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Rain barrels and compost bins

Click below to listen to my GardenBite radio show:  Rain barrels and compost bins

April Showers bring May flowers.  At least that’s the hope and that moisture isn’t in the solid form of snow!

May snowfall

May snowfall 2013

EEK!  I’m really hopeful that will NOT be this year!  I think the 2013/14 winter season was brutal enough.  In fact, climatologists are saying this MAY be a drier/hotter season.  We’ll see…

In the meantime, rain barrels are always a good idea for several reasons.  Rainwater is the best kind of water for your lawn and flower gardens and capturing it is a good thing for several reasons.  First, it’s free!  It’s also a good storm water management practice.  Corralling that precious water before it rushes down the storm drain and carries with it phosphorous that is a major contributor to unwanted algae growth in our lakes and ponds.  

Rain barrel

Rain barrel

The University of Minnesota Extension Rain Barrels – a way of collecting and using rain water.

I’ll be picking up my Rain Barrel from the Cannon River Watershed Partnership next week.  They offer the barrels and a quick class.  Where I live, my City offers a $20 rebate off my utility bill for verification of installation of a Rain Barrel.  Not a bad idea!

All Minnesota Counties have an online presence now. Albeit some better than others.  Nonetheless, here is a LIST of counties.  Check with them, your Master Gardeners and/or your City to find out what may be available to you.  Of course you can always just buy one or build one and place it.  Here are just a few ideas from TreeHugger.

One more thing, a rain barrel can save most homeowners 1300 gallons of water in one season!  Another good idea are compost bins.   They can be nearly any structure that can hold debris while allowing for air circulation, water and heat (as in some sunlight) to get to the pile. 

Compost bins The Self Sufficient Living

Compost bins The Self Sufficient Living

The above photo is from The Self Sufficient Living.  The University of Minnesota Extension offers homeowners a comprehensive Composting Guide.

Portable compost bin drawing

Portable compost bin with dimensions

The above compost is made from a garbage can and can be bungeed to a dolly for portability.

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Sun/shade terms

Click below to listen to my Garden Bite radio show:  Sun/Shade terms

What the heck is dappled sun?  Do you get confused by some of those sun/shade terms on plant tags?

Here’s an explanation:

  • Full sun is at least 6 hours of direct sunlight.  8 hours is best for tomatoes, peppers, melons.
  • Dappled sun is the lightest shade.  It’s full sun filtered through open-branched trees such as honey locust, aspen and birch.
  • Light shade/partial sun are interchangeable.  These plants need 3 to 6 hours of direct sunlight, usually in the morning or afternoon.  If the tag emphasizes shade, then plant in morning sun.  If it emphasizes sun, then plant in afternoon sun, which is hotter.
  • Medium/partial shade is 1 to 3 hours of sunlight, this could be dappled sun.
  • Full/heavy shade is could be a wooded area or on the north side of your house under eaves and generally receives no reflected light.

Sun from the west is hottest, followed by south, east and finally north.  How does your site light up?  Check the sun throughout the day, keeping in mind as the season continues, this changes.

Dappled sun - Honeylocust is upper left

Dappled sun – Honeylocust is upper left

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What to plant outside right now

Click below to listen to my Garden Bite radio show:  What to plant outside right now

Much of Minnesota is now Zone 4 while we still have some areas of zone 3 to the north and zone 5 to the south.  Click on the map to your right to find out where you are.

So long as your soil is workable (NOT wet), you can start planting seeds of beets, peas, lettuce and onion sets right now!  You can also plant transplants of broccoli, brussel sprouts and rhubarb.  Potato tubers should be planted now.  If you’re new to gardening, follow the packet directions.  I like to toss the lettuce seed, willy nilly!  ;-)   The above mentioned vegetables can tolerate light frost and some shade.

Tomatoes and peppers are the last veggie to be planted.  It’s best to plant them AFTER Memorial day in zone 4 and 2 weeks after that in zone 3.

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The Foundation of Life – Soil

Click below to listen to my Garden Bite radio show:  The Foundation of Life – Soil

Our Foundation

Our Foundation

Soil  holds the keys to a plant’s ability to take up nutrients, water and oxygen.  Soil also acts as a filter for rainwater, cleaning it as it makes it’s way into our aquifers.   If you prepare your garden beds, you give your plants the best chance to, not only survive, but thrive.

Soil is simply amazing when you learn more about it.  This forum doesn’t give us enough time, and frankly, there’s way more to it than this lay person could possibly explain!  ;-)  What I do know is how essential it is and how wonderful it smells as I first start planting my Spring garden.  I know how wonderful it feels in my hands as I dig.

This MAP will give you a rough idea of the types of soils we have in Minnesota.

Soil types

Soil types

To that end it’s important for gardeners to prepare their garden beds.  It is the single most important thing you can do for your plants.  Having fluffy, nutrient rich soil that can hold your plants while allowing the roots to grow is ideal!  Take the time for a soil test and then build from there.

Adding organic matter every year won’t hurt but tilling every Spring and Fall will.  This breaks up your soil’s structure and CAN lead to compacted soil.  Soil has oxygen in it, air pockets if you will, that keep it fluffy.

The Colorado Master Gardener Program has 2 types of tests you can do at home to find out if your soil texture is sandy, loam or clay.  Click HERE and scroll down to the jar test and the feel test.

Remember, the most comprehensive test is through the University of Minnesota (if you live in MN!).

Soil type jar testing

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Soil test

Click below to listen to my Garden Bite radio show:  Soil test

Getting a soil test is always a good idea!  A reminder as we head into possible flooding season, flooded soil loses some micronutrients and compost.  Getting a soil test through the University of Minnesota offers much more comprehensive information and is worth the money.

soil testing lab

Soil Testing Labratory [University of Minnesota Extension] I also have a link in my Favorite Links

soil test certified

Before you start digging for samples, make sure you’re soil is dried out sufficiently.  You can test it by taking a handful of soil, squeeze it in your hand.  If it stays in a tight ball, it’s too wet;  if it crumbles apart, unlikely right now, it’s too dry;  if it stays in a loose ball, it’s just right!

good dirt!

good dirt!

I want to welcome my sponsor Creekside Soils.  They blend a number of soil amendments as well as potting soil and topsoil.  Available around the state in a nursery near you.  Gardeners who know, use Creekside.

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Spiral gardens

Click below to listen to my Garden Bite radio show:  spiral gardens

If you don’t have a lot of room, spiral gardening may be the way to go.  It’s really catching on and offers you the chance to be creative.  Spiral gardening allows you to stack plants vertically for small spaces. 

Spiral Garden from Microgardener

Spiral Garden from Microgardener

The above photo is from a woman who blogs at The Microgardener.  She has a 4 step method for creating a spiral garden with all types of materials.

Spiral herb-veggie garden

This one has herbs and veggies, you can plant flowers too.  Really, anything you like!

Depending on the material you use, you can add your soil and compost or straw as you go.   There will be some settling, so don’t plant immediately.  Place plants that like it a little drier at the top, the bottom will remain a bit more moist as water seeps down.  As for the plants, most people use this for herb gardening or other edibles, especially those who don’t bend as well.  You create little micro climates in this type of gardening.

The south side of your garden will be the sunniest and warmest, making the north side the shadiest and coolest.  Keep that in mind when choosing plants.  I found lots of videos on the internet which means plenty of ideas.  choose what makes sense to you.  Throughout all the videos and information, the constants are:

  • laying down cardboard in the place you plan for your spiral garden
  • wet the cardboard and/or put wet soil on top of it
  • lay out your first layer of spiral

Check out this video from The Nature Learning Center

Here’s another video where the instructor adds detail.  The video itself isn’t the greatest but you get a good idea of how this works.



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Best planting practices for shrubs and trees

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Remember how you’ve heard that you should plant trees and shrubs at the same level they came in in their container?  Well, now you need to take a look at those plants.  Turns out that some of those plants come with too much soil on top of their graft of trunk flare.

So, what does that mean?  It means you need to remove that soil and plant the tree or shrub level with where the root flare starts.  The most important roots, those that take up the water, oxygen and nutrients, are in the top 6 inches of soil.

SULIS - Sustainable Urban Landscape Information Series, comes from the University of Minnesota.  Click on the link I’ve given you and you’ll have a lot of information about tree planting.  A lot of the info can be used for shrubs too.

I recently learned an interesting trick in planting these trees and shrubs.  The hole you dig should be about 3 to even 4 times as wide at the top of the hole tapering down to twice as wide further down.  But here’s the other piece to that - using a mallet take a pole and tap holes into the sides of your hole about 4 inches down and about 6 inches apart, especially if you have compacted soil.  The roots will find the easier way to stretch out into the soil. 

Crabapple 'Royal Raindrops'

Crabapple ‘Royal Raindrops’

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Planting bareroot

Click below to listen to my Garden Bite radio show:  Planting bareroot

What’s bareroot?  These are shrubs, trees and some perennials that you buy with no soil around the roots.  They’re smaller, cheaper and easy to plant.  However they do need immediate attention.

You can see, they look pretty puny.  Give these little guys a chance!

When you get your bareroot stock of trees and/or shrubs, let the roots soak overnight.  For perennials, you can let them soak a couple of hours.   Dig your hole twice as wide as the root system but only as deep as the plant was grown at the nursery.  You don’t want the plant too deep, just up to the point where the crown and roots connect.

Mound some soil in the middle of the hole to place your plant on top of.  Spread the roots out horizontally, this is where those roots will get their water, oxygen and nutrients.  (eventually they will grow deeper on their own).  Fill the hole with soil, gently work the soil around the roots while holding your plant steady.  I know, you need 3 hands for this!

Gently pack the soil down with your feet, hands, and/or water.  You want your bareroot stock watered thoroughly and not let it dry out.  Water often during the first year.  Do NOT fertilize right away.  Bareroot roots are more vulnerable to fertilizer burn.  You can fertilize with a weak solution in 4 weeks.

Bareroot stock CAN be kept for a week IF you place the roots in soil, keeping them moist and out of direct sunlight.

Alpine currant from bareroot

Alpine currant from bareroot

The above picture is of Alpine Currant that I bought bareroot.  This was about 5 years later.  I never cut them back, they were about 4 1/2 feet tall.

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Monarch migration

Click below to listen to my Garden Bite radio show:  Monarch migration

The Monarch butterfly needs Milkweed to survive…  The commom milkweed is being destroyed.  I’ll tell you why in a moment, or you already know if you listened to my radio show or clicked on the podcast above!

Years ago I lived on a 5 acre piece of land where one year our trees were filled with Monarchs during their annual migration from Mexico.  It was quite a sight.  Here are a couple of photos:

They flitted about for a couple of days.  It was a glorious sight and one I wasn’t privy to again.  Part of the reason for their demise was reported in a recent article in the Star Tribune which highlighted work done by our own U of MN.  Studies done by the University of Minnesota and the University of Iowa are pointing to Genetically Modified corn and soybean seed farmers are using now that helps them eradicate certain weeds, including milkweed.

Monarch butterflies lay their eggs on milkweed, especially milkweed that grows in farm fields.  The study reports the number of Monarch eggs declined by 81% over an 11 year period.  This is called “unintended consequences” of genetic engineering.  I’m not saying DON’T do it, quite frankly, I don’t have all the information (nor do I believe scientists do) to make that decision.  However, what I would advocate, as do scientists, is to plant more of the milkweed along roadsides near farms, gardens and conservation lands to ensure the Monarch doesn’t disappear.

Milkweed loss hurts Monarchs” – this article is from the University of Minnesota

Common Milkweed

Common Milkweed

Here’s another recent article on Monarchs, Milkweed and Herbicides.


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Oh the possibilities of Spring

Click below to listen to my Garden Bite radio show:  The possibilities of Spring

 I just ordered some seeds and pepper plants!  I can hardly contain myself!  After suffering through the worst winter EVER, or close enough, I am SO ready.  I bought ‘Purple Dragon’ carrots, ‘Easy Peasy’ peas, ‘Red Russian’ Kale, n heirloom broccoli I’ve not tried called ‘Waltham’ and a hybrid zucchini.  Oh and there’s so much more I plan on buying!


It’s time to get those tomato and pepper plants started indoors.  I know some who’ve already started the process but you’re not too late, trust me.  These warm season veggies, are some of the last to be planted in the garden. For zone 4, typically, you plant near the end of May beginning of June for Zone 3 folks.  It’s really all about soil temperature.  Your soil should be 70 degrees or warmer to plant tomatoes and peppers.  You can pick up a thermometer for about $5 to $7 at your local nursery.  

Pepper seedlings

Pepper seedlings

What do you need:

  • a place to put your seedlings!
  • sterile containers or peat pots or those peat pellets
  • soil-less seed starting mix
  • light (I use an old shop light on a pulley system)
  • heating mat
  • fan
  • seeds!  Check out this comprehensive article about Seed Starting by the Unversity of Minnesota Extension

Place your planted seeds in a tray on a heating mat.  These are relatively inexpensive and well worth having, especially if you place your seeds in the basement.  Bottom heat will help your seeds germinate and will also help prevent Damping Off.  Once your seeds sprout, they’ll need light.  Always check out your seed packet for information on germination, soil and light conditions.  Generally speaking, your seedlings will need anything from 12 to 16 hours a day.  Tomatoes and peppers are a good example of 16 hour a day lighting.  Keep the light about 6 inches from the top of the seedlings (thus the pulley system).  Let a fan gently blow on your seedlings for about an hour a day, this will strengthen their stems.

If you have a warm sunny window, then by all means, use it!

Seedlings in trays and peat pots

Seedlings in trays and peat pots


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