Archive for the ‘Gardening Know-How’ Category

With as many new plants as I have this year, I was deciding whether to put some mulch around them. No need now! We got about 8 inches of new snow (my estimate) and lots of blowing and drifting during the storm that is still marching across the Midwest. As a result, my newest bed looks to be under about 2 feet of snow, and only the tops of these coneflowers are visible. They do look good in their caps, however.

A note about mulching plants in winter: The idea of mulch is not to protect a plant from freezing. Unless it is inappropriate for our zone, the plant can handle freezing without a problem. The purpose of mulch is to protect the plant from heaving out of the ground during the thaw-freeze cycles that we get throughout the winter. While the layers of snow on my plants could certainly melt over  the next few weeks, exposing the plants to the worst of Minnesota’s winter and lots of thawing and freezing,  it’s not likely given we are heading into the coldest time of the year in Minnesota.  While blizzards are terrifically inconvenient (although my daughter and I will get our Christmas tree up and decorated today due to the day off from school), the snow is very welcome here.


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IMG_6528Back in the day, I worked for a large agricultural supply cooperative in Minnesota, which sold seed to farmers. To say that the co-op’s seed guys were fixated on nitrogen fixation would be an understatement. Nitrogen fixing is the process by which certain legumes take nitrogen from the air (N2) and, with the help of bacteria, transform it to nitrogen plants can use (NH3). Farmers love this beneficial habit because they can plant corn (a huge nitrogen user) after soybeans (a nitrogen fixer) and not have to add as much fertilizer. The co-op’s seed guys had a special soybean seed that was a nitrogen fixing machine — but that’s another story.

Recently, a fellow gardener brought up the issue of whether green beans in Minnesota were in the ground long enough to fix nitrogen. I have always assumed so — but his comment got me wondering. This weekend I pulled up one of my bush bean plants to check and there they were — those warty little nobs on the root of the bean that signal nitrogen fixation. How much nitrogen is fixed depends on the soil, the bean, and a number of other factors that are beyond my pay grade. But it is a good idea to rotate beans into garden beds in which the soil may have been depleted by heavy nitrogen using plants, such as tomatoes. It’s also a good idea to simply cut the beat plant down to soil level at the end of the season, leaving the warty, nitrogen-rich roots in the soil to decompose.

Nitrogen fixing is one of the reasons many gardeners will plant a cover crop of legumes on new garden beds. The University of Minnesota has a good article about nitrogen fixation and another one on cover crops that you might want to read for additional information.

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IMG_5648The Hennepin County Master Gardeners held a garden tour today and, despite my poor navigational skills in South Minneapolis (what can I say? I come from the east side of the Twin Cities), I managed to hit four of the 10 gardens. It was well worth all the missed turns. Each of the gardens had a theme — wildlife garden (that’s where the hawk at left was hanging out), garden retreat, farm garden, etc. — but the gardens had many things in common, too. In addition to wonderful, well-cared-for plants, here are three things I noticed:

IMG_5641Entries: Maybe it’s because these gardens were mostly on fairly narrow urban lots, but the ones I saw had distinct entries. In two, you walked through an arch that seemed to beckon a visitor in. Even those without obvious entry portals had paths that seemed to lead you into and through the garden.

IMG_5673Water: You could not get more simple than this water feature, attached to the exterior wall of one of the homes. But this was positioned just at the point where you entered the backyard and the sound of the water added another sensual element to the garden. A larger garden near Minnehaha Creek boasted a formal fountain as a centerpiece. With curving, perennial-filled beds on each side, the fountain with plants encircling it offered a place for your eye to rest as it moved through the yard.

IMG_5652Art: Whether a simple leaf-cast (very easy to do with a rhubarb or large hosta leaf) or a funky metal sculpture, all of the gardens I saw included artwork — and not just one piece. I saw mosaic stones, stone welcome signs, even a tea-cup glued to a narrow metal pole and planted in the garden — another easy-to-do project.

IMG_5687Thanks to the gardeners for opening their yards to the public and to the Master Gardeners for organizing the tour. The homeowners were present in each of the gardens I visited and happy to share advice. In addition, other Master Gardeners answered questions and offered lots of information and handouts.

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img_4820This weekend is one of the biggest plant shopping weekends of the year and the folks at Donahue’s in Faribault are certainly ready for it. I visited Donahue’s earlier this week for a behind the scenes tour with Mary McIntyre Donahue, one of seven (or is it eight?) Donahue relatives currently involved in the massive greenhouse and clematis operation, about 10 blocks south of downtown Faribault. The family has another growing range and greenhouse complex near Montgomery, Minn., as well. I was tagging along with Rose Eggert, CEO of the Minnesota State Horticulture Society, and Tom McKusick, Northern Gardener publisher.

The photo at left is of one of the geranimum areas at the greenhouse and retail operation. In a few weeks, these will all be gone — gracing porches, decks and patios all over Minnesota. Of course, Donahue’s is known nationally for its clematis. These climbers are tricky to propagate but the Donahues have figured a way to get more of the cuttings to take. Their catalog includes dozens of varieties. The key with clematis is to keep their heads in the sun and their roots in the shade. Clematis need five to six hours of sun per day, but they like cool, damp soil for their roots. Donahue’s suggests planting annuals around them or a low-growing shrub nearby. Clematis also need support to climb and a litle patience from the gardener. It takes a few years to get a clematis to full size with lots of bloom. Finally, Mary settled that age-old argument: clem-at-us or cle-muh-tus. It’s the second one.

Thanks, Mary!

Thanks, Mary!

Naturally, three plant nerds could not leave the store without doing a little shopping. I took home some Supertunia petunias (Vista Bubblegum — a great variety), Sutera ‘Giant Snowflake’ for a trailer in my containers and a ‘Bee’s Jubilee’ clematis for the pergola in my backyard. This clematis is a bi-color with streaks of pinks and white and is said to attract bees.

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Last week, a reader commented on the post on Best Bets for Beginning Vegetable Gardeners that she wanted to start a garden but her lot was very sandy. This reader lives in Sherburne County, just north of the Twin Cities, which is known for its sandy soils. I faced a similar dilemma when we first moved to our current home, except that the underlying soil was clay rather than sand.

Whether your soil is sandy, clay, or essentially barren (as some new home sites are), the answer is to add compost and other organic matter. Compost improves soil in several ways.  It adds nutrients and is a near perfect slow-release fertilizer.  It also is filled with micro-nutrients which means that compost is better than synthetic fertilizer in the same way that it’s better to eat salmon than take fish oil pills or to eat a lot of vegetables rather than take vitamins.

Compost also improves soil structure. So, if your soil is sandy, like those in Sherburne County, it helps the soil retain water better. If it’s clay, it loosens the soil, helping water flow through more efficiently, creating passageways for plant roots. Finally, compost and other organic matter create the right environment for all of the bacteria and organisms that make your soil a self-regulating eco-system. In other words, your garden will be less susceptible to diseases.

In the meantime, use raise beds

If you have less than ideal soil and want to grow vegetables, build a raised bed. These are very easy to build and then you can add your own soil. I usually use part black dirt from my local landscaper and part compost. This creates a pretty rich mix — good for tomatoes and other heavy feeders.

Credit where credit is due

I’ve been thinking more about soil lately in part because of two columnists in Northern Gardener — Don Engebretson and Bud Markhart — who have written a great deal about soil. If you go to Don’s web site, click on “Care” on the front page, and in the first section of the Care page you will see an article called Soil Sacrifice, which gives much more detail on all the bad kinds of soil people can have and what to do about them, usually add compost.  (I would link right to it, but Don’s site doesn’t allow that.) Bud Markhart is a U of M professor and our new Sustainable Gardener columnist, whose recent writings have given me a whole new appreciation for all the bugs, worms and wigglers that live in the soil.

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Cute scarecrow at the Greenvale Community Garden.

I sat in on Just Food Co-op’s first of two classes on vegetable gardening last night. Conducted by Laura Frerichs, co-owner of Loon Organics, the class covered the basics of getting started with a vegetable garden, from picking a sunny spot (a must) to prepping the soil (healthy soil = healthy plants) to using row covers to extend the season. The room was packed and the crowd looked to be a mix of experienced gardeners and beginners.

Here are three new things I learned at the presentation:

  1. The best time to weed is before the weeds emerge. If you turn over your soil with a hoe, you may notice little “white hairs.” These are weeds-to-be. Expose them to air and sun and they die, saving you lots of trouble down the road,
  2. Consider investing in a soil thermometer. I don’t have one of these, but plan to pick one up. Lettuce, spinach, chard and other cool season crops can be planted when the soil temperature is as low as 45 degrees F, and like being planted before soils temps get into the 60s. In contrast,  beans, tomato starts and other warm season crops, don’t want to be planted until the soil is near the 70s.
  3. I’ve always been a little confused by “days to harvest” listings on seed packets and Laura offered a clarification. Here’s the scoop: For cool season crops that you direct seed in the garden, the days to harvest means days from planting the seed. However, for warm season crops that need to be started indoors or purchased as plant starts (something Laura recommends for beginning gardeners), the days to harvest means the number of days from the date of transplant. She advises northern gardeners to look at those days carefully. If a melon takes 110 or 120 days to produce edible fruit, and you cannot get the plant start in the ground until June 1 — well, you know what your odds are.

This is the first of two gardening classes the co-op is offering. Next Thursday (Jan. 29), Erin Johnson and Ben Doherty of Open Hands Farm will lead a discussion of “What to Plant,” beginning at 5 p.m. in the co-op meeting room. Ben and Erin produce wonderful organic vegetables and a knock-your-socks-off salad mix that they sell at the Northfield Farmers’ Market. Should be a great event.

If you don’t live in Northfield, check out the MSHS calendar for other vegetable gardening classes.

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There's a cage in there somewhere.

It’s not too late for New Year’s resolutions, so I have been pondering what I could do better in the garden next year. It’s a long list — believe me — and I won’t go through them all. But, here are a few resolutions that I’m making that other gardeners might want to consider, too.

  • This year I will deadhead more. Picking off spent blooms not only instantly cleans up the look of the garden, it encourages more blooms and nips diseases in the bud.
  • This year I will stake (not cage) my tomatoes. By late July, my vegetable patch looks like a jungle, and most of the tomatoes are falling over, sprawling, or bending their cages like the Tower of Pisa. A deeply planted stake and some old nylons would keep the tomatoes upright and more productive. Also, it’s OK to prune excess foliage on tomatoes — and if you stake them, it is recommended.
  • This year I will not plant warm-season vegetables too early. The urge to get tomatoes, peppers and other warm-season crops in the ground is overwhelming, but self-control will result in healthier and happier plants. Minnesota’s last frost day is May 15 and many gardeners will not plant tomatoes before June 1.
  • This is not so much a resolution as a plan: I will garden in the morning. Because I’m self-employed, my schedule is flexible. But in the past, I’ve always worked early in the day and gardened in the afternoon and evening. The problem with that is it’s easy to put it off or be interrupted with other activities.  It’s also hotter. So, this year, I’ll try to get outside for an hour or so before heading to the office.
  • Finally — and this will not be hard to keep — I will dig up more grass for flower, herb, or vegetable plantings.

What are your garden resolutions?

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