Marion Owen

Swiss chard is striking edible green that is often grown as an accent plant in formal landscaped gardens. Our cool climate means you can eat it raw or cooked. It grows happily in the outside garden and in enclosed hoop structures. (Marion Owen photo)

I don’t know of any other regions in the U.S. where day length is such a big deal as in Alaska. “Wow, we’re gaining almost 5 minutes a day,” is a comment you’re much more likely to hear in a grocery store line in Kodiak more than say, in Alabama. Nonetheless, the first day of spring is so close you can taste it.

A swing around the garden tells me that plants can taste it, too. Daffodils shoots and rhubarb are pushing up, honeyberries are budding out and soon we’ll be seeing our first bumblebees of the season. (Trees and shrubs are still in winter-mode, which means now is a good time to take care of pruning chores).

The increase in day length is directly proportional to the number of garden questions that crop up. Here’s a selection I harvested from the past couple weeks.

Q: I’ve never started plants from seeds. Where do I begin?

While it’s a little early yet start main crops like calendula and broccoli, (unless you’re a hoophouse grower) but you can at least get ready.

Start with containers. You can go low tech or high tech. Low tech includes yogurt and cottage cheese containers, rolled up newspaper pots, toilet paper rolls and plastic salad bar trays. High tech means Gardener’s Supply’s ( APS seed starting kit, soil cubers, rooting gels, and Burpee’s ( Ultimate Growing System. Somewhere in between you have plastic 6-pack containers that fit neatly inside seed-starting trays.

You’ll also need additional lighting, such as fluorescent shop lights. Don’t delay; stores might be out of stock in a few weeks. And you’ll need

seed starting soil (or high quality, sifted compost), florescent lights and a timer (helpful). And you need to label your seedlings because no matter how young or old you are, you’re bound to forget something by the time you transplant outside. Invest in a handful of those white labels (or cut up some old venetian blinds) a No. 2 pencil so you can keep track of when and what you planted.

Q: I started a compost pile last fall. I checked on it recently and discovered a family of mice growing in it. Is the compost pile contaminated?

Mice are especially attracted to dry, cozy and warm compost heaps, and no, your pile is not contaminated. If anything, you’ve gained a little high-nitrogen fur from their little bodies. To get rid of them though, turn the pile, and soak it several times over a period of a few days. Once the material is totally wet (and their bedrolls are soaking wet, too), the mice should move to drier accommodations. Turn the heap over before it has dried out again.

Q: Why is wood ash good for the garden?

Wood ash is just one of the many resources you can find around Kodiak to benefit the garden. Ash is a good source of lime, potassium and trace elements that keep soil and plants healthy. Ash from a woodstove is best added to the compost heap where the nutrients will bind to organic matter and humus particles in a form that plants will be able to use. If you apply wood ash directly to the soil, do so a couple weeks before transplanting seedlings as it is quickly leached out of the soil. Always add wood ash on a calm, wind free day. Otherwise you’ll look like Casper the friendly ghost.

Q: We’ve moved to a new house and are building raised beds this spring. Does it matter if we orient the beds north-south or east-west?

There is no correct or magic way of situating raised beds, except to prevent lower profile crops from being shaded out by planting tall crops on the northern end of the bed. Also be aware of butting raised beds near solid or semi-solid fences that may cast a shadow. Continuous shade can delay soil thawing out for weeks.

Q: I’m no spring chicken, but I want to keep gardening as long as I can. Any tips?

Proper digging is an art and doing it right makes it much easier and less strenuous. Here are a few things to keep in mind, no matter how old you are:

• Do some simple warm up exercises before you start.

• Always use sharp tools.

• Use your foot, not just your arms, to push the blade of a shovel or hoe into the soil. And always wearing strong shoes or boots.

• Don't overload the shovel with heavy loads.

• Limit your digging time to manageable sessions, around 30 minutes at a time.

• Make a conscious effort to stop occasionally to straighten up, and with hands on the lumbar area, bend gently backwards, then forwards. Repeat, often.

• Bend at the hips, not the waist. When lifting, bend your knees and keep your back straight.

• Enjoy a banya, hot shower or bath after a session of gardening.

Marion Owen’s 5-week organic gardening class at Kodiak College starts March 27. Register online: Connect with local gardeners on the Kodiak Growers or the Sustainable Kodiak Facebook page. Archived copies of Marion’s columns are posted at Contact Marion at

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