(Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series on the Sherburne County Master Gardeners’ Garden Expo. Next week’s Mainstreams will feature author and photographer Stan Tekiela, who talked about uncommon facts about common birds.)
by Joni Astrup
Debbie Tasa has never met a plant she didn’t like.
So it’s probably fitting that over the years, she has become an accomplished gardener.
Tasa has been gardening for 20 years. She started with a small garden and did some container gardening.
But after moving to a home on 10 acres in Baldwin Township near Zimmerman 14 years ago, her hobby really took off. There she had a clean slate to start with and “as most gardeners know, it became an addiction and ‘grew’,” she said.
Tasa gardens about one acre. She finds that gardening is a stress reliever and gives her the ability to connect with nature and be creative.
Tasa, who is a Sherburne County Master Gardener, shared some of her gardening wisdom Saturday, April 9 at the Garden Expo in Big Lake. She taught a class called, “Birth of a Garden.”
She believes a garden begins not when the first seed or plant is put in the ground, but when the idea first forms in the gardener’s head.
It may stem from a childhood experience, from someone else’s garden or from something someone once said.
“All of these experiences plant a special seed in your head, and one day they take hold,” she told the class.
Her advice to those just beginning to garden is to start small.
“Too many of us, including myself, we want to do these gigantic, beautiful gardens and we want it done instantly,” she said. But starting small gives people a chance to gain confidence. Simply add on to the gardens later, she advises.
She likes to plan gardening projects in the winter, paging through gardening books and deciding how it should all come together.
One of the first steps in establishing a garden is to choose a site. Sun exposure is one thing to consider. Vegetables and most flowering plants need at least six hours of sun a day, she said. Also consider whether plants will be out in the open and exposed to wind, and foot traffic. For instance, Tasa suggests gardeners consider planting flowers with pleasing aromas if the garden is near a walkway.
Soil types and pH are other considerations.
“This is an important component of a successful garden,” Tasa said. “Preparing the garden before you plant something will greatly improve your success.”
Soil may be sandy, clay, silty or loamy. Loamy soil, which is comprised of sand, silt and clay, is ideal because it is fertile and has no water drainage problems. Other soil types can be improved.
Sandy soil is common in Sherburne County, she said. It doesn’t retain water or nutrients. Tasa mixes compost and manure into her sandy garden soil every year to improve it.
Whether the soil is acidic or alkaline also impacts the garden. The pH of soil ranges from 0 to 14. Many plants like a low acidic to neutral range of 6.2 to 6.8, Tasa said. Some plants, however, prefer one or the other. Blueberries, for instance, like acidic soil while clematis prefer alkaline.
Tasa recommends testing the soil to determine its pH. A testing kit is available through the University of Minnesota.
When preparing a new garden area, Tasa said it’s best to remove the existing vegetation completely or smother it. If the soil is poor and needs to be amended with organic matter or other nutrients, it’s best to remove the sod. If not, it’s possible to cover the grass with wet newspapers or plastic to kill the grass and make way for the new garden.
The next step is choosing plants. If it’s a vegetable garden, Tasa suggests starting with what you like and what you can’t buy fresh locally.
If it’s a flower garden, the choices are more numerous. She recommends starting with the colors you like.
Other tips for choosing plants include:
•Limit the variety of plants. Tasa said it’s better to have more plants of fewer varieties than to have one of this and one of that. An odd number of plants also usually looks better than an even number.
•Make sure the plants are suitable for the local climate. For planting in Sherburne County, the plants should be for Zone 3 or Zone 4. Tasa said a lot of nurseries will sell Zone 5 plants, so be sure to check the tag on the plant before buying it.
•Once you start additional gardens, repeat groupings of some of the same types of plants throughout the gardens. Tasa has black-eyed susans in all of her gardens. “It gives your garden continuity,” she explained.
When planting plants, Tasa advises people to plant them on overcast days in the early morning or late afternoon to minimize stress to the plant.
Place plants in the ground at the same depth they were in the pot. If they are planted too deep, the stem will rot. Too shallow, and the roots will dry out.
Water as soon as the plants are in the ground.
Mulching can also be helpful, as it conserves water, blocks weeds and cools the soil. There are two types of mulches – organic (things that were once alive) such as wood chips, straw, leaves or pine needles, and inorganic, such as plastic or rocks.
Tasa also recommends labeling plants. She suggests putting the label that came with the plant by it in the garden. And, she advises people to keep records, such as a journal of how plants perform, and a map of the garden as a reminder of what was planted where.