Nice weather brings springtime questions

Ani Thomas inspects lettuce seedlings in her hoophouse. (Marion Owen photo)

Is spring here?

I’d say so. Over the weekend, kids of all ages were outside in T-shirts, Sutliff’s reported throngs of people pulling seed packets off the racks ,and vacuum cleaners stood idle in closets.

With the flurry of sun-driven activity comes a jag of your questions. So this week’s column will address a slice of them.

Question: I’ve seen several slugs already. Does that mean we’ll have to deal with hoards of slugs this year?

Answer: Slug eggs survive the winter under boards, plant containers, firewood, rocks and in soil that doesn’t freeze solid. Slugs and their eggs thrive in high moisture conditions. Slugs lay small masses of white or cream-colored, round eggs in soil cracks. The young slugs that hatch from these eggs travel through the soil, consuming all sorts of organic plant material, including germinating seeds and root crops. Under favorable conditions, which Kodiak amply provides with its maritime climate, slugs complete development in a couple months.

I don’t need to remind you that slugs are one of the most destructive and difficult pests to control. It requires diligence, tenacity and a strong will (and sometimes a strong stomach) to stay on top of the problem. You must run a 24/7 slug trapline by setting out beer traps, sprinkling Sluggo around your beds, snipping them in two with scissors, handpicking them with chopsticks — whatever weapon(s) you prefer.

I’ve heard of shooing them away with everything from horseradish and hair clippings to sandpaper and lint from your dryer.

Bruce and Midge Short in Anton Larsen Bay employ a variety of strategies including setting out sacrificial plants. But champion vegetable growers Tom and Lila Schwantes swear by ammonia. “You just zap them with household ammonia and watch them melt.”

While it sounds pretty graphic, ammonia does work, and it doesn’t harm your plants. Ammonia is made up of nitrogen and hydrogen. In essence, slugs hate the ammonia and plants love the nitrogen. The Schwantes simply fill a spray bottle with ammonia and keep it handy when they’re doing their rounds.

Some sources suggest making a solution of one part ammonia to two parts water or one part ammonia to four parts water. Always test to see how your plants react to the ammonia solution, then mix accordingly. Or if you have delicate flower petals or tender seedlings, you can always knock the slug to the ground first, then spray it.

Ammonia is cheap and, unlike beer traps, is “invisible” to use. Plus, it’s one of the best defenses against baby slugs that are too small to chomp down on a rice-sized grain of Sluggo.

Q: I have trays of seedlings in the greenhouse. How do I protect them from cold nights?

A: Many cold-hardy seedlings (and plants) like calendula (pot marigold), kale, onions, broccoli and lettuce will tolerate temperatures that dip below freezing. But geraniums, dahlias, dill and cilantro wilt, and don’t always bounce back when kissed by cold.

You have several choices: Bring the plants indoors overnight, cover them with a fleece fabric or sheet, or provide additional heat. Some gardeners have discovered the “rope” Christmas lights as a way to keep soil warm under trays of seedlings. Oh, and glass jars or bottles filled with water and flat, dark stones absorb heat by day and release it at night. Strawberry Fields Nursery puts their bales of potting soil to work in a similar way. The bales act as a heat-sink by day, and slowly release heat into the greenhouse at night.

Q: Is fishmeal good for plants?

A: Fishmeal is a by-product of the commercial fishing industry and is an excellent source of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and trace minerals. With an average N:P:K rating of 10:5:2 it is recommended for vegetable gardens, flower beds and all types of outdoor plants, trees and shrubs. Fishmeal enhances soil microbial life, promotes vigorous root development and provides an early season boots for all your plants.

You can turn it into your raised beds or add it to your compost pile. A word or caution, however. Do not add it to your compost pile or dig it in too shallow if you live in an area frequented by bears, loose dogs or hungry ravens. (Use manure or green grass clippings as your main nitrogen source in your compost pile.)

That said, Kodiak is very fortunate to have a local supply of fishmeal, thanks to the Kodiak Fishmeal Company (www.kodiakfishmealcompany.com; 915 Gibson Cove Road, 486-3171). It is available in 55-pound bags, which you can split between your best gardener pals. Once you bring the bag(s) home, however, place it in buckets with tight-fitting lids and store it in a dry area.

Apply it at the rate of 5 pounds per 100 square feet. Tip: To measure, use a coffee can.

Happy spring!

Marion Owen is currently teaching an Organic Gardening class at Kodiak College. She can be reached at mygarden@alaska.net.

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