Growing Bulbs in Interior Alaska

In Interior Alaska, tulips and daffodils are uncommon. You might find them cozied up to a building, downtown in yards with slightly warmer soil due to the steam heat or in the hills.

For those of us who have lived farther south—even farther south in Alaska—we know that there’s a lot we’re missing in terms of spring color. Many spring-blooming bulbs, including tulips, are only hardy to Zone 3 or 4 on the USDA’s Plant Hardiness Zone Map. Some areas of Fairbanks are Zone 1 on paper. But recent, mild winters and a protected garden bed next to my house have inspired me to try my luck with tulips. 

One year, I planted whatever type of bulb looked pretty at the grocery store—I think it was Pinochio, a Greigii tulip. Those came up the first spring after a mild winter.

Later, I did a little more research into hardier bulbs and ones that would multiply, and I planned ahead and ordered them. They included Plaisir, Purple Lord, Alibi and Violacea tulips. Most of these tulips (maybe all) bloomed nicely. In springs three and four, they continued to multiply and survive.

purple tulips blooming in a bed

Purple Lord and Pinochio tulips bloom in a flower bed close to my house. You can also see peony plants emerging.

The first year the tulips are most likely to bloom, if you purchased nice, healthy bulbs. I planted Violate tulips in a bed that was not next to the house and exactly zero emerged, let alone bloomed. Because this garden bed doubled as our snow dump likely played a role in this.

The Georgeson Botanical Garden trialed a smattering of flowering bulbs in the 1990s. Of the tulips, Tarda tulip emerged from the winter with the least amount of injury and survived more years than other tulips at the garden. Bright Gem, United States, and Persian Pearl survived, but not unscathed, from the winter.

In general, Scilla tends to winter over well in Fairbanks and sometimes grape hyacinth does as well. Snowdrops are also hardy. But Scilla, grape hyacinths and snowdrops are too diminutive to satisfy my need for color after a long, white winter. And if the winter is particularly brutal with minimal snow cover, then only the hardiest will survive. 

For bulbs, planning is key, especially for the first year. You’ll need to plant the bulbs two or three weeks before the ground is frozen. This will give them time to establish roots, without the shoots emerging. The ideal time to plant in the fall will vary some from year to year but is around early to mid-September.

Tulips and daffodils should be planted 5-6 inches deep while smaller bulbs like Scillas and grape hyacinths can be planted 2-3 inches deep. If the ground is wet when you plant the bulbs, there is no need to water, but if it’s dry you should water them a bit. Well-drained soil is ideal, especially if it is a very wet fall because the bulbs could rot. Incorporate a little fertilizer before planting—organic or slow-release works best since the bulbs will use it in the spring. Adequate snow cover or mulch is a must for Fairbanks. These types of bulbs require a jolt of cold—but they don’t need 40 below cold, which, if not mulched properly, could likely kill the bulbs. What Fairbanks does have going for it is generally dry conditions and sometimes hot summers.

It can be tricky to find bulbs when you need them. You might spot them at grocery stores and local greenhouses, but they may not be the variety you want or the hardiest varieties. It’s easy to find myriad varieties online, but many companies don’t ship to Alaska. If they do ship to Alaska, they may very well ship them too late—when the ground is frozen or nearly frozen and covered with snow. So double-check that the company will ship bulbs to you earlier than to other customers.

In the spring, peel back the mulch, water, and fertilizer with a slow-release or organic fertilizer. To encourage the bulbs to naturalize and multiply, cut the flower stems after they’re past their prime. Cut the leaves back only after they’ve withered so the bulbs can store nutrients for next year. If they survive the first year and begin to multiply, then you can treat them much like you would treat your other perennials. Some bulbs tend to multiply better than others. If they do multiply, in the fall you can divide the bulbs and plant either right away, giving them more space than if you had not divided them, or store cool and dry to be planted later, but no later than a year.

I have my bulbs planted in a bed with peonies and also usually interplant some showy annuals. This provides nice, successive color. I’m already looking forward to their bright show!

Previously published in the Fairbanks Daily Newsminer Septemper 9, 2017.

Vibrant Hanging Baskets—A Recipe for Success

In Alaska, we make up for our white winter palette with an abundance of vivid, gushing hanging baskets in the summer. How can you get your own colorful basket this summer?

A vibrant hanging basket of purple and pink petunias.

A petunia ball in downtown Fairbanks.

One of my favorite baskets around Fairbanks looks like a ball of petunias. They are planted by Festival Fairbanks; so I asked Julie Jones, the executive director, what her recipe for success was.

She said they start with a 14-inch Cordova basket, which is just a round, plastic hanging basket with drainage holes. This surprised me because when looking at the baskets, they were so full it looks like the flowers were coming out from every which way. So-called flower balls use a wire basket and a liner that allows you to cut holes and plant on the sides and bottom of the basket and even on top. You could also use a hanging plastic bag with holes on it — sometimes called blooming bags or flower pouches. The downside of these methods is that you’ll probably need more plants and they will also likely dry out more readily due to the additional holes throughout the basket.

Jones said they use as many as seven and as few as three plants for each container, but usually five. Two are blue wave petunias, two wave petunias of another color and one other splash of color. In the picture shown, there is also yellow biden, which has been dwarfed by the wave petunias. A huge plus for wave petunias is that they do not need to be deadheaded. Most other annual flowers regularly need the trimming. Volunteers start the baskets in greenhouses about four to five weeks before distributing them downtown in early June for tourists and locals to enjoy. Continue reading

How to Build a Better Looking Garden Bed

As some of you might have deduced from reading this blog, I’m a die-hard edible gardener and it’s a stretch for me to think outside the vegetable row. If you can’t eat it and it doesn’t attract pollinators or fix nitrogen, it’s usually not going to get a spot in my garden. This summer, I decided to change that and dedicate one bed to flowers. Here’s how I designed it.

First, I needed to determine what I liked and didn’t like. As a starting point, I glanced through books and magazines, online, and through my many photos of flower beds taken at the Georgeson Botanical Garden on the Troth Yeddha’ campus, and at local hotels, greenhouses and home landscapes. I’m a garden nerd, and so I take a lot of photos of flowers, vegetables and gardens.

One of my favorite beds on campus uses the massing approach, where only one type of flower or plant in one or two shades is grown. This bed is a mass of crimson and strawberry-colored Nicotiana. It creates a dramatic visual impact. I’m not so into the beds on campus that are white and baby pink alyssum, a so-called restful combination.

pink and red Nicotiana fill the screen

These Nicotiana have taken over this garden bed and are a good example of a massing technique.

In addition to the overall bed design, I needed to think about color, texture, flower shape, height, focal points, bloom sequence and whether to integrate flowers, shrubs, herbs, vegetables and grasses. And finally, would the plants I chose thrive in Fairbanks?

From looking at other flower beds, I figured out that for colors, I like the maximum amount of contrast. Give me a bright pink cosmos with dark blue iris (or blue sage) or bright orange marigolds with dark blue lobelia. In There’s a Moose in My Garden,  Brenda Adams calls this a “sassy’ combination. On the color wheel, this translates to a complementary or split complementary color scheme. I’m not so drawn to monochromatic, washed-out colors. This handy color wheel calculator helped further identify color schemes I liked. Cornell University also has some helpful guides for using color to design flower beds and more.

A very colorful garden bed that integrates flowers and vegetables like kale, swiss chard and peas.

A very colorful garden bed that integrates flowers and vegetables is a beautiful and practical way to grow food and ornamentals in limited space. In front are Livingston daisies, Harlequin mix.

I also like varied and dramatic textures like grass or globe onions or coleus combined with flowers. And I like unique, oddly shaped flowers like hibiscus, Chinese asters, double poppies and clematis, not only because they photograph well. I’ll blame it on being a lifetime Fairbanksan, but I’m a little bored with petunias, lobelia, geraniums, begonias and pansies, even though I know they’re dependable.

several pink chinese asters fill the screen

These Chinese asters offer an interesting texture and vibrant color.

Continue reading

Peony Farming—More Work and a Smaller Reward Than Many Imagined

In the last decade, peony farms in Alaska have increased tenfold. According to the latest Census of Agriculture, there were 100 peony farms in the state.

The growth has been propelled by headlines like these: Alaska’s peonies are the state’s new cash crop, ‘The industry’s about to explode’: Peony market flourishes in Alaska, Alaskan peony farmers aim to grow industry, and How Alaska became a center of peony cultivation.

Credit for the boom also goes to UAF Professor Pat Holloway who, 20 years ago, made it known that, because Alaska peonies bloomed at a time when they weren’t available anywhere else in the world–during the height of the wedding season–they could garner premium prices.

Notwithstanding the ebullient headlines, are Alaska’s peony farmers flourishing? Are they making money? That’s what I wanted to find out when I interviewed over a dozen farmers in Interior Alaska.

David Russelll is the president of the Alaska Peony Growers Association, and owner of one the largest peony farms in Alaska. He likens peony farming to a video game. The first level is growing marketable peonies, the second, chilling and post-harvest handling, and the third, marketing. Each level presents new challenges and unknowns. If you successfully reach the third level, you must continue juggling all of the challenges of the first and second levels as well. Continue reading