Becoming a master gardener
Though the spring planting season seems to be getting a late start this year, that just means there will be more time to prepare.
“We want everybody to be successful with their gardens,” says Scott Sonstegard, Becker County Master Gardener and owner of Becker Pet & Garden in Detroit Lakes. “A little foresight and planning will greatly enhance your chances.
“Do some research, ask questions and decide what are some of the best practices you can use,” he added.
Sonstegard specializes in vegetable gardening, but says that no matter what type of garden you are planning, a good place to start is with testing the soil.
“I would recommend doing a soil test first, to see where you’re at in terms of fertility levels in the soil,” he said.
“Think about what you’re putting your plants into,” Sonstegard said. “You need to have a good seed bed, so plants have a good place to start from.
“I would recommend some nice, mellow soil to plant in, and add a little compost.”
Besides soil type, proper location is also key to having a successful garden. A vegetable garden will thrive best “in full sun, without any large trees in close proximity,” Sonstegard said.
“That will help you avoid a lot of extra hassles and problems,” he added.
Sonstegard also highly recommends mapping out where you will plant each type of vegetable, and keeping that map handy each year, “so you will have a proper rotation.”
Just as with larger crops like wheat and soybeans, Sonstegard said, planting vegetables in the same spot in your garden year after year will deplete the soil of the nutrients needed for them to thrive. By rotating them, you even out the depletion of nutrients and allow the soil time to recover what was lost.
In addition, it will help decrease the chances of carrying over diseases like tomato blight from one season to the next.
“In the fall, I would highly recommend removing all vines and plant material from your garden, and disposing of them, to prevent the carryover of diseases,” he added.
Another thing to remember when planning out your vegetable garden, Sonstegard said, is that vining plants like pumpkins and watermelons should be placed along the outer edges, and encouraged to grow outward, away from the center of your garden.
Otherwise, he said, “it could take over everything.”
With proper planning, it’s even possible to grow a crop like sweet potatoes, despite the fact that this area is technically a little north of its ideal growing zone.
“There are some tricks that you can use,” Sonstegard said, such as putting down black plastic to warm the soil beneath your plantings.
Although Sonstegard himself tends to stick strictly to vegetables, more and more people are combining vegetables and flowers in the same garden — especially when they have limited plot space.
Such is the case for Brianna Lason, who works with Sonstegard at Becker Pet & Garden and like him, is a Becker County Master Gardener.
Lason does most of her gardening on her deck, she says, because the chickens she raises will eat most of the produce if she doesn’t.
But in her work at Becker Pet & Garden, she specializes in flower gardening, landscaping and “making your yard pretty,” Lason said.
Like Sonstegard, she believes soil testing is the best way to start the garden planning process.
“Make sure you do a soil test, it will tell you what your nutrients are, how much organic matter is in there, whether you need to fertilize… it really gives you a good base to know what you’re working with.”
Soil testing can even help you with your lawn, Lason added.
Knowing the type of soil you have to work with can help determine what you can and can’t plant, Lason said. “Once you know your soil and how much sun you have, then you can see what types of plants will fit there.”
For instance, she added, Black-eyed Susans will thrive in well-drained soil with low nutrients, but will not do well in clay.
Astillbes, meanwhile, are shade plants which thrive in rich, moist soil that’s “almost a little wet,” which makes them a much better fit for heavy clay.
And yes, there are many other plants that actually thrive in shade as well.
“Shade doesn’t limit your gardening, it just gives you a different environment,” said Lason.
“It’s all about having a good balance,” she added.
When landscaping your yard, “the main trick is to have a mixture of shrubs, trees, perennials and annuals,” Lason said.
“Trees and shrubs are the backbone of your yard. They hold the whole thing together, and give it structure.”
Perennials — plants that come back year after year, without replanting — and annuals — which need to be replanted each year — can, with careful tending, be planned out so that your garden blooms continuously from spring to fall.
For instance, by starting out with some tulips in early spring, then progressing to bearded iris and daylilies, and finishing with some asters and mums, “you will have blooms for the whole growing season,” Lason said.
“And if you want something to tie the whole thing together, annuals are great because they could bloom through the entire season, as long as you fertilize and keep them dead headed (remove wilted blooms and seed pods as they die off).”
Some of the more popular annuals include geraniums and petunias.
“Geraniums can deal with both heat from the sun, and drought (conditions),” Lason said. “They will go all season long. And everyone loves petunias, especially wave petunias. They’re great on the edges of planting beds, because you will get a profusion of color.”
Lason also loves the idea of blending vegetables and flowers together in the same garden plot.
“There are a lot of edible ornamentals, like technicolor Swiss chard, where the stems are (a combination of) pinks, yellows, whites and reds,” she said, “or ornamental corn, like Japonica striped maze, where the leaves are variegated, with pale green, pink and white stripes. It’s really neat.”
(One thing Sonstegard cautioned about, however, is planting different types of corn in close proximity to each other, due to the likelihood of cross pollination.)
“There’s also scarlet runner beans,” Lason said. “Hummingbird moths love them. The flowers are generally red, or red/white, and they’re vining (plants), but all the parts are edible, and even the beans are great when they’re dried.
“I’ve also planted a lot of horseradish. The flowers are big, white, fluffy spikes, and they smell gorgeous.”
And then, there are edible flowers like violas, pansies and nasturtiums. Lason describes the latter as “a bit spicy.”
There are even a few edible weeds, like dandelions, that can be used in salads and other dishes instead of just throwing them away when you’re done weeding the garden — but not all weeds, or even plants, are edible, so do some research first.
“People are bringing their vegetable gardens onto their front lawns now — they’re really proud of them and want to show them off,” Lason said. “They don’t need to be kept hidden.”
And with the use of edible flowers and ornamentals, they can be made to look as pretty as any conventional flower garden.
In fact, with the use of ornamental grasses and shrubs like red twig dogwood, you can even add “winter interest” to your lawn and keep it looking pretty all year round, Lason said.
The key, she added, is in the planning. And even though it is possible to amend soil for growing specific types of plants, such as roses, Lason believes it’s usually best to work with what you have.
“You can amend your soil, but it’s a lot of work,” she said. “It’s better to find plants that fit your environment, rather than putting all that work into making an environment that they might like.”
Another increasingly popular practice that should only be undertaken if you are a dedicated gardener is starting your plants indoors.
“There is a lot more work involved with starting your plants indoors,” said Sonstegard. “Finding the right lighting, temperature, moisture… it can be done, but it does take some management.
“You have to have a passion for it, and it usually requires specialized equipment.”
“There are some advantages,” he added, particularly if you are the type of gardener who likes to grow their own seed from year to year.
“The only way to do that is to do it yourself,” he added.
But for beginning gardeners, Sonstegard’s best advice is to “keep it easy.”
“Come into a garden center and get some advice,” he said. “We’ll help you achieve your goals. We want to make it fun, and have you be successful.
“I love gardening,” he added. “It’s environmentally friendly, and it’s healthy, both physically and mentally.”
But as with any hobby, questions and problems do come up — and for that, the Becker County Master Gardeners offer weekly plant and pest clinics throughout the summer and fall (May-August), at the University of Minnesota Extension office, located at 1120 8th St. SE, Detroit Lakes.
Hours are 9 a.m. to noon on Mondays and Fridays, though the clinics are only offered on Fridays in May.
“People can call or bring in their plants and bugs,” Lason said. “We’ll answer any question you can think of.”
“We help everyone from experienced gardeners to people just starting out,” Sonstegard added.
For more information, please call 218-846-7328.
Follow Detroit Lakes Newspapers reporter Vicki Gerdes on Twitter at @VickiLGerdes.