Grow better

Tips for a beautiful and low-maintenance garden

Story by Jamey Bradbury

Brenda Adams has just picked spring’s first daffodils from her Homer garden. “Who doesn’t love a daffodil? They make the garden so fun,” she says, then explains that planting bulbs, like daffodils or crocuses, is one way to avoid garden “overcrowding.”

“As a garden starts to wake up, it looks very sparse,” Adams elaborates. “So people tend to put in too many plants, too close together, to fill it in. By Labor Day, it’s chaos.” Early bloomers like bulbs, though, bring life to a garden before giving way to other plants later in the spring.

An award-winning garden designer, Adams has spent over 20 years developing strategies for Alaskan gardeners. She has collected her wealth of knowledge in a new book, There’s a Moose in My Garden, a comprehensive and conversational guide that leads readers through planning, planting and protecting gardens in Alaska’s unique climate.

Adams shared some tips with us, beginning with one of the most important parts of gardening: asking “why?”

Plan to Plant

Asking yourself: What do I want from my garden? is always step one, explains Adams. “Understanding why you are contemplating creating a garden will help you achieve your design goals.” Deciding between an overgrown garden or tidy rows of flowers will help determine how, when and what you plant.

A well-planned garden will bring you pleasure but won’t become a chore. “Many people plan a garden that’s too big. Then it gets weedy, and a little problem becomes a big one,” says Adams. She encourages her clients to start small, and build from there.

She also suggests designing your garden on paper first. “You can research each plant you want to use and find out how big it’s going to get to give it enough space and get the garden you want.”

Preventing Pests

But the biggest benefit of planning ahead will be the rewards you reap later when you’re not constantly pulling weeds or dealing with slugs.

“The best way to avoid most pests, including weeds, is to prepare your soil properly,” Adams shares. Gardeners can cover a patch of ground with fabric or carpet squares to passively remove weeds. In her book, Adams also describes how to examine nursery plants for signs of slugs and how to remove the soil from around those potted plants to prevent an infestation.

“We don’t have many pests compared to people Outside,” Adams says. “If your garden is healthy, the good bugs will take care of the bad ones.” Insects like ladybugs and lacewings are welcome garden visitors that eat the more destructive bugs.

Moose Mayhem

But what about the moose?

“You don’t have to worry as much about your herbaceous perennials, which die back to the ground in winter, as the woody plants,” says Adams. She finds that physical barriers are the best way to protect your trees and shrubs.

A fence is the most practical solution, but when constructing a barrier, remember to take into account snowfall. “A ten-foot fence is normally plenty high,” Adams explains, “but if you get seven feet of snow, moose can step over the fence.”

If a 20-foot fence is out of your budget or might block your view, Adams describes a technique for protecting trees using reinforcing mesh: Stake a ring of mesh around each tree with rebar, then lash the cage so moose can’t knock it over. Make sure that the cage is tall enough and wide enough to prevent moose from reaching their necks over this mini-fence.

A chickenwire cage or tightly wrapped burlap will keep moose out of your shrubs. “As long as you do it properly, these techniques work well,” says Adams, adding, “Sometimes, when the moose are starving, you just have to be philosophical and say, ‘I can always buy a new shrub.’ ”

Alaskan Advantage

Though moose and cold soil make gardening in Alaska a challenge, the long, sunlit days work to our advantage.

Because our sun is low in the sky, Alaskans can grow plants in full sunlight that, elsewhere, are considered shade plants. And the trajectory of Alaska’s sun around the sky creates long sunrises and sunsets – another reason, Adams says, to plan your garden accordingly.

You can plant flowers between your deck and where the sun will set, for instance, to create a dramatic evening light show. “The light does really magical things to the color,” Adams describes. “A red or orange blossom will look like it’s on fire, or a Himalayan blue poppy will just glow.”

All it takes – to light up your garden or keep pests away – is a little planning.