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Ready, set, grow: More seed-starting advice for Interior Alaska

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Posted: Sunday, March 27, 2011 4:37 am | Updated: 1:55 pm, Wed Dec 26, 2012.

FAIRBANKS — The subject of this column does not mean you need to immediately drop the newspaper, hop up out of your chair and go sow your seeds. There are some things that usually begin germinating in March, such as my beloved leeks and tuberous begonias, and others that should be started this coming week, but in general you have time to spend the next few weeks planning and not planting. Rush into things and you are likely to spend too much money on seeds and starting medium, and/or start things too early.

Here are some things to remember as you are making a computer or pencil and paper plan (You do make a plan instead of planting willy-nilly, don’t you?) for your garden:

1. Most of us don’t have the space, lighting equipment or time to tend as many transplants as our sun-starved greedy little gardening hearts desire. Luckily, not everything has to be started indoors for June 1 transplanting outdoors. These vegetables can be direct seeded into your garden in mid-May: Arugula, beans, beets, carrots, cilantro, chard, chervil, corn (under plastic works best), dill, fennel, kale, leaf lettuce, onion sets, parsnips, peas, potatoes, radishes, rutabagas, sorrel, summer savory, spinach and turnips. (Please note that there was an error in the Feb. 27 seed-starting chart — beets, carrots, and other root vegetables should be direct seeded, not started indoors in April. They do not transplant well at all.) If you want an earlier crop, as I do with carrots, start a five-gallon bucket or two and then drag it out every morning and in every night until mid-May.

There are not very many flowers that can be direct seeded, but you can take your chances with bachelor buttons, California poppies, and nasturtiums.

2. Even farmers don’t have unlimited outdoor land for planting. If you are gardening primarily for economic reasons, go for the seeds of plants that are not picky to grow and produce either a large crop for the space or provide food continually all season long. In other words, peas and zukes will give you a better return than artichokes. On the other hand, if you are seeking to minimize contact with pesticides, then concentrate on raising produce that thrives here but also appears on what the Environmental Working Group has cited as the “dirtiest” fruits and vegetables on grocery shelves. These would be celery, strawberries, blueberries, bell peppers, spinach, kale and potatoes. I could go on and on about how to make decisions about what you are going to be growing this summer, but you get the picture.

3. As I remind people every year, your garden is not a tool for converting vegetable-hating family members into enthusiastic consumers. Plant what the family likes to eat; even if it is just potatoes, lettuce and carrots, they will still benefit from fresh produce grown with fewer chemicals than those raised on mega-farms.

4. Take all of your seed packets and develop a calendar of what to plant when. If you start your tuberous begonias and your pumpkins on April 1, it will be too late for the begonias and way too early for the pumpkins.

5. Take another look at your seed packets, so you can adjust the seed-starting calendar to take into account what seeds need to be soaked overnight before sowing. While you are at it, note which ones need light to germinate, or scarifying to help germination along. (To scarify a particularly tough seed, you give it a few rubs with a nail file or emery board, or nip off the tip with nail clippers.)

6. Time to locate fluorescent tubes that will provide sufficient lighting, essential to turning those impossibly slender and tender emerging seedlings into thick, sturdy, richly hued transplants. You won’t be leaving the transplants under the grow lights so long that they will begin to blossom, and thus will need the other parts of the light spectrum, so simple shop light tubes will do — in other words, avoid more expensive, fancy full-spectrum grow lights. If your fluorescents are a decade old, face the fact that they are putting out less light and buy some new ones. If they are younger, wash them off so maximum light is coming out of them.

7. Look for sales of seed starting medium. No, soil leftover from the poinsettia that just died won’t do. Neither will soil you scrape up from the edges of your driveway as the snow begins to melt. You want pathogen free medium. And it needs to be lighter than garden soil or the emerging seedlings may give up the fight before every reaching daylight. I mix two parts medium and one part potting soil. The result is sterile, light and won’t form a crust after a few waterings. At the same time, it is sturdy enough to support the roots of transplants as they get larger. It also holds water better than flimsy medium does.

8. Put previously used cell packs and flats through a soaking in a 1:10 bleach to water solution, to kill all pathogens.

Now, you are ready for the seed sowing to begin.

Linden Staciokas has gardened in the Interior for more than two decades. Send gardening questions to her at dorking@orcasonline.com.

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