Club: Winterize your garden now

Posted: Monday, September 10, 2007

For a green thumb, gardening doesn't stop when the leaves turn and the air takes on a chill. Fall is the time for gardeners to wipe their vegetable patches clean and protect what flowers and trees they want to see blossom next year before the winter sets in.

"Winterizing is cleaning (your garden) up as best you can and protecting what you want to live," said Margaret Simon, who grows potatoes, raspberries, annuals and perennials at her home in Nikiski. "There are many different things you can do to protect your investment of plants and to keep things as healthy as they can be kept."

When the wind starts to bite, Simon removes any moldy or rotted plant material that would allow slugs and insects to hide and accumulate, while harvesting what vegetables she can, leaving bare dirt for next year's veggies. Every year she experiments with new varieties of veggies, as well as sticking to a few old favorites.

"I like to remove everything, harvest it or if it's died, pull it and get rid of it," she said. "You can amend the soil by adding compost in the fall or you can do it in the spring."

Simon will be part of a panel discussion teaching gardeners how to clean their flower beds and greenhouses for the winter. The discussion, hosted by the Central Peninsula Gardening Club, will take place at the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Building on Tuesday at 7 p.m. and is open to club members and the public.

Other topics will include the difference between perennials and veggies. Susan Jordan, who owns Fireweed Herb Garden in Kenai with her husband Porter, said perennials are flowers that bloom year after year without replanting and include delphiniums, roses and lilies. Annuals such as marigolds, lobelia and salvia, you have to plant every year, she said.

When preparing perennials for the winter, she generally removes the bug or mold-infested parts and dead flower-heads, but leaves the stocks and leaves in order to insulate the plant.

"If you have a really delicate flower like a tea rose you need to insulate that with straw, and a tomato cage works well to corral the straw on that plant," she said, adding that keeping the leaves and stock intact makes a plant easier to identify in the spring.

Cleaning up a garden, particularly in Alaska, is important because not only does it get cold here, winters are longer and darker than most other places. Jordan advises beginning gardeners to select plants that are able to withstand temperatures colder than minus 20 during the winter or plant hardiness zone four or lower.

"Minnesota and Wisconsin gets just as cold as we do (but) they have a better rate of perennials," she said. "Our winter season is a lot longer, and (perennials) just barely start coming up and we get hit by cold in the spring again."

Ron Sexton, owner of Trinity Greenhouse in Soldotna, said there is a difference between a plant that is hardy and a plant that can withstand an Alaska winter.

Tea roses, he said, are not hardy in Alaska, although there are several varieties that are and giving them extra protection during the winter might be beneficial.

"Hardy means it's a durable plant," he said. "For the most part, hardy means it will winter over where you are. We're a zone three. If I buy a plant that's a zone three, theoretically it's going to survive here."

Snow is actually good for perennials, Sexton said.

"The sooner we get snow before it really gets cold, the better the winter-ability of the plant," he said, "especially if we have a lot of rain and if it turns real cold."

If snow doesn't provide insulation for the plant, roots could be torn loose from the soil and fall victim to insects and other animals when the ground freezes. Sexton said voles are especially fond of daffodil and tulip bulbs, as well as potatoes and carrots.

Gardens can attract other animals, including rabbits, which like to chew the bases of trees, and moose.

Sexton said every seasoned gardener has his or her own method for cleaning flower beds and vegetable patches, but he discourages the use of grass clippings, leaves and plastic to insulate perennials. Grass clippings and leaves can become pretty deteriorated, almost turning into compost by spring, he said, while plastic bags absorb heat, causing the plant to sweat.

"It's counter-productive for keeping the plants dormant," he said.

Marion Nelson, who started the garden club at the tail end of a tough winter last spring, said attending club meetings is a good way for beginners to get advice and learn from seasoned gardeners.

"There's so many people who want to learn," Nelson said. "They're very much into the 'What can I learn, and how can I do it better.' We're keeping that in mind as we move forward."

Jordan and Sexton have their words of wisdom to impart on wanna be green thumbs. Jordan said new gardeners should talk to experienced ones and do their research before starting. Sexton said one problem he sees in many new gardeners is they start big, get overwhelmed and quit.

"I always recommend gardeners to start small, learn things as they go along and to keep a journal," he said. "If they make notes of (what) worked and (what) didn't work, next year they won't duplicate the same problem."

Club meetings are the second Tuesday of every month at 7 p.m. at the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Building. In order to join, new members must fill out a membership form and pay a $20 annual fee.

Jessica Cejnar can be reached at

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