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More gardening tasks: Hilling and pinching back

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Posted: Saturday, July 14, 2012 10:51 pm | Updated: 10:35 am, Mon Jan 21, 2013.

FAIRBANKS — February and July are a lot alike. Think about it. Jan. 1, you vow that this, this is the year you are going to eat healthy, get in shape and stop acting like you are 15 every time you get together with your siblings. By mid February, you are ordering fettuccine Alfredo with a chaser of tiramisu, sitting on your couch dressed in a Snuggie instead of at the gym and calling your brother stupid to his face.

June 1, you swear that this, this is the summer you will spend at least an hour per day in the garden, keeping it weed free, well fed and adequately watered. By July 15, you are ashamed to have people come over because it looks like the lovechild of a jungle and the city dump.

Well, don’t give up.

About six weeks of decent weather remains, and if you spend some concentrated time this week, you can salvage your garden. First, have a good go at the three chores I wrote about a month ago — weeding, thinning and deadheading.

After those three, which are required in every garden, there are two more that may need to be done, depending on your crops: hilling and pinching back.

Hilling means that as the plants grow, you push soil, leaves, straw or compost up against the stem of the plant; if you have potatoes or leeks in your garden, you must hill.

It seems strange to bury the main and leaf stems of the potato plant as it grows, I know. It is also a pain, especially as the plants get taller; if you didn’t plan well you end up with ever taller mounds that threaten to disintegrate at every drop of rain or gust of wind. But when potatoes are not hilled the tubers developing close to the surface turn green and somewhat bitter and toxic, and there will be less root development. Leeks that don’t have three or four inches of the stem buried under hills will have very little of the tender blanched part at harvest. Really, you should hill several times before you quit at the start of August, but better late than never.

Pinching off, also known as pinching back, is where you remove the top growth of a plant so that branching out occurs lower on the stem. Most herbs and many flowers benefit greatly from pinching off, in both better looks and higher yield.

I have a new helper named Tuesday, who loves to pinch off the tops of any plants she can reach. Consequently, all crops except for mint are behind fencing. Tuesday and her mother Woolly are delicate eaters when it comes to mint, gnawing down only about an inch a week. As a result, without any effort on my part, our mint is lush and bushy. I wish they could be trusted with the rest of the garden.

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

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