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Published May 17, 2009, 12:00 AM

DARREL KOEHLER: First-time gardeners

Even Steve Sagaser, Grand Forks County extension horticulturist, has been surprised by the interest in home gardening this year. Maybe it’s a sign of the economy. Or, it could be the times. In any event, growing your own vegetables is one of the hottest trends in gardening in 2009.

By: Darrel Koehler, Grand Forks Herald

Even Steve Sagaser, Grand Forks County extension horticulturist, has been surprised by the interest in home gardening this year. Maybe it’s a sign of the economy. Or, it could be the times. In any event, growing your own vegetables is one of the hottest trends in gardening in 2009.

Earlier this spring, Jan Heitmann of All Season Garden Center and Floral in Grand Forks, contacted Sagaser about teaching a class for gardeners, especially those who were just starting out. Sagaser said he expected between 10 to 12 people for the weekend session. Instead, about 75 showed up for the class. And, they had lots of questions.

“There really has been lots of interest in gardening this spring,” said Sagaser. “More than I would have ever predicted.”

Another example was the Gardening Saturday seminar held in early April at the East Grand Forks Senior High School. The event is sponsored by the Grand Forks Horticulture Society and NDSU- Grand Forks County Extension Service. Beginning in 1990, the event has grown in popularity, averaging between 350 or less participants per year. This year, more than 400 attended — the largest ever — and again Sagaser witnessed growing interest in gardening.

Today marks Syttende Mai, or Norwegian Constitution Day, which is observed locally. It also marks the unofficial start of planting. Our heavy clay soil in the Red River Valley is saturated with water from autumn rain and winter snow, so, it will be slow to warm and dry out.

To determine if you should begin planting, form a ball of soil in the palm of your hand. If it crumbles, the soil is sufficiently dry to plant. If it remains in a solid ball, wait. To determine if the soil is warm enough to seed, place the open palm of your hand on the soil. If it feels comfortable, you can plant. If it feels cold, wait.

Even if you can’t plant now, don’t fret. You can plant your vegetables as late as mid-June and end up with excellent results. After mid-June, you will have to pay more attention to maturity dates of crops to avoid frost damage later.

Gardening tips

Here are some answers to frequently-asked questions by first-time gardeners:

If you are starting a new garden, remove grass and weeds and work in a generous amount of organic matter, such as rotted compost or animal manure. Established gardens benefit from an annual top-dressing of organic matter, lightly worked into the soil. Avoid walking in the garden as much as you can. Use designated pathways to avoid soil compaction. The Prairie Gardener hand-spades his small plot, planting as he goes. This avoids soil compaction, too.

Seed size determines how deeply to sow. Tiny seeds should be barely covered with fine soil while larger seeds, such as peas, beans or corn, should be planted about 1 to 2 inches deep. Keep soil evenly moist until seeds sprout. Radish seed can be mixed with slow germinators such as carrots or parsnips. Sometimes, a light covering of sand over fine-seeded crops will avoid crusting, a common problem in heavy clay soils.

Lots of vegetables should be grown from seed rather than with transplants. Transplants normally consist of warm-season crops such as tomatoes, peppers and eggplant as well as cool-season crops such as cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower. Remove transplants gently from the container and plant at the same depth. An exception would be tomatoes. These should be planted a little deeper because their lower stems can produce roots. Water gently, but thoroughly, after planting transplants.

Generally, you can now plant just about anything except for a handful of crops. These warm-season crops should be planted around Memorial Day or late May. They include tomato, eggplant and basil transplants and seed-grown crops such as sweet corn, cucumbers, squash, pumpkins and melons.

Things to do

Don’t be in a hurry to aerate, dethatch or fertilize your lawn until you have mowed at least three or four times. Let the lawn recuperate from winter before under taking these jobs around Memorial Day or early June. Weed killers should also be applied about Memorial Day. An exception would be crabgrass killer, which is applied in early May just as the crabgrass seeds germinate.

Clean out the perennial gardens by cutting dead stalks to the ground and use a lightweight rake to remove winter mulch, debris and dead material. With tiny plants, use your bare hands so you don’t damage new growth. Spread a thin layer of rotted compost, peat moss or rotted livestock manure on the soil around your perennial plantings.

Make a list of the plants you want to purchase at the garden center. Do some measuring and planning now rather than waiting to do so in the check lane at the center. This also will cut down on impulse buying, too.

Summer-flowering shrubs including some hydrangeas, spireas and shrub roses can be pruned now because they bloom on new growth. But don’t prune spring-blooming shrubs such as lilacs, azaleas, and forsythia until they’ve completed blooming. If you prune now, you will remove this year’s flowers. To prune a lilac, but ensure blooms, remove one-third of the bush each year. Then select a handful of the best stems and it will ready for many more years of flowers.

You can plant bare-root trees and shrubs immediately. You can take your time if you have potted trees or shrubs, but be sure you can the graft below the soil. Divide and transplant many perennials now, including hostas and daylilies. Soil should be warm and dry, which normally occurs about this time of year.

Wait until mid-June to spread summer mulch. Gardens need to be exposed to the sun to help prevent mildew and fungus.

Tree damage

Damage to trees and shrubs by rabbits, mice, voles and deer has been extensive. With the heavy snow cover, much of the natural food supply for these animals and rodents was unavailable and they took advantage of your plantings. Rabbits damage trees and shrubs by clipping stems, buds and small branches and by girdling larger trees. Deer tend to feed on and damage terminal and side branches of small trees and shrubs. Mice will even feed on the bark of small trees and shrubs beneath the snow line.

Limited girdling of stems and trunks may not kill the plants, but it does create wounds for borers and disease organisms to enter. If less than half or less of the bark is eaten off around the trunk or a branch all parts of the plant above the feeding damage will most likely die. If the trunk is completed girdled, bridge grafting can be used. Check with experts on this difficult procedure.

Another pest

Trees in portions of Minnetonka and Richfield near the Twin Cities will be sprayed this month to eliminate gypsy moths found in both suburbs last summer. Minnesota has been battling the pests since 1973. While gypsy moths are now common in much of Wisconsin, Minnesota has managed to beat back a permanent infestation. This is good news for this region as we don’t need more pests.

Happy Syttende Maj Day!

Koehler is the Herald’s garden columnist, His column is published every Sunday in this section during the growing season. Send garden questions to him in care of the Grand Forks Herald, Box 6008, Grand Forks ND 58206-6008. Tune in the weekly gardening show airing at 4:10 p.m. Thursdays on KNOX Radio 1310 (A.M.)