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New Gardener FAQs

By Laura Kourajian, Certified NDSU Extension Master Gardener
lkourajian@yahoo.com

This year we may feel increased concern regarding food insecurity due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This, along with the movement to learn where our food comes from and the desire to provide our own food, may lead more people to invest in growing their own vegetables and fruits.
In the following Q & A, NDSU Extension Master Gardener Laura will provide answers to some common questions and links to science-based publications that can help. If you can’t find your answer here, please contact your NDSU County Extension Agent. There is a handy North Dakota map with click-on bubbles for each county extension office, including all contact information, here: https://www.ag.ndsu.edu/extension/ county-extension-offices

Q: My grandmother always did (fill in the blank) when she planted her garden, so I’m planning to do that, too.

A: What our grandmothers did was sometimes tried-and-true and still works today, but much of what they did was limited to old wives tales, family lore and scientific knowledge available at that time. It’s always best to double-check against what current science-based research recommends. NDSU Extension has dozens of publications available to address many common gardening questions with science-based answers, all categorized on the left side of the linked page. Some of these publications are also available in paper form at your local County Extension office.

Q: I’m going to dig up a section of my backyard or rent space in the community garden. I’m thinking “Go big or go home,” right? Is that a good idea?

A: While you may want to grow a lot of vegetables, it’s best to be modest in the first year. All those seeds and different varieties in the garden center displays look so tempting and the varieties of bedding plants in the greenhouses just beg to be added to your cart.
Putting in a large garden can be overwhelming come midsummer when the weeds are threatening to overtake everything, watering needs expand and the novice gardener can’t keep up. Ease your way in with a few well-tended plants in containers on the patio or choose just a few favorite veggies and put in a couple of 10-foot rows.
As a new gardener, you may wish to participate in the NDSU Home Garden Variety Trials and order seeds for two vegetables to try. Garden expansion can happen in future years, once you’ve has gained some skills. In the meantime, you can augment your garden harvest by buying local produce from a farmer’s market or from the local grocer.

Fig. 1, seed packets should have a year visible on them

Q:  Do I have to get new seeds every year?

A: Seeds are packed for use in each new year, and the year should be clearly labeled on the packet (Fig. 1). There’s no problem in using seeds that are a year or two old, but the germination rate for those seeds will likely be affected so not all of the seeds may produce plants.
There are simple tests to check germination rate that can easily be accessed via the internet. Seeds that are more than two years past their prime planting date are likely not going to germinate well, but there’s no risk in testing them before tossing them.

Q: Should I buy seeds for everything I want to grow or should I buy plants that can be transplanted into my garden?

A: Many vegetable seeds can be directly sown into the soil in North Dakota, but others need to be started indoors by the gardener or purchased as transplants at the local garden center.
The average growing season is around 120 days (the length of time from last frost in the spring to first frost in the fall), but can be as short as 105 days or as long as almost 160 days, depending on the year, your location in the state and any microclimates for your garden.
Any vegetables that require more than 90-100 days from seed to harvest are best started indoors or purchased as transplants. This generally includes tomatoes and peppers as well as a few others. Most other vegetables can be directly sown as seed, but read the packet to see what it lists as number of days to harvest.
Keep in mind that unless the gardener is harvesting for purposes of preserving food for the winter, he or she may want the vegetables to be ready for harvest before the first day of frost in the fall. Staggering planting of seeds over the course of a couple of weeks means vegetables will be ready over the course of a couple of weeks at harvest, rather than all at once.


fig. 2, young tomato plant

Q: I picked up a 6-pack of tomato seedlings at the plant store. Should I plant them right away?

A: Transplants are tender, having been spoiled by being raised in the perfect conditions of a greenhouse. Gardeners should pick out the best, strongest looking transplants, but even then it would be quite a shock to drop them into a hole in the ground in the North Dakota outdoors without letting them get used to it first by hardening them off.
Put them outside for a few hours a day, lengthening that amount of time until they are out overnight for a couple of days before putting them in the ground. The gardener may want to wait to plant until night temperatures are at least 50 deg F (usually around end of May but may occur earlier). All transplants require hardening off, whether vegetable or floral.

Q: Fertilizer? Help!

A: The best practice, whether you’re starting a new garden or planting in an established bed, is to have your soil tested to determine the levels of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium as well as micronutrients in your soil. The NDSU Soil Testing Lab can take care of that for less than $20, and complete instructions are available online!
In addition to eight or more hours a day of sunshine, vegetables require nitrogen to flourish. Some vegetables require more than others. NDSU Extension typically recommends a commonly available fertilizer with a formulation of 15-23-10 (percentages of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium respectively) spread at the rate of 3 to 4 pounds for each 1000 square feet of planted area. Mix in the fertilizer at the same time you are tilling in the organic matter.
However, if the soil test indicates a surplus of phosphorus, a different fertilizer that lacks phosphorus will be recommended. A surplus of phosphorus can result in stunting and poor growth in general.
If the gardener is growing vegetables in a container and using potting soil that already includes fertilizer, there is no need to add fertilizer at the start. Once the plants begin to flower, use a water soluble fertilizer at ½ concentration weekly. The same formulation can be used for leafy vegetables.
Manure, which has been used as organic matter in gardens for years, is now under review as it has been identified in crop fields around the country as a source for E.coli and salmonella contamination in food.
South Dakota State University Extension has a guide on growing vegetables that covers fertilization as well as other vegetable gardening information.

Q: What about bugs and other pests in my garden?

A: The use of pesticides, whether chemical or organic, is a complicated topic. Pollinators, like bees and other “good” insects, are just as harmed by pesticides as the insects and pests that are eating your tomatoes.
NDSU has a publication on using pesticides that can answer most of your questions and supplies solid information.

Q: What is the best way to water my garden?

A: While watering a garden doesn’t seem like rocket science, there are practices that will improve gardening success. Deep, weekly watering instead of daily, shallow watering is best. Sometimes Mother Nature takes care of that. Sometimes you have to help her out a bit.
It is best to water growing plants from below rather than from above. Of course, nature waters from above in the form of rain, and we love it when it rains in North Dakota unless it rains too much or at the wrong time. Nonetheless, we can’t do much to change the course of rain.
If the gardener has to supplement Mother Nature, laying a soaker hose (one that slowly drips water from small holes along the length of the hose) in the garden is the best way to water. It allows watering right at the base of the plants, ensuring it is getting to the roots. It also prevents water from splashing dirt and microorganisms onto the plants.
The most important thing about watering is to ensure the vegetables are getting watered regularly and evenly. Vegetables that aren’t kept evenly watered are going to suffer – tomatoes may develop blossom end rot, potatoes may have hollow centers, and more.
Vegetables growing in containers will need watering more than once a week, and during the heat of the summer will likely need watering daily (and possibly more than once a day) unless Mother Nature is helping out. Again, regular and even watering is crucial to prevent problems with vegetables.

Q: Why isn’t the sweet corn I planted germinating well?

A: Sweet corn needs soil temps between 55 degrees and 65 degrees to germinate, and certain types need warmer temps while others will do well in the cooler temps. If the gardener planted seed that prefers warm temps when the soil was too cold, it may not germinate until the soil warms or may not germinate at all.
Synergistic, hybrid Se/se and hybrid sh2 super sweet do not germinate in cold, wet soil. For best germination of these varieties soil temperature should be in the 70 degree F range; use a soil thermometer if uncertain.
The University of Minnesota Extension has an excellent web page devoted to sweet corn with information for home gardeners on choosing the right seed, what soil temperature is required for germination and how to care for the crop.

Q: Why are my tomatoes turning black on the bottom as they ripen?

A: That is called blossom end rot and is most likely caused by uneven watering once the plant has set fruit. Tomatoes need calcium, and there is often enough calcium in the soil but if it the soil dries out when the fruit is developing, the roots can’t move calcium into the plant and blossom end rot is the likely result.
As long as we’re on the subject of tomatoes, tomatoes can be pruned early to develop strong healthy plants that will produce healthy fruits. Gardeners should remove flowers until plants are 12-18 inches tall, remove suckers (small branches that are just getting started) beneath fruit clusters, and pinch the tip off about a month before the first frost is expected.

Q: What vegetables should I plant first?

A: Cold season crops are seeds and plants that can withstand the cooler temperatures of spring can be planted early. They include peas, lettuce, radishes, carrots, beets, spinach, kale and collards. These seeds will germinate in cold soil. In fact, the leafy greens will bolt, or quit producing leaves and start producing flowers and seeds, when the temperatures get warm.
Potatoes, which should only be grown from certified seed potatoes, can also be planted in cold soil.
All other seeds should be planted when the soil temperatures get to 50 degrees or warmer as it takes warmer temperatures for their seeds to germinate.

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A Native Prairie Meadow

By Tamara Metzen, Master Gardener Intern Tamara.metzen@outlook.com

Fig 1. Native prairie flowers (USFWS, CC by 2.0, https://www.flickr.com/photos/plainsandprairielcc/8044294815 )
Fig 2. Prairie Roses, Joshua Mayer from Madison, WI, USA / CC BY-SA 2.0

Since I was a child growing up in rural southeast North Dakota in the 1970s, I have always enjoyed exploring the landscape, even though the area where I lived was mostly farmland. I pretended that I was living in the era of Laura Ingalls Wilder who, along with her family, moved onto the Great Plains when it was an uncultivated expanse of native prairie grasses and flowers (Fig 1). I clearly remember the opening scenes of the tv show, Little House on the Prairie, where Laura and her sisters are running across the landscape through the tall, waving grasses. However, there were very few native prairie meadows where I lived. The few wild flowers I remember were Canadian anenome (Anemone canadensis) growing in the ditches, prairie phlox (Phlox pilosa) peeking out of the edges of shelterbelts and occasional prairie roses (Rosa arkansana) (Fig 2) hiding under fence lines where the plows couldn’t reach them. At home, my mother was known for her hybrid irises and daylilies which were beautiful but a little ostentatious for me.

Fig 3. Sheyenne River Valley (courtesy of Tamara Metzen)

In 1988, my husband and I moved to a rural farmstead near the Sheyenne River Valley (Fig 3). Working in the public education field, I had the summers to explore. I began to take excursions into public lands and started to notice the subtle beauty of the plants. I purchased several native prairie identification books and was soon able to recognize common species and began searching for those that were less common and even rare. I noted blazing star (Liatris pycnostachya) (Fig 4), purple cone flower (Echinacea purpurea), and wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa).  I  also searched for prairie smoke (Geum triflorum), closed gentian (Gentiana andrewsii), pasque flower (Anemone patens), marsh marigold (Caltha palustris), blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium) and the wood lily (Lilium philadelphicum). I never did locate the endangered white fringed prairie orchid (Platanthera blephariglottis). As I learned to appreciate these plants in their native habitats and the ecological role that they play, I also developed an interest in growing them.

Fig 4. Liatris pycnostachya (courtesy of Tamara Metzen)

I attempted to propagate the more common native prairie flowers into my own flower beds, often with disappointing results. At the time, I was not overly concerned about digging up common species for my garden. I later learned that, in many states, there are laws about protecting native plants. In fact, species that are on state or federal threatened and endangered lists cannot even have their seeds, or any parts, collected without a permit. In addition, I know now that very few native plants tolerate being dug up as their roots are uncommonly deep, having to compete with native prairie grasses in times of drought. One of the few I did get to grow was spiderwort (Tradescantia bracteata), which became a real nuisance in my garden, as it tended to reseed prolifically.

More recently, in 2017, my husband and I moved to his family farmstead near Milnor, ND. Behind the old barn is a one-acre site that was an old dairy cattle yard. It had been planted in non-native grasses with very little species diversity. The soil is very sandy with a gravelly base, being on the western edge of the Red River Valley on the shores of ancient Lake Agassiz. This area would have been considered the transition zone where the tall grass prairie meets the mixed grass prairie. When we built our new home, we used about ½ acre of the cattle yard to build a drain field for our septic system. This area quickly grew into a weed patch that needed to be mowed at least weekly once the soil had been disturbed. Tired of looking at a field of weeds, I talked my husband into replanting the area into native prairie.

Fig. 5 Purple Loosestrife (courtesy of Tamara Metzen)

Although many native plants will tolerate a variety of soils and moisture levels, it is a good idea to determine the general soil type and soil moisture for the intended planting area and to select the species that are best adapted to these conditions. It is also wise to locate locally-grown seed and plants, so that their genetics would be suitable for the climate and soil conditions that we have. Do not plant naturalized species that are known to be invasive. Some species, for example purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) (Fig 5), have been outlawed in many states because it is an invasive species in waterways.

I consulted with Mathew Olson from the Sargent County Soil Conservation District. He recommended Milborn Seeds, Brookings, SD, as a good source. I ordered the Little Country Native Mix which was designed with grass species suitable for both wildlife and landscaping purposes. In addition, many of the grasses are bunch grasses that grow in clumps and will not provide too much competition for the wildflowers. Sod-forming grasses, which are often used in lawns, would be less desirable in a wildflower meadow for this reason. The grass species and the percentage of each in the mix included 30% little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), 20% blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis), 20% side oats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula), 5% prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), 10% Virginia wildrye (Elymus virginicus), 10% slender wheatgrass (Apropyron trachycaulum) and 5% prairie June grass (Koeleria cristata). Because I was interested in establishing native wildflowers for both their beauty and for their pollinator benefit, I also included the Native Forbs mix which included 12% black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), 9% prairie coneflower (Ratibida columnifera), 9%  purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), 8% evening  primrose (Oenothera speciosa), 8% western yarrow (Achilea millefolium var. occidentalis), 6% white prairie clover (Dalea candidum), 6% wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), 5% plains coreopsis (Coreopsis tinctoria), 4%  Canada milkvetch (Astragalus canadensis), 4% hoary vervain (Verbena stricta), 3% blanket flower (Gaillardia aristata), 2% false sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides), 2% grayhead coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), 2% Illinois bundle flower (Desmanthus illinoensis), 2% Indian blanket (Gaillardia pulchella), 2% Maximillian sunflower (Helianthus maxmilliani), 2% New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), 2% partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata), 1% common milkweed (Asclepius syriaca), and 1% Rocky Mountain Bee Plant (Cleome serrulata). Some of the grass and wildflower species in the mix are not local but I compromised due to the lower cost for a mix of species rather than purchasing them individually. I searched the internet for other relatively local sources of seed and found Prairie Moon Nursery based in Winona, Minnesota. They offer individual seed packets for $2.00. I ordered packets of Canada anemone (Anemone canadensis), pasque flower (Anemone patens), bottle gentian (Gentiana andrewsii), smooth blue aster (Symphyotrichum laeve), prairie blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium campestre), early buttercup (Ranunculus fascicularis), common blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium albidum), Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium maculatum), prairie onion (Allium stellatum), prairie smoke (Geum triflorum), prairie spiderwort (Tradescantia bracteata), prairie larkspur (Delphinium virescens), tall larkspur (Delphinium exaltatum), butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra), blue wild indigo (Baptisia australis), Maxmilian’s sunflower (Helianthus maximilianii), dotted blazing star (Liatris punctata), harebell (Campanula rotundifolia), golden alexander (Zizia aurea), and showy beardtongue (Penstemon cobaea). It was important for me to choose a variety of species to attract a diversity of pollinators and to provide pollen and nectar sources from early spring to late fall. Sources recommended that at least three flowering species per season from early spring to late fall should be planted.

  Once the seeds from Prairie Moon Nursery arrived, I read individual packet directions, realizing that the majority of the seed required 30-120 days of cold stratification. This was ideal, as they were going to be planted in the fall with all winter to remain dormant. If I had waited to seed until spring, the seeds that required cold stratification should have been sowed in growing media and placed in the refrigerator for the appropriate time period. In addition, wild blue indigo was leguminous and needed the addition of soil inoculants containing rhizobia bacteria which was included but required an additional step to prepare before planting. I did not purchase species that required scarification, heat treatment or light treatment although some native species may need one of these treatments to germinate. I planned to plant the seeds of these individual species in marked 4 foot square trial areas on the edge of the ½ acre site to determine germination rates of each and to transplant the seedlings throughout the  site once they were growing well next spring or summer.

  Removing existing vegetation from the planting site was recommended so that it would not compete with the desired varieties. Although it is nearly impossible to remove all weed seeds from the seed-bank, it was most important to kill the perennial weeds before I seeded. My first plan was to cover the planting site with black plastic to smother the weeds (old carpeting or thick sections of newspaper were also suggested), but my husband quickly dissuaded me from doing this. Another method to prepare the site would have been sod-cutting to remove the top 2-3 inches of grass and soil and then lightly tilling the cleared area. Burning along with cultivation and mowing is also a possible method of preparing the site. However, outdoor burning regulations should be followed and the local fire department should be informed of any controlled burn. In my situation, it was much easier to kill the weeds with Roundup (a.i. glyphosate) when the weeds were actively growing. In late August, we sprayed the area on a windless day using our all-terrain vehicle with a sprayer attached. Four weeks later we sprayed again for the surviving weeds.

Now it was time to seed the area. I could have chosen to seed mechanically with a drill seeder, but I decided to hand broadcast this small area. A week before I seeded, my husband loosened up the top soil with a pull-behind spring tooth harrow. The seed bed needed to be free of rocks or soil clumps more than 2 inches in diameter. I wanted to broadcast the seed late in the season (dormant seeding) when the ground was below 40 degrees Fahrenheit to prevent germination, but in the middle of October an early snow storm was to arrive. I seeded on October 10th, and on October 11th, we received 2 inches of rain and on October 13th 6 inches of snow. In dormant seeding, it is important to seed late enough so that the seeds will not germinate before winter comes, which luckily did not occur in my case. In support of this timing, wildflowers seeds have increased germination in spring after a fall planting because it takes advantage of the cold, moist conditions, helps break seed dormancy and promotes earlier germination and faster seedling establishment the next spring. Seedling establishment is especially important when planting in sandy soils which heat up and dry out quickly in the spring. However, it may also be important on clay soils, because this soil type tends to become rock-hard when it dries out and restricts the seedlings’ root development in the spring. Wet clay soils may cause difficulty in working the soil in the spring, so there are many benefits for dormant seeding. On the other hand, waiting for a spring planting (with soil temperatures about 60 °F) may benefit warm season grasses such as little bluestem which often show higher germination rates when planted in late spring or early summer compared to fall seeding. If a mix of cool and warm season grasses is used, the soil temperature should be 50 °F at minimum. As a precaution, warm season grasses should never be planted in late summer to early fall as the seedlings could germinate but would likely not survive the winter.  One source even recommended using perennial grass and wildflower plugs which could be started a year ahead of being planted in a site, but this process sounded much more time consuming and complicated to attempt.

When broadcast seeding, a seeding rate at least 50% higher than drilling rate is suggested. The general rate of  5-20 lbs. of live seeds per acre was recommended to broadcast for the grasses and 6-7 lbs. of wildflower seeds per acre were suggested to mix in, which the source said would yield about 10-20 seeds per square foot. If planting an area over an acre, mechanically planting the area using a broadcast or no-till seeder is a good idea. A broadcast seeder would spread the seed over the soil evenly while the no-till seeder would plant the seed in rows. If a seeder is used, the seed should be planted at a shallow depth of ¼ – ½ inch. Many of the species have very small seeds, so deep planting may result in failure to grow. It is better to be too shallow in planting seeds rather than too deep. Having mixed the Little Country grass seed mix with the Native Forbs in a 5 gallon bucket by hand, I also added some damp sand to use as a “carrier” for the seed. Sawdust, peat moss or cracked corn could also have been used for this purpose. The amount of carrier recommended is about 2.5 feet cubed of carrier per 1,000 SF of area. When seeding it is a good idea to choose a windless day. The recommended procedure is to divide the seed mixture in half and broadcast one half of the seed evenly over the site. The second half of the seed should be broadcast over the site walking perpendicular to the initial direction for even distribution. A rake or drag is then used to cover the seed and the site should be gone over with a roller. Finally the site was covered with approximately ½ inch of weed-free oat straw the same day to help keep the soil moist for a longer period and reduce erosion, as well as preventing birds from picking up the seeds.

There will be plenty of maintenance in the coming years. If the upcoming spring is unusually dry, irrigation may be needed. Once the plants are established, they should only require rainfall. The first year, weed control will be important to reduce competition for water, light and space. It will be important to mow before the weeds have set seed. It is not recommended to pull weeds in the first year as this would disturb the developing seedlings as well as the ungerminated seed. Once established the first year, the area should be mowed approximately 3 times to a height of 4-6 inches when the majority of weeds are in flower or when the weeds reach a height of 10-12 inches. Cutting this high will allow the shorter prairie flowers to remain undisturbed. Many of the prairie plants may show little visible above-ground growth the first years as they are building their roots. An off-set flail mover is recommend to chop up the weeds when they are cut instead of laying the cut weeds on top of the prairie seedlings like a rotary mower would do. In the fall of the year, it is good to maintain the vegetation height at 8-10 inches through the winter to insulate the seedlings and to prevent frost heaving. If a prairie meadow is planted only in grasses, a selective broadleaf herbicide could be used to provide chemical weed control. Unless a soil test determines otherwise, fertilizers are not needed when planting native grasses and wildflowers, as weeds tend to respond better to them than do native species. Fertilizer application could be detrimental to the growth of some native plants, particularly those that are leguminous such as purple prairie clover.

  In the second year, residual vegetation can be removed in early spring. If weeds are still growing, the area can be mowed to approximately 12 inches when the majority of weeds are in full flower but before they make seed. Additional prairie seeds may germinate over the 2nd and 3rd years after the initial planting. The planted site can also be burned after the second season every 2-3 years, but this should be done on windless days in the early spring when the dormant grass is dry but the soil is still wet. While many of the perennial prairie flowers and grasses will not flower until the 3rd or 4th full growing season as they devote most of their effort in the first years to developing their root systems, some species such as purple coneflower and black-eyed Susan likely will germinate quicker and produce flowers the first growing season. Eventually the prairie plants will establish deep root systems which will allow them to squeeze out weeds. Patience will be needed to establish a successful prairie meadow! I look forward to seeing what develops in my endeavor, and, if I am successful, I hope to establish the entire 1 acre site as a prairie meadow, learning from my mistakes as I go along.

References

Art, H. W. (1991). The wildflower gardener’s guide: Midwest, Great Plains, and Canadian   prairies edition. Storey Communications, Pownal, Vermont.

Milborn Seeds (2019). Our roots run deep. Brookings, South Dakota.

Niering, W.A. & Olmstead, N. C. (1979). The Audubon Society field guide to North
American wildflowers: Eastern region
. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York.

Prairie Nursery (2019). 2019 native plant catalog and ecological gardening guide. Westfield, Wisconsin.