Rice County Hort Day: A Gardener’s Education

I don’t remember when I first started going to the Rice County Horticulture Day, but it’s been awhile, and in many ways, attending that annual event was the start of my real education as a gardener. I grew plants long before I started going to the hort day, of course, and I killed a lot of them along the way.  I’ve had a lot of “ah-ha” moments at hort day — moments that prevented more plant killing and increased the joy that I get from gardening.

vendors at mg
Vendors sold jewelry, plants and other things at the Rice County Hort Day.

At last year’s event, Mike Heger’s talk about Heucheras shined a lot of light on why some heucheras flourish in the North and some languish. (It has to do with which species they are bred from.) At an earlier hort day, Mark Seeley gave a frightening talk about climate change that reinforced my sense that gardeners need to protect their little corners of the earth, for everyone’s sake.  One of my favorite presentations of all time was Terry Yockey’s talk on gardening for fragrance — grow plants for all your senses, she said.

This year, promises to be another fantastic day, and if you have not signed up yet, be sure to download the form  and mail it in. Here’s what’s on tap:

The theme is “Garden Magic,” and the event will be held again at Buntrock Commons at St. Olaf College in Northfield. The presentations start at 9 a.m, with Bruce Rohl’s talk about new varieties of peonies (“Not Your Mother’s Peonies”). Bruce runs Aspelund Peony Gardens in Kenyon and is up-to-date on what’s new in one of my favorite old-fashioned plants.

gardeners at mg event
Gardeners picked up great information at the 2012 Rice County Horticulture Day.

The magic continues at 10 a.m. with a presentation Fairy Gardening by Anna Risen of Tonkadale Gardens.  Anna has been designing fairy gardens for outdoor gardens or indoor containers for six years and knows how to bring the fantasy to life.

After lunch, one of the real stars of Minnesota horticulture, David Zlesak, will talk about Success with Roses. David breeds shrub roses and mini-roses for northern climates. I had the pleasure of testing one of his roses in summer 2012. Called Oso Happy® ‘Smoothie’, this rose bloomed and bloomed, practically into November. If you like roses, you won’t want to miss his talk.

The program ends with a talk on What’s New in Gardening, from Mark Armstead, a retailer and grower for Linder’s Garden Center. mark has been watching trends for 25 years and will tell you what’s in, what’s out and what’s new in plants and design.

In addition to the program, there will be coffee, a box lunch (no more tussling with students for lunch!), prize drawings, a silent auction and vendors.

To sign up, download the form here.



Free Trees!

In honor of Arbor Day, the Rice County Master Gardeners will be handing out free tree seedlings today at several locations around the county. In Northfield, we’ll be at Just Food Co-op starting at 3 p.m.  The trees are provided by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Stop by and pick up a tree or three!

UPDATE: Gardeners in Faribault can pick up trees at Lampert’s and those in Lonsdale can get them at the parking lot of Frandsen Bank.

What’s Growing On? More March Madness in the Garden

Squill in bloom.

Last week, encouraged by comments from a friend, I planted a short row of spinach, a short row of mustard greens and a slightly longer row of peas in my vegetable garden. Today, two of the three of them have tiny shoots coming up.

These are all in raised beds but none of them have row covers. It seemed OK to plant because the gardens met the basic requirement of  the ground being not too wet and workable. Given the long-range forecast for Minnesota, which shows no signs of temperatures anywhere close to freezing for the next week or so, I plan to plant more cool-weather crops outside today. Why not? Apparently we live in Kansas City now.

Based on the U of M's kabob test, my lawn is thawed enough to water. Fortunately, the skewer was wet.

I also cleaned up some of my perennial beds. Normally, I heed the standard advice to stay out of the lawn and beds to prevent soil compaction until well into April or even May, but not this year. The University of Minnesota Extension suggested gardeners get a kabob prong and stick it in their soil. If it goes 8 to 10 inches, the ground is OK to water. If the tip is dry, get out the hoses, pronto!

I am not raking the lawn — partly because it’s a chore I don’t enjoy much and partly because it still seems a bit soft. That said, the weeds are popping up already, and I had a grand time this morning pulling a few dandelions. The ground is soft enough that you can pull out the root cleanly — very satisfying.

One of the stunning characteristics of this very strange spring is the speed with which spring bloomers are appearing and blooming. Normally, the squill in my yard come up very slowly, hold on to flower buds for a week or more and then finally bloom. Not so this year, they popped up, and it was boom and bloom in a couple of days.

U of M Extension Master Gardeners from around Minnesota are reporting unbelievable amounts of growth in their gardens. Perennials such as clematis, daylilies, lupine, bleeding heart and hosta are up. Like me, other gardeners planted lettuces, peas and spinach and are seeing shoots already. Under the mulch, I’m finding rudbeckia and sweet woodruff, even the roses and hydrangea are greening up. The consensus among garden experts now seems to be that it is OK to uncover perennials — just be ready to throw a sheet, blanket or mulch on them if the temps suddenly take a dip.

What are you doing differently in your garden because of the unusual weather?

Getting Ready for the Fair

Yesterday, I joined four other hardy University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardeners from Rice County to prepare for the Rice County Fair, which opened last night. It was hot! But we got our booth put together, and I’ll be there twice this next week, attempting to answer questions and showing people the demonstration gardens.

The shade garden will be a cool respite at the fair this week.

The master gardeners have three lovely gardens at the fairgrounds in Faribault. One is a sun garden, one a shade garden, and one a butterfly garden. Tours will be conducted daily at 2:15 p.m. Walking through these gardens will give fair visitors a sense of which plants grow well in different environments.

The master gardener booth includes information about Emerald ash borer and other garden pests. Near our booth is an indoor pond, which is normally filled and stocked with fish by the state Department of Natural Resources. Due to the government shutdown, the DNR is absent from the fair. But, AquaEden, a local company stepped in to fill the pool and stock it with Koi. Be sure to stop by and check it all out.

See you at the fair!

Arbor Day Tree Giveaway

Today is Arbor Day, the 139-year-old celebration of tree planting in America. All around the state, groups will be giving away trees. I’ll be at Just Food Co-op this afternoon (3:30-6 p.m., or whenever we run out of trees) with other Rice County Master Gardeners, giving away trees and offering information on how and where to plant them.

We have a great selection of evergreen and deciduous trees courtesy of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Stop by and pick up a tree!

Good Habits = Healthy Plants

Most people know that habits make a big difference in health. If you get plenty of sleep, drink six to eight glasses of water a day, eat lots of fruits and vegetables, and get some exercise every day, odds are you’ll be healthier. Good habits are not a guarantee against disease and injury, but they sure do help.

The same can be said of plants. Put them in the right place, give them the right care, and they will likely do well. During the Master Gardener Core Course last Saturday, extension educator Michelle Grabowski noted that less than 10 percent of home landscape problems warrant the use of a pesticide. Good cultural practices (ie, health habits) and choosing the right plants for your environment will take care of nearly all potential disease problems, she said.

What constitutes a health routine for your plants?

Buy carefully, place carefully. Read the plant tag before you buy a plant. Make sure you have the right environment in your yard for that plant to do well. If you have a shady, moist backyard, don’t expect a drought-tolerant, sun-loving plant such as sedum to do well there. While you are in the nursery, do a mini-inspection not only of your plant but the plants around it. The entire group of plants should look healthy before you plunk down your money.

Give them space. Plants need room to breathe. You’ll have fewer disease issues if you space plants far enough apart to get to full size without bumping into each other. Air circulation is a huge factor in prevention of fungal diseases.

Water. Like people, plants need enough H2O. Grabowski offered a few tips on watering, including the advice to water the soil, not the plant; water early in the day if possible; and to mulch to reduce the humidity in the air around your plants. Also, remember that water needs vary — from plant to plant, and season to season. A newly planted tree needs regular watering to establish roots; a prairie grass can tough it out just fine.

Fight germs. Keeping tools, trellises, stakes, and cages clean will help fight diseases, too. Don’t put tomato cages around new plants if they have plant debris from last season. (Oops! I think I did that last year.)

Regular checkups. As with people, it’s easier to fight a serious disease in plants if you catch it early. When you are out in your garden, take a couple of moments to check the undersides of leaves or the inner leaves on plants — that’s where diseases start.

Get the right diagnosis. You can’t figure out what to do with a plant if you don’t know what the problem is. The University of Minnesota has a fabulous plant diagnostic on its web site. If you aren’t sure what’s wrong with your plant, go to the what’s wrong with my plant site.

Best Resource on the Web for Northern Gardeners

During last week’s Master Gardener training session, Julie Weisenhorn, the state program director, reviewed some of the resources available to Master Gardeners in Minnesota. Many of these resources are also available to the public and probably the most useful one is the Garden Info page the U of M hosts.

This page has three top-notch tools for gardeners in its diagnostics section. First, is “What’s Wrong with My Plant,” which allows gardeners to use a decision-tree type format to figure out what’s ailing their plants. First you pick the plant type from broad categories, then more specifically. Then, you check the symptoms you are seeing to find out what might be the problem. Say your spruce tree has discolored needles. You choose evergreens, then spruce, then check discolored needles. From there, you’ll see a variety of possible diseases, including winter injury (no surprise there!) and spruce needle rust. Each option includes photos to assist with visual identification and a link to more information about causes and what to do.

The other two diagnostic modules work in a similar fashion. One helps you identify insects and my favorite is the “Is this plant a weed?” module. In spring, when you are not sure what you’ve got, this site can help you decide what to pull and what to leave alone. (When in doubt, I usually leave alone.)

In addition to the diagnostics, the page is a gateway to other University information, including fact sheets on dozens of plant, landscape and design issues, the Yard and Garden newsletter, and the Ask a Master Gardener question line.

Next time you are stumped by a garden problem, check this page out first.

Compost Tips from a Pro

While the compost piles here in Minnesota are frozen solid and buried under a couple of feet of snow now, it’s fun to imagine the time when they will begin churning and decomposing and creating delightful humus for the garden. And, after the Master Gardener class on soils and composting, held a week or so ago, I have a better idea of how compost works and how to get compost quicker. University of Minnesota professor Carl Rosen led the class, which covered everything from what soil tests measure to how to improve your soil’s fertility: basically, add compost.

Here are six tips from Rosen on making compost.

  1. The optimum size for a compost pile is 4 feet by 4 feet by 4 feet. At those dimensions, the compost will heat up quicker and decompose faster. That said, compost happens, almost no matter what you do. If your pile is smaller, it will take longer for the leaves, grass clippings, and vegetable waste in the pile to decompose (think years, not months), but it will decompose eventually.
  2. Compost starter is not necessary. Most compost starters provide microbes and nitrogen to get the material you are composting going. While microorganisms and nitrogen are needed for compost to get started, you can add a couple of shovels of garden soil and maybe a handful of fertilizer to get the same benefits at a much lower cost.
  3. Compost piles like shade. While you can make compost anywhere, Rosen likes shady locations because they protect the pile from drying winds and sunlight, which also dries the compost out and slows the process. Another factor to consider in placing compost bins are the bins’ impact on neighbors—compost that stinks (it shouldn’t) or obstructs a neighbor’s view probably isn’t going to make you the most popular person on the block. Consideration is always a virtue.
  4. Add air. Most gardeners know that to make compost you need brown materials (dried leaves, etc.), green materials (plant debris, grass, vegetable peelings), and moisture. But you also need air. You can add air by turning your pile or by adding bulkier items. If you want to add air with bulky materials, Rosen recommends wood chips, which keep air in the pile because of the spaces around the chips. The only disadvantage of wood chips is that you will need to sift your compost through a screen to get them out.
  5. Is it done yet? When your compost pile is finished, it should be about half the original volume of the pile and have an earthy smell. A well-managed compost pile will be ready in 4 to 9 months. A poorly managed pile will take 1 to 3 years, according to Rosen.
  6. Gardens need compost! While not exactly news, it’s important to recognize how many ways compost benefits gardens. To improve fertility and tilth, add 1 to 2 inches to the top of the soil and work it in 6 to 8 inches, if possible. Compost also makes a great mulch — you need 2 to 4 inches to suppress weeds — and it’s a wonderful amendment to potting soil for containers. Make compost 30 percent of the volume of soil in your containers for healthy plantings.

One other note from Rosen: Compost piles in frigid climates (like Minnesota’s) are dormant in winter. Another reason to hope for spring.

Master Gardener Training Begins

Saturday I began taking Master Gardener training through the University of Minnesota extension. What a great way to spend January! The course involves 48 hours of class time, buckets of material to read, and then those of us who are Master Gardener interns will do 50 hours or more of volunteer work in our home counties during the rest of the year. I will be posting regularly about what I learn in the course, though there is so much information, it will be hard to pick and choose what to write about.

Let’s start with the Master Gardener program itself. This is a national program that began in the 1970s in response to a big increase in interest in home gardening — notice how tough economic times and gardening seem to go together. What happened was that county agents, who were used to dealing with questions about commercial agriculture, suddenly were faced with questions about growing squash and where to plant fruit trees, topics for which they felt unprepared. So, they decided to harness the power of volunteers. They trained the gardeners and then relied on these volunteers to answer garden questions — based on university research and recommendations.

In Minnesota, the first class of Master Gardeners were trained in 1977 and the first class was held in the meat lab (!) at the U of M St. Paul campus (this information made me happy to be sitting in the warm, comfortable conference room at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum).  Today, Minnesota has 2,000 Master Gardeners volunteering in 81 counties. Nationally, 94,865 people volunteer as Master Gardeners, donating more than 5 million hours of time and expertise with an estimated value of more than $100 million.

The course is intense. Saturday we did an overview of the roles of Master Gardeners, then a fast-paced three hours on soils and compost taught by U professor Carl Rosen. Future topics include botany, diagnostics, lawn care, weed management, trees and shrubs, herbaceous plants, and wildlife among others. This is more science than I have studied since…well, since about the time the Master Gardener program started, but I’m really excited and hope to share the highlights with you. I’ve added the blog of Julie Weisenhorn, the program director, to my blog links, so you can check that out for more information about the program. If you are at all interested, consider applying for the program next year.