Beautify – March ’14 Real Dirt

Sue S-P's empty yard2

Creating a Masterpiece

by Sue Sensenbaugh-Padgett

A blank canvas waits for the artist to add color and texture; a newly built house is a gardener’s canvas waiting for the colors and textures created by lawns, shrubs, flowers, and gardens.  But an artist also works on older, worn canvas removing dust and dirt along with repairing flakes and chips.  In the same way, a gardener reworks the home property by removing the dead or dying, adding, rearranging, or replacing plants.  But before starting either project, there are steps that will improve the chances of successfully creating a masterpiece.

This process is dear to my heart because we just built a new home on the site where we have been living for the last two years.  Whether you are looking at reworking your grounds or starting fresh, I hope you will travel through the steps with me starting with soil testing, moving on to the study of micro climate, on to creating a master plan, and finally to implementing your plan.

The first step is a Soil Test.  Testing kits are widely sold, but the test from MSU Extension is one of the best.  It is a simple process.  Last fall, I performed this test on my soil.  I went to the Extension’s web site and then to the on-line bookstore where I purchased the test kit.  The test kit came in the mail with simple directions on collecting the samples and returning them to MSU.  After several weeks, I received an email containing the report.  It included pH, soil content, and advice for amending the soil.  The amendment advice came in both regular and organic forms.  Now, I know one of the first things learned in the Master Gardening classes is that it is “soil” never dirt, but after reading my report the word dirt is a better descriptor.  My pH is 5.1 and organic material is less than 1%.  The combined amendment advice for my soil totaled approximately 200lb/100sq ft.  This will not be something I can accomplish at one time, so amending my soil will be an ongoing process.  Soil is never static; requiring continued amending and analysis.

The next step is to study your grounds for microclimates.  Look for areas where water pools or drains quickly.  Where and when does the sun shine?  Are there differing elevations that form wind buffers?  Are there places that frost early or late? How and where does the snow build?  These questions, and more, must be addressed to create a masterpiece. Studying microclimates takes time.  Every season differs, so it is advisable not to rush into changing and planting.  For me, the advantage is already living on the grounds.  I began the study last year.  One of the interesting aspects of my land is the sunshine.   I live in a small hollow created when the upper layers of the soil were used as backfill for M-131, so the morning sun falls only on the west side while the east side gets the afternoon and evening sun.  There is also one area the where previous owner dug a pit to bury trash.  While the worst of the trash was removed before filling in the pit, I don’t plan to use that area for my kitchen garden.

This leads to the step of creating a master plan and implementing that plan.  If you would like to read more about the process of planning and how I’m going to use my two acres, look for the next edition of the Real Dirt.

In the meantime, start a list of all the plants you love and then we’ll see where that list takes us.

Serve – March ’14 Real Dirt

Planting Seeds for our Future

by Lillian Mahaney

“All of the flowers of tomorrow are in the seeds of today”

an Indian proverb

When you garden with children you are definitely planting the seeds for our future gardeners.  The Jr. Master Gardener program is designed to educate children in a manner that makes learning fun.  Jr. Master Gardener instructors can allow their creative side to flourish.  Last year there were two new Jr. Master Gardener classes and the creativity of activities was amazing.  Please read on for some of the highlights of these classes.

Karen McClatchey held classes at the Peninsula Community Library, in conjunction with Old Mission Peninsula School.  Karen began her classes in late January to run through mid April with 10 students.  A few of the comments from the children are:  “I LOVED Jr. Master Gardening.  I want to do it again this year.”  “I learned a lot and it was fun at the same time.”  “We did a lot.  I had to miss one day and I was sad because it was so much fun.”  “I helped my mother with the garden during the summer with all that I learned.”

Karen’s classes were one hour long and there was a hands-on project in each class.  Some of the projects were miniature landscapes, terrariums, potpourri, etc.  Karen’s children made the sweetest little ivy topiary for me for Valentine’s Day and I smile every time I go by it under my gro-lights.  Karen started her new classes this year on February 13th.  The wonderful quote at the beginning of the article was suggested by Karen.

Dorothy Batzer (assisted by Cyndi and Deb) held classes at Kaleva/Norman/Dickson Schools in Brethren.  The classes were part of the “Healthy Self” program sponsored by MSU and West Shore Medical Center.  Prior to the JRMG offering there were classes on nutrition education and physical activity.  After the JRMG progrem there were classes on hands-on cooking.

Dorothy also incorporated many projects including making paper hats and flowers, taste-testing sprouts, insects and flower designs on muslin for Mother’s Day, growing and planting seeds, etc.

When I have held classes some of my activities have been making lavender sachets, growing bean seeds, creating miniature landscapes, etc.  One of my favorite activities is to ask the children to pretend they are a fly and just narrowly escaped from a Venus Fly Trap.  I still smile when I recall one of the terrific stories and expect to see that little girl’s name on the cover of a best selling novel in years to come.

Another of my children’s favorite activities is singing and dancing to “The Water Cycle Boogie” and “F.B.I. (fungus, bacteria, invertebrates)” by the Banana Slug String Band.  I  turn on the CD player during the last 5-10 minutes of class while I cleaning up.  The moms have reported to me that the children also sing the songs in the car on the way home.  The Slugs are 4 fellows in California and they have a number of CDs on various themes.  You can listen to the songs either on Amazon or the Slugs website at

The next Jr. Master Gardener training class will be held on Monday, March 24th from 6:00 p.m. until 8:00 p.m. at the Grand Traverse Government Center, 400 Boardman Avenue.  The center is just north of 8th Street on Boardman Avenue.  Please enter by the front doors and go downstairs to the cafeteria.  Please make reservations by March 17th either by emailing me at or calling 256-8844.  Email is usually the easiest way to reach me and I will send you a confirmation.

Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any questions about the Jr. Master Gardener program.   The program is sponsored by MSUE and 4-H in the various counties.  I can pretty much guarantee that you will have fun and rediscover your “inner child gardener”.

Botanical Garden Update

Our new Botanical Garden is going to have an amazing visitors center!

Our new Botanical Garden is going to have an amazing visitors center!

If you have not yet heard, the area around The Village at Grand Traverse Commons is getting a Botanical Garden! The Master Gardener Association of Northwest Michigan (MGANM) is an official part/partner of the Traverse City Botanical Garden Society, and we are excited to share some news about this amazing and one-of-a-kind project. Read below for their first big update of the year. Links to their site and Facebook are also provided. Happy gardening!

Botanic Garden at the Historic Barns Park Update 2014

By now most everyone knows that our Visitor Center is up and running and ready for rental.  If you have been following us on Facebook you already know what the upstairs venue looks like.  It is bright and airy with amazing vistas out the windows.  The upstairs will accommodate 74  people for an event with tables and comfortable chairs.  There is a small kitchenette equipped with a coffee maker and small refrigerator and dishwasher.  This space has been used for several meetings and is also equipped with a large-screen TV monitor and the hook ups for power point presentations.  Keep us in mind if you have need of a venue for rent.

The downstairs will encompass a small gift shop, which is being planned as I write.  It is due to open this spring.  You will want to check this out as well.  Some plantings have taken place around the Visitor Center with the help of several Master Gardeners volunteering their time.  Of course there will be more plantings to take place later when our snow disappears.

So, you might ask….what is in store for 2014 at The Garden?  Be on the lookout for the water feature to be constructed using one of the old silos.  There will be numerous plantings around this area and when finished, will be a beautiful, calming space to enjoy.  In addition to the water feature, work will begin on the walled garden with paint removal and repointing of the stone foundation.  All of that will have to be done before the cement “floor” is removed making the inside area ready for planting.

Do check us out, especially when spring comes to see all the daffodils in bloom.  And…don’t forget to like us on Facebook!

Steward – Jan ’14 Real Dirt

Much About Mulch

by Cheryl Gross

There is much to consider about mulch.  Curious about mulch?  Maybe not.  Perhaps you think of it as the icing on the cake or window dressing.  A freshly mulched landscape can have that ‘finished look‘.  But, is that all there is?  Is mulch only about appearance?  Mulch decisions can be made based upon a design element in landscaping, such as stone mulch in a rock garden, or as a tool in weed suppression.  Can it do more?  Can the material used as mulch harm the plants?  What about mulch throughout the season?  Is there a good mulch for spring that might harm the same bed in summer?  Oh, my.  Too many questions.

According to Brian Zimmerman, of Four Season Nursery, prior to the 1970’s, it was common to cultivate garden beds to remove weeds and mulch foundation plantings with black plastic and stone.  That was it.  Spreading mulch was not yet in vogue.  By the mid-70’s cedar bark was given away in our region by mills as it was viewed as a waste product.  While the cedar bark was far more reasonable than stone, it did require ‘freshening’ annually.  Finally, the movement toward wood chips as mulch appeared on the scene in the late 70’s.  Any wood scraps from the mills could be turned into a product and sold.  Municipalities began giving away wood chips and shredded wood from tree trimming to residents.  Zimmerman clearly distinguishes between bark and wood chips, recommending bark but never using wood chips.

It is a widely held tenant that the primary purpose of mulch is to retain moisture around the plant during dry spells and to shade roots from hot summer sun.  Secondarily, mulch will suppress weeds.  Pile it on deeply enough and banked seeds will not see the light of day, so to speak.  Another important virtue of mulch is moderating soil temperature.  A good mulch layer will keep soils cooler in the summer and reduce the freeze/thaw cycle in winter.  However, that same mulch can slow the soil warming process in spring.

Some mulch products will ‘knit’ together over time and form a solid barrier.  This barrier, according to Zimmerman, is to be avoided.  It prevents water and oxygen from reaching the soil and creating habitat for the billions of soil microbes in healthy soil.  Watch your mulch for this tendency and break it up if needed.  Mulches with knitting tendencies are hardwood chips and cedar.  Non-knitting mulches that allow for free air and oxygen transfer include pine bark mulch, compost, straw, and pine needles.

While there is a host of mulch materials from which to choose, there is no ‘perfect’ mulch.   To begin, mulches can be either organic or inorganic.  Organic mulch will decompose, inorganic mulch will not.  Organic mulch may enhance the quality of the soil or may absorb nutrients from the soil underneath.  Inorganic mulches stay in place and may not decompose, but some stone can leach alkaline minerals into the soil and, if spread too heavily, can compact and damage roots. Review the information below and consider your past mulching practices/experiences.

 Mulches to consider:

       Organic materials

Straw:  Good for winter coverage to moderate soil temperatures.  Good to use in vegetable beds year round.  Need to watch for seeds in the product (do not mistake hay for straw).  May house rodents.  Needs to be removed in spring in landscaped beds.  Rarely compacts.

Wood Chips: Hardwood chips spread in the spring can last for a couple of seasons.  However, the color will change to a gray or silver color.  Piling more fresh mulch over dull old mulch may create air and moisture barriers to the soil.  Chips require nitrogen from the soil to decompose therefore, a nitrogen fertilizer is recommended under wood chip mulch.  The old layer should be cultivated and broken up before a fresh layer is laid.  Caution:  wood mulch can host shotgun or artillery fungus (Sphaerobolus).  This fungus shoots spores into the air that land on plants, house siding and cars.  The tiny black dots can be very hard to remove.

Shredded leaves or leaf mold:  Fall leaves can be advantageous in the garden.  It is recommended that they be shredded first, or even allowed to begin decomposition before being used.  Full-sized leaves limit water and air circulation to the soil.  Shredded leaves can form a nice barrier, if not shredded too finely.  Leaves that have begun to compost can be used to amend the soil, however, watch that a crust does not form.

 Bark:  Bark is generally viewed as a suitable mulch.  It can come in largish chunks or shredded.  It may float away in a heavy water situation and may attract wood-eating insects, such as termites.

Pine needles:  If you can collect them, pine needles work nicely around acid loving plants.  Generally not sold in bulk or bags.

Compost:  a well processed black compost will feed the roots below as well as warm the soil in the spring and retain moisture.  Beware of weeds seeding in the compost;  a weed-preventer might be helpful to create the weed barrier.

      Inorganic materials

Gravel, pebbles and stone:  Best used in permanent landscaped beds.  Do not use around acid loving plants.  Use about a one inch layer to prevent soil compaction.

Black plastic:  Good a weed prevention.  Good for moisture retention.  If soil is wet, it will not dry well when covered in plastic which can add to root diseases.  Hot in summer, plastic breaks down quickly if not protected from sunlight.  Not attractive.

Landscape cloth (various):  Allows air and water movement to and from the soil.  Controls weeds well, but grasses may survive.  Not attractive.

Recycled rubber:  Recycled rubber is the newest mulching material and can most often be seen on playgrounds.  Will not decompose.  Effectiveness it not yet known.

While there may be no perfect mulch, there may be a suitable one for your yard and your plants.

-Mulching around trees to create a barrier between the lawn mower and the trunk is a very good idea.  Be sure to allow space between the mulch and the trunk.

– Use black plastic to warm the vegetable garden soil in the spring and, when removed, the warmed soil can jump start your plants.

-Adding pine needles around acid loving plants can add a kick to the ph.

-Shredding and bagging fall leaves can be a real budget saver come spring.

There is much to know about mulch.  You can read more about it from the following websites.


Savvy Gardener.Com.  “All About Mulch,”

Cornell University, Department of Horticulture.  “Home Gardening, Mulches for Landscaping,”

Beautify – Jan ’14 Real Dirt

Houseplants by Sonia Clem

Grow Your Own Health

by Sonia Clem

Most of us brave souls who stay through the winter in northern Michigan experience a little SAD after the holidays.  This is the time of year when the only thing green and still living has just been unceremoniously dragged out the door.  Suddenly the house feels especially empty.  Now the shorter, colder days have forced us indoors, where we can quickly get bored, less productive, more sedentary, and – if we’re not careful – even sickly.

Having survived and thrived through many a long winter, I do feel somewhat qualified to tell you that,  to embrace this season of solar sequestration with alacrity,  you need a plan that includes one of the following:  an ambitious project, an engaging hobby, a lofty goal – and you need (and this is my secret to success) houseplants.  I’m quite serious!  Scientific studies have shown that indoor plants improve our air quality, our blood oxygen ratio, our productivity, and our outlook – all key ingredients to our survival.

Did you know that houseplants actually do more to beautify our body’s “interior” than our home’s interior? You could never pick a better partner to be cooped up indoors with for four months of the year.  Within 24 hours, indoor plants can remove 87% of toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs) like formaldehydes and benzenes from your home.  In addition, they reduce respiratory distress by returning 97% of the water they take in back into the air, increasing the humidity in our home during these dry winter months.  I group mine together in each room on boot trays filled with pebbles to create a micro-climate – a miniature rain forest to combat forced-air and wood heat.

It is hard to conceive a more symbiotic relationship than that of humans and plants. When you breathe, your body takes in oxygen and releases carbon dioxide. During photosynthesis, plants absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen.   In recent years, I learned that I had developed allergies to nearly everything in my environment, indoors and out.  Formaldehyde was the first allergen identified.  It is ubiquitous – found in everything such as most cosmetics, lotions, shampoos, detergents, and in furniture, rugs, grocery bags, construction materials, etc.  After listening to a TED talk on “How to grow your own fresh air” I learned that I could eliminate these toxins from my environment, simply and inexpensively, and without suffering the side effects of allergy medications.  Listen to Karmal Meattle describe the results of his findings with NASA: fresh_air.html

Consider this fact when making your New Year’s resolutions to get healthy this year:   When detoxing your body, approximately 70% of it occurs through breathing, 20% through perspiration, 8% through urination and 2% through the bowels.1  Wouldn’t it make sense then, if you want the most internal bang for your buck, to skip the “total cleanse” and get some house plants instead?

Article References:

  1. Ask a Scientist:  Plant and Night Oxygen Production
  2. fresh_air.html

Other Resources:


Local sources for growing indoor plants and supplies:  Plant Masters of Suttons Bay; HTG Supply; Woodland Shore Gardening Center; Pine Hill Nursery; Four Season Nursery


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