Steward – March 2017

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Avian Apothecaries

Trees for Wildlife

Avian Apothecaries

 Image Copyright Mark Fellowes 2012

Blue Tit, Image Copyright Mark Fellowes 2012

by Lillian Ruiz, Cornell Lab of Ornithology NestWatch guest student writer

Aromatic herbs such as lavender, sage, and mint are all commonly found in kitchens, gardens, and in soaps and lotions. The plants’ perfumes are intended to attract pollinators and repel herbivores. It is well-documented that aromatic herbs have medicinal properties. However, humans are not the only creatures to utilize medicinal plants; some birds are known to incorporate pungent plants into their nests.

Corsican Blue Tits use up to five different aromatic herbs in their nests. The herbs are strategically placed within the nest, with the average number of herbs increasing as the nesting cycle progresses. Researchers Lambrechts and Dos Santos (2000) experimentally removed herbs from nests. Within days, the birds had replaced them. And for good reason!  The study went on to suggest that the “potpourri” of herbs can potentially kill or repel certain parasites and fleas, which in turn results in high body and feather growth rates in developing chicks.

Not only are herbs beneficial for young, according to Gwinner (2012), female European Starlings prefer nests with herbs. Males display plants such as yarrow, hogweed, elder, and cow parsley to females prior to incorporating them into the nest. Starling nests with herbs have high incubation temperatures, providing an energy-savings to the female. Fledglings from nests with herbs also had a greater body mass and were overall healthier with fewer mites.

While we aren’t suggesting that you add fresh herbs to your nest boxes, it is fascinating to know that birds “self-medicate.” Perhaps this spring, consider planting aromatic herbs in your yard, such as yarrow. Sit back and observe your feathered friends. Are they intrigued by your herbaceous offering? If not, you can always use the plants in your kitchen or for aromatherapy!


Gwinner, H. 2012. Male European starlings use odorous herbs as nest material to attract females and benefit nestlings in Chemical Signals in Vertebrates 12, 353-362, Springer Publishing, New York.

Lambrechts, M. M. and A. D. Santos. 2000. Aromatic herbs in Corsican blue tit nests: The potpourri hypothesis. Acta Oecologica 21(3): 175-178.

Trees For Wildlife

Dead trees are best for wildlife! Photo by Advanced MG Cheryl Gross, MGANM Vice President

Dead trees are best for wildlife! Photo by Advanced MG Cheryl Gross, MGANM Vice President

by Cheryl Gross, Advanced Master Gardener, Vice President MGANM

The question of what trees are best for wildlife came up recently.  A snappy answer?  A dead one.

A dead tree is to be valued in the landscape.  It hosts bugs, A LOT of bugs, cavities for nesting birds and mammals, and fungus as it decomposes.  A real win-win.  Therefore, should you find yourself with a dead tree, first protect the buildings on your property.  If they are not threatened, leave the tree.  Wildlife will thank you.   However, to get a dead tree… one must begin by planting a tree.

Trees play an important role in our environment.  They form both the canopy and understory in a plant community. Trees cool the air in summer and break the wind in winter.  Plant communities provide both food and shelter to wildlife.  Shelter is provided by evergreens, tree cavities, and leaves.  Food comes from nuts, berries, and the insects hosted by the trees.

Shelter provides protection from weather as well as protection from predators.  Shelter includes nesting sites and nesting materials.  Trees are optimal for birds and small mammals.  Eastern hemlock does best in partial shade and is a valuable tree in a wooded area.  White spruce, white pine, jack pine, and balsam fir, as well as red and white cedars provide valuable cover in sun/partial sun.  In the landscape, these evergreens provide privacy on our property as well and can be planted to provide green fencing. The cones and seeds provided by these trees provide nutritious food for birds and small mammals, too.

Deciduous trees offer tremendous benefits to wildlife as well.  Branch crotches offer platforms for nesting.  Nuts and seeds provide nutrition and the best of all… native trees provide bug hosting for the insect cafeteria needed by wildlife.  Douglass W. Tallamy, in Bringing Nature Home, ranks native trees in their ability to host insects, the primary diet for baby birds.  Oaks, as a species, host the highest number and variety of insects.  Further, he orders trees by their ability to support Lepidoptera, an order of insects that includes moths and butterflies.  After oak, the list includes willow, cherry, birch, poplar, maple, elm, pine, and hickory.

Understory and small trees play an important role in plant communities and landscape design.  A serviceberry, Amelanchier laevis, is the number one small tree for birds. Their early spring flower leads to a ripe berry in June which is gobbled up by birds.  Highbush cranberry (viburnum family) produces a berry that is valued for winter interest and becomes available to birds after it thaws. North American small trees and shrubs in the dogwood family, Cornus florida, have a very high value to birds according to Marietta Nowak’s Birdscaping in the Midwest.

Choose your tree species carefully.   Purchase only those native to Michigan, or the Great Lakes Region.  Think food and habitat value as well as including diversity.  Plant canopy trees, small trees and shrubs to work together to provide beauty year round and to create habitat for the wildlife in your yard.

Nourish – March 2017

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Life Below Our Feet

Let’s Get Glowing and Growing

Pallet Gardening

Image by Advanced MG Cheryl Gross, MGANM Vice President

Image by Advanced MG Cheryl Gross, MGANM Vice President

Life Below Our Feet

by Brian Zimmerman, owner of Four Season Nursery

My wife and I raised a family on the west side of Traverse City a stone’s throw from where I grew up as a kid. I walked my children to grade school through the same forest I walked as a child. It is a maple – beech – hemlock forest and I showed them how to identify a tree by the type of bark. We would talk of where all the leaves seem to go between autumn drop, when we would kick through deep piles, and spring when the path was dirt again. I would tell them of “little creatures” hard at work in the ground that used the leaves for food. I explained how worms would get cold in the winter, how they pull leaves down to wrap themselves in a leafy sleeping bag. Yes, this is a stretch of the imagination, but the kids were young and giving them a visual was meant to help them understand that there is life below our feet.

It does seem that year after year the forest should be choked with leaves.  Instead, as if by magic, the fallen leaves “disappear” and are turned into soil.

The process is an amazing one.  Leaves work all summer pulling CO2 and water from the atmosphere, sucking up nutrients from the roots, making carbohydrates, fats and proteins to build new plant parts and fruit. Some of what the leaves manufacture is kept in reserve. Come autumn the leaves fall to the ground with their package of carbon. There are billions of bacteria and fungi, many thousands of protozoa, nematodes, worms, and other creatures living in the soils of the forest floor. These “little creatures” – some microscopic, some visible to the human eye – love to eat and their favorite food is carbon. As the tree goes dormant in the winter the microbes continue eating, multiplying and re-cycling the forest litter into nutrients that the tree will use the next summer.

While today most of us don’t live in a forest, we still grow plants that cycle through the seasons much like they do in a forest. Whether they are the trees on our property, the lawns we mow, or all the dead plant parts from our gardens, it’s all mostly carbon and food to the microbes. If we left all this potential food where it fell in the autumn, the cycle of life and death would make compost and a healthy soil/plant environment would continue.  

But we just can’t leave it. We rake up our leafy litter and garden waste. We keep our grass cut short and remove clippings after mowing because we like it tidy. We remove the thatch that builds up and rototill our gardens every spring because it really does look nice. However, in the process of doing all this we are killing many microbes we desperately need. Our gardens, trees and lawns are creating the carbon to feed the soil microbes … but we remove it. Then, in an attempt to return this lost food back to the soils, we apply organic fertilizers, compost and wood mulch. These are not bad things.  All three feed the microbes in the soil, which in turn release nutrients to the plants. But, could we accept a less tidy garden space and let nature take its own natural course?

Nitrogen is also a critical part of the soil and plant cycle; it’s the building block for making proteins. The atmosphere is 79% nitrogen.  But unlike carbon that is taken in by the leaves during the summer, atmospheric nitrogen is not available.  This nitrogen can only become available after entering the soil and, as you may have guessed by now, microbes are front and center in this process as well.  Atmospheric nitrogen enters the soil, is re-combined with other elements and is consumed by microbes. Microbes use most of the nitrogen for their own metabolism; the remainder is excreted as waste, making it available for roots to take up.

So now we have a picture of carbon coming into the soil as fallen leaves and lawn waste, and nitrogen coming into the soil from the atmosphere, where both are consumed by the microbes making their waste available as plant nutrients. This explains why so much life in the soil happens around the root zone. Plant roots can’t move around the soil searching for food so they secrete exudates (plant waste excreted through the roots) to attract microbes. Most of the exudate is carbon-based sugars and microbes love carbon. There are more species of bacteria, fungi, and others microbes than we can count and many yet still undiscovered. Most are beneficial and live right around the root zone:  some even grow into the roots. This allows for a bartering between roots and microbes

Think of a root as a long dinner table with many chairs and all microbes are guest who bring a dish to pass. The root wants all the chairs filled with friendly guests sharing the feast, leaving no room for unfriendly guests (non-beneficial microbes & pathogens). When we add good compost to soils we ensure the table is filled with friendly guests. Organic fertilizer ensures there is enough food to go around and mulch serves as central heating – cooling in the summer and insulation in the winter.

I have mentioned using organic fertilizers. The key ingredient in organic fertilizers is carbon – the very food the microbes love. The nutrients need to be consumed by microbes before the roots can take them in. There are many other more popular fertilizer on the market that are called synthetic fertilizers, which are salt based. The reason for their popularity is two-fold:  they are water soluble and less expensive. When the fertilizer pellets come in contact with water they immediately go into solution and the nutrients are available to the plants. Any excess leaches away. The nutrients fed to the plants are not bad but the salts are. With repeated use the salts kill the microbes and most of the worms and other larger soil animals. Without soil life the ground becomes compacted, causing further depletion of the oxygen necessary to feed the remaining good microbes. This allows for the multiplying of anaerobic microbes and pathogens (these microbes don’t need oxygen and cause plant diseases). Remember the table filled with friendly guests? Now the only guests are bad. Plants become dependent on synthetic fertilizers, insecticides, bacteria and fungicides, and this chemical dependency destroys the balance nature put in place.

How do we bring the right guests to the table in our own gardens? Be generous with compost as a top dressing. If your lawn is in poor shape, a light compost top dress over the lawn will work wonders. If you have a sick tree or shrub in the lawn, remove the grass growing around the base and use 1”-2” of compost. The suggestion that compost can fix everything does seem overly simplified. In reality, soil science is very complicated with much going on between roots, soil and the little creatures. It is very rare that something that complicated can be boiled down to a simple message. That said, well-made compost delivers to your plants literally billions of beneficial microbes per handful and that is exactly what the roots of all plants want. Once your garden soil reaches a balance it will need less water and additional nutrients, your plants will thrive, your vegetables will taste better, making gardening more enjoyable.

For many millions of years,’ plants, soils and the “little creatures” below our feet have been composting together and it works. When we compost we are giving back to our soil so it will, in turn, give back to us healthy plants.

A footnote: This article takes on many subjects; soil science, plant science, fertilizer technology, composting, and attempts to synthesize all into a simple message. If this subject is of interest to you following are a few books that I have read, and re-read.

  • Secrets of the Soil, New Solutions for Restoring our Planet, Peter Tompkins & Christopher Bird
  • Teaming with Microbes, The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web, Jeff Lowenfels & Wayne Lewis
  • Building Soils Naturally, Innovative Methods of Organic Gardeners, Phil Nauta
  • Dirt, The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth, William Bryant Logan


I'm gonna be busy tomorrow.

Let’s Get Glowing and Growing

by Bethany Thies, Master Gardener

Starting seeds indoors is an efficient way to save money and get a jump on the summer growing season.  The requirements are pretty simple.  All you need are seeds…check.  Pots or trays and planting medium…check and check.  And, of course, water and light.  

Well, here in Northern Michigan, we have an abundant supply of fresh water so that isn’t a problem.  But light, that wonderful element that actually makes plants grow, that is something that can be a little harder to come by Up North.

Michigan, it seems, doesn’t get a lot of sun.  

According to the NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information’s website (, Northern Michigan ranks only a little better than Seattle, Washington and Nome, Alaska, in the average percentage of possible sunshine per year.  This percentage is calculated by looking at the total time sunshine reaches the ground in a certain city over the course of a year as compared to how many hours of sunshine are possible from sunrise to sunset.   

Grand Rapids, the closest city to Traverse City on the list, has sunshine only an average of 46% of the time during daylight hours.  Alpena, the next closest city, only sees the sun 48% of the time.  Seattle and Nome, both known for their grey weather, are at 43% and 42% respectively.  And while the Midwest isn’t the sunniest of regions, other cities in the area still see the sun more than Northern Michigan:  Chicago and Green Bay at 54%, Minneapolis-St. Paul at 58% and Fort Wayne, IN, at 59%.  (In case you were wondering, the sunniest spot in the United States is Yuma, AZ, with an average of 90% sunshine!)

So while many books and websites may talk about placing freshly planted seeds next to a sunny window, in all honesty, in Northern Michigan that probably isn’t going to get you the best results.  Most vegetable and annual flower seedlings need 14 to 18 hours of light a day to really do their best.  Our Michigan winter-to-spring sun just can’t provide that kind of light.  You will get plants from setting seed trays in a windowsill here, but they will probably be thin and leggy rather than the preferred strong and compact plants that make good transplants.

The solution?  Set up a grow light system.  This can be as simple or as elaborate as you want to go.  The goal is to give your seedlings the best type and amount of light possible in a way that best suits your space and pocketbook.

Here are some of the key terms you should know before buying:  

  • Lumens — Don’t look at the wattage of a bulb; look at its lumens.  Wattage measures how much electricity a light source uses.  Lumens, on the other hand, indicate how much light is being produced by the bulb.  This is usually listed on the bulb’s packaging.  When it comes to grow lights, the higher the lumens, the better.  This is because seedlings need  a lot of light to produce the energy needed to grow more leaves. (Note: Ordinary incandescent and halogen bulbs emit high heat along with lumens They simply put off too much heat for the amount of lumens provided.  And this heat can scorch delicate seedlings).
  • Light spectrum — You also need to look at the light color or spectrum being produced by the bulb.  Obviously, plants need light for photosynthesis, the process where they create the energy they need to survive.  However, the light color needed changes from plant to plant and from developmental stage to developmental stage.  For example, foliage is usually produced by blue shades of light, while the red and orange end of the spectrum helps spur fruit and flower production.  In nature, sunlight provides a full spectrum of colors, from infrared (red) to ultraviolet (blue), so a plant’s needs are always covered.  Ordinary household bulbs, on the other hand, give off more yellow and orange light which can actually starve leafy plants.
  • Kelvins – The numerical value of the color emitted by a light source is typically measured in degrees of Kelvin (K) or Kelvins for short.  Like wattage and lumens, a light bulb’s Kelvin value is also listed on its packaging.  Colors above 5000K are considered cool colors in the blue end of the spectrum and most closely resemble natural sunlight.  Colors below 3,000K are in the red end of the spectrum and are considered to be a warm light.  Again, this measurement is important because each spectrum triggers different responses from a plant—blue light induces vegetative growth while red light promotes flowering.

So what’s the best light to use for starting seeds?  While there are several options available if you are a commercial grower (including high intensity discharge or HID lights), the two main grow lights for the home gardener are LED (light emitting diodes) or fluorescent bulbs.  Both LEDs and fluorescent bulbs are offered in sunlight-mimicking full spectrum light or in isolated red or blue color ranges, depending on your plant needs.   

Most experts consider fluorescent bulbs, however, to be the winner for now.  That’s partly because LEDs tend to be more expensive to purchase.  Fluorescent lights, whether the long T-5 shop light-type bulb or a compact florescent bulb, are inexpensive and readily available, emit very little heat so you can hang them close to plants and have a very long life expectancy.

For examples on how to set up your own grow light stand for starting seedlings, head over to Mother Earth News ( or The Petite Farmstead (

And get glowing and growing!


pallet gardening 3 by cheryl gross

Using pallets to grow a variety of squash; photo by Advanced MG Cheryl Gross, MGANM Vice President

Pallet Gardening

by Cheryl Gross, Advanced Master Gardener, Vice President MGANM

Several years ago I read about square-foot gardens and built a couple for my husband’s vegetable gardening. When we moved from Frankfort to Traverse City, we found some under the snow in the back too; a pleasant surprise!  A square-foot garden allows access to plants for planting, weeding and harvesting without requiring any compaction of the soil.  It is a method to raise food crops densely yielding greater volume at harvest in a small space.  We have had great success with tomatoes, sugar snap peas, carrots, and green beans in our square-foot gardens.  I like their tidiness too.  Check out the following site for Square-foot gardening.  

Last year, we removed a significant part of our front lawn.  I am a serious less-lawn proponent.  The new beds are landscaped with Michigan native plants to promote pollinators and wildlife habitat.  In the process of transforming a lot of lawn, one bed was thinly planted with young tree and shrub specimens. This bed left us with a large, open chipped bed.  

Wanting to use the space temporarily for growing ‘attractive’ food gardens, and because our good sun was limited elsewhere, my husband planted squash mounds and I assembled a pallet garden for lettuces and chard.  The process is very straightforward.  

  • Locate a free clean pallet and drag it home.
  • Cut a piece of landscape cloth to wrap around the bottom and sides of the pallet and staple into place.
  • Move your pallet into your desired location.  If in front of your home, stand back and examine the pallet placement for aesthetics.  Once set in location…
  • Fill the lower portion (about half) with good top soil.  Fill the remainder with compost or a blend of other nutritious growing medium.
  • Then, plant spinach, lettuce, chard, herbs or other seeds in the rows.  Remember to stagger seeding to allow for harvesting through-out the season.  Water the pallet garden regularly for germination.  Because of the landscape cloth, the moisture will stay in place a bit longer.

Throughout the growing season, I could harvest fresh lettuce that arrived in the kitchen pretty clean.  By fall, the pumpkins were orange, the acorn squash deep green and the butternut squash nicely tanned.  We heard no complaints from neighbors as the big-leafed squash plants filled the open chipped bed with a lovely, green ground cover.  I believe the neighbor children delighted at the bright orange pumpkins in our yard in October waiting for carving.

Serve – March 2017

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Smart Gardening Program: Educational and Volunteer Opportunity for MSUE Master Gardeners

MGANM Names 2017 Scholarship Recipients

Dr. Duke Elsner finding insects

Dr. Duke Elsner finding insects

Smart Gardening Program: Educational and Volunteer Opportunity for MSUE Master Gardeners

by Dr. Duke Elsner, MSU Extension

The Smart Gardening Program is a relatively new initiative from Michigan State University Extension.  Smart Gardening is a campaign to help home and experienced gardeners adopt and implement proven techniques in their yard and garden that will help them save time, money and the environment!  IPM or Integrated Pest Management has long been a hallmark of MSU Extension programs.  However, the amount of information available -from educational institutions, magazines and commercial product producers – is a challenge to unravel and implement.  “Smart” helps people adopt proven, university-researched tactics in their own back yards.  The program was developed by members of the Consumer Horticulture Team of Michigan State University Extension, based upon the initial three themes of Smart Plants, Smart Lawns, and Smart Soils.  Smart Vegetable Gardening is the newest theme to be developed.

There are three key components to the Smart Gardening campaign.  One is the production of educational materials.  Most of these are in the form of brief “tip sheets” that address a single topic in a basic and very understandable format.  Videos have also been developed for several of the topics.

The second component is hosting educational sessions at public events, such as garden shows, fairs, farmer’s markets, and similar events.  Knowledgeable specialists from Michigan State University and other authorities are recruited to speak on their area of expertise.

The third component is a public relations workforce comprised of Master Gardeners, like you.  We recognize that there is nothing quite like a person-to-person connection to help the public with their gardening needs.  The best method to make connections with large numbers of people is to recruit Master Gardener Volunteers to be part of the Smart Gardening delivery team.

MSU Extension has established a special training program to prepare Master Gardeners to be effective representatives for the Smart Gardening Program.  New Smart Gardening trainees are apprenticed under experienced Smart Gardening Volunteers to further prepare them for their outreach activities with the public.

If you are interested in becoming a Smart Gardening Volunteer, please contact me at  If you would just like to see the various tip sheets, videos and other educational materials, check out the Gardening in Michigan web site:


EMG Stone for Yard Display


MGANM Names 2017 Scholarship Recipients

by Cheryl Gross, Advanced Master Gardener, MGANM Vice President

The Master Gardener Association of Northwest Michigan, MGANM, raises Scholarship funds throughout the year; and primarily at our November Volunteer Recognition event through a silent auction.  All funds raised are given to MSUE on behalf of an award recipient (s) allowing them to enroll in the MSUE Master Gardener Volunteer Training class when the cost might be otherwise prohibitive.

As a condition of the 2017 Scholarship, the recipient is asked to give 10 of the first year 40 volunteer hours to the Association by attending a MGANM Board Meeting, an Association meeting, and otherwise supporting a MGANM project.  MGANM believes that Master Gardener Certification and Association membership has value and contributes to Certified Master Gardeners being engaged in a community of gardeners devoted to keeping current in horticultural trends and research.

We are excited to have been able to award TWO Scholarships this year with the funds raised.  Our Scholarship recipients are:

Michael O’Brien has a passion for growing vegetables, so much so that he has his own hydroponic system that he built by hand.  He recently moved here from a MUCH warmer growing zone, a 10, and sounds like he wants to learn more about growing here in our zone.  He’s very interested in plant propagation, and completing his volunteer hours in a community garden-type setting, or at least that’s what interests him now. 

Marla Tyler wants to become a Master Gardener to learn the best practices to contribute to the health of the environment and be involved in protecting it.  She is committed to learning and volunteering in the community she loves and in which she lives.  She has had some educational sessions with the Leelanau Conservancy to be a hike leader.  She likes native plants and wildlife and said that she enjoys walking Grand Traverse and Leelanau Conservancy lands.  She emphasized her commitment to a project, prioritizing responsibilities, laughing, and having fun. Marla is thankful for the MGANM scholarship to be able to become a Master Gardener.

Of special note, Michael O’Brien’s funds were donated in memory of Rick George, a wonderful Master Gardener who was dedicated to vegetable gardening.  Dedicated Scholarship funds may be donated at any time throughout the year.  Write “MG Scholarship” in the memo portion of your check and it will be used for a Scholarship in an upcoming class.

Steward – January 2017

Contents (Click on a title or scroll)

Gardening Resolutions for 2017

Grow a Bird Feeder

Annual Report from Mary Wilson

Native plant gardens at the Boardman River Nature Center. Photo courtesy of Grand Traverse Conservation District

Native plant gardens at the Boardman River Nature Center. Photo courtesy of Grand Traverse Conservation District

Gardening Resolutions for 2017

by Bethany Thies, Master Gardener in Training

Hello 2017!

The end of one year and the start of a new one.  A time for new beginnings and fresh resolutions.  And gardeners are no exception.  In fact, some might say that by the very nature of the passing seasons and plant cycles, gardeners as a group are even more attune to the hope of fresh starts and new resolutions.

The Real Dirt team is no different.  Here they share their New Year’s gardening resolutions and some links for additional info in case your goals for 2017 are similar. 

Cheryl Gross, Real Dirt editor, MGANM Vice President, Advanced Master Gardener:

“My gardening resolution is to document on paper and in pictures the seasonal changes on my Michigan native plant landscaped beds.  This will be their third year since that space grew only lawn and I hope to note bloom time, pollinators, bloom length, color palette, bird species, insects and such.   This documentation will allow for rearranging for color and space, and for educational purposes when I speak on gardening with Michigan natives!  It is an ambitious resolution for sure, but should allow, and encourage me, to stop and smell the roses!“ 

Looking for inspiration on how to document your own garden?  Check out the articles at and  You can also find plenty of free downloadable garden journal pages, charts and graphs to help you with your documentation by searching “garden journal templates” on your internet search engine.

Whitney Miller, Real Dirt art director and MGANM “Techie Chick”, Advanced Master Gardener:

“We built a new raised bed garden this fall, so I plan to research the best soil/compost mix to put in it.  I also plan to start my tomatoes indoors this year — never had great success with that.”

The Michigan State University Extension website ( has numerous articles on starting vegetable seeds indoors over the winter, including “Growing Tomatoes In Your Garden” ( and “Michigan Fresh: Growing Tomatoes” (  Other sites on starting tomato seeds at home can be found at and

Michele Worden, Real Dirt contributor, MGANM President, Advanced Master Gardener:

“To water my plants in the garage under the grow lights twice a week so I don’t lose any to over dryness.  Also, to start my seeds on time.”

Many websites have calendars on when it’s best to start vegetable seeds in your zone.  A great one can be found at can be found at the Burpee website (  Simply type in your zip code and up pops the indoor sow, direct sow and transplant dates for scores of fruits, vegetables, perennials, flowers and herbs.

Lillian Mahaney, Real Dirt contributor, Advanced Master Gardener:

“My resolutions for 2017 are working towards having more time to enjoy my gardens and adding more native plants.”

You can find out more about Michigan native plants at Michigan State University Extension website.  The section titled Native Plants and Ecosystem Services,, is a great place to start.

Michelle Ferrarese, Real Dirt contributor, MSUE Leelanau County Master Gardener Coordinator:

“My resolution is to leave as many volunteer milkweeds as possible to maximize habitat for monarchs.” 

The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation has launched what it calls Project Milkweed.  At the webpage for the project (, you can download regional guides developed in cooperation with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service on the different native milkweeds of North America, as well as link to other milkweed growing resources.

Jamie Guenther, Real Dirt contributor, Master Gardener:

“My resolution is to choose at least two native plants to incorporate into my yard this year.”

Judy Reich, Real Dirt contributor, MGANM Secretary, Master Gardener:

“Plan and prepare before buying the plant, shrub, or tree and then plant it as soon as it comes home!”  

Nancy Denison, Real Dirt contributor, Advanced Master Gardener:

“I’d like to say my resolution is to just leave my gardens alone for a year and just maintain but chances are I will succumb and dig out something. After our big garden remodel, I’m ready to just enjoy.”


Photo courtesy of Northwest Michigan Invasive Species Network (ISN)

Photo courtesy of Northwest Michigan Invasive Species Network (ISN)

Grow a Bird Feeder

by Cheryl Gross, Advanced Master Gardener, Vice President MGANM

Kay Charter of Saving Birds Thru Habitat in Omena, MI and the National Wildlife Federation both publish and promote information on bird food and habitat to support our resident and migrating birds.  Growing a bird feeder should be a very popular practice given the popularity of backyard bird feeding and bird watching!  Growing plants to feed birds is not difficult… but first begin by understanding a bird’s diet.

Typical backyard birds need insects and seeds in their diets.  As most feeders are designed to hold mixed or specialized seeds and nuts such as sunflower seeds, thistle, and peanuts, humans may overlook the importance of insects in a bird diet.  Baby birds eat insects almost exclusively.  NO SEEDS.  For adult birds to successfully raise a family of hatchlings, they need access to an abundance of insects, especially meaty caterpillars. 

Gardeners, especially vegetable gardeners, are not all that fond of caterpillars as they feed on the leaves of valuable plants.  Many gardeners use pesticide chemicals to reduce the caterpillar populations.  These chemicals are harmful to birds.  Gardeners and non-gardeners alike need to rethink the ‘bugs-in-the-garden’ issue.  Our birds desperately need bugs for survival.  Managed thoughtfully, a gardener should be able to tolerate some insect damage while building an ecosystem balance where the birds manage the insect population.  A win-win for the gardener and the birds!

Insects are extremely picky eaters.  Therefore, a homeowner should include mostly those plants which host insects.  Those plants are native plants.  Michigan native plants host insects native to the region.  Plants from Europe, Asia, Australia, etc., host no insects.  This is why in our backyard landscaping, alien plants have no ecological value. 

While insects are invaluable for our birds, provide a variety of berry producing trees and shrubs and seed producing perennials and grasses for growing a bird feeder. 

-Oak trees are known to host the largest number of caterpillar species.  If there is room for a deciduous tree, plant an oak.  Other native trees are also beneficial so hang on to those maples, birches, and all other Michigan natives.

-A Serviceberry, Amelanchier, is an understory tree that provides spring fruit for nesting adults.  A Highbush Cranberry, viburnum trilobum, produces a fruit that is ready AFTER the winter freeze and thaw so is important to the early migratory birds before insects emerge.

-Lupine and Butterfly Weed are known to host larval insects, as do most native perennials.

-Purple Cone Flower produces fabulous seed heads that finches eat all through the fall.  Seeds should be left on stems to be available for the birds through the fall and winter.  Aggressive fall cleanup can actually be detrimental to bird food availability!

-Several Michigan clump forming grasses, such as Indian Grass, Side Oats Gramma, Prairie Dropseed, and Little Bluestem produce tasty seeds in the fall.

The keys to growing a bird feeder are:

1. Promote insects in your yard by planting native plants to host the caterpillars.  Do not use pesticides.

3. Plant a variety of species to host insects, produce berries and seeds.

4. Leave flower bed clean-up till spring to allow snacking on remaining seeds and insects in the garden.

Enjoy watching the birds at your home-grown feeders through the year!


Annual Report from Mary Wilson

How many Extension Master Gardener Volunteers are in Michigan? What is the economic value of their volunteer hours? Read the statewide report here: 2015-statewide-summary-report-oct-16

Nourish – January 2017

Growing Herbs in Winter

by Jamie Gunther, Master Gardener

Looking out the window is a beautiful sight if you like snow. It may be difficult to remember how the world outside appeared during greener times but even though now is not the right time to plant herbs in the garden area, it is a perfect time to plant some types of herb indoors.

First, a couple of tips to think about before digging in. Make sure your herbs will be exposed to enough sunlight by placing them in a south facing window. If a south facing window isn’t possible, consider some grow lights or a combination of cool and warm bulbs set on timers to recreate a sunny day instead. Also, it is a good idea to make sure that the seedlings are planted to the proper depth in a well-drained soilless mix. Cover with plastic after planting to create a humid environment but be sure to remove the plastic after the seedlings emerge to allow for air movement and allow them room to grow. Be sure to keep moisture and temperature at the required levels to encourage seed germination as well. Be aware that temperatures near windows may vary.

After seeds germinate and seedlings emerge, be sure to keep the soil moist but allow for drainage and move containers apart to discourage fungal growth. Once the seedlings reach six inches, you can begin to harvest the leaves but be sure to leave some if you would like the plant to continue to grow. Also, keep in mind that if plants get leggy, they can be pinched back to just above a leaf to encourage a bushier growth.

Following is a list of herbs that do well grown indoors:

  1. Basil – Fast germinator that may appear in as little as four days.
  2. Bay – This plant will do well in an east or west facing window and likes lots of air circulation.
  3. Oregano – Needs patience. Oregano may take weeks to germinate.
  4. Parsley – It will grow faster in south facing window and slower in an east or west facing one.
  5. Chives – Can germinate in about ten days.
  6. Cilantro – Germinates in about seven to ten days. Cilantro doesn’t like being transplanted so in the spring keep it in the container it was planted in.
  7. Dill – Germinates in one to two weeks’ time.
  8. Sage – Slow to germinate and could take up to three weeks.
  9. Thyme – Two to three weeks’ germination time. The seeds are very small so overplanting is common.

A white blanket of snow outside the window can be a beautiful sight to behold but adding some green indoors can be a great visual enhancement and has the benefit of the addition of delicious home grown herbs to recipes all year round.


Michigan State University Extension


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