Juneau gardeners work hard to beat heat

Posted: Friday, August 20, 2004

JUNEAU (AP) The summer's glorious weather isn't so wonderful for all plants, and public gardeners are having to work hard to keep parks and medians quenched.

Amy Sherwin and other city landscape staffers have mixed feelings about the heat.

''It's been nice to work in the sunshine and get a break from the rainy weather,'' Sherwin said. ''But that also means we have to water the plants more often.''

The city has three 300-gallon water trucks. On some hot days, the trucks spray up to 2,500 gallons of water just on annual flowers, said landscape supervisor Terry Hinkley. His crew also maintains grass at 30 areas throughout the city.

''The amount of water we have used this summer is more than the amount of water we would use for five normal summers,'' Hinkley said.

Juneau's unsettled weather poses special challenges to the city's green thumbs.

''The plants need to be 'bombproof.' We can have a really wet and cool summer or a really hot and dry summer or both,'' Hinkley said. ''You need plants that can handle that.''

Some of the bombproof plants include snapdragons, dianthus and chrysanthemums. Hinkley said many of the plants he uses now were experimental plantings 20 years ago by George Chapman, the city's first gardener. Before working for the city, Chapman was the governor's gardener. He sowed the first seeds in the Juneau city museum and oversaw the initial planting of floral beds in the medians of Juneau's main roads.

''He was a natural gardener,'' Hinkley said. ''He was an inspiration for me.''

Although Hinkley also experiments with new plants every year, he keeps the plants that Chapman found successful as the core. The city landscape crew grows 1,400 plants from seeds every year. Hinkley buys seeds from New York, New Jersey and Illinois. Workers sow the seeds in late February in a greenhouse at Dimond Park.

''I don't know why the city built the greenhouse there. It's near the Mendenhall Glacier, one of the coldest places in town,'' Hinkley said. ''Every spring I lose some sleep, wondering how cold it's going to be. It seems that every time I put the plants out of the greenhouse, it's getting cold again. It's always a gamble.''

But Hinkley said the plants have suffered minor frost damage only a few times. The landscape staff moves plants from the greenhouse to a cold frame in April. A cold frame is a box-like, open-bottomed frame with glass or clear plastic lids to allow in light.

''It's like a mini-greenhouse,'' Hinkley said. ''You can open it up during the day and close it if it gets too cold.''

The city landscape crew starts planting the flowers in mid-May.

''Because downtown climate is a little warmer, we start from downtown and work our way out toward the valley,'' Hinkley said.

The city has floral beds at 35 locations between downtown and Juneau International Airport. Each location, such as the main strip on Egan Drive, can have as many as 26 individual floral beds.

''We design our own beds,'' said Ben Patterson, who has worked for the city for two seasons. ''You have to use the height of plants as a guide. You put the highest in the middle.''

A floral bed Peterson designed has a diamond shape of purple salvia surrounded by calendula and dianthus. By fall, the office's nine seasonal employees wrap up their work by churning up the flowers and mixing them with soil. Hinkley spends the winter preparing the greenhouse and ordering the seeds.

''It's always great to see what comes out of a small seed if you treat it right,'' Hinkley said.

Although Hinkley and his crew like gardening, few have a garden at home.

''It's just like mechanics don't fix their own cars,'' said Hinkley, who has only small pots of plants at home.

On a recent afternoon, some of Hinkley's crew were deadheading in the median of Egan Drive. A few drivers honked in appreciation or gave them a thumbs-up.

''We are hoping to get the last bloom in the summer,'' Sherwin said while snapping a dead chrysanthemum from its stalk.

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