Saturday, July 22, 2006

Snow in the Tundra Garden

The Tundra Garden spends a good deal of the year covered with snow. One might imagine that in summer, short as it is, it would remain snow free. That would be wrong. One of the beauties of living in Barrow is that the weather is a bit, shall I say, variable. However, we do get snow in July most years. This was no exception. July 6th I came out to go to the field to find the garden with a good dusting of snow.

The garden was well-sprinkled with white. The willow leaves held the snow, so that most of the garden was frosted with white crystals. It was really quite lovely, although the fact that I was going to be spending a rather cold day in the field, with students (some of whom were probably under-dressed and would therefore require watching for hypothermia) got in the way of true appreciation of the aesthetics of the situation.

Ironically, the garden was just really getting going
on blooming at that point. The Arctic Cinquefoil (Potentilla hypartica) was in full bloom,

and the Heart-leaved or Chordate-Leaved Saxifrage (Saxifraga punctata L.) was in fine shape. This is the Nelsoniana subspecies, one of 5 rather differing subspecies which occur in Alaska, according to Hulten. It is, however, the only one of them seen near Barrow.

Even the Lousewort (Pedicularis sp.--I'm still trying to verify species, Langsdorffi, Kanei or sudetica) was starting to bloom.

Of course, by that evening, when I got in at quarter to seven, the sun was out, the snow was gone, and the garden was blooming. You can see a hot cap in the left mid-ground. It is on the River Beauties, as I decided that I would get them to bloom in Barrow if it could be done. More on them later.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

A Rather Sorry Showing by the Coltsfoot

Coltsfoot (Petasites frigidus) usually does well here where it decides to grow. It likes disturbed soil, so it is found along roads, around buidlings, and also as part of the succsessional sequence on well-drained frost boils on the tundra. It seems to be fairly rampant, so Iwas a little dubious about having it in the tundra garden. However, it showed up, it is a tundra plant, and it does smell lovely (a bit like sweet alyssum), so I let it stay. What I have has nearly pure white flowers, while most plants have a distinct purpleish cast to the flowers. I do pinch all leaves which show up where I don't want it, however. It appears to spread by roots, with leaves showing up first, and then flowerstalks the next year. The "pinch the leaves" strategy keeps it where it belongs.

This year the coltsfoot just hasn't been very impressive. The flower stalks have been lying rather flat, and the flowers are only about half open. I'm not sure why. I took a trip south along the coast which involved a couple of miles of road through tundra, and the coltsfoot was really spectacular there. It was also incredibly fragrant, with clouds of aroma several hundred feet away (despite the fact that it was windy as always).

The big event of the next to last week in June was the arrival of a lemming to set up residence in the tundra garden. It is a fairly high lemming year, which means there are lots of snowy owls (and snowy owl researchers) in evidence here in Barrow. It also means that there are lots of lemmings on the move trying to find a place to set up housekeeping. A young one found the tundra garden and moved in. S(h)e nibbled a bunch of grasses, but seems pretty oblivious to the flowering plants. I haven't gotten a picture, but am still trying. I'm not sure how the lemming will stay unless a mate shows up, and I don't think they will survive if they try to overwinter, since lemmings seem to range much further than the confines of the tundra garden, and it is in the middle of a gravel pad.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Buttercups in Mid-June

By mid-June, the buttercups were blooming. The first to bloom are always the Snow Buttercups, Ranunculus nivalis, which actually start growing and setting buds before the snow is gone. They are quite showy, with quite large flowers for a tundra plant. The color is an intense yellow that is possitively incandescent when the sun hits it.

Since they track the sun (when it is out), they can be truly spectacular.

The Pygmy Buttercups (Ranunculus pygmaeus) were a bit behind the bigger ones.

The other plants were only starting to reawaken after the winter.

The Tufted Saxifrage (Saxifraga caespitosa) had swelling flower buds,

the Sea Lungworts or Oysterleaf (Mertensia maritima) were growing new foliage,

and a couple of willows were blooming. I'm not sure of the exact species of Salix, but since just the key for Salix in Hulten's Flora of Alaska is 3 pages long, I don't feel too bad.

The longer-leaved of the willows really likes the micro-climate provided by the rock.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

In Which the Saga Resumes

There has been rather a lag between posts here. The garden was just sitting there for months under snow, and I got busy with life. But it's really starting to take off now, so here's an update.

The snow started to melt back in May.

May 10

May 20th

The garden really got exposed around the end of May. It didn't look all that beautiful, pretty much brown and tan, with just a few specks of green struggling through the dead plants from last year.

This is May 28th, and a rather foggy day it was, too. The front of the willow tundra area and the little bowl for ranunculus were exposed, as was the bathtub which is gradually (oh so gradually) being turned into a water feature for some rather nice tundra pond plants I want. The earliest of the plants were just starting to put forth green shoots at this point.

At this point I took a trip to upstate NY to take my daughter to spend part of the summer at my Mom's place. I was within a couple miles of Sign of the Shovel's town garden (maybe less--I did spend some time in Saratoga while I was home), but mostly I did some pruning and weeding, and spent a lot of time talking garden design with one of my brothers who has moved home from Philadelphia. He's a landscape artist
with an MFA who got into landscaping to pay the rent (landscpae painting being less than trendy these days) and evolved into a landscape designer. He's really got a good command of plants, and can see what things will look like down the road (and paint it for that matter) and has some pretty neat ideas for reviving and renewing the gardens at my Mom's.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

In praise of volunteers

The Tundra Garden is at least in part educational in purpose; I like having it handy so I can take people outside to show them a plant in real life rather than in a book. Because of that (and because I am not that fond of the Zen garden look outside my house) I am quite liberal regarding volunteers. I've felt otherwise in other gardens elsewhere, but here they get to stay. It is interesting to watch the succession process in gravel, as well.

The first plants which show are Cochlearia officinalis L. which are otherwise known as Scurvy Grass. Why grass I'm not sure, since they don't look the least bit like grass. When they first make their appearance in the spring, they look a bit scrofulous until the new leaves outgrow the foliage from last year.

After they grow some leaves and begin blooming, they are pretty little white things, and smell quite nice on a warm day if you can get your nose close enough. They come in various sizes. As far as I can see, they seem to grow bigger for a number of years. Eventually they put up a longer flowerstock and then die.

s you can see I let them grow where they show up, including mixed into clumps of other flowers, like the poppies. My favorite is an area where really nothing else has taken hold yet. It's between our house and the road around it on the pad. The cochlearia have taken root all over the space, and they look like petite doilies scattered on the ground when they are all in bloom. There are a few clumps of a small grass showing up now in the wake of the cochlearia.

I've been encouraging these plants with watering and foliar feedings. I was using fish emulsion, but it made the garden stink and wasn't always available. So I switched to Miracle Gro.

Before anyone goes ballistic, I've been using compost since I was a kid. My parents had about 5 acres in lawn, which needed the leaves raked, and the place wasn't called Tall Trees for nothing. Then I got ponies and boy did we have great compost. Alas, composting doesn't seem to be an option up here unless I want to rent heated indoor space. Things freeze here, and once the pile is big enough, and moist enough, they don't thaw. I do have a compost pile here. The pumpkin from Halloween 1996 didn't look any different than the one from 2005 before the snow fell. As an archaeologist, I can attest to the fact that organic material can stay frozen with minimal decay for hundreds of years here. Call me impatient, but since I don't expect to live that long.... Miracle Gro. I'd worry more if the runoff didn't go directly into a sewage lagoon.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Signs of Spring in the Arctic

The passing of the Vernal Equinox is, of course, the official beginning of spring. The length of day and night is equal on that date, and then the days become longer and the sun rises further north and higher until summer Solstice. Here the farther north thing only applies until the 9th of May, at which point the sun commences circling the sky until August 2nd. It does keep getting higher until the solstice, though.

Given that we are so far north, and that the snow won't melt from the permanently frozen ground for at least a couple of months, it might not seem like it could feel like spring. Granted, people have been getting ready for whaling (a major spring activity here) for months; umiaqs (skin boats) are out bleaching and curing. The high school basketball teams are at the state championship tounament and plans for the Spring Festival are in full swing.

Despite that, today it felt like spring. It warmed up to about 0 F, and was sunny, with not too much wind. I had to drop something off at the main office of the company I work for. The building they are in also holds the local courthouse and a mini-mart, and Barrow does not allow smoking indoors in public places or offices despite the large number of people that smoke, so there is almost always someone outside smoking when you enter the building. For months, they have been huddling out of the wind like musk ox on the tundra, smoking fast to get the nicotine on board and get back where it is warm. Today, though, a fellow was sitting on the steps (metal grate--so they get cold) enjoying his cigarette in a leisurely fashion. I said something about the nice weather and he smiled a huge smile and said "It's spring!" And he was right. So there you have it, a sign of spring in the Arctic.*

Kids, don't try this at home. TundraGarden emphatically does not advocate or support cigarette smoking, as it is hazardous to your health and the health of others.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Arctic Buttercups; or a Preview of Things to come

Connectivity between camera and Mac was not the only issue on the recent trip; connectivity between Mac and Internet was just as big a deal. So it has been a while. Kodiak was beautiful on the sunny days, which bookended my visit. In between, it rained, snowed, sleeted, melted and repeated, making for rather messy walking. No good shoes at these meetings...

The Tundra Garden remains asleep under its snowdrift. Since the snow gets so deep, and the plants are so minute, I have yet to solve the problem of what to do to get winter interest in the garden. Given that winter lasts 7 or 8 months, this is a conundrum I would like to solve. The snowdrift changes, of course, as snow falls and is whipped away by the winds. As they bend around the building, they carve the snow into truly fantastic shapes; troughs, improbable-appearing overhangs, layer cakes of different shades of white. None the less, something besides snow would be nice as a change.

Since this is a gardening blog, and it will be a while before the Tundra Garden does anything this spring, I thought maybe people would like to see some picutres of what will be appearing in a couple of months. The first flower to really make an appearance is the Snow Buttercup (Ranunculus nivalis). The first picture is it in bud. In the next picture the flowers are starting to open.

There is another buttercup which can be found around Barrow, the Dwarf Buttercup (Ranunculus pygmaeus Wahlenb.) which is reportedly circumarctic. It is very petite, even for a tundra flower, and the petals are relatively smaller than those of the snow buttercup, giving quite a different effect. The color is the same, a clear brilliant yellow that just grabs the eye, especially after months of white. They start just a little bit later, but they are in bloom together, and finish about the same time.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

2 (!) MORE blizzards last week

We had two more blizzards last week, although they were nothing much compared to last Sunday. Winds probably didn't gust over 40, nothing closed, and we didn't have any really obnoxious drifting. It wasn't much fun walking to work, but when properly dressed it wasn't a big deal. Of course, it takes me less than 10 minutes on a normal day...

It actually didn't increase the size of the drift on the tundra garden, maybe shrank it if anything. The size of the drift is always a concern. If it is too small, the plants won't get as much protection (snow is a wonderful insulator). Also, since the tundra garden is a bit better drained than most tundra, being underlain with frozen gravel instead of organic-rich permafrost, the less snow, the less water. Barrow is technically a desert, so we really don't get that much rain (although the last few summers we have had some real gullywashers and even thunderstorms--not at all usual). On the other hand, like most gardeners, I like to see something happening out there. The season is very short and one really wishes it would get started. It is very tempting to shovel some snow off a little later in the spring to speed up the process. So far I have resisted, but I'm sure most northern gardeners will sympathize.

On the other hand, once things start to happen in the Arctic, they go fast. Things change visibly in the course of a day. I usually look at the garden at lunch and after work (before work too if I'm up early enough :-) ) and there is usually something new to see!

I am currently in Anchorage for a meeting, and will go on to Kodiak for another meeting. With the wonders of Alaska Airlines scheduling, I can't get home until the evening of Monday, 3/6. I haven't got a way to get pictures from my digital camera to my PowerBook on the road worked out. I have been spoiled since I had a Mac Duo (still the niftiest laptop I've owned, I think It was just cool) and pretty much won't drag a lot of weight. All of which is to say no recent pictures until I get home.

Anchorage just had snow today, something which has been sorely lacking. They had to cancel the Fur Rondy dog sled races, and they've shortened the ceremonial start for the Iditarod because they didn't have much snow with which to cover t
he course . Given the lackadaisical (to a person who grew up in Upstate New York, anyway) approach to snowplowing in Anchorage, it's a bit surprising they actually need to put it on the streets. I'm not sure why they don't plow better. Perhaps most of Anchorage's residents originally came from places where it rarely snows (California, Washington, South Texas) and aren't aware that it is possible to have clean streets shortly after big storms. What I do know is that if streets in Buffalo (or any place in Upstate New York--even poor rural counties) looked like the streets in Anchorage do after even a little bit of snow, heads would roll, and political careers would go down in flames. It must cost people here a fortune for fender benders.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Weird Weather Indeed

I was just reading a post by Kathy on Cold Climate Gardening about weeding in February, in which she commented on the odd weather this winter. While yesterday's blizzard was more or less normal for Barrow in winter (wind might have been a little high, but they are not close to the record), we have had weird eather this month.

With only 20 days gone in February, we have set new records for date on 5 days (that's 25%). Wes set a lowest minimum for date of -51F on 2/4. We set highest max for date on 2/14 (35F--1 degree below the all time, of instrumental record, anyway, Feb max of 36F), 2/15 (34F), 2/16 (34F), and yesterday (30F). The most amazing part is that it was above freezing in Barrow for 3 straight days in February! That's just not right!

We have also set three records for date for the more esoteric "highest minimum temperature". They were 2/15 (19F), 2/19 (15 F) and today (also 15F).

The climate is warming, folks, no if, ands or buts. And I have a bad feeling that this isn't just a couple of the various climate cycles overlapping and amplifying each other. Not a good thing. By the time it gets warm enough to grow tulips and lilies (personal favorites and main features of my former garden in PA), the tundra garden will be about 8' under water due to sea level rise.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

A Rather Windy Day in the Tundra Garden

I was going to put up pictures of flowers, and the enlarged drift on top of the tundra garden, but sometimes you just have to talk about the weather. Around lunch time it was blowing 58 mph, with gusts over 70 mph. Fortunately, the winds were from the southwest, so it was actually abouve zero, but that just meant we got heavy snow with the wind! I took a couple of pictures of the garden from the living room window. The first one shows the garden with the ever-stylish power pole on the left, and the guy wire at about mid-frame; the other is the view across the tundra garden to thenearest house, which is the ghostly thing in the background.

The winds have dropped to about 38mph, with gusts only to 55mph, but they are more in the west, and it's getting colder. The window for our spare bedroom is now entirely covered with a drift, which wasn't there at all yesterday. The drift on the tundra garden seems to be growing too.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

River Beauty

Here is a picture of the Epilobium latifolium at its height (so far). If you look closely, you can just see a few buds starting to form. Alas, some little birds seem to eat them. I'm not sure if it is the snow buntings, the Savannah sparrows or the redpolls, but those are the most common birds in the garden.

E. latifolum usually has bright pink flowers (like the more familiar fireweed), but apparently they can occasionally have white flowers. There are pictures of it flowering on the Web. It is apparently edible (although it isn't big enough to really provide much sustenance) and reportedly it is used in traditional Tibetan medicine. I found one reference listing it as being hardy to Zone 5 (!), but obviously it is good to at least 2a.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Brief History of the Tundra Garden--Part 3.

The majority of the plants I added in the first year were from tundra in Barrow. Some of them actually came from areas around NARL. One of these is Epilobium latifolium, common names River Beauty or Dwarf Fireweed. There was a patch of these near the main science labs, the only one known in the Barrow area. I moved a few, and they've taken off. The books say they are wet area plants, but they were growing in gravel where I got them, and I have to say the ones I plopped in gravel seem to do better than the ones in the little depression.

That's some of the Epilobium above in the center of the picture. I label the flowering plants, as well as samples of sedges & willows, since part of the purpose of the Tundra Garden is educational. I've never seen this bloom in Barrow. I have gotten it to set buds, but the birds seem to like them, and eat them as soon as they are ready to start opening (kind of like deer and tulips). This year I am going to try hot caps to keep the birds off and give extra warmth, if I can keep them from blowing away.

The labels are copper, and can be engraved with a pencil. They weather nicely, and don't stick out like sore thumbs in the garden, but they are prone to twisting when pushed in and the copper then tends to pop off. I'm going to replace them this summer if I can. I think it doesn't really matter if the labels are big, since most of the plants are so small you have to bend down to really see them. The 12" x 12"s I built the box out of have worked well as benches for looking at the garden, although that certainly wasn't the original idea; they were simply what was handy.

Friday, February 03, 2006

OK, now it's COLD!!

Woke up this AM to find that school was cancelled due to cold. Huh? They hardly ever cancel school here. Then they did the weather. -54 F, with a wind chill of -78 F. OK, that's cold. Everyone else joined in in calling off work, so I've got a day at home.

I managed to get a picture of the Tundra Garden under its snow drift about half an hour ago. If you look at the right hand side of the picture, the white isn't snow, it's ice fog. It's actually warmed up a bit, though. We don't get ice fog here as much as, say, Fairbanks, because it's usually a bit too windy and we don't have any mountains around at all to help with temperature inversions. But when it gets cold enough and the wind drops, just heating houses will do it.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Brief History of the Tundra Garden--Part 2.

Once the main box was built around the tundra, I started transplanting things from various places around Barrow into the Tundra Garden. I mostly focused on flowering plants. I tried to take mostly things from drier tundra, since the gravel pad under the garden meant that the drainage was better than most places where plants are right on top of permafrost.

Transplanting while in flower seemed a bit weird; that's not the usual method of proceding in more temperate climates. The growing season is so short here that by the time the ground is thawed enough to allow digging a decent size chunk containing the target plant, it's in bloom. Waiting until it was done means there isn't enought time for the plant to settle in.

I put a small pit in one corner of the garden and lined it with plastic under gravel and soil. I hoped that this would hold water in a bit and let me grow some of the flowers from moister parts of the tundra. In cases where I wasn't sure what a plant wanted, I'd scatter them through the garden a bit.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

OK, finally got DSL at home, so I can post the odd picture. This is what the Tundra Garden looks like in mid-June (which means the snow has been gone for less than a month. This is actually stage II of construction, which I haven't gotten to in the history yet, but it give a bit of an idea. It doesn't look anything like this at the moment.

It's -40F here at the moment, with essentially no wind. So no wind chill, but lots of ice fog. And no mail or papers since the ash from Augustine Volcano is disrupting flights from Anchorage.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Connectivity (or the lack thereof) at the Top of the World

Believe it or not, I started this blog from a hotel room in Cambridge, England.

Got home to find out that the wireless links I rely on for connectivity at home (and at work) were down. After much thrashing around by the IT guy, it became apparent that the "Arctic-grade" cables were not, unless you consider Homer, AK (weather not much worse than Seattle) the Arctic. Needless to say, nobody wanted to replace the pricy cables with more expensive junk, so.... After much dithering, it looks like DSL for the moment, and I've managed to slide in a post by dint of going to the main building and plugging in to the Ethernet cables. Not so good for keeping an office staffed, and all the Tundra Garden pictures I wanted to post are still on computers with no connectivity, but soon, soon.....

The TG itself is under a good bit of snow right now (it tends to develop a drift). The sun has come back, so I can get a picture soon.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Brief History of the Tundra Garden-Part 1.

Shortly after I moved to Barrow, I learned that there had once been a tundra garden outside our picture window. I was missing my garden in the Lower 48 (and what gardener doesn't like a challenge?) so I decided that this garden should be revived. No one remembered what it had been like, so I started from scratch.

It was clearly going to take some doing, as there was no soil, just a 5 foot deep gravel pad. I mentioned my plan to our next-door neighbor, and she had the summer maintenance people drop off some big slabs of tundra (like turf) next to the house. I manhandled them together to make a fairly small, rather irregular patch of ground. My neighbor was able to get the maintenance folks to bring some 12" x 12" sections I'd seen over, and I built a box to contain the tundra, and keep it from melting back into the pad.