“You can grow almost anything here,” said Master Gardener Janie Sandberg at a gardening class held at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Eagle River.
“Alaska gardening is totally different.” A retired nurse, Sandberg has been tending her Alaskan garden for 43 years.
“One of the most important things is location,” Sandberg added. “South side is best. West might be okay if it’s early exposure. North, you may as well forget the whole thing.”
Sandberg points out the long days and low sun angle won’t bleach out a plant’s color. She suggested that gardeners spend the summer tracking the sun in their yards to determine prime planting locations.
Alaska’s water and soil are cold and the growing season is short. “Get the soil out of the ground,” Sandberg advised. Local growers should plant in raised garden beds and containers to help keep plants warm. Vegetables can be planted in raised mounds to allow more sun penetration. Due to the short growing season, starter plants will generally be more successful than planting from seeds. Starter plants should be compact, not leggy. Any existing blooms should be plucked off.
“You want the plant to put all its energy into roots,” Sandberg said when she put the class to work pinching a flowering plant.
“What? No!” wailed participant Konae Putnam as she reluctantly pulled off the vibrant flowers.
Less painful than pinching is dead-heading, the practice of removing withered flowers so the plant will put its energy into growing and not go to seed.
Sandberg wants Alaska gardeners to buy local and ask questions. She recommends nurseries with a knowledgeable staff versus big box stores.
For a diverse flower garden that blooms all season, Sandberg mixes annuals with perennials. “Perennials are a long term investment,” she said. Sandberg noted that Alaska Botanical Garden in Anchorage sells a variety of beautiful perennials, and both Hiland Mountain Correctional Center and King Career Center sell quality annual baskets.
One thing Sandberg will not buy is chemicals. Her gardens are strictly organic. She also stays away from planting in tires and other materials with a potential for leaching chemicals. “I feel that taking care of the earth is a divine obligation. I don’t care if it’s two square feet or 30 acres,” Sandberg said.
Sandberg suggests using compost tea or fish fertilizer in lieu of fertilizer. Crushed eggshells or coffee grounds can be placed around plant beds to discourage slugs. Keeping the garden clear of dead leaves and debris will cut down on pests. As for moose and rabbits, a sturdy fence is the best defense.
“Cooperative Extension Services is one of the best places to get information,” Sandberg said.
The Cooperative Extension offers pamphlets on pest control, composting (which can be difficult in Alaska because of the cooler temperatures) and many other topics.
Ater Memorial Day is generally a safe time to start planting. Sandberg encourages mulching for water conservation and to help perennials survive the winter.
Class participants left Sandberg’s class excited for this year’s growing season.
“I’ve got so many plants I need to pinch tonight,” said class attendee Pauline Souter.
Druce Cluff, a Chugiak resident since 1981 and industrious gardener, enjoyed Sandberg’s Alaska gardening tips.
“It’s not the same as the lower 48,” Cluff said. “Don’t be afraid to try it. Find a mentor.”
Gardeners can visit alaskamastergardeners.org to connect with a master gardener.