The Garden in Spring

While mowing the yard the other night, the vibrant green of the lawn and all the plants in the garden beds seemed to radiate growth. We’ve gotten about 2 inches of rain over the last week or so, and the plants have responded with enthusiastic growth.

Borage has dainty blossoms on a monster plant.
Borage has dainty blossoms on a monster plant.

The borage I planted next to my vegetable garden last year shot up about a foot overnight, going from a pleasant, if nondescript, mound of green to a monster herb in full bloom. I’m glad it’s happy in its place.

Tree peony blooms are brief but beautiful.
Tree peony blooms are brief but beautiful.

Nearby, the Jacob’s ladder has been covered with purple-blue blooms for almost three weeks now. Its variegated foliage perfectly compliments the Garden Glow spireas in front of it. The tree peony nearby finished its flush of bloom shortly after the rain this week. That is the nature of peonies, a splash of rain and they melt. But before that happened more than 20 big, fluffy deep pink/red blooms with yellow centers covered the plant. The bees were very happy.

A little out of control, but great food for hummingbirds and bees.
A little out of control, but great food for hummingbirds and bees.

Up front, the weigelas have more blooms than I’ve seen before, pink trumpets covering the plants. The chives, as always, bloom prettily this time of year and I will be needing to thin them shortly. For now, I let them run wild. Hummingbirds have been visiting them the past few days. One of them buzzed my head the other night — I think I was between the bird and its meal.

My new bigroot geraniums are living up to their reputation of being super hardy. The bright pink flowers were a surprise for me — I bought them mostly as a foliage groundcover.

Finally, the baptisia, which for reasons I can’t figure out are more contained than usual, are just beginning to open up. This is another favorite plant of the bumblebees.

Spring has definitely sprung in my garden. How about yours?

 

Creating a Monarch-Friendly Garden

Last weekend, I had a chance to speak at the Duluth Garden and Flower Society (MSHS District 8) Spring Luncheon in Duluth. The luncheon attracted about 80 enthusiastic gardeners from Duluth, the North Shore and the Iron Range. It was a fun event and I was honored to be asked to talk about MSHS, Northern Gardener and gardening trends.

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Monarchs seem to like annuals, such as zinnias, but native plants are best for them.

One of the host groups was the local chapter of Wild Ones, a national group that promotes environmentally sound landscaping practices to preserve biodiversity. Wild Ones does a lot to educate and encourage the public about planting nature-friendly landscapes, including Monarch Way Stations. Wild Ones will even certify a garden space as a way station, if you provide what monarchs (and other pollinators) need. Whether you get your garden certified or not, it’s a good idea to learn about what it takes to attract pollinators. I decided to do a little inventory of how my own garden stacks up.

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If you want Monarchs, plant milkweed. It’s what those caterpillars need.

Larval plants: Monarch caterpillars require milkweed to grow into butterflies. It is their only food source. Wild Ones recommends having two types of milkweed in your landscape. I have lots (and lots!) of common milkweed on and near my property, but I think that is the only type. I’ll be looking this spring for either seeds or plants for swamp milkweed or prairie milkweed, both of which would do well in different parts of my landscape.

 

Joe Pye weed is one of the summer plants Monarchs use for nectar.
Joe Pye weed is one of the summer plants Monarchs use for nectar.

Early, mid and late food sources: Of the six early necatar plant shrubs Wild Ones recommends, I have one (serviceberry) in my yard, but there is pussy willow in the ponds near here. Of the eight recommended early forbs, I’ve got three (lupine, beardtongue and phlox). Not bad on early plants, but it could be better. Of the 36 shrubs, vines and perennials recommended for Monarchs for midsummer, my landscape has nine—again, not bad, could be better. Of the 10 plants recommended for late summer, I have three (goldenrod, aster and ironweed). Here’s the list of plants, in case you would like to see how favorable your landscape is for Monarchs.

Other landscape features to include for Monarchs include:

  • No pesticide use
  • Grasses (I have lots of those)
  • One or more water source, such as a birdbath or a puddling spot
  • Let things go a bit in the fall. Do not be quick to clean up flower stalks, grasses or leaves that may provide overwintering sites for beneficial insects.

How welcoming is your landscape for Monarchs and other pollinators?

Going to Garden School

Gardeners check out the silent auction items at the 2013 Rice County Horticulture Day.
Gardeners check out the silent auction items at the 2013 Rice County Horticulture Day.

Hort Days. Spring Flings. Garden Gatherings. Garden Fever. Whatever you call them, the assortment of garden schools being sponsored by Master Gardener groups, horticulture societies and garden clubs this time of year is huge. Only weather and mileage keep me from going to one every weekend. Here are a few favorites to consider, both near the Twin Cities and beyond.

I have to start with the local one here in Northfield, sponsored by the Rice County Master Gardeners. This year’s hort day will include three great speakers. The opening speaker is Eric Johnson, a designer, garden writer and columnist for Northern Gardener magazine, who will teach participants how to create garden art that is handmade, beautiful and not too expensive in his talk on DIY Garden Art. He’ll be followed by Dakota County Master Gardener Shari Mayer, a longtime herb enthusiast, who will talk about growing and preserving herbs. After lunch in the St. Olaf cafeteria, participants will hear from Karl Foord, a University of Minnesota Extension Educator on the role of bees in the pollination of fruit as well as threats to bee populations and what gardeners can do to help bees. The event costs $30, which includes lunch, a continental breakfast, handouts and a free sample of honey from local beekeeper Mike Feist. It will be held at Buntrock Commons on the campus of St. Olaf College in Northfield.

Bees and gardening for pollinators are on the agenda at several horticulture days this year.
Bees and gardening for pollinators are on the agenda at several horticulture days this year.

Last year, I also attended the Carver-Scott Master Gardeners Garden Fever event and thought it was fantastic. This year, the event will be Saturday, March 8, at Oak Ridge Hotel and Conference Center in Chaska. One of the keynoters is Emily Tepe, vegetable gardener and author, who recently wrote about onions for Northern Gardener, and Douglas Mensing, an ecologist. The theme is sustainable gardening. Some of the best parts of this hort day are the presentations by master gardeners from Carver-Scott counties. Here’s my favorite title for a presentation this year: “Help! My Garden is Having a Midlife Crisis.” I know the feeling. If you register by Friday, the event is $40. After that the price goes up to $45.

Another popular garden school is the East Metro/Washington County Master Gardeners Spring Fling, which will also be held March 8. Speakers include Debbie Lonnee of Bailey Nurseries on new plants, noted nurseryman Steve Kelley on shade gardening, Eric Johnson on vegetable gardening and author Kelly Norris on iris, among others. The $35 fee includes the seminars and lunch catered by Tinucci’s. The event will be held at Woodbury High School.

There are so many more garden schools around the state — I’ve heard great things about the programs in Grand Forks, Stearns County, West Otter Tail County and many others. A complete list of schools is available on the MSHS website. Find one near you!

 

 

 

Bees, Apples and My Bumper Crop

apple basket
Ready for saucing and pie!

For the first time in 13 years, I have a bumper crop of useable Haralson apples off the tree in my yard. I credit it to good luck, the University of Minnesota and lots of bees. Here’s the story.

I’ve had two apple trees in my yard for 13 years (the Haralson and a Connell Red) and I’ve barely harvested a fruit from them in all that time. I’ve never wanted to go through the bother and risk associated with spraying apples and haven’t had the get-up-and-go to put little bags around each apple I wanted to harvest.  I like the look of apple trees and I’d resigned myself to finding a few decent apples and giving the rest up to the maggots and the worms.

An Unintended Consequence

haralson tree
The tree is loaded with fruit this year.

I’ve read a bit more about apples in the last year or so, and last fall I decided to at least get serious about sanitation around my trees. I picked up as many of the crappy apples that fell in autumn as I could in an effort to reduce pests, which tend to overwinter in the soil.

Last year and again this spring, I also participated in a University of Minnesota research project to track the arrival of the spotted wing drosophila in Minnesota. The project involves setting out traps — a plastic jar baited with apple cider vinegar and a sticky paper — to catch the bugs. This year, I set the trap in the Haralson tree.

About midway through the summer, I noticed a lot more apples — and I mean, a LOT more apples on the Haralson tree. (The other tree looked like it always did.) Later in the summer, I noticed that not only were there a lot more apples, but many of them (not all, of course, but enough) looked good. No signs of maggot damage or worm holes.

Oddly, the good-looking apples concerned me more than the lousy looking ones. (It’s all a game of expectations.) Were they safe to eat??? I hadn’t sprayed and I hadn’t bagged and I hadn’t even put out the traps that are recommended for apple growing in Minnesota.

After consulting a variety of web sources that basically said, if there are no visible signs of damage, they are OK to eat, I decided I needed a human to confirm that. I had some pots to return to Knecht’s Nursery in town from three shrubs I’d planted recently, so while there I asked Heidi about the apple situation. She confirmed that yes, bad apples would be showing their badness by this time of year, so anything that looked OK was OK.

My Traps are SO Attractive

apples looking good
They are not perfect, but lots of decent apples here.

She also offered an interesting hypothesis about why I have so many apples. Heidi’s theory is that the apple cider vinegar traps I had in the tree this spring not only attracted the spotted wing drosophila bugs, they also attracted bees. “You probably finally got good pollination on the tree,” she said. With good pollination came the bigger crop — plenty for the worms and plenty left over for me.

This past weekend was the first of what I expect will be a few weekends of canning applesauce, making apple butter and baking apple pies. Next year, I plan to try the same system. I’ll be cleaning up the area around my tree extra thoroughly this fall, then setting out an apple cider trap next year. We’ll see then if this was a fluke or simple way to get more, better apples.

How was your apple crop this year?

Bee on Baptisia

baptisia and bee
The bees love the nectar from baptisia.

With the sun out (finally) and the temperatures heating up, many plants have started to bloom and the bees and butterflies are returning to the garden. There were swarms of these large bumblebees working over the Baptisia ‘Twilight Blues’ that I have planted in the front garden. The size of this plant makes it almost like a shrub and the flowers, while fairly short-lived, are gorgeous. The bees seem to like them, too, and I know they get pollinated because every fall the black seed pods can be found dangling from the plants.

Assessing the Damage

It's a little out of focus, but there is something on that bloom.

After three nights in the 20s, it looks like we are out of the chilly woods for at least a week or so. Much needed rain is in the forecast and the low temperatures are predicted to remain in the high 30s and low 40s.

It seemed a good time to assess whatever damage occurred. First the good news, most of the blossoms on my cherry tree appear (at least for now) to have survived. And, the really good news is several of these little pollinators were hard at work on the blossoms that were open.

Most of the perennials that have come up seemed to have survived the frost with few problems. Two exceptions: This newly planted ‘Autumn Frost’ hosta really should have been covered up better (my bad!) and the leaves are wilted over completely. The plant was only a couple of inches out of the ground, so I’m hoping it may come up again. Also, a hearty looking (as opposed to really hardy) lupine also is slumped over.

What kind of damage did you experience with the hard freezes?

Finally, a Tomato — and a Correction

I harvested my first tomato yesterday, finally. It’s a Martino’s Roma tomato from Seed Savers Exchange, one of several paste tomatoes that I planted in hopes of having a huge harvest to freeze, can and dry. Given the green fruit on the plants now, the harvest will be better than last year, which was horrible, but not great. I’m hoping for a little more fruit set and a warmish September to give the fruit time to ripen.

Speaking of fruit set, I need to correct or at least amplify part of my previous post on tomatoes and heat.  Unlike many fruit-bearing plants, tomatoes are self-fertile, meaning they have both male and female parts. Usually tomatoes need only a little help from the wind to move the pollen from the anther to the stamen. (Sometimes gardeners will shake their tomato plants in hopes of moving the pollen around.) One reason we have so few tomatoes this year is that the high humidity levels made the pollen more sticky – and less willing to fall. According to this article by the Washington State University Extension Service, tomatoes have a very narrow window of temperature and humidity during which they set fruit.

Several readers informed me after my post on tomato blossom drop that bees were not involved in tomato fruit set (as I thought), and they usually aren’t. But it seems they may have some role.  Apparently, sonicating bees (those that noisily flap their wings) who get near tomatoes in flower encourage the pollen to spread better than wind. Also bumblebees are used to pollinate tomatoes in greenhouses where wind is not available to do the job.

Fortunately, my garden has plenty of wind and lots of bees, so however the job gets done, I’d like to see a little more pollination — and a lot more tomatoes.