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Upper Midwest: March/April Gardening

A Wisconsin Master Gardener shares tips and gardening news for early spring

Common questions

What kind of fun gardening can we really do in our Midwest gardens when the ground is still soggy, and we are still experiencing brief bouts of snow flurries and cold weather?

Answer: Well, we don’t want to be walking on our still-moist flower gardens, compressing the soil or wrecking its crumbly texture, but we can scatter seeds of some of those wonderful hardy annuals like blue larkspur (the annual delphinium) or double peony poppies that come in vibrant shades of red, pink or even black flowers that will bloom like crazy during June and July. Old-fashioned bachelor’s buttons, love-in-a-mist and limnanthes (the tiny yellow-and-white-flowered poached egg plant) can all be easily grown with the scattering of the seed on top of the bare uncultivated cold earth. Since all these seeds need the cold temperatures to break their dormancy, a bit of snow still remaining on the ground does them no harm.

Why does it look like my coral bells (Heuchera) bit the dust this winter?

In the past, Midwestern gardeners could pretty much count on ample snow cover to protect their perennials. However, we have been experiencing many drier-than-usual winters, and some of our small, shallow-rooted plants are having a problem surviving. In late winter or very early spring we can experience a wide range of weather conditions. In just a few days span, we can be enjoying above-freezing temperatures with nice warm rain, and then a few days later get hit by a roaring cold front coming down from Canada with 20-below-zero temperatures. It is the alternate freezing and thawing of the soil that causes the shallow-rooted plants to rise and fall. They eventually can heave themselves almost completely out of the soil where they will receive no moisture, and then are easily killed by the drying wind and sun. It’s the newly planted perennials that usually fare the worst.

Recent gardening trends

Miniature gardens in cement or hypertufa trough containers are now all the rage. Filled with succulents, they are easy to maintain as long as the container is filled with a quick-draining gravely soil mix. Many succulents, like hens and chicks (Sempervivum), are hardy for us in Zones 3 and 4, allowing us to leave them outdoors all winter long. The new and exciting trend has to do with all the strangely beautiful and colorful forms that are now available to us at our garden centers. Many of these more exotic forms we do have to bring into the house during the winter months, but they seem to do fine as long as they receive enough light and not too much water.

The biggest gardening challenge in this area

Our northern Wisconsin gardeners have been experiencing drought-like conditions during the spring and summer months for the past 4 years. This is certainly not a totally devastating type of drought, but it has been hard on both the gardeners and the farming community. Many gardeners have resorted to using the soaker-type of hoses so they can water more efficiently. Choosing the proper location for expensive trees, shrubs or other plants seems all the more important if getting water to them is going to be a problem.

Favorite volunteer activities

The Barron County Master Gardeners played an integral role in the designing and the planting of a healing garden at the newly constructed Marshfield Clinic in Rice Lake, Wisconsin. This healing garden is one of the first rooftop healing gardens in Wisconsin. When the Marshfield Clinic was looking to build something that went beyond the typical patient care units, a nearly 1,500-square-foot rooftop healing garden adjacent to the Oncology/Hematology Department was the answer. The cancer patients don’t have to leave their treatment room to enjoy the garden. Nearly every room has a view. The Barron County Master Gardeners helped choose the benches, pergolas and large planting containers. We also had a hand in choosing the various trees, shrubs, annuals and perennials that we planted. We have made a long-term commitment to maintain them. It had to be not only a beautiful garden, but also a soothing and comfortable place for the patients and their family and friends.

I am personally very involved in the education aspect of the Master Gardener program. We present an all-day Spring Expo for the public, bringing in speakers on various gardening subjects. The keynote speaker I have acquired for this coming spring will be Mike Heger, owner of Ambergate Gardens in Minnesota. He is the author of “Growing Perennials in Cold Climates.” Dr. Brian Smith from the UW-River Falls will present a program called “Present and Future Fruit Cultivars for the Frigid North – What’s Hot, What’s Not!” And I will be presenting a PowerPoint program entitled “Cottage Garden Annuals and Biennials.”

Perhaps the most rewarding and exciting part of my volunteer hours is the opportunity to mentor new Master Gardeners, and to “talk gardening” with anyone who asks for information or help.

About Marilyn

I’ve been a Master Gardener for 14 years, but have been a real gardening fanatic ever since my husband, Paul, and I bought our 5-acre place 37 years ago.

Our gardens include many perennials and annual beds, a 15-year-old water pond and rock garden. Over the years, we have planted countless varieties of trees and shrubs, many of which are now mature. But we are still planting new ones each year that I normally order from ForestFarm Nursery in Oregon. Evergreens are of special interest to me, and have been planting dwarf varieties alongside my many new ornamental grasses. Under our mature trees, we have hundreds of hostas and shade plants. I love vines of all sorts, both annual and perennial. I have a checkerboard herb garden where I have grown just about every herb that I could find over the years. My husband’s large vegetable garden is always planted with around 60 tomato plants, some of which are heirloom varieties. He has the typical perennial plants such as asparagus, strawberries, and horseradish. He has finally decided that Yukon Gold potatoes are the only ones to grow. And he also includes any weird seeds that are interesting like rat-tail radishes and purple kohlrabi.

I grew up here in the Rice Lake area, where my father was a cheesemaker. He was my first inspiration for gardening, even though it meant helping him weed the vegetable garden. My husband Paul is a retired UPS driver. He is the person I can turn to make anything I feel I “need” for my garden. I can hand him a picture of a fancy birdhouse, and he can whip it up in no time. I have 2 children, Angela and Travis, and 5 wonderful grandchildren. Most of my hobbies fall into the garden/grandchildren/decorating category. At Christmas, I work at my family’s cheese store, helping with the Christmas cheese boxes.

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