Greengirls Helen Yarmoska, Nicole Hvidsten, Martha Buns, Connie Nelson, Kim Palmer and Mary Jane Smetanka are dishin' the dirt from the back-yard garden and beyond. Whether you're a greenthumb or greenhorn, they're eager to learn from your mishaps, mistakes - and most importantly, your sweet successes - all growing season long.
Unlike my colleagues, I put the green in Greengirls -- and not as in green thumb, either. So I considered last year's growing season an outstanding success when I was able to have enough tomatoes to feed my family a steady supply of BLTs and tomato sauce, and was able to outpace the birds and retrieve at least a handful of strawberries.
But the first trip to the garden this year was a painful reminder of my novice mistakes, starting with the fact that I never got around to cleaning out the garden in the first place. (Once the busy school year starts, it all goes down hill.) Here are some of the lessons I learned. If you have any other suggestions on how to make this year's garden even more successful, I'm all ears:
Use thicker garden gloves. I'm not sure what variety of weed is so thornfully painful, but it invaded by strawberry patch. And my wimpy garden gloves were no match. After my fingers started to tingle, it was time for a trip to the garden center. (And that's never a bad thing.)
Good dirt is everything. I splurged and bought better dirt, not just the stuff that was dirt cheap. Now that I have a decent foundation, I can learn how to effectively manage the quality of the soil. At least eventually.
Don't overdo it. I didn't have much faith in my gardening ability, so I overcompensated by cramming as much as I could into the garden. I ignored directions on spacing, which I've done for years with flowers. But one too many tomato plants proved to be nearly fatal to my entire bed. It's quality over quantity.
Start small. I began with four 4- by 16-foot garden. I desperately wanted to expand this year, but ran out of time. That turned out to be a good thing. I'll take what I've learned and take better care of my plot, then look to expand next year. There's so much to grow!
I'll never outsmart wildlife. Pa, my go-to guy for just about everything, really tried to rabbit-proof my garden. It worked for the most part, but they've figured out a way to get back in this year. (They enjoyed a salad made from tomato plants.) What I didn't see coming: aerial assaults. Not sure how to combat the birds' love for strawberries, or my fear of birds for that matter.
Clean up after yourself. I left my sunflowers in over the winter, thinking I was doing a good thing and providing food for birds. (See? I can be nice.) I had no excuse for the rest of the garden.
I'd love to hear any other suggestions, or gardening lessons you've learned along the way. Although I never envision having a huge garden like my dad used to -- I don't even remember buying vegetables in the store -- I would eventually like to have enough to preserve my summer bounty through the winter.
Plant swap: Don't forget our annual Green Girls free plant swap is coming up Saturday, May 31, from 10 to noon in the park area across the street from the Star Tribune building at 425 Portland Av. S., Minneapolis.
Patience has never been a virtue of mine, and this spring is testing every shred I have. The perennials are poky. My peonies are still just small stalks, with no buds in sight. My hydrangeas have a few new leaves emerging, but so far, they're tiny and tentative.
My junipers, usually a reliable source of evergreen color, are instead brown and crispy. I can tell the plants are alive -- there are areas with green needles -- but they're patchy and parched-looking, so ugly that I was itching to take the clippers to them and prune out the brown sections.
I resisted the urge, on the advice of Jeffrey Johnson, woody plant specialist for the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. "It's been a long winter, and people are frustrated," he says. "Landscape plants took a beating, and there's a lot of pent-up gardening energy." But even at the Arb, where there's pressure to get gardens looking good as quickly as possible, there's been very little pruning of brown evergreens.
"We're still taking a wait-and-see approach," he says. "This has been a very reluctant spring, and it's very difficult to tell where dieback stop and healthy starts. Even through the foliage is brown, there could be live tissue."
"The best thing to do for evergreens might be nothing at all," agrees Mark Stennes, a St. Paul arborist and plant pathologist. Cool wet weather like today's should help.
By next week, gardeners should have a much better picture of what they can safely prune, according to Johnson and Stennis. Look for new candles forming on the plants. "If you've got new candles coming in, you're fine," Stennes said. "If you don't see any buds swelling, it's toast."
In the meantime, try to ignore those ugly brown needles just a little longer.
Is there a void in your landscape where a tree used to be?
Minneapolis homeowners who lost trees in the June 21 storm have an opportunity to order a replacement tree for $25. The city is offering about 500 lost-cost trees between now and Sept. 20 (earlier if the trees sell out).
Six species of trees will be available, including hackberry, harvest gold linden, heritage oak (an English oak and bur oak cross), heritage river birch, Honeycrisp apple and royal star magnolia.
If the tree you lost was on the boulevard, hold off. These trees are not to be planted on boulevards; the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board is developing its own plan for boulevard tree re-planting, to be implemented in the spring.
To order a tree, visit www.treetrust.org. Homeowners who order trees will pick them up in late September (2-7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 26, and 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 28 at the Minneapolis Impound Lot, 51 Colfax Ave. N.) Volunteers will be available at the pickup location to help load each tree and provide a complimentary bag of mulch.
And if you need help keeping your new tree aIive and healthy, there's a free workshop on tree planting and care, offered Sept. 23, from 6-7 p.m., at McRae Recreation Center, 906 E. 47th St., Minneapolis. No RSVP is required.
Have you joined the raised bed craze? Lots of people have this year, if my extended neighborhood is anything to go by. And one significant change: Many more of them are popping up in front yards to take advantage of sunnier spots.
On daily walks I chart the progress of several of them. There's a two-tier model using the square-foot gardening technique that seems to be doing well. A twine trellis holds up some tomatoes on the far end, and greens, beets and other smaller veggies seem to be contained nicely. In another front-yard expansion of three large raised beds, some cantaloupe have escaped, further taking over the former lawn.
My next-door neighbors are among those joining the club, deciding to give up trying to grow grass in a difficult spot and putting in a few raised beds surrounded by stepping stones and herbs in pots. They'll gain a spot for microgreens just steps from their kitchen and cut their mowing chores. It's been fun trading notes, and it made me remember how much work it was to put in ours to begin with.
Here's a few tips I was able to share that worked for us, and some lessons learned:
A thick layer of newsprint at the bottom of the raised beds worked better than weed cloth at keeping grass from trying to grow back through.
Put temporary rebar stakes around the outside to keep the beds from moving out of position when you fill them. Dirt is heavy, and there's no shifting them once they're full.
Free fill dirt on Craigslist is often worth about that. Much of it has been dug away from foundation areas and is rocky and filled with concrete shards. You'll get your new garden off to a better start if you spring for some slightly better dirt. I put in a bag of potting soil in each bed, along with lots of dirt and a hearty dressing of compost. You'll need way more dirt than you'd expect.
The level of dirt will drop each season, so you'll need to add more compost/dirt. Luckily, my raised beds are right by the composter, so they get first dibs.
They can be thirsty. We've got ours on a timed watering line to keep the soil from drying out.
They're rabbit magnets. The second phase for every raised bed construction I see is barriers to protect the goodies.
Garden trends have a slightly longer shelf life than most pop culture trends, but I'll be curious to see how long this one lasts. If you're considering putting in raised beds, here are a few links to get you started: www.bhg.com/gardening/yard/garden-care/how-to-build-a-raised-bed/ www.squarefootgardening.org/ www.sunset.com/garden/perfect-raised-bed-00400000039550/
What's your experience been with raised beds? Did they meet your expectations? Would you do it again? For us it's been great -- except sometimes I think four aren't nearly enough....
Let's face it -- with vacations, camps, activities, reunions and now school on the horizon, summer gets out of control. And when you're feeling like life is out of control, chances are the garden isn't far behind.
From a distance, my garden looks amazing: The plants are big, green and lush. But get a little closer and you'll see that there's a turf war going on. The tomatoes grew bigger than I thought they would and now overshadow the banana peppers, which can barely get enough light to grow. (Yes, I've pruned my tomatoes, but they are unstoppable.)
On the other end, the cucumbers are taking on a life of their own by attaching themselves to everything around them, already snuffing out a couple of bell pepper plants and a sunflower. The least they could do is bear fruit,
On the fruit side of the garden, a cantelope plant is trailing nicely on a trellis, but has spilled out onto the lawn and is infringing on the strawberries. And everyone knows that strawberries are the definition of mayhem.
Much of this I attribute to novice mistakes:
1. I overplanted. I always figured that the spacing requirements were just guidelines, and since I never had enough faith in my gardening abilities, figured more was always better. Not the case.
2. I didn't make my garden big enough. I didn't want to bite off more than I can chew. Turns out I can chew more than I thought I could.
3. I didn't do my homework. I should have read up on what I wanted to plant and where I should plant them. I went with my heart, and that's never a good idea. I also need to learn how to take care of the plants beyond the basics, and troubleshoot issues like why are my canteloupe leaves are turning white.
4. Thinning really is important. Pulling carrots should be interesting -- they might be braided at this point.
There are so many things to learn, but there are some things going right: there's not a weed to be found in my garden, and I walked back to the house yesterday munching on grape tomatoes that tasted like sunshine.
What are lessons that you've learned along the way?
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