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.

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.

Culinary flowers

IMG_3258All from the garden… blossoms of nasturtiums, borage and dill add to an already delicious salad!

Browsing through seed catalogues during an early spring thaw, it is easy to be drawn to the color of nasturtiums.  It is easy to admire the color nasturtiums bring to containers or the way they dress a salad with salad with their peppery taste.    Why stop here when there is a great online resource on the University of Minnesota’s Extension Master Gardener website.

Beyond salads, cakes and other desserts can be decorated with colorful blooms and cold drinks can be enhanced with a floral garnish.   The small test tube-like containers used at florists can be inserted in a cake to hold small blooms and provide water.

To assure  flowers come from pesticide-free plants, it is best to grow them yourself.  Several of the plants listed in the chart below grow well in containers.  Harvest blossoms the same day you plan to use them, gently wash them and allow the plants to air dry. Remove the tart internal stamens and styles of larger flowers such as tulip or squash blossoms.  If need be, store your colorful prizes in covered containers in the refrigerator.  Add the pretty posies just before serving.

Bon appetite!  Here are a few suggestions from University of Minnesota Extension Factsheet:  ( )

Alpine Strawberry Flowers and leaves often used in tea
Anise Hyssop Flowers
Apple or Plum Flowers
Beebalm Flower taste differs by cultivar; avoid ‘Panorama’ as the taste is too astringent
Begonia Flowers
Borage Flowers  and leaves
Calendula Flowers
Chamomile Flowers have an apple scent and flavor
Chives Flowers blossoms and stems
Daylilies Flowers buds are good stir-fried
Dill Flowers, seeds and foliage
English Daisy Flowers
Gladiolus Flowers
Hollyhocks Flowers
Honeysuckle Flowers
Lavender Flowers can be bitter, but wonderfully scented.
Lemon Balm Leaves and flowers are scented.
Lilac Flowers
Marjoram Flowers  and leaves
Mint Flowers  and leaves
Mustard Flowers, leaves and young seed pods
Nasturtium Fowers and leaves have a peppery taste
Pansy Flowers
Petunia Flowers
Pinks Flowers
Rose Use flower petals.
Scarlet Runner Beans Flowers  and young bean pods Note: Sweet Pea flowers NOT edible.
Sage Flowers eaves fresh or dried.
Squash Flowers can be stuffed or fried. If female blossoms are picked fruit will not develop.
Tulip Use petals.

Soil Tests


It all starts with the soil, so getting to know yours is an important first step.

The University of Minnesota Soil Lab will give you recommendations to make your lawn or garden more productive for just $17. Download the form at and follow the instructions. You simply collect five trowels of soil from throughout your lawn or garden, mix it together and mail one pint of your sample to the University of Minnesota Soils Lab with the form and a check.

Two or three weeks later you will receive a summary of your soil texture, percent organic matter, pH, nutrients and suggested fertilization needs. With this information you are on your way to improving your garden soil.