High tide and the pansies are running

Landscaping in Alaska

Posted: Wednesday, April 19, 2000

Layers of color are pouring over the tables and floors of the greenhouses; thousands of Pansies, Iceland Poppies, and Florist Primroses are flaunting their blossoms, beckoning all passers by to turn their heads and fall in love. The earliest perennials; Rockcress, Pom Pom Primroses and Alpine Columbines are standing tall and bright. They're showing how tough and reliable they are, promising that they will remain stalwart for years of star-quality performance.

More varieties are arriving weekly as the threat of killing temperatures retreat. Carnation family members, the Parfait Dianthus, in brilliant pink and red, stock wreathed in fragrance and the lavender and gold Swan River Daisy scattering abundance on all who see her, are making their presence known. It is as if the whole catalog of blooming plants has decided to take an Alaskan sojourn.

Monkshoods, Bleeding Hearts, Astilbes and Globeflowers coming from the greenhouses of master growers all over North America make their way up the Inside Passage. They have tickets, berths and rooms with air-conditioning to keep them crisp and fresh. They are migrating to new homes, like thousands of adventure-seeking humans have done for generations. The main difference is that they have no idea what is happening until the container door is opened and they feel the moist air of their destination.

The bedding plants and perennials are joining a mass of bigger and longer lived transplants, the woody shrubs and trees that are pouring into Juneau weekly at this time of year. Just a few years ago we were the only ones sending these sturdier types in any quantity, but the wave is washing over many other outlets now, and the choices and quantities have multiplied by a hundredfold.

Lilacs, Roses, Rhododendrons, Azaleas, Dogwoods, Japanese Maples, Norway Maples, Birch Trees and hundreds more are transforming our neighborhoods. They are creating colors and forms that haven't been seen in this locale since the glaciers swept away the old forests. Fossil records show a prehistoric flora of abundant variety; our vigorous forest species are the bold ones who followed the retreating ice into newly open lands.

All this abundance of newly-arrived nursery stock attracts the attention of most visitors to the nurseries. They exclaim in amazement at the delicate needles of 40-year-old Weeping European Larch Trees, or fondle the welcomingly smooth bark of Snowdrift Crabapples as they try to count the thousands of flower buds that these beauties carry.

Exotic conifers in contorted shapes or bristling with hedgehog like needles are arrayed alongside the never dying yews. They represent one of the fastest growing fields of horticultural fascinatio; dwarf conifers that can convey the image of a complete landscape in miniature scale. Larger homes on smaller lots mean less space for the landscape and greater need for creativity and imagination if the house is not to seem out of scale.

Directing the attention to a complex landscape made of dwarf evergreens or ones that have complex unusual shapes helps.

Vertical shapes that grow slowly or slow their rate of growing at a smaller size than their full-size cousins can help this situation too. They can anchor these larger houses to the earth layer without taking up a 30-foot-wide space. Columnar forms of familiar trees have been developed, and the plant-loving populace has accepted them with open arms. The desirable Purple Leaved Beech developed into the Dwacki Columnar Beech, an exciting leaf color in a slender form.

Rhododendrons hold a special place in North American gardens; plants with evergreen foliage on strong frameworks blazoned with huge flowering trusses are so unique. They grow wild on every continent, at most latitudes and climates, and in every shape imaginable. Our native Rhody, the Kamschaticum, is only a few inches tall, but when it blooms it does so in such abundance that acres at a time glow with purple light.

The dwarf form, ``Ramapoo,'' that grows in the planters across the street from Sealaska, has thrilled our town since the first ones were planted beside the high school 15 years ago. Older forms follow the classic shape of the century old ``Cast Iron Hybrids''; they stand 8 to 10 feet tall and wide, with purple, pink or red flowers. Modern breeders have expanded the offerings of these strong shrubs with flower clusters as large as a man's head.

In terms that all Alaskans can understand, the plants are running - go out and catch some.

David Lendrum is a master gardener and, along with Margaret Tharp, owns Landscape Alaska. Any responses or questions can be sent to www.landscapealaska.com.

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