BY LES BRAKE / Willow, Alaska, USDA Zone 3
NURSERIES OF NOTE
Gardeners in south-central Alaska are fortunate to have Fritz Creek Gardens on the scene. Anyone planning a trip to Homer should stop by to see owner Rita Jo Shoultz’s fantastic selection of perennials, garden art and ornaments, and ever-expanding display gardens. Open April 15 to September 15 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, except Mondays. For more information, call 907–235–4969.
In many ways, Alaska is a feast-or-famine state, and that certainly holds true for gardening here. If an early blanket of snow falls, gardens can come through the rest of the winter almost unscathed. The winter of 2001–2002 was a good one, and I lost only a few plants. Last year, though, the bottom dropped out. Eleven days of rain in February melted what little snow was on the ground and caused many perennials to break dormancy. When the temperature plummeted to -12°F in March, everything green went a ghastly gray. For several days, I felt like I was being forced to witness a slow-motion murder.
In late May, when the ground finally thawed again, I was stunned to discover that the damage was much worse than I had feared. A whopping 70% of the plants in my garden had been killed. A lengthy list of the dead would make for boring reading, but a few examples are necessary to illustrate the scope of the disaster. Out of 74 peonies, many of which had been in the garden since the late 1980s, only 14 survived. Two hundred primroses were killed, including some species that are usually very hardy, such as Primula sieboldii and P. sikkimensis. All 40 pulmonarias bit the dust, along with most delphiniums and meconopsis.
Losing so many good plants hit me hard, and for the first time ever I did no gardening on Memorial Day. At that point I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to continue gardening in the subarctic. My partner offered to build the greenhouse I’ve been wanting for 19 years, but I told him to hold off. I would get the garden planted out, but didn’t want to make further commitments. Even the three cats seemed confounded and depressed because the peonies were favorite plants to play and hide under.
I allowed myself that one day to be lying-down depressed, but then I had to get busy. It seemed like everything had to be done at once, but (since gardening is always about order) the first priority was to prepare bed space and plant out the 2,500 annuals I had started. Coming in handy in emergency situations are fast annuals such as Chinese forget-me-nots (Cynoglossum amabile), bishop’s flower (Ammi majus), and Echium vulgare. Sown in a cold frame four weeks before planting out, they give a good show starting in midsummer. Even more valuable are the self-sowing annuals such as opium poppies, red-leaf orach (Atriplex hortensis var. atropurpurea), and Mexican slipperflower (Calceolaria mexicana). Our snowfall totals have declined dramatically in recent years, and if snowless winters are to be the new pattern, annuals will play a bigger role in the garden.
After most annuals had been planted, I started digging out dead plants and filling in the holes with amended topsoil. By the end of June, when most of the reconstruction had been completed, an entire dump truck-load of topsoil had been used to fill in the craters and replant the garden. Despite all the work, and without being aware of what was happening, I was slowly being seduced by the making of a new garden. By mid-July, that never-ending day in June had worked its magic on the garden, and I knew that, even though I may have made a mistake when I made a garden bigger than my electric blanket, Alaska is still where I want to be. Now, about that greenhouse… H
Paeonia veitchii var. woodwardii
Blooming several weeks before the big lactiflora hybrid peonies in June, this 30- to 48-inch-tall Chinese species has nodding pink flowers that are in perfect proportion to the finely divided leaves. Seed always ripens on this species, and that’s important in a harsh climate. If the parent is killed in a bad winter, offspring will be left behind as replacements. Sources, page 96.