Linden Staciokas has gardened in Fairbanks, where the summers are the hottest and the winters are the coldest in Alaska, for more than 20 years. For 15 of those, she has been the weekly gardening columnist for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, occasionally writing other articles on how to eat the food she grows. While she would love to live in a state where peaches and oranges grow, there are compensations to living in a place where round the clock daylight produces cabbages the size of compact cars and tuberous begonias so vibrant they can make your eyes water.
When Linden is not fighting for dominance with her Irish Wolfhound, chasing escaped chickens, or figuring out new ways to fix rhubarb, she writes for other gardening publications, including Harrowsmith Country Life, American Horticulturist, and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden's Tantalizing Tomatoes handbook.
In January, about the only thing in the garden worth looking at is the moose that wander through. But when the average temperature is 10.1 degrees below zero, even the moose usually don't merit a trip outside for a closer look. Despite the weather, we can all take heart that our daylight is once more slowly reappearing, even if it is only a few minutes more each day!
Plan Your Plot. I think of January as the month to do basic pencil and paper prep work for the garden plot. Decide which varieties to plant, where to place your crops this year, and how to lay-out your gardens.
Keep Track of Your Garden. I have kept a gardening journal for over a decade now, and find great pleasure in thumbing through it every winter. I use it to remind myself of techniques that worked and varieties that performed well.
Extension Service Excellence. If you are new to gardening or new to arctic conditions, spend some time at your local Cooperative Extension Service. Better yet, sign up for a Master Gardening class, where you will meet other like-minded individuals and learn all the peculiarities of cold climate gardening.
Be Careful About Bulbs. If you have bulbs, corms or tubers nestled in boxes of sawdust, gently check for rotting specimens and discard them. And while you are out in the garage, check the moisture needs of the roses you are over-wintering.
Investigate New Varieties. Many cold climate gardeners seldom venture out beyond the standard potatoes, carrots, and outdoor tomatoes. This year, consider growing something challenging such as 'Red Warty Thing', a winter squash with a bumpy red rind that takes 110 days to reach maturity. 'Orange Queen' slicing tomatoes are a determinate variety that produce juicy, lightly seeded 4-6 ounce fruits within 90 to 100 days.
Tasty Turnips. Finally, if you have any turnips left over-wintering in your root cellar or garage, try using them instead of potatoes when you make oven fries. Slice six or eight of them into thin sticks, throw them into a pan and toss on a tablespoon or two of olive oil; mix and turn the sticks until they are well covered, and bake for 15 minutes or so in an oven set to 400 degrees F.
February is pretty much the only time I think of moving out of interior Alaska. It is not so much that I am sick of severe temperatures and the lack of sun. It is the photos in all those seed catalogs that arrive daily! I suddenly remember that somewhere out there people are spending Saint Patrick's Day sowing peas, and when I remember that (and I always do), I am hit by a deep envy that allows the harshness of winter to creep into my gardening soul. The only antidote is to start my gardening engines by tackling those chores not affected by weather.
Keep Those Containers. Drop an email to friends and co-workers asking them to save milk cartons, yogurt cups, cottage cheese containers, convenience store pop cups and anything else that can be recycled into a seed-starting container.
Stay Away From Peat Pots! They do not disintegrate properly in our soils; at worst your seedlings will die, at best they will be stunted. Newspaper pots can be filled with soil and transplanted in their entirety, because they decompose quickly once in contact with soil. Plus, it is cheap and easy to make your own newspaper pots.
Lightbulb Deals. Plan ahead and save money this month by looking for sales on shop lights and fluorescent bulbs. You'll need lights to start your own seedlings. You do not need expensive specialty grow lights; a mixture of warm-whites and cool-whites in your shop light will work fine.
Garage Projects. This is a good month to do those garage or workshop gardening projects that are quickly abandoned when seed sowing starts. Consider making cold frames made out of scrap lumber and glass.
Reap the Benefits of Raised Beds. Building raised beds is another good garage project. Simply take 2 X 6 lumber (or boards of the new recycled plastic or wood-plastic composites) and nail or screw them into a square or rectangle. You can carry them outside and fill them with dirt as soon as the snow is gone. Even this slight elevation of your garden results in warmer soil, improved drainage and allows for more intensive planting—all of which leads to larger yields.
I read newspapers on the Internet, so I know that there are places where March means tulips and cherry trees in bloom. Here, however, winter is still the master: our average high temperature is 23.8 degrees F, our average low is 1.7 degrees F below zero and our average snowfall is 6.4 inches.
Remember Rhubarb. Rhubarb is a member of the sorrel family, and has plenty of fiber and Vitamin C. More importantly, this perennial survives our toughest winters and comes up so early that eating it gives you a taste of summer before you have even sow the rest of your seeds.
Let's Talk Leeks. Leeks are easy to grow, disease-resistant, and can be harvested from their earliest stages all the way until after the first few snows. They are also easy to preserve: just wash, chop, and freeze. Start them indoors in late March, as you would any other vegetable.
Seed Sowing. It's seed-starting time. Here's what to sow and when: By the 10th start greenhouse tomatoes; by the 20th start celery, parsley, peppers, eggplant, greenhouse cukes, fibrous begonias, lobelia and ageratum; at the end of the month start impatiens, pansies, violas, anemones, ranunculus, snapdragons, verbena, daises, coleus, phlox, schizanthus and poppies.
Rose Revival. Bring up those roses that spent the winter lounging around the garage or basement and put them in an area that gets light but isn't hit by direct sunlight. Pull off the bags, water thoroughly and expect to wait about two weeks before things really look noticeably greener.
Books to Check Out. If you have time this month, track down The Edible Flower Garden by Rosalind Creasy. The information is tops and the pictures are as luscious as the recipes. Mardi Gras Salad with Pecans, anyone?
Some gardeners in Fairbanks fantasize about May, which means direct seeding, and others who long for June 1, when transplanting takes place. But I dream of April. I see the promise of spring everywhere. Saw horses and plywood turn my dining room into a nursery for tuberous begonias, roses, fuchsias, and geraniums. And my kitchen and half of the garage are crammed with three-tiered light tables full of seedlings. By September, I will know failure and frustration, but right now my garden still has the ability to match the dreams of it I have been nurturing all winter.
Delight in Dahlias. In mid-April, cut off the top portion of gallon-sized plastic milk jugs and punch two drainage holes in the bottom. Fill with a 2:1 mixture of potting soil and seed starting mix. Place one tuber horizontally into each milk jug, cover with four inches of soil, and water well. As soon as a stalk appears, whisk that container under lights and begin weekly feedings with a diluted fish fertilizer.
Dazzling Dianthus. Another flower that is widely grown but in my experience is seldom thought of as a cutting flower is the dianthus—although there are a number of taller varieties, even the short bedding versions will last for 10-14 days in water and can look quite dashing in lapel vases or spilling out of shot glasses. I favor the carnation type, especially in deep red.
Sun and Shade Basics. Where we live, full sun means roughly eight hours of direct sun every day. Part sun means about five hours or less of direct sun. Dappled light, also called filtered light, means there is something blocking direct sun all of the time but it does peak through during part of the day. Full shade means basically no direct sun reaches the area.
The Dirt on Daylight. Many flowers and vegetables are day neutral, meaning they are not very particular about the lengths of their days and nights. Other plants are long day plants, which means they require a short period of darkness each day to perform well. Still other plants belong to the short-day group, meaning they don't do well in places like Alaska, where there isn't enough darkness for them.
April Seed Starting. During the first half of April, be sure to start these vegetables: broccoli, Brussels sprouts, chives, greenhouse cucumbers, eggplant, leeks, marjoram, mint, oregano, papers, sage, winter savory and thyme. These flowers also need to be seeded by about the 15th: asperula, asters, bells of Ireland, calendula, cosmos, dahlia tubers, daisies (English and African), dianthus, feverfew, gladiola corms, godetia, hollyhock, impatiens, kochia, layia, malope, malva, nemesia, nicotina, petunia, phlox, schizanthus, snapdragon, statice, strawflowers, tuberous begonia tubers and verbena.
Clean Your Seed Area. It's easy to forget that your seed starting area is getting more crowded. Don't reuse six packs without sterilizing them with a 10:1 water and bleach solution, keep a fan running on low for a few hours a day so that there is plenty of air circulation.
May starts out ugly and ends up gorgeous here in the interior of Alaska. It takes until about the 15th for the grass to green up and the leaves to burst open, but after that everything goes into fast forward. Within a week, the city and borough governments, businesses, and homeowners are putting out all but the most fragile of hanging baskets. The nurseries are flooded with customers on Memorial Day weekend, and the transplants start going out to their permanent homes in the garden. It must be the almost constant daylight that convinces us we can spend half the night gardening instead of sleeping!
Veggies to Watch. Direct-seed potatoes, arugula, beans, beets, Nabana cabbage, carrots, chard, dill, garlic bulbs, leaf lettuce, mesclun, onion sets, parsnips, peas, radishes, summer savory, spinach and turnips. California poppies, bachelor buttons, and nasturtium also flourish from seed.
Grandma's Garden Tips. If seeds are tiny, mix sand or a small amount of compost to the packet so when you sprinkle it along the furrow you'll have less clumping—which means less thinning later. Second, don't cover the seeds with compost or sand instead of soil. Watering, wind and sun can turn soil into a crust that seeds can't push through.
Transplanting Tips. Transplant leeks, Brussels sprouts, broccoli and cauliflower during the last two weeks of the month.
Tempering Seedlings. No matter when I transplant, I have become religious about hardening off everything before it goes into the ground. Hardening off is garden-speak for gradually acclimating seedlings reared indoors (whether at your house or a commercial nursery) to the harsher realities of garden plot life.
Hanging Around. Plant your hanging baskets now. (Don't forget that hanging baskets also need to be hardened off before they are hung out for the season.) Don't forget to refurbish or repot over wintered fuchsias, roses and geraniums!
Despite the fact that June temperatures can reach the 70s and the evenings don't go below the high 30s, there is poignancy to this month. The grass has finally recovered from the winter and gardening has to be fit in around camping, fishing, boating and the like, but you are reminded that this will all soon disappear under an onslaught of darkness and snow. On June 21 and 22, the sun rises at 3:02 am and sets the following 12:44 am, but by the 23rd we are losing sunlight every day. Within eight days, by the end of June, our days are already sixteen minutes shorter.
The 15-Minute Rule. I keep my gardening chores manageable using the 15 minute rule. Every weekday evening, without fail, I spend at least 15 minutes strolling through my garden. I use the time to look for pest infestations and diseases, and for weed pulling and thinning.
Sprinkler Systems. The first weekend of June, set up your soaker hose system. I cannot stress enough how much it improved my garden once I spent the money to set up a watering system. With the use of a simple timer, I insure that my garden is watered without any effort on my part.
Water Carefully. If you cannot afford to rig up a watering system, water prudently. This means watering deeply about every third day or so, rather than watering superficially every afternoon. Frequent superficial watering leads to shallow root development; these kinds of roots are disrupted easier while hoeing and also don't do well if there is a sudden drought because you have to leave town for a week.
Hanging Basket Tip. In terms of watering hanging baskets, they need much more frequent drinks and feedings, as the roots cannot forage out beyond their container walls for sustenance. Use fish fertilizer every other week. Rotate hanging baskets and containers, so that one side isn't getting disproportionate exposure to the sun.
Zucchini Zingers. If your zucchini plants form an excess of male blossoms (the ones that bloom at the end of long stems) but there are no female flowers (the ones that have what looks like a miniature vegetable behind the bloom) for them to pollinate, you may have a variety that is responding poorly to a lack of nighttime.
Super Squash. Sometimes squash plants have a sufficient number of male and female flowers, but the small squash just rot off instead of developing into full sized fruit. A lack of pollination may be the problem. Help prod nature along by snapping off the long stemmed male flower, gently peeling back the petals so that you expose the pollen-carrying center, and brushing it around inside the female flower
Solutions for Procrastinating Gardeners. If June has come and you haven't started a seed or purchased a transplant, buy a hanging basket or two and make that your garden this year.
It may be, as the 2005 Alaska Weather Calendar points out, "In only about 1 year in 8 is there no snow in Barrow in July, the warmest month at the 'top of the world.'" But in Fairbanks, July is usually way too hot for us. In 2004, we had seven days with the high at or above 80, even though our normal mean monthly temperature is 64.4. We notice the heat because we seem to be out in it 24 hours a day: at the start of the month we have slightly over twenty one hours of sunlight, by the end we still get over 18. It is perfect timing for our gardens to run themselves, so that we can do other things.
Are there any herbs that reseed themselves in this cold climate? Yes, and some of my favorites are among them: Anise hyssop, borage, chervil, chives, dill, sorrel, summer savory, sweet Cicely. The perennial chives, lovage and thyme also return every year, unless they have been killed off by a severe cold that arrived before sufficient snow cover did.
Which edible flowers would you recommend? The flowers of herbs such as anise hyssop, chives, cilantro, dill, sage and thyme are all edible, as are the flowers that sometimes develop on garlic. You also can munch down on your tuberous begonias, calendula, chamomile, chrysanthemums, daylilies, English daisy, Johnny-jump-ups, lilacs, marigolds, nasturtiums, pansies, peas, roses, runner beans, scented geraniums, squash blossoms, strawberries, tulips and violas.
When I hardened off my plants, the leaves on a number of them seemed to lose their intense green and get a yellowish tinge. There was also some red along the edges. Did I do it too fast? This is normal and you probably noticed that once they were in the garden they went back to their usual color.
I grow my pumpkins and strawberries through plastic, in order to make the ground as warm as possible and reduce weeds and watering needs. However, if I put the plants in first and then try to pull them through the plastic, I always lose some to crushing. If I do it in the opposite order, I have to make the cut in the plastic so big in order to dig a hole for the transplant, I might just as well not bother. Any suggestions? I put the plastic down first, cut an X at the right spot, peel back the four corners and use a bulb hole digger. It works like a charm, biting out a clean deep opening that is usually too large—but it is much easier to drop part of the clump back in than to pull more out. After you are finished setting the transplant in, just let the corners flop back; you will find that very little soil is not covered by plant or plastic.
Virtually every year when the frosts hit I still have many flowers on my tomato vines, as well as a ton of green fruit. I don't want the mess of bringing the vines inside to hang them up to finish ripening, so is there any way to speed up the process outdoors? Are you topping off the tomatoes the first week of August and pinching off any blossoms? I take off six inches of the main stem, which usually has no tomatoes or some that are so tiny they are not going to mature anyway. By mid August, you should start cutting out some of the middle leaves, so that the sun can get to the inner tomatoes. I barber pretty severely, concentrating on the leaves that are close to the stem or shielding the tomatoes. Finally, about the same time that you are clearing out foliage, cleanly drive a well-sharpened shovel tip into the soil on two opposite sides of the plant.
I don't have a large garden but it can't be put under plastic because I spread my potatoes and root crops throughout it. Would it be effective if I cut large squares of plastic and then transplanted my tomato seedlings through those? I would use tomato cages and encase each one in clear 6 mil plastic. Some folks keep the plastic on the cage by wrapping string around it near the top and bottom, others staple the plastic so it is tight against the cage, and still others use clear packing tape where the edges meet. I wrap and staple the plastic shut before I lower the cage over the plant, keeping enough of a flap of plastic at the top and bottom that I can actually stick the prongs at both ends through the flaps for added stability.
I love honeysuckle. Are there any varieties that survive in cold climates? While they named five varieties that will thrive in Alaska, the interior where Fairbanks is located is largely Zone 2 and Sweetberry Honeysuckle is the only one that usually survives our winters. This is a five-foot high shrub with a four-foot spread and the expected yellow bell shaped flowers. Just in case it goes by other names in other places, the scientific name is Lonicera caerulea.
Last year my cauliflower heads ended up green. Why? In my experience, there are usually two reasons: the wrong variety or blanching has been neglected. By wrong variety I mean that there are over 100 versions of cauliflower and it is no longer unusual for nurseries to offer white, green, purple and even pastel orange. If you want white, be sure to plant white. You may find that you saw the label cauliflower and inadvertently picked up a green rather than a white. The other possibility is that you grew a type that needs blanching to stay white—not all of them do.
Enjoy the respite from gardening work that July provides. Weed, hill those potatoes and leeks, and just sit in the garden to relax, because August will be another labor-intensive month.
August has never been a favorite month here. Gardeners in the interior know that our first frosts will be arriving toward the end of the month, so the rush is on to harvest and process our garden's bounty. We must also protect tender plants from light but killing frosts. While you are doing these or any of your other chores, it is a good time to figure out what went wrong in your garden and keep notes so you don't repeat the mistakes next year.
Tomato Tips. Slice off the top six inches off your tomato plants and pinch off the blossoms around the first weekend of August, to force the fruit into ripening. If your plants have more foliage than tomatoes, you probably applied too much nitrogen to your soil earlier in the summer.
Hanging Basket Care. You can enjoy your hanging baskets into September if you bring them inside at night to protect them frost.
Woeful Weeds. Prevent weed problems by pulling out weeds before they set seed. Weeds compete with your plants for food, water, and sunlight and can compromise yields.
Pull Those Potatoes. Pull out some baby potatoes by either digging up an entire plant or sneaking in at the side and grabbing a few. Harvest a few leeks--the thin ones are sweet and tender enough to be cut up and tossed into salads. If you have not hilled your leeks and potatoes all summer, go out and do it as soon as you read this.
Watch Your Crops. Draw a map of you garden or photograph it, so that you can remember what was planted where next year.
Could there be a better month than September in interior Alaska? Our average temperature is 44.3 degrees. The first official day of fall is on September 22, one of the two days a year when the day and night are of equal length (the other is March 22). The horizon is solid yellow with birch trees leaves, the mountains are tipped with snow, and there isn't much in the garden for the moose to vandalize.
Rest Your Roses. Dormant roses may be overwintered in an insulated garage. Drive your roses into dormancy by exposing them to a few light frosts and then trimming them back to about a foot in height. Do not expose them to temperatures in the upper 20s or lower.
Outdoor Plant Care. Protect plants that you plan to overwinter outdoors, such as perennials. Mulch the crowns of the plants with leaves, straw, and hay to insulate them from temperature fluctuations that can bring them out of dormancy at an inconvenient time. When the snows really start, pile the excess from your sidewalks and driveway right on top of the organic mulches to provide further insulation from wind and extreme cold.
Pull Your Potatoes. Pull your potatoes on Labor Day weekend. Be sure to brush off—not wash—each spud and lay them all on newspaper; cover with multiple sheets of more newspaper. This prevents the potatoes from turning green, which happens when they are exposed to light.
Tomato Talk. Before frost, pick off any remaining light green tomatoes (the dark small ones will just rot) and wrap each one in newspaper. Put a single layer of tomatoes in boxes or trays and store them in a dark room or closet. Check frequently for ripe tomatoes and discard any rotting fruit.
Pumpkin Prep. Here's how to cure pumpkins for storage: after the first light frosts, carefully cut each one off the vine, leaving a stem about an inch long. Let the pumpkins sit for a few days to toughen up and wipe each one down with a bleach solution of 1 part bleach to each gallon of water. Then line up the pumpkins in the coolest part of your home or garage (where it usually stays between 45 and 60) and check each week for signs of rot.
Haircuts for Houseplants. Geraniums and fuchsias can be overwintered as houseplants. Cut them back by half and put them in bright, direct light. Water sparingly and pinch back new growth to prevent the plants from becoming spindly. Absolutely do not fertilize until spring.
Tuber Tip. Since tuberous begonias are very expensive when purchased as transplants, work hard to save them. After a very light frost, dig them up, bring them inside and set them on newspapers to dry for two days. Then brush them off and bury them in sawdust or cat litter. I make sure the tubers are not touching and I put them in an area that stays around 45 degrees. I check them once a month for spoilage.
Compost Care. Finally, don't forget to continue composting this winter. The contents of your food scrap collection bin will freeze and be odorless this winter. Come spring you will have plenty to add to your compost heap. Don't be afraid to experiment with your composting technique in the winter.
When I am outside of Alaska and need to lift my homesickness by revisiting it in my mind and heart, I conjure up October in Fairbanks: trees that seem to hold out their arms like children during the first season's snow and late sunrises that invite you to linger in bed. I welcome every moment of this month, even if our daily temperatures average below freezing!
Pretty Poinsettias. To bring the poinsettia you've been tending all year back into vivid color in time for the festivities, you must start October 1st. Give the plants absolute darkness for 14 hours a night, every single night, for about 8 to 10 weeks. Poinsettias also need cool temperatures at night (about 60 to 65 degrees).
Fungus Gnat Fury. To get rid of gnats, first cut back on watering, because they gather at the site of moisture. Then use a small knife to scrape off the top layer of soil, going as close to the stem of the plants without injuring them. Follow this step immediately by placing down a layer of perlite or sand. To ensure your pest is gone, buy yellow sticky traps and set a small one in each pot and set up the traps around your kitchen sink.
Rest Your Houseplants. If you have brought in your potted geraniums and are finding that sustaining them as houseplants is just too much work for you, there is still time to drive them into dormancy. Dig them out of your containers, gently shake off as much soil as you can from the roots, nip off any dying leaves, and hang the plant upside down in a plastic bag that has wet peat moss lining the bottom of the bag. Be sure to have some air holes in the bag and that the room where you store them is cool.
Overwintering Fuchsias. Like geraniums, fuchsias can be over-wintered. Whether you choose to keep them as houseplants, or trick them into sleeping for the winter, cut them back so that new growth can appear in the spring. If you don't want them in your living room for the next five months, move them to a cold area after pruning them back, and water sparingly. Don't fertilize any of your over-wintered plants, whether roses or geraniums or fuchsias, until spring.
Tomato Surveillance. Once a week, check your tomatoes for rotted or ripened ones. If your pumpkins are softening, that indicates they need to be eaten or processed right away. Also, check your dahlia and begonia tubers to make sure they are not rotting. Wait two weeks, and the rot from one tomato, pumpkin or tuber could have spread from one to many.
Potted Plants. In August I suggested that you pot up a few herbs and bring them inside to live on a kitchen windowsill. If you did that, they are probably looking pretty ragged by now, so trim them back and see if that helps. One of the best things I ever did was install long lights under the cupboards, to illuminate my counters during the depth of winter; one of the second best things I ever did was to equip them with grow lights.
Colorful Chrysanthemums. Already I am starved for color so I usually drag a few squash of different colors into the kitchen and either just set them around or, if they are small enough, I use them in arrangements. I also buy potted chrysanthemums and azaleas, since mums show their best staying power at cooler temperatures, as close to 60 as possible.
Compost and Containers. I am a big fan of 33 gallon plastic cans, especially if they have wheels. I use them to catch excess rainwater, to collect composting materials during the winter, and to hold pop cans. I always reserve one to act as the collection bin for the various containers I scrounge all winter, so that I have plenty of homes for starting seeds.
Sometimes we have a moderate October, but in Interior Alaska, November is winter with a vengeance: icy roads and parking lots so treacherous you use a shopping cart not to ferry your groceries but as a way to keep upright as you creep to your car. Short days often have light but no sun and low temperatures are even more unbearable because of the wind chill factor. You firmly keep your mind turned away from the knowledge that spring is five or six months away.
Wood Heat. Whether you burn logs for pleasure or survival, don't just toss those ashes away. Wood ash is a good source of potassium, and also contains a small amount of phosphorous. You can use it in your garden, although somewhat sparingly because too much potassium in your soil can unbalance the phosphorus and magnesium ratios.
Gardening Gifts. The holidays are coming, and with it, the joys and headaches of selecting a gift that will please the recipient and your wallet. The task is a lot easier if your co-worker, friend or relative is a gardener, because the possibilities are endless. Support a local potter by purchasing a tiny vase and tucking in a seed packet of Johnny jump-ups before wrapping it up as a gift.
Winter Predictions. I have never found a reliable way to predict what sort of winter we are going to have: a lot of snow and record cold? It matters a lot to the perennials in your garden, because a small amount of snow coupled with extreme temperatures can kill off those dormant day lilies. The problem is, in November it is still too early to tell if your plants are going to need extra insulation, so I just assume they do. When the first snows come, I aim the blower toward a wheelbarrow and then I dump the accumulated snow right on the perennial beds.
Cover Your Perennials. While you are increasing the insulation by layering on more snow, don't forget adding cover to your non-flower perennials: asparagus, chives, strawberries, raspberries, and rhubarb. Rough winters affect them, too.
Rose Reconnaissance. Time seems to race during the last months of the year, so it is easy to forget to check on the moisture needs of the roses stored in your garage or root cellar. While you are at it, look through your stored bulbs and corms, so that you can catch and discard any soft or diseased ones before they ruin the rest of the stash.
Gnat Attack. Two years ago I read a column put out by our local Cooperative Extension Service, recommending a new way to lure fungus gnats away from plants and to their deaths: balsamic vinegar. I followed the directions and purchased several of those wide mouthed cheese shakers used by pizza joints, put in a half inch of balsamic vinegar—no substitutions accepted—and waited for the shiny silver lids to attract the little beasts to their untimely ends.
A Good Book. During November, pumpkins, pleasingly vivid both before and after they end up as pies, stave off the monochromatic hues of Alaskan winters. However, I know that once the holidays are over I will be looking at many more months of a backyard with little color or fragrance. It is time to pull out Forcing, etc by Katherine Whiteside to remind myself of the how-tos for forcing tulip and hyacinth bulbs and for nurturing housebound geraniums, begonias and the like.
What a great month! The weather invites one to go into cocooning mode, which to me means evenings of reading and hot tea or cocoa. The holidays are here, giving me an excuse to bake. December 21st is the shortest day of the year and so from then on we start getting a minute or two more of sunlight each day. New seed catalogs are starting to arrive, right along with the Christmas cards. Our average temperature is 7.9 degrees below zero, and we get about 12.5 inches of precipitation. Let it snow!
Pretty Poinsettias. The poinsettia you have been nursing along since last season should have colored bracts by now, so no more taking it into the closet every night. Instead, keep it in an area of good light and away from drafts. Water when the soil is dry, and if you wrap the pot in holiday paper or foil to make it more festive, be sure to poke in at least one drain hole.
Christmas Cactus. Another plant you are likely to receive or give as a gift is a Christmas Cactus; with a little care it will flower for a long time and then, after a rest, will flower again. For now, keep it near light, water when the soil is dry to the touch, fertilize with a weak solution about every three weeks and keep the plant no cooler than 55 or 60 degrees. It is a succulent, and as such retains water in its leaves (and thus needs less watering), but should not be ignored for long periods.
Amazing Amaryllis. If you want a show-off-then-throw-away plant, keep an eye out for amaryllis bulbs. I was raised around the tall stalked red-blossomed variety and hate them because they looked so stark and unbalanced to me; there was no softness to them. These days, however, I find myself growing several dwarf or double varieties every winter; started in early December, they all come into bloom between late January and mid February.
Wonderful Winter Cuisine. I know the local grocery stores try their best, but vegetables at this time of year are expensive and usually not that tasty. There are two things to combat this problem. The first, remember this period of poor vegetable availability so that when you are selecting seeds or transplants you save room for hard-shelled squash. Combat winter color and texture boredom by planting orange pumpkins, yellow butternut, dark green acorn, stringy spaghetti and bluish Sweet Meat.
Keep An Eye Out. Again I remind you to: check those roses, geraniums and fuchsias, to see if they need more water; feel stored bulbs, corms and tubers to see that none are going bad; look through your remaining potatoes and pumpkins to see if there are soft spots. It is easy to forget these things during the holidays.
Speaking of holidays, I hope yours are all that you desire.