Talk Dirt To Me

Gardening in Alaska presents big challenges, whether it's the extra effort in finding plants tough enough to survive our Zone 2-4 climate, communicating with like-minded Alaska gardeners, or keeping up with the latest trends, issues and solutions. We'll try to help with that. We'll also tour gardens from Homer to Anchorage to Wasilla to Willow whenever we get the chance, and post the best garden photos around. Presenting a forum about cold-weather gardening and for cold-weather gardeners is what we are all about. We hope you'll join us on the Talk Dirt garden blog.

Photographer and gardener Fran Durner (fdurner@adn.com) writes the blog.

February Garden Calendar - 1/29/2010 9:28 am

UA Anchorage recognized as a Tree Campus USA - 1/27/2010 10:36 am

Stone walls provide beauty and exercise - 1/26/2010 8:43 am

USDA program for high tunnels offered - 1/25/2010 8:08 pm

Worms could eat your garbage too - 1/24/2010 8:01 pm

Wildflower Garden Club offers annual scholarship - 1/21/2010 1:08 pm

Where did you find inspiration last year? - 1/19/2010 3:57 pm

Zaumseils say farewell for now - 1/18/2010 3:57 pm

Composting with Fish Waste

While we were in Alaska, we learned a few things about composting. We compost here in Tucson and it really cuts down on the solid waste we send to the landfill. In Alaska, the best thing we found for compost was fish guts (especially eggs). We kept it from attracting bears by turning it often and mixing other stuff in there as well. Also, a deep hole helped keep the smell down. In some parts of rural Alaska, especially SW, we have very poor, highly acidic soil. However, those farmers who have been able to build their own soil through composting are able to grow amazing vegetables-snap peas, cabbages, potatoes, and tons of leaf lettuce.

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Hydrangeas in Anchorage?

Fran Durner/ADN
 Hydrangea "Annabelle" does well in Anchorage in a warm and protected location. This one, photographed in 2001, had been growing for 6-7 years.Fran Durner/ADN
Hydrangea "Annabelle" does well in Anchorage in a warm and protected location. This one, photographed in 2001, had been growing for 6-7 years.

Good morning Fran,
I am a first-time homeowner, and this will be my second summer at our house. I wanted to see what was actually going to grow in our yard since we bought the house in the winter, and now I'm ready to make some changes. I love hydrangeas and was wondering if it was possible to grow them in the Anchorage area? if so, do you have any advice/recommendations? Thank you for your time!

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Gnarly Gnats

Fran Durner/ADN
 Bulbs grown or forced in water, such as this hyacinth, don't seem to be a friendly breeding ground for flying fungus gnats.Fran Durner/ADN
Bulbs grown or forced in water, such as this hyacinth, don't seem to be a friendly breeding ground for flying fungus gnats.

They fly rollercoaster loops around the intake zone of your nose and mouth. They make you cross-eyed and cause you whiplash trying to swat them. And around this time of spring, as pots of seedlings and small plants cram every imaginable surface in your home, the invasion begins in earnest. For every tiny black fungus gnat you successfully squash, there seem to be three of the aerial acrobats crawling out of the dirt ready to take its place.

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Recycling solutions

Fran Durner/ADN Recycled glass bottles border one of the beds at Rita Jo Shoultz's Fritz Creek Garden in Homer.Fran Durner/ADN Recycled glass bottles border one of the beds at Rita Jo Shoultz's Fritz Creek Garden in Homer.
I’m committed to recycling. I make about two trips a month to the recycling center off Dowling Rd. I make my coworker give me his plastic pop bottles rather than throw them in the garbage. Sometimes I dumpster dive if I see something glaringly recyclable. I’m amazed at the amount of recyclable waste paper one person produces. I’m always looking for ways to re-use the indestructible containers that just about everything is packaged in theses days. Clear plastic salad boxes make sturdy mini greenhouses. Once holes are poked in the bottom of yogurt cups or milk cartons, they can be used for seedlings and transplants

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Three Tree Things to Attend to

Fran Durner / ADN
The amur cherry, (Prunus maackii), with it's coppery exfoliating bark, is a tough and attractive ornamental tree. It is hardy in zones 2-9, making this a valuable addition to the landscape for Alaskan gardeners.Fran Durner / ADN
The amur cherry, (Prunus maackii), with it's coppery exfoliating bark, is a tough and attractive ornamental tree. It is hardy in zones 2-9, making this a valuable addition to the landscape for Alaskan gardeners.

TREErific Meeting
Wednesday, March 28 at 6p.m. join Anchorage tree lovers at the monthly meeting of Anchorage TREErific at the Lidia Selkregg Chalet at Russian Jack Springs Park. Peter Briggs of Corvus Design will discuss using trees in a landscape design, how to protect and avoid damage to existing trees and answer general landscape questions.

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Gardening in Big Lake

From Linda Lockhart of Big Lake:
I would like to introduce you to the North Root Big Lake Gardeners. We have a very vital group that averages 30 members (we meet in the Community Room at the Big Lake Library) in the winter months, that grows to 70+ attendance in the spring and summer months (we move to the Faith Bible Fellowship Fellowship Hall April through August). We clean and care for the gardens at the Big Lake Library, provide an educational experience with each meeting and feature a Hidden Valley Progressive Garden Tour the first Saturday or Sunday of August. Last year we featured 8 gardens and had participants from as far away as Fairbanks (they said, "We'll never miss another one of these tours--this has been the most fun one we've ever been on!). It is usually my job to concoct some sort of game to play as we go from garden to garden--last year's was a Seed Packet Poker Run. Everyone collected a seed packet at each featured garden. At the last garden we drew "hands" to match for prizes. If you had two eggplants, a watermelon and a zinnia, you might have had a winning hand and walked away with a special watering kit, a garden hat or some other goody.

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Primula Slide Show

Primula auriculas come in a variety of colors.Primula auriculas come in a variety of colors.
Nothing going on for Saturday night, March 24? Grab a gardening buddy and head to the Co-operative Extension Service classroom, 2221 E. Northern Light Blvd (inside the Carlton Building) at 6:30 for a slide show and talk on primula auriculas by Ed Buyarski of Juneau, who is also the president of the American Primrose Society. Free and open to all.

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Rooftop gardens

A column by Barbara and Clair Ramsey in today’s Anchorage Daily News Money section talks about the possibility of rooftop gardens as our city grows vertically. What a fabulous idea! Could you think of a better way to enjoy a gorgeous day than from a rooftop garden, as city streets grow shadier from new, tall construction? And as the Ramsey’s state, roofs designed and built properly can sustain a green roof.

I recently got a copy of Green Roof Plants, A Resource and Planting Guide by Edmund C. Snodgrass and Lucie L. Snodgrass (Timber Press) that I have been devouring for it’s lists of low maintenance perennials, especially of the sedum and sempervivum kind. The problem for us, of course, is finding the plants that can withstand our long, cold, dry winters but there are plenty that do. Wouldn’t it be great if gardens, however small, were to be included in rooftop design for new construction?

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Time to Plant Seeds

Heirloom pinwheel marigolds.Heirloom pinwheel marigolds.
By all accounts, it time to plant seeds. My garden is mostly perennials but there are some annuals that I am compelled to grow every year because I love them for one reason or another. Like the gold and maroon pinwheel marigolds that grow into tall feathery bushes. They don't look like any other marigold I know and they have a wonderful fragrance as well. When I say fragrance, I don't mean perfumey. It's sort of pungeant but not unpleasant, almost medicinal in an herbal way, if you can conjure that. I can still smell it when I handle the seeds.

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Ladybugs, dead or alive?

A friend just posed this question to me: “I want to ask about The 18,000 ladybugs I have released in my greenhouse right now and how to tell if some are alive or dormant?”
My guess is, they’re alive if they are moving and not, if their little legs are sticking straight up in the air. Perhaps someone has a more educated answer!

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ABG Garden Conference

From the Alaska Botanical Garden Newsletter:

ABG Annual Meeting and Spring Garden Conference
Friday, March 30 7 p.m. and 10am-6pm Saturday, March 31st

“Bring Back the Bugs”, the Alaska Botanical Garden Annual Meeting & Spring Garden Conference on March 30 and 31. The Alaska Botanical Garden decided to inaugurate a full day garden conference in conjunction with their Annual Meeting. As ABG Education Committee Chair Susan Brusehaber says, “Gardeners want to sit in class when there’s snow on the ground, not when they can dig in the ground.”

Featured speaker Sally Cunningham knows how to “Bring Back the Bugs.” Sally will speak on Friday evening at 7 p.m.at the Anchorage Museum and twice on Saturday at UAA. On Friday she will focus on specific plants and landscape features the gardener can use to attract birds, beneficial insects, and butterflies. The Annual Meeting at the Anchorage Museum is free and open to the public.

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To Tea or Not to Tea?

Year four on only composted steer manure.Year four on only composted steer manure.
I hope that anyone who attended the Anchorage Home Builders Association Home Show at the Sullivan Arena last weekend stopped by the Applied Organics booth and picked up information about using compost tea in their gardens. I have never actually used compost tea but I swear by using composted steer manure that I pick up by the 20-bags-at-a-time from Home Depot every summer. I spread it all over my tiny back yard lawn and dig it in around every growing thing. My grass and plants seem to love it.
Website for info about the soil food web and compost tea: www.alaskahumus.com
To tea or not to tea? Has anyone used it exclusively for more than one season? What kind of results did you get?

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Storing for the winter

African QueenAfrican Queen

I have uneven luck storing dahlias through the winter. I've tried smothering them in moss, sinking them in wood chips, zipping them in plastic bags, placing them in cardboard boxes or just hanging them in bags on the garage wall. Some make it but most don't. Mostly they don't. By the time I start dividing and potting in March, they are wizened clumps of dessicated tubers.

Last year, Master Gardener Amelia Walsh described how she gets good results by storing the tubers in dirt in a pot. I wanted to give it a try but I ran out of time. So in October, just before it snowed, I finally put my garden to bed.

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