Steward – March ’16 Real Dirt

Contents (Click on a title or scroll)

2016 GTCD Native Seedling Sale Is On Now

An Introduction to Permaculture

To Dig or Not To Dig, That Is the Question

Book Review: Teaming with Microbes:The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web

Gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa); photo via Grand Traverse Conservation District

2016 GTCD Native Seedling Sale Is On Now

by Bethany Thies, Master Gardener in Training

The Grand Traverse Conservation District’s annual Native Seedling Sale is in full swing, with orders being taken until March 31st.  This year’s selection includes:  Quaking Aspen, Northern White Cedar, Black Cherry, Black Chokeberry, Highbush Cranberry, Gray Dogwood, Red-Osier Dogwood, American Elderberry, Red Maple, Sugar Maple, Ninebark, White Oak, Jack Pine, Red Pine, White Pine, American Plum, Allegheny Serviceberry, Black Spruce, White Spruce and Tamarack/American Larch.  

Why go native?  Here are a few reasons GTCD lists on its website why native plantings are so important:

  • Native plants support an amazing diversity of butterflies, moths, and other insects. Non-native plants simply cannot perform this critical habitat role.
  • By supporting a diversity of insects, native plants also provide food for birds and other insect predators. Most songbirds require insect food for their nestlings to reach adulthood.
  • Support your local farmer – incorporating more native plants into your home landscape helps attract pollinators that increase crop yields, as well as insect predators that reduce costs for pest management.
  • Native plants help turn your backyard into a learning laboratory; do your part to inspire the next generation of scientists and nature stewards.
  • Native plants are our natural heritage. They’re part of what makes our region a unique and inspiring place.
  • Local first! Plants that are grown from local seed collected within our region make them well adapted to our climate and supportive of animals living in our region.
  • Native plants are a good choice for the hands-off gardener – when properly placed native plants require little additional effort to thrive.
  • Native plants are beautiful! The birds and butterflies they attract aren’t so shabby, either.
  • Native plants pose no risk of becoming invasive.

Quantities are limited and stock will be sold on a first-come, first-served basis.  So, order early for the best selection.  There is a minimum order of five seedlings per plant variety, and prices range from $5 to $23/five seedlings depending on the type of seedling selected.  Discounts are given for larger quantities.

Pick up will be at the Boardman River Nature Center on Friday, April 22 from 10am-6pm or Saturday, April 23 from 10am-4pm.  Although the seedlings will be packed and ready for pick up, GTCD recommends you bring a box or similar container to carry them in and/or a tarp to protect your car in case of leakage.  

For more information or to place your order, go to:

Note:  Preorder for the Native Plant Sale at the BRNC starts April 1st.  The sale is May 14th.  

Permaculture Design Principles Image; Design and photo by

An Introduction to Permaculture

by Cheryl Gross, Advanced Master Gardener

An Introduction to Permaculture Design was offered at the Traverse Area District Library on February 6.  It was an introduction and invitation to enroll in a Permaculture Design Class offered by Northern Michigan Regional Permaculture.  The course begins March 19 and runs one weekend a month for six months.  Information on the class is available here:  The three hour introduction gave  attendees an idea about the nature of permaculture.  More study is clearly needed to grasp the concept and practices.

Permaculture, the word, is literally “permanent agriculture”. Bill Mollison and David Holmgren are the co-originators of the term. The practice of permaculture was first conceived in the early 1970’s in Australia.  It emerged from a small group of people concerned about organic gardening and the environment. As a horticulture practice, then, it seems fairly young.  The backbone of the practice is design and science.  The focus of permaculture is positive; looking for solutions rather than dwelling on problems.  The study and implementation of whole systems is behind permaculture development.  

There are three ‘ethics’ that form the foundation for Permaculture Design.  They are Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share.  Earth Care is about the soil from which almost all of our plants grow and where we stand.  People Care begins with the self and embraces family, neighbors and community.  Fair Share is simply recognizing what we need and satisfying that need while sharing our abundance with others.  Fair share also recognizes the limits of resources available.

Around those three “ethics” are 12 Principles.  These Principles embrace far more than agriculture or gardening.

Principle 1: Observe and interact

Principle 2: Catch and store energy

Principle 3: Obtain a yield

Principle 4: Apply self-regulation & accept feedback

Principle 5: Use & value renewable resources & services

Principle 6: Produce no waste

Principle 7: Design from patterns to details

Principle 8: Integrate rather than segregate

Principle 9: Use small and slow solutions

Principle 10: Use and value diversity

Principle 11: Use edges & value the marginal

Principle 12: Creatively use and respond to change

Permaculture design is a creative process based upon a whole-systems approach informed by ethics and design principles.  It is, therefore, a serious undertaking requiring study.  

From a Master Gardener point of view, the permaculture concepts fit comfortably into our training and practices:  using scientific and researched practices in our gardens; using design principles in beautification; food security and community gardening to nourish our neighbors and ourselves; and a respect for healthy soil and water usage is our stewardship.  The Master Gardener Volunteer is in service to our neighbors and our communities.

For more information about Permaculture Design:

A Permaculture City, by Toby Hemenway

Earth Users Guide to Permaculture, by Rosemary Morrow

Permaculture Design, a Step by Step Guide, by Aryana

The Intelligent Gardener, by Steve Solomon


For more information on the class beginning March 19 contact:  Penny Krebiehl, phone: 231-922-2014

A smart vegetable raised bed with walking paths in between. All photos: Rebecca Finneran, MSU Extension

To Dig or Not To Dig, That Is the Question

By Bethan Thies, Master Gardener in Training

For most people through the ages, digging and gardening went hand in hand.  You couldn’t have one without the other.  Over the last few years, though, a new idea has developed…one where annual tilling or back breaking digging has given way to little or no turning over of the soil.  This no-dig or no-till gardening method has taken off in many communities, helped along by the recent permaculture movement.   

So, what is no-dig gardening?  Historically, people would mechanically till the soil to remove weeds, loosen and aerate the soil and incorporate organic matter and/or fertilizer into the soil.  The thinking was that this helped “build up” the soil.  

Recent scientific research, however, has shown that soil itself is a living organism made up of a web of billions of microorganisms that feed off the organic matter that lands on its surface.  These organisms include such things as bacteria, fungi, yeast, protozoa and algae as well as well as larger creatures like insects and earthworms.  Each work together to move organic matter, air and water into the soil for plants to use.  When we dig or till the soil, we not only cut into and break up that web, we also expose it to the sun and atmosphere, causing it to dry out and die.  The delicate soil structure is destroyed, leading to soil compaction, reduced water infiltration and loss of nutrients.  

No-dig or no-till gardening follows nature’s way of building fertile soil…that is continually adding organic material to the surface but then otherwise leaving the soil alone.  This allows the soil’s web of microorganisms to do its job.  For gardeners, this can be accomplished in several ways.  The basic idea is to set aside areas or beds where the soil will be left intentionally undisturbed except for the minimal digging needed for planting.  

Raised beds are the easiest way to accomplish this since they restrict people from walking in the planting areas and they allow the needed top layers of mulch to be contained.  But no-till gardening can be accomplished in larger planting areas as well.  The MSU Extension’s article “Preparing the Smart Vegetable Garden” (, gives the following tips:

If you are breaking ground for a new garden, eliminate grass or weeds in the area first.  This can be done without the use of herbicides either by hand or by a “smothering” technique, such as securing sheet plastic over the area for a season before planting.

Another easy way to smother weeds is to layer several sheets of newspaper on top of the area to be planted.  Then, on top of that, another layer is added of compost or other organic matter such as chopped up leaves, grass clippings or mulch.  This is commonly called “sheet composting.” The organic layers on top will degrade while the weeds below are dying.

Keep your beds or planting areas narrow so that you can reach across them without having to step into the area.  They suggest beds should be no more than 4 feet wide.  In addition, create beds that are shorter in length so that you are not tempted to cut across the bed to get to another one.  A good size bed recommendation is 4 feet wide by 8 feet long.

It is essential that you have pathways between your planting areas so that you don’t walk in the beds and compact the soil.  Using a mulch, such as straw, in walkways will reduce compaction even in these areas and help retard weed growth.

After the planting areas have been established, organic matter such as compost should be added to the beds each season to replenish the material that has broken down over the season.  Depending on the conditions, one to two inches of compost may be all a garden needs each year.

The tip sheet also recommends looking into other no-till gardening systems such as lasagna gardening, straw bale gardening and container gardening.

For more information on no-dig gardening, go to the MSU Extension link listed above or search the internet using key words no-dig gardening, no-till gardening or permaculture.  

For the latest news on soil science, head over to these websites: Soil Science Society of America ( and the American Society of Agronomy (

Open sourced photo via pixabay

Open sourced photo via pixabay

Book Review: Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web

by Kathryn Frerichs, Master Gardener Trainee and Soil Master

Teaming with Microbes,  by Jeff Lowenfels & Wayne Lewis,  could be the most revolutionary book about gardening in recent years.  I first became acquainted with it when I took a course in ‘Soil’ from MSU Master Gardening Association in downstate Michigan last year.  I have composted in order to have good/better soil, almost intuitively, since Rodale Press came out with their very first book on the subject in the early 1970s.  This newer book gives us the science behind what we need to do.  I loaned my new treasure of Teaming with Microbes to friends and got comments like “Oh, I’m savoring it and don’t want it to end!”  Or, “I can’t put it down; it is such a good read.”  The slim volume with 200 pages just wasn’t being returned!  Everyone who laid their eyes and grubby gardening hands on it now owns at least one copy and some bought many more for family and friends.  A friend who reforests and gardens in Panama says, “Oh yeah that book is popular here!”   

Teaming” opens your eyes to a world almost unimaginable and is unseen without an electron microscope.  We may all know that there is stuff in the soil like earthworms and moles, but to fathom that just one teaspoon of good garden soil may contain several yards of fungal hyphae is immense like being able to conceive how many stars there are in the heavens.  “So what?”, you say.  These hyphae guys deliver “food for plants that are yards away”.  These very same plants have roots that just happen to secrete sugars that are a perfect hyphae food.  What a marriage made in heavenly soil.

That same one teaspoon of soil holds a billion invisible bacteria, a few thousand unseeable protozoa, a couple or more dozen nematodes.   Wouldn’t it be nice if all gardeners could own an electron microscope to see these denizens of healthy soil hard at work fertilizing and being a defensive army against some of the bad nematodes, bacteria, etc?  For the sad news, if we use chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and other chemicals, we kill off all the good guys in the soil and maybe some of the bad ones too at a very big price, of course, resulting in barren soil. 

In the second half of the book the authors save us from having terminal gardening guilt.  They give us an incredible amount of information on how to build the soil web and rescue it if it has been abused by pesticides, chemical fertilizers etc.  In general, how to efficiently build up your soil is worthy topic for all of us dig into!  Happy reading and spread the compost.

Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web

Revised Edition by Jeff Lowenfels & Wayne Lewis 2010; ISBN-13:  978-1-60469


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