Coordinator’s Corner

Coordinator’s Corner, May 2020

Coordinator’s Corner: How to Volunteer While Staying Home and Staying Safe

By Nate Walton, MSU Extension Consumer Horticulture Instructor and MG Coordinator

Many of you will already be aware that MSU Extension Master Gardener Volunteers and Trainees are not being required to complete their volunteer hour requirements for certification in 2020. However, there has not been a decrease in the need for the services that our program provides. Fortunately, we can continue to serve our communities, we just need to adapt how we do that in order to ensure the health and safety of everyone involved. Here is a simple message that I would encourage you to share with individuals or organizations that we partner with: 

Due to current travel restrictions and safety guidelines, MSU Extension has modified how we work with our clientele. We are still here to provide the information and resources you need, just in different ways than we have in the past.

In the spirit of that message, I am working hard to create volunteer opportunities that MSU Extension Master Gardeners in the Grand Traverse area can engage in while staying home and staying safe. All of these opportunities involve interacting with others only via remote methods such as telephone, online video conferencing, and/or the postal service. 

Lawn and Garden Q&A with MSU Extension Master Gardeners

Every Wednesday from 11am to 1pm, MSU Extension Master Gardeners join me for a live plant diagnostic clinic for local residents via Zoom. You can join just to listen in and learn, or you can help by providing one-on-one diagnostic support to our clients. I would also encourage you to bring your own plant or insect questions to the session. It is easy to join. You can join via internet on your smartphone, tablet, or computer. You can also join by telephone. The link to join by Zoom is: https://msu.zoom.us/j/210151959?pwd=elMwbWp5cDdjMkJHNG03Z0h6ZW84dz09.

If you’d like to join by phone, contact me (waltonn2@msu.edu, 231-256-9888 ext 323) and I will provide you with the phone number and instructions. 

Become a Garden Mentor

I have had requests from a number of local non-profits, schools, and individuals who have an interest in creating vegetable gardens, some of them for the first time, to provide food for those in need in our communities in the Grand Traverse area. To help these enthusiastic new gardeners succeed, I’d like to connect each of them with an MSU Extension Master Gardener Volunteer mentor. The Garden Mentor’s role will be to help them via remote methods (phone, internet, etc) by providing gardening expertise, aid in planning their garden, problem solving, and so on. I have created an online survey tool that will allow me to link MSU Extension Master Gardner Volunteers with these organizations and individuals. The tool will allow you to choose whether you’d prefer to work with schools, individuals, organizations, or all of the above! I will then be able to pair you with an appropriate mentee on an as-needed basis. The link to the survey is here:

https://msu.co1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_0ONWtPAwuOgoX65

Thank you for reading! I will keep you all updated as new opportunities emerge. Also, please continue to share with me any and all volunteer opportunities or ideas that you might have. I wish you all a safe and happy spring gardening season!


Coordinator’s Corner, March 2020

Coordinator’s Corner: Spring Cleanup That Protects Pollinators

By Nate Walton, MSU Extension Consumer Horticulture Instructor and MG Coordinator

This article is a follow-up to my article about fall cleanup to protect pollinators which you can read in the September 2019 edition of The Real Dirt. 

A pollinator is any animal that moves pollen from one flower of a plant to another flower of the same plant species. In Michigan, our most important pollinators of most native plant species are wild bees. For our insect-pollinated agricultural crops, wild bees contribute to pollination, but most require that large numbers of European honey bees (Apis mellifera) be placed nearby in portable hives.

Honey bee hives placed in a blueberry field for pollination of the crop (N.Walton, MSU Extension). Honey bees are an irreplaceable component of modern agriculture, but you don’t have to worry about them during your spring garden cleanup

Wild bees do not spend the winter in hives, they overwinter in protected locations in a state of hibernation. There are at least 465 species of wild bees living in Michigan and scientists are only beginning

3 native wild bees enjoying the resources provided by this early spring flower (N. Walton, MSU Extension).

to understand where most of them are located in the winter and how we can use that information to protect them. Most wild bees (about 80%) construct their nests in the soil at depths from just a few inches, to as deep as 1 m. The remainder are

called cavity-nesters and they use pithy stems (e.g. elderberry, sumac), hollow stems (wild grasses), or beetle borings in dead trees. For these soil and cavity nesting bees, conservation is a little bit easier because their nest location is also their overwintering location. With some careful observation of the bees in your yard, you should be able to see where they are nesting, make note of it, and protect that area from disturbance. 

There is probably not much that you need to do differently from your normal spring cleanup routine, to protect the soil nesting bees. On the other hand, if you left ornamental grasses or herbaceous perennial stems unpruned last fall, they may now be harboring cavity nesting bees. When you cut them back this spring, try to allow the stems to remain intact by using sharp tools. Then, you can place them in an out of the way location where the bees will be able to emerge from the nests naturally.

The compost pile is probably not the best place to place plant material that may contain overwintering bees, because there is too much moisture there and the bees may die from pathogen infections. I would recommend having a designated brush pile for all of the material that may be harboring overwintering pollinators. Keep the pile light and airy to prevent moisture accumulation. The timing of your stem cleanup can be somewhat flexible but there are a few important facts to keep in mind. First, the cavity nesting bees will be happiest and healthiest if they are allowed to emerge from the stems while they are still in their natural position (i.e. attached to the crown that they grew from originally). Second, the exact timing of natural emergence depends on the species and climate in your area. And (third) if you wait too long, they will start creating new nests in the stems. Disturbing freshly created nests is much more harmful to the bees than disturbing the bees while they are still in hibernation. Fourth, sometimes the best time to prune is when you have the shears in your hand. 

Another important group of bees that I have not mentioned yet, are one of springtime’s most conspicuous pollinators: Bumble Bees. Bumble bees are social bees, which means that they have a life cycle that includes several generations of workers living together in a communal nest. However, their colonies are started from scratch each spring by solitary queen bees called foundresses. The foundress mated the previous fall and spent the winter in a sheltered location, waiting for her chance to search out a location for her new nest this spring. Scientists actually know very little about where bumble bee queens spend the winter and they would like to know more. If you are interested in helping them out, you can join the Queen Quest citizen science project (https://www.queenquest.org/about.html).

A bumble bee on weeping cherry in April 2017 (N. Walton, MSU Extension)

Anecdotal reports gathered over the years, give us some idea of where you are most likely to encounter bumble bee queens before they break hibernation. They seem to seek out loose litter, such as that you might find under a pine tree or other conifer. Some of them seem to even like burrowing down a few  inches below the soil under the turf in our lawns. They also seem to have a preference for slopes and for locations with an adjacent vertical barrier such a tree, shrub, or building. In other words, they may be in a lot of the areas where you are targeting your spring cleanup activities. It can be quite harmful to disturb hibernating queen bees before it is warm enough for them to fly and/or seek out a new shelter.

This is one of the reasons many advocates of pollinator protection during spring cleanup recommend waiting until the temperature has been consistently over 50 degrees for five days before cleaning up your leaf litter of disturbing a lot of soil in your garden (see “Take a Load Off” by Cheryl Gross in this month’s The Real Dirt). If you do come across an overwintering bumble bee queen during your spring cleanup activities, the best thing to do is to gently return her to where you found her and replace the layer of leaves or duff that had been protecting her. 


Master Gardener Coordinator’s Corner

The Volunteer Selection Process (VSP) for EMGs and a new location for this spring’s EMG training program!

By, Nate Walton MSUE Master Gardener Coordinator and Consumer Horticulture Program Instructor

I am happy to announce that this year’s (2020) MSU Extension Master Gardener training program is moving to be a little bit closer to Traverse City. We distributed an online survey this fall to find out where our pool of prospective trainees would prefer to hold the class this year and there was overwhelming support for a Traverse City location. I was able to reserve an event space at the Grand Traverse Regional Arts Campus (Leelanau Studios), which is located just north of TC at the intersection of Cherry Bend Rd. and M-22 in Elmwood Township. The classes will begin on Thursday March 5th and will continue every Thursday from 4 – 8 pm through June 14th.

Registration is open for this spring’s training program so please help to spread the word! The deadline to pay by check is February 11th and the volunteer application must be completed by February 21st so there is no time to waste. As you may be aware, the process to become an MSU Extension Master Gardener volunteer has changed in the last few years and these changes mean that prospective trainees have to begin the application process earlier than ever. When talking to potential applicants, I would recommend emphasizing that the program is first and foremost a volunteer service program. Extension Master Gardeners are trained to be out in Michigan’s communities, leading, teaching, and gardening alongside Michigan residents of all ages and all walks of life. Sometimes, this means working with vulnerable populations. To protect these people we serve, it is extremely important that all our MSU Extension Master Gardener Volunteers pass through a vetting or screening process. For Extension Master Gardener volunteers, the screening or Volunteer Selection Process (VSP) consists of 3 main components:

  1. An electronic application, which is completed on a secure MSU Extension website. The application will include consent to background checks (national and state) and Sex Offender Registry checks. 
  2. References. The online application requires that you provide the names of 5 references (friends, EMGs, co-workers, etc.). 
  3. A face-to-face interview with a trained MSU Extension staff member (most likely with yours truly, Nate Walton). The volunteer interview is an opportunity, in a casual setting, for you and your EMG coordinator to learn more about you, your volunteer interests, and expectations of the program. 

There is also an abundance of information on the MSU Events registration page for the class, which is located here: https://events.anr.msu.edu/mgvptraversecity20/

Starting in 2020, all currently certified EMG volunteers will be asked to complete the VSP as well. For certified EMGs who have not already completed the VSP, the process will be an abbreviated version of the process described above, but is essentially the same. The exact timeline for EMGs to begin the process is not yet determined, but you will be invited by email when it is time for you to begin the VSP. Let me know if you have any questions about the training program or the VSP. I can be reached at waltonn2@msu.edu or 231-256-9888 (x323). We know how important your volunteer work is and we hope this process will improve the impact of that work. Your feedback and participation as always, is greatly appreciated!


Coordinator’s Corner

Fall Cleanup to Protect Pollinators

By Nate Walton, Michigan State University Extension Master Gardener Coordinator

Along with all of the nationwide enthusiasm for protecting our pollinators have come some really important questions about exactly how best to do it. In some cases the questions are easier to answer because we have an abundance of scientific research, for example, on the effects of insecticides on pollinators. Unfortunately, to answer other questions, we are left with a scarcity of research and we are forced to make generalizations or to leave questions unanswered because, frankly, we don’t know the answer. The question of how to protect overwintering pollinators in our managed landscapes and gardens is one of the latter. Hopefully, all of this debate will inspire more scientific research, but in the meantime we are forced to make generalizations based on what little we know about the overwintering ecology of some of our flower-visiting insects. 

It may seem early to be talking about fall cleanup, but the fact is that many of our pollinators in our area (the Northwest corner of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula) have already found a place to spend the winter by now.  The remainder will be looking for their winter home in the coming months so now is as good a time as any to plan your yard and garden cleanup to protect pollinators. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for protecting our overwintering pollinators. “Pollinators” are an incredibly diverse group and each species has its own preferences for overwintering habitat and emergence timing in the spring. Also, the community of pollinators and how well they survive the winter depends a great deal on geography, climate, and even microclimates in your garden. Finally, the plants themselves in a lawn, perennial bed, and annual flower bed all have specific management needs to keep them at their healthiest going into next year’s season. All of these complications make it virtually impossible to craft recommendations that will satisfy all parties involved. It is up to you to make choices that optimize the protection of pollinators while also meeting your own objectives for your managed landscape or garden.

This tiny bee (<8mm) in the Genus Ceratina will spend the winter in a hollow grass stem or the pithy stem of plants such as sumac or elderberry. (Photo by N. Walton, MSU Extension)

To Clean or Not to Clean?

The most important thing to keep in mind is that by creating overwintering habitat for pollinators in your managed garden space you are committing yourself to caring for those pollinators until next spring or summer when they “wake up” and continue their development. In other words, by creating habitat for overwintering pollinators in the fall, you run the risk of harming them in the spring unless you are very careful during your spring gardening activities. Alternatively, you could create habitat for pollinators in a part of your yard that is less heavily managed, where you perform neither fall nor spring cleanup. 

When to clean?

In the garden space where you do like to tidy things up in the spring and fall, clean up early in fall rather than late so that you don’t risk attracting pollinators that are looking for a winter home. You can then choose to place the leaf litter and stem cuttings from your cleanup activities in another part of the yard to provide habitat for the pollinators there instead. Don’t forget to take extra care with plant material that may be harboring plant pathogens. If you had plants with signs of disease in your garden, you’ll want to separate their leaves and cuttings and destroy them to prevent re-infection of your plants next season. 

What and how to clean?

Many of our pollinators in the Northwest Lower Peninsula of Michigan overwinter under the soil, attached to woody stems, or on tree trunks. These pollinators are not likely to be affected much by typical fall cleanup activities. Some bees and butterflies will spend the winter inside of or attached to the stems of some of our herbaceous perennials and ornamental grasses. If you are cutting these back in the fall, you can carefully bundle or pile the cuttings and place them in an undisturbed area so that those insects can complete their development normally in the spring. 

A few species of moths and butterflies will choose the leaf litter as an overwintering site. If you don’t get around to performing fall cleanup until later in the season (see above), then you can remove the leaves carefully to an undisturbed area. Hand removal of leaves is not likely to cause much harm to the overwintering stages of pollinators. Gentle raking is probably okay as well. Avoid leaf blowers and leaf vacuums, as these are more likely to harm the overwintering stages of pollinators that are sheltered in the leaf litter and around the lower portions of landscape plants. 

What about spring cleaning?

Check back with me in the spring for a follow up to this article. In the meantime, there is a wealth of information about how you can support pollinators by withholding pesticide sprays, providing flowering plants, nesting resources, and overwintering habitat, all available at migarden.msu.edu and pollinators.msu.edu.


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