Ice still glazes the side roads, and the morning mercury sinks below freezing, but spring has arrived -- on the calendar at least.
It is time to start planning summer gardens, the Cooperative Extension Service's Janice Chumley told the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce at its April 2 luncheon.
Chumley, an integrated pest management technician, said plants will reward savvy gardeners, but Kenai Peninsula residents need to beware of pests. She is what people used to call "the bug lady," she said.
"A lot of people have pest problems, and some of them I can do things about," she said. "It's kind of an odd job."
The central peninsula's extension office, affiliated with the University of Alaska Fairbanks, is on Kalifornsky Beach Road just south of Poppy Lane. She invited people to drop by to discuss their gardening questions and pick up free guidelines. The service provides tips for growing things specific to this area.
The service also sponsors the Master Gardener classes and a winter lecture series of gardening advice. The last lecture of the season, about perennial flowers, will be at 7 p.m. April 18 at the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association building on K-Beach.
Chumley urged everyone to consider pitching in to help with the community gardens grown in summer. People can stop by informally to pull weeds. It is a great way to meet neighbors, learn about gardens and have fun, she said.
She offered advice on what people can do now to plan for a successful garden season ahead.
Sample your soil
Plants have preferences, and area soils vary greatly. People should invest in a soil test, which costs $20. Samples are shipped to Palmer. The analysis will help you pick suitable plants and tell you what, if anything, you need to add to your soil to make it fertile.
Prepare raised beds
Chumley strongly recommends raised flower or vegetable beds to offset the Alaska chill. Cold soil is what prevents many introduced plants from thriving here, and the soil will warm faster in a raised bed. Such a bed also is easier to weed, aerate and protect from moose, she said.
Study what to grow
Stores offer stunning arrays of plants, but you can only keep them alive if you can meet their needs. Talk to your gardening neighbors about what works for them and check out the extension service's list of recommended varieties for the peninsula.
Annuals provide quick and flexible color options. Perennials come back year after year, but require more of an upfront investment of money and care. Wildflowers native to this area may be the hardiest option. This may be a good year to consider trees and shrubs as well, especially to replant areas cleared by the spruce bark beetle infestation.
Watch out for weeds
Weeds are a plague for individual garden plots, but they also threaten the peninsula ecosystem as a whole, Chumley warned. The extension service will be doing a targeted project this summer to identify and eradicate invasive species such as hemp nettles that threaten to choke out native plants and damage farm and garden productivity.
"Once they are established, they are extremely hard to eradicate," she said. "Invasive plants are a huge problem in the Lower 48. We would like to not have them in Alaska."
In addition to unwelcome plants, central peninsula residents will face another year of spruce bark beetles. Nikiski and the Kenai River corridor are most likely to see new beetle damage this year. Tree owners can combat the problem by preemptive logging, spraying individual trees with pesticide, trimming the lower branches, fertilizing and watering in early spring.
"Water the heck out of them," Chumley advised.
Warnings aside, soon all plant lovers will have a chance to get good and dirty in their gardens.
"The good news is, it is Alaska and it's spring," she said.
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