Monthly Archives: February 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 the 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.