The Soil is Alive!

by Karen O’Rourke, Goodhue County Extension Master Gardener
“A bare plowed field is hungry, thirsty and running a fever.”  That statement sure caught my attention when I read the handout called “Soil Health/Soil Quality”  by Peter Hartman, NRCS Soil Scientist  – Rochester, Minnesota.  A few other things to consider:
  • There are 9 billion living organisms in just a tablespoon of soil.
  • Keep soil covered with living plants or plant residues to avoid erosion.
  • Minimize disturbance of the soil to limit weed seeds.
  • Maximize diversity of plants in rotation, using plants from many different groupings such as flowers, herbs, vegetables, ground covers for visual interest and to limit disease that can spread in monocultures.
  • Keep living roots in the soil to hold the soil in place as much as possible.  Consider cover crops off-season.
“Tillage is bad for the soil, tillage plants weed seeds” notes Hartman.  Community gardeners, lets keep the soil food web working!  Ruth’s Stouts book:  Gardening Without Work: for the Aging, the Busy, and the Indolent is a great reference for no till gardening and can be found at the Red Wing Public Library.  If you would like to see these methods in action, stop by the demonstration plots at Spring Creek Community Garden or email me at .
Do you want to learn more about soil?  Check out the Soil Primer by the Natural Resource Conservation Service.

Garlic Mustard Videos



Perfect timing! An upside of our new snow – it buys us time to get the word out. We have just a few weeks until garlic mustard goes to seed in Goodhue and surrounding counties. It is important for us as  to take action with best practices in our own back yards and through education – watch the video to find out how.

Sorry about the first attempt to post this and the accompanying message that lead to nowhere – something glitched when trying to embed the  first video, but as a result I found a second.  Hence, just the links now. Your humble blogger, nlb

Wild Crocus


Few in southeastern Minnesota would deny that today is the first real day of spring of 2013.  It is as if the earth danced vernal today.  Blue skies and temperatures in the mid 40’s by 8am, my mission was clear.  This morning I hiked up Barn Bluff with hopes of seeing the pasque flowers.

This being my third spring in Red Wing, the bluff did not disappoint.  I enjoyed thousands of the furry little purple gems.  Seeing the crocus on the prairie edge made me laugh out loud. Anemone patens var multifida  or wild crocus is in the family Rannunculacea and is native to the US, Europe, Russia and Mongolia.  It’s name “Pasque” comes from Old French for Easter in reference to the spring bloom – “patens” means spreading.  it is a hearty soul, often blooming through the snow.


If you take the hike, get on your belly and enjoy their furry stems and leaves, velvet to the touch.  In the morning light the petals shine like stained glass among the dry little blue stem grass (Schizachyrium scoparium.)  

We don’t know how lucky we are to have the bluff top prairies right in our back yards.  While less the 1% of native tall grass prairie remains, short grass prairies are a little more common (see for more information on prairies.)


Thoreau and his companion Horace Mann delighted in the  crocus on Barn Bluff when they visited Red Wing more than 150 years ago.  They noted in their journal and letters home that “Pulsatilla still in bloom on top” on June 23, 1861.

It was an exciting hike up the bluff today.  I thought I would see if the snow had melted on the north end (it hadn’t) and while there an avalanche of basket ball-sized rocks tumbled down the wall just 100 feet in front of me.  With in a minute there were six turkey vultures circling – luckily the tumbling rocks missed me and they had nothing to discover!

Perennial Care


Photo and article by Joyce Rapp, Goodhue County Master Gardener

Assuming you have prepared your beds with the proper soil and mulch, the following tips will help to care for your perennial plants:

  • Weed – Controlling weeds is one of your most important tasks. This prevents weed seeds from germinating. Pull them by hand or use a hoe to scuffle the surface.
  • Mulch– Spread 2-3 inches of mulch annually to prevent weed seeds from germinating, to keep soil temperature more consistent help retain moisture.
  • Water – Once established, perennials usually need very little supplemental watering. Plant your perennials in groups that use similar watering requirements. Water infrequently and deeply from below. Inspect 2 inches deep into the soil to check if watering is needed.  Morning is the best time to water to prevent fungal diseases.
  • Fertilize– Extra nutrients should not be necessary for most plants if you prepare your beds correctly. Some heavy feeders including phlox, day lilies, daisies, and hibiscus may need to be fertilized – take a soil test to know for sure.
  • Groom– Thinning, pinching or trimming, disbudding, deadheading and staking are all methods to improve the appearance of your plants. By shearing the following plants early in the season, you can produce a stronger stemmed plant: aster, Rudbeckia, catmint, coneflower, mallow, Monarda, rose mallow, Sedum ‘autumn joy’.
  • Inspect for insects –Observing insects on plants does not mean there is   a problem – many insects are beneficial.  Check with a nursery, garden book or county extension office for identification.  If needed, use the least toxic method of eradicating harmful insects.
  • Prepare for winter– Mulch only after a hard frost as mulching too early can produce new growth that will be killed by a hard freeze. Water perennials before a hard freeze.  Do not fertilize from early fall on.   Trim back foliage to prevent disease from setting in during the winter.  Ornamental grasses can be left standing and trimmed in the spring.

Remember that right planted in the right plant in the right place will result in little or no major problems.  Proper light, drainage, soil type, and zone are needed.  Native plants are adapted to the local area and are always a good choice.

This is one of three articles on perennials based on information by: Janet Macunovich: Ten Tips on Dividing Perennial Plants and Perennials for Minnesota and Wisconsin (Don Engebretson and Willaimson.)

Know Your Roots


Photo of Beverly Sills Iris and article by Joyce Rapp, Goodhue County Master Gardener

There are five basic plant root types. Knowing what kind of root you are dividing makes a more effective division and reduces plant stress.

  • Offset roots are found in small plants growing at the base of a larger one.  This type includes asters, coneflowers, and hostas.
  • Surface roots run on or just below the soil level, as found in Monarda, Sedum and Rudbeckia.
  • Long straight tap roots can be divided using a sharp knife to slice down the length of the root.  Each piece that has at least one eye, some of the tap root and a few side roots is a viable division. Balloon flower, butterfly weed and oriental poppies are examples here.
  • Underground running roots develop suckers as they grow beyond the shade of the mother clump. Suckers can be cut away from the main plant. Japanese anemones and ostrich fern are examples of underground roots.
  • Woody roots form when stems rest on the ground and are buried by accumulating mulch. Make a new plant simply by cutting between the rooted stem and mother plant.  This root form is found in candytuft and lavender.

Knowing what kind of root system you are dealing with, helps make a more effective division.  So enjoy dividing and multiplying your garden!

This is one of three articles on perennials based on information by: Janet Macunovich: Ten Tips on Dividing Perennial Plants and Perennials for Minnesota and Wisconsin (Don Engebretson and Willaimson.)

Dividing Perennials


 Photo of Tree Peony and article by Joyce Rapp, Goodhue County Master Gardener

There are three good reasons to divide perennials: to rejuvenate and stimulate new growth, to control the size of the plant and to multiply plants for your garden or share with others.

Spring and summer blooming perennials are best divided about 4-6 weeks before the ground freezes in the fall. Fall blooming perennials are divided in the spring just as new growth emerges.

Disturbing the root system challenges a plant’s ability to feed and hydrate itself. Choose a cloudy or overcast day to divide your plants. Water the soil well a day in advance. If there is abundant top growth, cut back the leaves by a third or tie the stems together for easier handling.

Minimize root damage by first removing soil around at the drip-line and then digging a trench around the clump by cleanly severing any roots.  Remove the loose dirt around the roots and separate the plant into smaller divisions. Gently tease roots apart or cutting them with and a sharp knife or spade. Aim to keep the soil intact around the root ball.  Densely rooted plants such as day lilies can be more easily separated by placing 2 pitchforks back to back in the center of the clump and pulling them apart.

Keep your divisions shaded and moist until they can be replanted. Ideally, prepare the transplant hole before you divide your plants to reduce stress on the root system.  To avoid crowding, place a division into a hole that is at least as wide as its roots when spread out.  Fill hole with soil and organic matter. Add mulch around your plants to maintain moisture.

If you must re-plant later, keep plants in the shade, at about 50% humidity and in cool temperatures. Place divided perennials you are planting later in a container. and cover with moistened newspaper, to prevent them from drying out. Whatever method you use, treat your divisions as new seedlings and keep them well watered until new growth appears.

This is one of three articles on perennials based on information by: Janet Macunovich: Ten Tips on Dividing Perennial Plants and Perennials for Minnesota and Wisconsin (Don Engebretson and Williamson.)

Earth Day Gardening Tips


You know the saying: “think globally, act locally”.  Honoring the earth can be as simple as being greener in your garden.

As gardeners we get to celebrate Earth Day all year.  As Master Gardeners and educators we are fortunate to have opportunities to multiply that appreciation.

I came across an article by Jennifer Davit (Director of the Lurie Garden in Chicago’s Millennium Park) on Celebrating Earth Day by Sharing Gardening Tips  in the Chicago Sun Tribune.  Her six suggestions are as applicable for Goodhue County as they are to Millennium Park in downtown Chicago:

  • Replace annuals with perennials. There are many beautiful perennials that are native to the bluffs and hardwood forests of Goodhue County that can be integrated into  gardens and require little water and no fertilizer.
  • Don’t overfertilize. Perennials in our garden are chosen for their durability and successful growth over time. They typically don’t need supplemental nutrients through conventional fertilizers — some will actually perform poorer if they are fertilized, especially with liquid formulations. Only fertilize if the plant is showing signs of nutrient deficiencies.
  • Think beyond color: When choosing perennial plants and grasses, consider textures, movement, sound and scents. For example, the combinations of prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) and Eastern bee balm (Monarda bradburiana) provide excellent textural diversity throughout the year.
  • Attract wildlife. Choose plants, such as calamint, salvias and native milkweeds that provide nectar and pollen to attract and feed wildlife. Many beautiful gardens from Millennium Park in Chicago IL to our own Discovery Garden in Red Wing MN do not use chemicals and create habitat for all to enjoy.
  • Say no to insecticides. By tolerating a little plant damage, you will help welcome a healthy insect population to your garden. You’ll be amazed at the number of dragonflies that come to eat your mosquitoes, the number of bees that will collect pollen and nectar from your plants, and the variety of butterflies that will make your garden their home.
  • Don’t forget winter: Instead of cutting back perennials in fall, leave them up through winter and cut them back in late winter, before early spring bulbs start to grow. This will enable you to enjoy your garden despite the cold and provide a home for wildlife year-round.

We can do that!

I am sure Karen would add a seventh bullet promoting  no till gardening  to reduce weeds and protect soil.  We can do that too!

Garden Professors Blog


It won’t be long..

One of the great things about gardening and being a Master Gardener is you never stop learning.  Have you stumbled on the Garden Professors Blog yet?  If not its worth a peruse.

The blog  is hosted by Dr. Jeff Gillman, Associate Professor of Horticulture at the University of Minnesota, and Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott, Associate Professor of Horticulture and Extension Specialist at Washington State University, Dr. Holly Scoggins, Associate Professor of Horticulture at Virginia Tech and Dr. Bert Cregg, Associate Professor of Horticulture and Forestry at Michigan State University. Washington State University.

The site even includes an “Ask an Expert” section where you can post questions to garden experts from across the country.  With these experts on our side how can we go wrong?

Tiptoe into Spring with “Winter” Sowing


Looking at my 2012 garden calendar, by this date last year I had planted radishes, raddichio and spinach in my community garden. The crocus, early daffodils, forsythia and cherry leaves were sprouting in my backyard.    While its not to soon for spring, a post today (March 22) on the MN Master Gardener Listserve, reminds us we can be planting vegetables, even with the foot of snow on the ground:

"I've cold-sown all kinds of seeds in many types of containers 
in the last 7'ish years.  I've gotten the best results from:   
1. Seeds of perennials , especially natives (Stands to reason, 

2. Seeds of self-seeding annuals, including tomatoes (Again, 
this makes perfect sense) 
3.  Seeds of cold-hardy annuals like kale, lettuce, 
snapdragon, pansies, broccoli, etc. While a gardener can 
try cold sowing with any seed, in my experience the lowest
 germination rates come from the least cold-tolerant plants,
e.g., peppers.  

As for timing, I am doing my cold-sowing this week.  

While I've done it earlier in the season, I've found no  
advantage in doing so and maybe a slight reduction in 
germination rates in the more cold-sensitive plants.  

When is it too late to cold-sow?  When you can sow seed
directly into your garden! For cold-tolerant seed, that  
means as soon as the soil is workable.  For heat-loving seed,
that means when the soil has warmed to ~60 degrees (F) and
the danger of frost has passed.    

The beauty of cold-sowing
is that the seedlings emerge and grow in concert with Mother
Nature.  Only "she" decides when the seed will germinate and
how fast the seedlings should grow.  And when the time comes
to transplant the seedlings into the garden, they experience
no temp-related transplant shock.  (Sue Schiess Hennepin County
Master Gardener)"

Also don’t forget Terry Yockey’s great link on Winter Sowing.