Lake Minchumina — When my sister Miki unexpectedly flew off in early April to spend breakup in Fairbanks healing from a broken leg, she left me with more than a dozen potted plants: experimental melons, early greens, flower sets and her rose-bush-in-a-bucket which had been banished to the basement, quarantined with an aphid infestation.
She left her dreaded seed bucket overflowing with packets waiting to be planted, as well as flower bulbs, trays, empty pots and six-packs, fertilizer, Perlite and buckets of prepared soil to plant garden sets indoors. She did not leave instructions. Miki took over the garden decades ago, which worked fine for me until this spring when she had to provide detailed instructions by phone.
“The rose still has aphids,” I reported after she left. “I set it outside in a blizzard which I think will kill everything.”
“Put it in the greenhouse and see if the bugs come back,” Miki suggested.
After a week, the rose sported a lovely red bud and dozens of aphids, some dusty from the diatomaceous earth Miki applied a month ago to supposedly kill them. “Put it back outside, I guess,” Miki sighed.
The two-foot-tall plant froze solid this time. I planned to prune it before returning it to the greenhouse, but the horses did that for me, and not very nicely.
“It’s time to plant tomatoes,” Miki announced in mid-April. “We’ll need two four-packs.”
Ten days later I reported that only a third of them had sprouted.
“Did you have them in the oven with the pilot light on?”
“N-no ... ”
Miki was aghast at my naivete. “I’m surprised any came up at all!”
Miki didn’t want them in the oven after the first seedling finally emerged in each four-pack, so I placed the four-packs on a warming mat with the growing melons and eventually most of the remaining tomatoes germinated.
“It’s time to plant pumpkins,” Miki said one day. “Plant two seeds each in eight 4-by-4-inch pots. Plant several varieties, but for sure Neon and Racer pumpkins — not the Sugar variety — and plant Gold Nugget squash, six four-by-fours, and one each of summer squash and zucchini. Plant a four-pack of head lettuce, and plant my bulbs, the freesia and dahlia and gladiola. They should all grow OK in the greenhouse. And plant six six-packs of broccoli, one of cauliflower and one of cabbage.”
I followed those instructions as best I could but mentioned the next day that the greenhouse was still near freezing at night and didn’t the pumpkins need to be warm?
“You planted pumpkins in the greenhouse? They should be in the oven! Only the bulbs can be in the greenhouse right now.”
Oops. Once gently heated, the pumpkins popped right up. I rotated the squash and cole sets through the tiny oven as the sprouts emerged.
“The nasturtiums aren’t coming up,” I complained. “Even in the oven.”
“They shouldn’t be in the oven, they don’t like the heat ... or they don’t like something, I can’t remember. And if the seeds aren’t fresh, I have trouble with germinating,” Miki told me.
Too late I found in Miki’s notes that nasturtiums preferred to sprout in darkness.
“Plant six 3-by-3 pots of sweet peas, but soak the seeds first and do NOT put them in the oven. And start more head lettuce and some leaf lettuce.”
“The 4-by-4 pot of head lettuce hasn’t even sprouted yet,” I whined.
“4-by-4? It should have been a four-pack.”
“I’m just following your instructions,” I grumbled, glancing down at my notes to see “four-pack” clearly scribbled beside “head lettuce.”
“And,” I reported grimly, “The pumpkins had an accident, they fell on the floor ... ” I had propped up the flat of pots to catch the last sunlight and still had visions of the crashing flat, the spray of dirt, the silent screams of traumatized seedlings.
Miki merely sniggered sympathetically. “OK.”
“I think you should up-pot the melons straight into five-gallon buckets,” she told me one evening. “Sift dirt from the greenhouse and make sure you drill drain holes in the bottom of the buckets.”
I transplanted the melons, and later the tomatoes, and later the broccoli. I watered and fertilized, warmed and fanned and thinned seedlings and shifted pots to catch the sun.
“One of the six-packs of flowers that you planted in March only has three seedlings but they’re getting pretty lanky,” I reported in mid-May.
“What are they?”
“I’m not sure ... the label says Corn 3/26 on one side and Nemesia, 3/31/84 on the other side.” (Miki re-used her plastic labels to death, if not longer.)
Regardless of their identity, I up-potted the babies and they continued to flourish, as did dozens of other plants, with a few exceptions. Planting week will soon arrive, hopefully with Miki right behind, so I can finally move my little charges out where they belong, and throw the project back to my sister, where it belongs.
Trappers and lifelong Bush residents Miki and Julie Collins have written three books. They live in Lake Minchumina.