve. A supply of good compost or pure manure or a mixture of both is necessary for total success. DeWitt's worms thrive in compost, which has the advantage of being readily available. She makes compost successfully in 4-by-4-4-foot bins by July. It is ready for use by the end of August. Since she keeps four tubs of worms indoors, (Each tub contains about 5,000 worms), lots of compost is needed. She thinks six or seven large garbage pails is usually sufficient.

In addition to compost, her worms get supplemental feedings of kitchen scraps such as lettuce, cabbage, potato and apple peelings. They like banana peelings but not citrus peels. Do not use table scraps which will spoil and putrefy. Another special favorite is dandelion greens. DeWitt thinks it is too bad that we don't have a winter supply to match our summer's supply.

Another successful top dressing is a two-to three-inch layer of hay of any kind, soaked first in water for several hours and then drained of excess water. To keep the tubs from drying out, cover them with several layers of newspaper and not plastic, which cuts off the supply of air.

About 5,000 worms in a tub holding 15 to 20 gallons of compost can eat it all up in six to eight weeks. Then, the worms must be separated, by hand, from the castings and supplied with fresh compost.

Going through tray after tray of castings is tedious, while picking out the worms. But by this process DeWitt accumulates enough castings to generously enrich her greenhouse, vegetable garden and flower beds in the Spring. Special bins built for the purpose hold the winter's accumulation of castings.

The best variety of worms to buy for soil improvement is the red-worm. Check with the local nurseries or any organic gardening magazine for an address to have them air mailed north. DeWitt thinks a good number to start with is 1,000, until you are familiar with their care and feeding.

Here's to producing the best kind of soil for Fairbanks, Alaska and sub-Arctic conditions!

Herb Gardener Shares Her Secrets

Reference: Interview with Barbara Fay, herb gardener and gourmet cook from Fairbanks, Alaska.

One of Fairbanks, Alaska's' many herb gardeners--and gourmet cooks--is Barbara Fay. She follows a long tradition going back to the cloistered gardens of medieval days where monks counted herbs among their most valued possessions.

In each of their enclosed gardens grew some herbs valued for curative powers, such as peppermint to aid digestion, summer savory to heal bee stings or winter savory to relieve itching skin; some for seasoning such as chives, tarragon, sweet marjoram and parsley; some for scent, such as lavender or fragrant lemon verbena.

Fay says there are two different kinds of parsley, rich in iron and vitamin C both of which can be grown summertime outdoors in the garden and indoors during winter as potted kitchen plants. She prefers the Italian type, which has far more flavor, over the curly leafed one.

Lemon thyme grows well in a rock garden because of its low height. If you step on its leaves, the air fills with a lovely aroma. It is used in stews, soups or with fish.

You can send for plants which arrive at the end of May from Nichols Garden Nursery, Inc. 1190 North Pacific Hwy., Albany, Oregon 97321 or you can buy seed and plants at most of the local sub-Arctic nurseries.

Fay plants her annual herbs at the head of each garden row. She plants herbs used in salads right along with her many lettuce varieties. The perennials are placed in a more protected area.

If you are going to raise herbs, such as basil, chives, lemon verbena, parsley, peppermint, rosemary, scented geraniums, summer savory, sweet marjoram or thyme, indoors, the question is where should they grow? The ideal spot is a window with full sun. They also do well in east or west windows. Some kinds need semi-shade. Arrange them so that the sunshine loves will thrive and protect the semi-shade ones.

Herbs can be potted in individual pots or in different size redwood planters. Herbs should be cool at certain times of the 24-hour day. They thrive best with the foliage close to the glass but not touching it, especially when it hits sub-0 deg.F.

Some people with little window space use two 40-watt fluorescent tubes in place of sunlight for 14-16 hours a day.

To keep them flourishing, spray the foliage with lukewarm water in a bulb sprayer weekly or more often during the winter months. Keep the area where they grow below 70deg.F.

In raising herbs it's important to keep their growth continuous with an abundance of water. You will constantly be trimming and cutting them for use in cooking and will want fresh new foliage emerging all of the time.

The best soil for herbs is equal parts of garden soil, sand, leaf mold and well-rotted or pulverized manure. Never let the soil go bone dry. Feed every three or four weeks (20-20-20). Arrange the pots in a tray of damp sand or pebbles never let water stand touching the bottom of the container.

Herb Notebook

Reference: Interview with Barbara Fay, herb gardener and gourmet cook from Fairbanks, Alaska.

Basil: Will thrive and remain full and bushy if you never allow it to bloom or set seed. Fresh new leaves will continue if you pinch off the tips of the branches. Likes plant food twice a month. Fay has had little luck with basil, since it attracts aphids.

Borage: Its leaves taste like cucumbers and its attractive blue flowers can be used in tossed salads.

Chamomile: Grows very well in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Chervil: Makes a pretty border with parsley. It is used in salads, with eggs or mushrooms.

Chives: Easy to grow and grows well in Fairbanks, Alaska. Bought at nurseries or supermarkets, transplant it immediately into a five inch pot of rich, moist, well-drained garden soil. Grows best in full sun and should never be allowed to dry out.

Horseradish: Shouldn't be harvested the first year. If you harvest the second year, leave some of the root in the ground for future years growth.

Lemon Verbena: Has yellow green foliage. Plant emits a fresh, clean odor or lemons in the sunshine. Grown primarily for fragrance. If you bring it in from the outdoors in the fall, don't be alarmed if the leaves fall off, new ones will reappear. Likes rich, humus soil: Feed every two weeks.

Lovage: Belongs to the celery family and tastes much like potent celery. One can put hot meat on top of lovage leaves or use it in soups or stew. If you really grow to like it, you can put it in your bath water.

Nasturtiums.: All parts of the nasturtiums are used. Flowers and young leaves are made into colorful salads; buds and seed pods can be pickled as a nasturtium caper.

Peppermint: Imparts a lovely fragrance in any room. Mints used in iced drinks, teas, jellies, fruit salads and applesauce are pineapplemint, spearmint, applemint and peppermint. All are perennials.

Rosemary: Thrives in partial shade or full sun in a cool area of the windowsill. Likes moist, light, well-drained limy soil. Pant food every two weeks. Cuttings root easily in sand or vermiculite. Give a large pot. Sprinkle fireplace ashes on it occasionally.

Scented Geraniums: Do well in full sun and temperatures no higher than 73deg.F. Keep the plant trimmed. Must be dry between thorough watering. Grown in equal parts garden loam, compost, leaf mold and sand. Feed twice a month. Cuttings are easily made by taking a four to six inch stalk and setting it two inches deep in a pot of sandy soil.

Sorrel: French Sorrel is like a salad green, having a sour lemony flavor; it is usually one of the first perennial herbs to come up in the spring.

Summer Savory: Thrives in full sun, in garden loam. Grows 6 to 10 inches tall. Easy to raise. Likes foliage spray of lukewarm water.

Sweet Marjoram: Flourishes in light, medium, chalky soil. Wants sun part of day. Keep soil evenly moist. Use sphagnum moss for helping water to hold within the soil.

Sweet Woodruff: It's called the German "May Wine Herb." Fay uses it to add a nice flavor to brandy.

Tarragon: There are two different types of tarragon--Russian and French. The French sort has more flavor. Russian Tarragon is a perennial.

Competitive Gardeners Can Reap Lots of Local Awards

Creativity of local gardeners really blossoms when they're in a competitive mood. An this summer they'll get their chance.

Two urban beautification efforts were in effect the summer of 1984: The Festival Fairbanks '84 Beautification Committee and the city's Urban Beautification Commission.

We all know the importance of getting our landscapes planned out to scale on graph paper. Doing a good job, different people reaped the benefits of a citywide Beautification Award.

For the 1984 summer only, the Festival Fairbanks '84 gave awards twice a month, starting in mid-June and ending the last of August.

All kinds of gardens were eligible, from the all-vegetable variety, to mixed vegetables and flowers, to flowers-only types.

The Festival '84 judging committee looked for overall general appearance, upkeep, which included daily grooming and maintenance, the effective use of plant material and its suitability to Interior Alaska. Wonderful gardeners such as Marian Earp were on the judging committee.

The city's Urban Beautification Commission awarded a maximum of six certificates to either commercial or private areas, indicating the total achievement in beautification between August 1 and August 10.

These awards were given to areas within the city of Fairbanks, including the College Road on the north, the Steese bypass and F Street in Hamilton Acres on the east. Van Horn Road on the South and University Avenue on the west.

Areas outside the city limits were also considered for awards. The members of the ward committee were Marge Eagan, Alan Epps, Ginger Gauss and Bill Payton. Areas landscaped by government agencies were not eligible for awards.

The winners that were very well bent for competition considered the following things in their landscapes:

The judges looking over the winners looked for the following qualities to make their choices:

Greenhouse Gardening is Blooming

Reference: University of Alaska Cooperative Extension Service Master Gardening Class and Wayne Vandre, horticulturist. Pamphlet: 357: "Greenhouse in Alaska."

Alaska's greenhouses are as diverse as its cities.

Studies show that 51 percent of the people in Anchorage have a greenhouse.

In McGrath, waste heat from a power plant is piped through horizontal PVC pipe packed with sphagnum moss. Quinault strawberries grow hydroponically through holes in the pipe.

In Dutch Harbor, which has cool summers, one person has a greenhouse within a greenhouse for starting early crops. Hanging flower baskets are made from cut apart old plastic fishing floats!

One greenhouse in Nome is made from a single layer of polyethylene. In the winter it is used to store reindeer skins.

In Aniak a double-walled transparent Plexiglas greenhouse is 20 feet tall. It is insulated with fiberglass insulation and has an Arctic entrance.

There are certain advantages to these sorts of greenhouse gardening. It extends the growing season, controls the environment, increases the choice of cucumber and tomato varieties, more efficient use (five to 15 times) of land, and recreation.

When you choose a site selection for your greenhouse, consider the following:

The size of a greenhouse should be determined the same as for outdoor gardens. For example, determining factors include the size of the family, number of crops to be grown, whether these are to be eaten fresh or preserved, or whether crops are to be sold.

The construction cost, available space, site constraints, available time for greenhouse gardening and maintenance, and maintenance costs, such as heat, light, replacing greenhouse coverings and so on are important thing to think about.

You might consider a couple kinds of greenhouses. Free-standing types have the benefit of location for maximum sun exposure, ventilation flow and the best soil. The disadvantages of this type is the general greater cost, heat loss, wind damage and distance from the home.

Attached greenhouses have the benefit of lower cost, greater strength, accessible to utilities, and can be used as a solar collector. The disadvantages? It's harder to get the best sun exposure and ventilation can produce smell and insects in the home, attachment can be difficult and it induces greater humidity into the existing structure.

When you are constructing your greenhouse, remember that steep roofs are necessary. They should be 30 to 45 degrees from horizontal. The wood parts should be treated with copper naphthenate (Cuprinol) or zinc naphthenate only. If you use creosote or anything else your plants will die.

Metal structures can be used, since they are strong and reflect light. The only thing about metal is that it tends to corrode and conduct heat out of the greenhouse. However, metal can be adapted to more shapes and provides less shading from its parts.

When you cover your greenhouse, please consider the light transmission, longevity, heat holding ability and cost. You might be interested in the following:

Hot Ideas for Heating a Sub-Arctic Greenhouse

Reference: University of Alaska Cooperative Extension Service Master Gardening Class and Wayne Vandre, horticulturist. Pamphlet: 357: "Greenhouse in Alaska."

A trip around the Fairbanks North Star Borough to look at greenhouses can be very educational indeed. Many people approach greenhouse heating in many different ways. There are ways to save fuel and heat in greenhouses, and control ventilation and the environment.

Four methods of heat distribution are available for greenhouses. Forced hot air is rapid, but it lowers the humidity. Natural convection from small space heaters is another way. Some people use hot water or steam pipes, like a greenhouse in McGrath that uses waste heat from its power plant. The Quinalult strawberries love the warmth of the greenhouse when grown into spahagnum moss and hydroponically grown in PVC pipe. Or, there is direct radiation.

Here is a variety of greenhouse heaters to choose from:

To avoid heat loss in your greenhouse from any of the aforementioned heating methods, use double polyethylene or thermopane glazing. The use of nighttime thermal blankets or thermal shades is also recommended. Foundations and or floors can also be insulated with rigid foam. If possible. North walls can be insulated and covered with a reflective material on the inside.

There are other considerations. Small fans are handy to move one quarter of the greenhouse volume of air every minute to prevent stagnant air. When your greenhouse floor space exceeds 150 square feet, Polyfilm ducts with holes every one-half foot should be used.

In order to save on fuel and heat in greenhouses, the following is recommended:

Hope your dreams materialize about having the nicest cucumbers, spaghetti squash and tomatoes this summer!

4/28/95 -
Copyright © 1995 Pat Babcock