KODIAK — I was in the grocery store the other day to grab some almond milk and zucchini. An acquaintance came up to me and asked, “Is it too early to start tomatoes?” We chatted a bit and parted ways. Later, while in line at the post office, another gardening question came up. When I returned home, I realized that it was time for a Q&A column. So here goes…
Q: Is it too early to start tomatoes?
A: It’s OK to start tomatoes. Indoors.
And under lights, as in fluorescent or LED lights. Before you head off to poke tomato seeds in cups of dirt though, stop a moment. Start tomatoes now only if you also have enough space. In a few short weeks, the plants can be rather large, demanding lots of space.
Anchorage Daily News garden writer Jeff Lowenfels once told me that a tomato plant has to have around 27 leaves before it flowers. For indeterminate varieties (climbers, not bush tomatoes) they can be over two feet tall by the time you plant them in a permanent home in your hoophouse or greenhouse.
Tomatoes however, do benefit from potting up, or transplanting into progressively larger pots. If you do not have supplemental lights, then it’s best to wait a couple weeks when there will be sufficient outdoor light to support plant growth. And light we have. As we approach the spring equinox, we have almost 12 hours of daylight to celebrate.
Q: When should I start cucumbers for my greenhouse?
A: This question has a 2-part answer. It’s a good time to start cucumbers to grow in your kitchen or living room window. But it’s too early for cukes that will be transplanted in your hoophouse or greenhouse.
Cucumbers do not like cold feet. Period. I learned this the year I transplanted cucumber seedlings in the greenhouse in mid-May; a May that was especially warm, or so I thought.
The plants did well at first, and then all growth came to a halt. I called my friend Allan Thielen. “What’s going on?” I wailed into the phone.
“It’s warm by day, but it’s too cool at night,” he said. “The soil is too cold for the roots to keep up with top growth.”
So rather than dig up the seedlings (cucumbers also dislike being moved), I pushed a string of Christmas rope lights (the non-LED variety), around their roots. To my surprise, it worked. The lights provided just enough warmth to get the plants over the hurdle.
Q: I want to plant flowers in my containers again. But I haven’t changed the soil in my containers for a couple years. What should I do?
A: You don’t need to replace all of the soil, but it’s a good idea to change out at least the top 6 to 8 inches with fresh, well-draining potting soil.
Enhance it with some fine seaweed and compost. Flowers, herbs and veggies growing in containers are living in tight quarters and the demand for nutrition is much higher than in a normal garden setting.
Q: What kind of potatoes are best for Kodiak?
A: All potatoes do well in our climate. It’s just a question of what shape, skin color, and flesh color you prefer; storage qualities, and of course how you like to eat them (boiled, baked, whatever).
Magic Molly, for example is a deep blue purple inside and out. Yellow Finn is a European favorite with a buttery flavor. And Yukon Gold produces large, thin-skinned tubers of yellow flesh. One of my favorites are French Fingerlings: Plump, rose-red skin and yellow flesh with occasional pink streaking inside. Lovely.
Q: Should I add lawn fertilizer now to green things up early?
A: Not if it’s a chemical fertilizer. It will simply wash away in spring rains.
On the other hand, you can apply organic fertilizers and sifted compost any time of the year. But it is best to wait until the soil warms up a little bit more. That way,” says Jeff Lowenfels, “the underground soil food web in the roots’ rhizosphere picks up. Relax, things will green up -- probably on their own -- in time.”
Q: What is the rhizosphere?
A: The rhizosphere is a magic zone. It’s the thin area, like a cloak, that is directly in contact with the roots. Scientists are just beginning to understand the complex symbiotic relationships between bacteria, cell waste, protozoa and nematodes. Part of the mystery involves the “nutrient cycling” and disease suppression needed by plants occurs immediately adjacent to roots.
Did you get all that? Me either. Maybe I’ll be able to use the word “rhizosphere” in Scrabble someday.
Marion Owen has over 30 years of experience as a teacher and columnist. She’s on a mission to help busy people enhance their daily lives. To contact Marion or to sign up for her “Goodness from Kodiak” newsletter, go to her blog at MarionOwenAlaska.com.