Green with envy

Winter weather doesn't slow down budding gardeners

Posted: Monday, January 06, 2003

For many gardeners, the winter is a time of frustration, cabin fever or boredom. However, there are some gardening chores that can be done to help maintain sanity until spring arrives.

"This time of year most people are dreaming," said Ron Sexton the co-owner of Trinity Green-house in Soldotna and the northern area director for the Alaska Farm Bureau.

Sexton generally closes the nursery to the public in Septem-ber or October and opens it again in March of the following year.

"There are a few people who maintain greenhouses, but it's not really economical due to the cost of heating and lighting," Sexton said.

That doesn't mean he's not working, though. He stays busy on a variety of projects, such as maintaining the equipment and attending to the production of the business's own unique soil.

"We have a reputation for making our own soil," Sexton said. "We get people from Anchorage and Wasilla who come for it, despite all the greenhouses there."

In the past, Sexton has used the winter to start some species of vegetables early in order to stay competitive in growing contests. The Kenai Peninsula doesn't get warm as early as Palmer, where a lot of the prize-winning vegetables are grown. He's taken first place before with a 39-pound pumpkin from his greenhouse that he started growing in winter.

"That's small when compared to the Lower 48, but it was enough to win that year," he said.

Sexton recommends several options for gardeners to stay busy during the off season.

"Now is a good time to look through seed catalogs and gardening magazines," he said. "People can look for what's new and being hybridized to whet their appetites."

He also explained the importance of searching for what will work in Alaska in addition to what's new and challenging.

"There are lots of seeds on the market from all over the world, but many won't do well here due to the prolonged winters."

Even seeds that are developed for northern climates are generally developed for the northern region of the Lower 48 and Canada. The reduced amount of daylight combined with prolonged cold temperatures of Alaska often can be too much on these seeds.

"Despite the warmer air temperatures (of spring), 8 to 12 inches down the soil can still be very cold," Sexton said.

Winter is also a good time to review the past year and create a plan of action for the new one.

"It's very important to keep detailed records of everything you do," he said. "You'll learn something new every year."

Records can include many things such as fertilizer amounts and frequencies, where planting occurred for proper rotation the following year, pest control, lighting responses and soil test results. Coincidentally, winter is a good time of year to have the soil tested, according to Sexton.

"Keeping records can help answer questions of why things happen," Sexton said as he explained how many gardeners come to him with questions of why things are brown or not flowering.

Records help him to quantitatively analyze exactly what has been done to formulate a probable solution.

Winter can be a time to collect containers and protective covers for seedlings. Empty milk jugs, cartons, food and coffee cans are used as hotcaps to protect newly transplanted seeds. These items also can be used as collars to prevent pest damage at the base of plants and around bulbs.

"I recommend anticipating vole activity," Sexton said. "Voles can get into perennials and gardeners can find no bulbs come spring."

Winter is a time many gardeners use to accumulate wood ash, which reduces the requirements for lime on a two-to-one ratio. Compost piles can be started to collect kitchen scraps such as fruit rinds, egg shells and coffee grounds to be used later in the garden.

"We recycle everything we can," Sexton said.

"It's like their stuff is groomed," Kathy Wartinbee said when describing Trinity. "You can't find anything bad there."

Wartinbee shops at Trinity for perennial seeds in addition to perusing the Internet. She's been working with orchids for more than 20 years but still considers herself an amateur avid gardener because she only has been growing outdoors for five years. Wartinbee said she enjoys growing vegetables, including potatoes and asparagus.

"I surf the Net and read magazines and books looking for new products and whatever I can to stay current," she said in reference to how she copes with the winter months. "I also enjoy talking to the local master gardeners. They are a wealth of information."

The University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service offices in Soldotna offer master gardener classes during the winter. These courses provide 40 hours of free instruction on gardening on the Kenai Peninsula.

"In return, all we ask is they give back 40 hours of gardening service to the community," said Tom Jahns, Land Resources district agent.

He has personally trained more than 200 master gardeners on the peninsula over the last eight years.

"Gardening service in the community can be anything from beautification projects, going to schools to teach kids, writing articles for the newspaper, or working with senior citizens on their gardens," Jahns said.

Janice Chumley, a program assistant at the Cooperative Extension Services office, also organizes an educational lecture series on gardening that covers a wide variety of topics. The courses will begin in February and are held at 7 p.m. on Thursdays.

This year's topics include what does well in Alaska, composting and yard art. The lectures are open to the public. For more information on the series, contact Chumley at 262-5824.

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