Homer doesn’t have a cast system like some countries that divide their people by characteristics like wealth and stature. Instead, we have altitude. If you are a gardener living near sea level this time of year, you are watching rhubarb push up ruddy red bumps and maybe even enjoying a crocus or two in a sunny warm nook. Up on the top of the bench? Not so much.
Up in the 1,000-foot-and-higher elevations, there’s still enough snow to make gardening seem months away, even though decades of experience has taught me that us hill-dwellers can and do catch up just fine. Nature figures it out in the end, balances things. We get more heat in the summer because we are farther from the coastal-influenced wind, and some of the best gardens I’ve ever seen are up here. But right now, it’s downright depressing.
Of course, if you have a high tunnel, a hoop house, a greenhouse or — like me — your entire dining room full of starts, there’s plenty of gardening to be done no matter where you live. In fact, it is truly time to get working. Alaska is unforgiving to the tardy gardener. My goal is always to get things in the ground as soon as absolutely possible — if you can move dirt around with your fingers, stick some peas in it. If not, start your peas inside. The trick to riding the fine line between winter and spring as a gardener in Alaska is knowing which plants are likely to make it and which are not.
Even though the danger of frost continues until June first for our zone, there are plenty of vegetables that scoff at this date and can be put in the ground much sooner. One of the best of these is bok choi (yes, there are a thousand different spellings and varieties of this but you get the general idea.) I remember a friend years ago who grew some of these in his unheated greenhouse while the snow was still high around it. The grew happily into the wonderful, juicy essence of spring that they are, full of flavor and promise. Bok choi are great in salads or stir fries and have become one of my earliest harvests inside and outside.
Also high on the list is spinach, which, especially when it is young, is very resilient against cold. Many plants, in fact, are much more resistant to the cold when they are small. I planted a bunch of starts in my high tunnel last weekend and that night it was close to a full moon and in the mid-20s. The starts were completely unfazed under their blanket of Remay (rowcover) despite the temperatures.
Kale is another likely-to-succeed start. Many a gardener has picked kale through the snow, and it is no less resilient as a baby, surviving all sorts of injustices. Brassicas in general — broccoli, cauliflower, Brussle sprouts, cabbages and the like — are all safe bets for early season planting. I also plant my beet starts this time of year.
Peas are another winner of the early Alaska gardener. An old saying goes that peas should be planted so they come up through the last of the snow. Just be sure to soak them for a day first in a bowl of water to get the seed ready to go, then plop those things in the ground and wait.
In general, however, it’s better to use starts this time of year. Seed germination is very dependent on soil temperature, and you can wait a long time if you plant things from seed this time of year when the soils are so cold. Case in point was my potato harvest last year. I’ve never seen such tardy potatoes — in fact, I thought they weren’t going to come up at all. But they were just cold (we are all trying to forget how cold it was last May, and June’s sunny heat did a good job, but the soil temperature took a while to catch up.) After three weeks of waiting, potatoes finally poked up. So getting the germination going inside is the best way to go. Then you can turn them loose in the ground.
Once you’ve planted your early crops, be sure to cover them up with Remay at night at least, and if it’s cool, leave that cloth on during the day, too. It keeps the warmth in the ground and protects the starts from frost at night. If a cold snap comes and you’ve got starts in an outside bed, I would rig up a quick hoop of some sort and put some plastic over them. Also, don’t overwater this time of year — the soil is probably moist already, and starts will draw from it for quite some time before they need a drink.
Early season gardening is always a bit of a gamble. We may well get a hard freeze yet, and if we do, some loss may occur, but for me, it’s worth the gamble to possibly have fresh tender edibles coming out of the earth in a month or so.
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