Nourish – July 2020

Bale Raised Beds: My experiment and project for this year’s growing season

By, Michael O’Brien, AEMG

Part 1

Twenty, Twenty was the year to rotate my crops.  I had been growing tomatoes in the same garden for the past two years.  Tomatoes are one of those plants that are prone to root rot disease when they are grown in the same spot for three years or more.  Root rot disease is better known as Fusarium wilt which will kill the plant.

Back in May I watched a webinar on Season Extension Techniques for Growing Food by Dr. John.  In his discussion he mentioned that rotating crops is different for a home owner than a farmer.  A farmer can move that crop to the other side of his field which is far away from where the plant was previously grown.  For a homeowner that can be difficult being the available growing garden area in the yard is either limited or the yard is small.  Another method that was recommended was making a raised bed with straw or hay.  Hay will put nutrients back into the soil which straw doesn’t.  Yes there is the issue of seeds in the bales of both.

My experiment and project for this year is a raised bed created with hay bales.  It would be quicker for me than preparing the soil for my veggie plants.  My raised bed is about fifty feet long by three feet wide.  First, I lined the bottom of the raised bed with cardboard. By doing that all of the weeds will suffocate and become compost. Next, the raised bed was filled with roughly six tons of top soil and one ton of mulch.  I also had a few bales left over so I created a cold frame bed.  Thanks to my neighbor’s remodeling project, I will be using a shower door for the cover.








I started my plants indoors back in March so I was running a bit behind schedule and my plants were starting to show signs of stress before transplanting.  Currently I have planted tomatoes, squash, leeks, sweet potatoes and few more vegetables will be added as time permits.


As for my cold frame I will be planting seeds or plants around the end of July.  Those plants should be ready around October.

I will continue with this article through the growing season for you to see what worked for me and what may be a mistake too.

Nourish – May 2020

Winter Sowing Progress Report

By Tamara Premo, Extension Master Gardener

Now that the weather is getting warmer (well somewhat warmer), I thought I’d give you an update on my winter sown seeds.  I only planted half as many milk jugs this year, because I’m focusing on developing my flower beds and cutting back on some veggies.  I’ll have to get those at the Farmers Market.  Below is a picture of what I’ve done this winter, mostly planted in early March.

In the next photo you can see that I’ve used several sizes of milk jugs and some clear plastic orange juice containers.  Personally, I think the clear plastic containers work better since they get more sunlight.  Also those pill containers tied to each jug contain the seed packet. They are waterproof and I don’t have to worry about my permanent ink pen washing off during the winter…like it did last year.  (I had to wait for some jugs to start blooming because I had no idea what was planted!)

As May starts to get closer I start checking my jugs every other day, mostly to make sure they don’t dry out, and to see if anything is sprouting.  This is my favorite part of winter sowing.  Yesterday I had 11 jugs with sprouts.  The photo below is one of my Bachelor Buttons, always the first to sprout.  Some other varieties that are showing are Dwarf Morning Glories, Zinnias, China Asters, Penstemon and some Speedwell seeds I harvested from my plants last year.

I noticed that my soil was dry on top but the soil in the bottom of the jugs was still damp.  We’ve had several windy days and no snow or rain to keep things wet.  I just took my gallon sprayer jug and gently sprayed the top of the soil in each jug.  You might think that the seedlings would die with our nights below freezing, but the jugs act as mini greenhouses and everything was fine when I checked them today.To illustrate how effective this system is, the next photo is my Agastache -Autumn Sunset.  I grew it as an annual last year because I live in Zone 4b.  It didn’t start sprouting until late July so it never flowered.  And I never got it into the ground!  So this plant lived in this jug all winter and to my great surprise it’s coming back and I’m thinking it will be a perennial for my garden.  My point in telling you this, is sometimes you will think nothing is going to happen with your seeds, but trust me they will germinate when it’s right for them.  Two years ago I planted pink lavender and never saw a seedling all season.  I kept them watered and kept them with my seedlings for next season and sure enough, they germinated and are growing well in my flower beds.

Tomorrow I will start my vegetables (shallots, bunching onions, cabbage, zucchini, and squashes).  Unlike some perennials that need a period of freezing and thawing (stratification), I start these veggies now to get a jump start on my growing season.  By the time the last week in May gets here (my time to plant) the plants will be about 5” or 6” tall.  If you have an empty milk jug and some seeds, try this method, it’s not too late.

Nourish – March 2020

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The Bug Man’s Mother



The Bug Man’s Mother

By Duke Elsner, Ph.D. and Advanced Extension Master Gardener

The year 2019 will always be most memorable for me.  I was able to retire from full-time employment with MSU Extension on January 1.  My wife Gayla and I took a long trip to Oregon and Washington. We became the new superintendents of the Tanner Building at the Northwestern Michigan Fair, in charge of the agriculture, horticulture and floriculture exhibits.

None of these compare with the moments spent with my mother in 2019.  Mom died on October 9, at the amazing old age of 102. It was a rough year for her at times, but she was peaceful and not in pain in the end.  She was still pretty mobile at the start of the year, but a fall in the spring resulted in four broken ribs; she never regained all of her strength after that trauma.  

Gayla and I visited her a lot during the year, as did many other relatives.  She would often reminisce about the family farm she grew up on, in southwest Michigan; memories of her youth were clearer to her than those from her grown-up days.  We tried to take her to our house on most weekends so she could get out of her nursing home room and see trees, flowers, and other people.

Dan and Gustie (Rohde) Graber with children, L-R: Hattie, Theresa, Henry, Adolph, and Dan Gra(e)ber. Eden Springs (House of David), Benton Harbor, Michigan 1919. Photo provided by Dr. Duke Elsner, PhD

On most trips she would remark about how many trees there still were in our area.  “I guess my father didn’t cut all of them down,” was a common comment; her father worked on a lumbering crew in northern Michigan for five years before returning to Russia to marry his sweetheart. They immigrated to the United States in 1912, with two sons. 

Mom came along in 1917, their fifth child (the cute little one in the middle).  She was a tomboy, likely to be found playing baseball with her brothers, walking on the high beams of the barn, or working just as hard as any of them on farm chores.  She survived having tuberculosis before there were antibiotics to treat it. In addition to farm work, the family put a lot of effort into gardening.  

Photo by Dr. Duke Elsner, PhD

Her mother had a large rose garden with many other perennials and annual flowers, and numerous flowering trees and shrubs.  My mother and her brothers helped care for the gardens and landscape after my grandmother got too old to do it.  

Mom married Edward Elsner in 1940 and they moved into a small house in Benton Harbor.  Three sons later, they decided to move to a larger property in the country. She helped design their new house, making sure it abounded in casual comfort and good views of future gardens.  I came along in 1956 when mom was 39. At this time my family raised pickles and red currants as commercial crops, and sweet corn, potatoes and tomatoes for personal use. On the ornamental side, mom specialized in roses, lilacs, peonies, dahlias and bulb flowers.

Photo by Dr. Duke Elsner, PhD

Her mother and one brother continued to live on the old family farm until 1977.  I spent most of my summer days on that farm, working in the orchards, fields and garden.  People often ask me how I became interested in insects. It started by being surrounded by gardens, shrubs, trees and agricultural crops, both at home and on the old farm.  It was very easy to see both the beauty and importance of insects, and my mother never discouraged me from handling them, using her plants to feed them, or keeping a few live ones in the refrigerator.


Photo by Dr. Duke Elsner, PhD

After I left home, mom and dad planted many trees on their property, turning it into a woodlot.  Gardening efforts declined as they aged, but never ceased.  After dad died in 2005, mom continued to live in her home for almost another decade.  She was still mowing her own lawn at age 90! In early 2014 she broke her foot and we had the perfect excuse to pry her out of her house and move her to an assisted living facility in Traverse City.

We added a ramp to our house so she could roll her walker to our front door.  Of course, it needed a row of window boxes to spruce it up a bit. That’s mom, going on 100, helping with the work.  

Duke Elsner, Ph.D., learned as many important things about gardens and landscapes from his mother as he did from universities.  Mom gardened with a few simple guidelines that are still good to consider.   

If it requires a lot of work, that’s OK, you get a lot in return. 

If it requires a lot of spraying, it isn’t worth growing.  

Grow more than you need and give it to those who do need it.  

Give free plants, cuttings, seeds, etc. to anybody that wants some. 

I’m very proud to have many daylilies, peonies, phlox, roses and lilacs in my garden that came from my mother’s garden.  A few of the roses can be traced back to the old farm. Now it’s my job to make sure they outlive me. Fortunately, I had a great teacher for the last 60 years.


By Nancy Larson, Advanced Extension Master Gardener

Did anyone receive a holiday plant gift?  What a really thoughtful gift—and now—you have to care for it.  Holiday gifts such as Poinsettias, Amaryllis, or succulents all require different treatment.  Whether received as holiday gifts (lucky you!) or have been in your collection for years, houseplants deserve special treatment through the dry winter season. I’ve also received plants as a holiday gift and wanted to offer some tips I’ve learned to help you maintain healthy houseplants.

First, you need to know that plants should be segregated.  Moisture loving plants vs drier plants. Watering a cacti weekly would turn it to rot pretty quickly. A Boston fern needs more frequent watering than succulents or cacti do. In addition, some plants like violets and orchids, like to sit on plates with stones, pebbles or marbles that are kept wet.  They like the evaporated moisture. Please bear this in mind when following the tips:

  1. Practice smart watering.  Humidity in homes can vary greatly in winter depending on the coldness of the outside air forcing our heat to work and dry our inside air,  whether we humidify, how many people live in the house, etc. Check your gift plant’s soil for moisture.  Push your finger down and into the soil.  In many cases, if one inch is dry it’s time to water. However, this is not necessarily true with suculents such as sansaveria and jade. They need to be bone dry before watering.  Alternatively, fern and poinsettia will wilt if their soil is bone dry.  Although, if water seeps around your finger when you check the soil, then it needs to dry out. You should wait a week and check again. Inside, we don’t have our automatic trickle or spray watering systems so it is imperative to check on your house plants for moisture needs regularly.
  2. Check the plant for its health.  Remove any damaged, spotted, yellowed leaves.  Off-colored leaves can be a symptom of many things such as root problems, too much fertilizer or even too much water. House plants like to rest in the winter months so require little fertilization, except for orchids and forced bulbs which may need a diluted portion.  Come spring, give your house plants a bit of organic plant food as the daylight hours increase.
  3. If you are lucky to get a plant label/tag with it, READ IT! It could have helpful tips for watering, sun exposure, and placement.  If you don’t have a label/tag, check the internet for sources regarding how to care for your plant.  YouTube has some helpful videos for plant care, but be sure the source is reputable.
  4. Remove any floral wrappings.  They are decorative and look nice, but they cover the hole in the bottom of the plant container which keeps the plant from properly draining, and breathing. ALWAYS put your pots on a saucer or decorative bowl.  You don’t want to ruin your tables with a water ring from the plant pots moisture.
  5. Location!  Location! Location! A south or east facing window brings in good light.  Avoid placing your plant near fireplaces or by forced air heat vents, as that causes dryness and withering.  Watch for signs. If you choose a location and in a week or two the plant is drooping, move it, it’s telling you it doesn’t like it there.

Remember we often kill our plants with kindness, thinking that watering them often is loving them. Don’t overwater. 

Enjoy your inside plants!

Nourish – January 2020

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Going Bananas in Saint Lucia

Winter Sowing

Going Bananas in Saint Lucia

By Whitney Miller, Advanced Extension Master Gardener

My husband and I had the pleasure of vacationing in Saint Lucia this October and were excited to experience the southern Caribbean and its lush foliage. What surprised me most was that nearly everything on the island is edible: cocoa, coconut, nutmeg, bananas, mango, papaya, ginger, breadnut, vanilla, and more. While most of these are not native, the variation of topography includes a volcano, rainforest, and beaches, which creates several soil types and ideal growing areas for the abundance of plants brought to the island via ship over the centuries. Imagine being a hungry sailor shipwrecked in Saint Lucia, and having success growing food!

According to, bananas fall under the genus Musa. There are several varieties, including “plantain bananas” and “dessert bananas”, among others, which are believed to have originated in the Southeast Asia. In the United States, we are mostly familiar with the Cavendish variety (dessert bananas). Some sites list bananas botanically as a berry, but classifies them as an herb. This site clarifies things further:

“Banana plants are often mistaken for trees or palms – they are actually herbs. The banana is a perennial plant that replaces itself. Bananas do not grow from a seed but from a bulb or rhizome, and it takes 9 to 12 months from sowing a banana bulb to harvesting the fruit. The banana flower appears in the sixth or seventh month. Unlike other fruit like apples which have a growing season, bananas are available all year round.

Banana plants thrive in tropical regions where the average temperature is 80° F (27° C) and the yearly rainfall is between 78 and 98 inches. Most bananas exported are grown within 30 degrees either side of the equator. The plants need rich, dark and fertile soils with steady moisture in the air and ground and good drainage.”

In Saint Lucia, bananas grow very quickly thanks to the fertile soil and near perfect rainfall amounts. It takes exactly nine months for an immature plant to produce ripened fruit. The fruit grows in an upward direction, not downward like many may think. The main trunk is then cut to about 6 inches above the ground. The plant will then create a sucker which is allowed to grow and will produce again. Thus, the pattern is repeated for every plant every 9 months. After about 10 years, or when the space becomes full, the entire plant will be dug up and made into hog feed, and a new one planted (from a cutting). Some of the banana plants in the gardens are believed to be direct descendants of the first bananas on the island.

Once harvested, they are exported to several areas of the world via ship. Primarily, Saint Lucia provides bananas to England. According to, “The fruit is then transported to ports to be packed in refrigerated ships called reefers (bananas take between six and twelve days to get to the UK/Europe). In order to increase shelf life, they are transported at a temperature of 13.3°C, and require careful handling in order to prevent damage. Humidity, ventilation and temperature conditions are also carefully monitored in order to maintain quality.” Thus the bananas make it to grocery stores and into homes.

While vacationing is often a time of rest and relaxation, trips to new locations can introduce gardeners to new plants and growing cultures. Be sure to “go bananas” and discover new foods when you next travel.

Bananas in Saint Lucia, Photo by W. Miller

Winter Sowing

By Tamara Premo, EMG Trainee

Yesterday I received two seed catalogs and today my garden planning begins for next spring.  Looking at all the new vegetables and perennials makes me antsy to start gardening again, but spring is months away. Not to worry….five years ago I learned how to start my gardening during the winter.  It’s called Winter Sowing and gives me a head start on my planting by 3 or 4 weeks.

Winter Sowing is a cost-effective and low-maintenance way of starting plants for the garden. Creator of the winter-sowing method, Trudi Davidoff puts it in simple terms: starting plants outdoors, in winter. “Winter-sowing works with nature to prepare seeds for growth by providing the proper conditions to begin germination. While this may sound complicated, the only supplies needed are a recycled container that allows light through, soil, and seeds,” says Nicole Flowers-Kimmerle, horticulture educator with the University of Illinois Extension.

To begin, create your miniature greenhouse from recycled plastic containers. Milk jugs that allow light to penetrate work well. Experiment with the recyclable containers you have on hand. 

Because the containers will collect snow and rain, add drainage holes in your mini-greenhouse. With a drill or utility knife, cut several holes into the bottom of the container. Cut around the milk jug below the bottom of the handle, without cutting the top of the container all the way off. Leave about a half an inch intact just below the handle. This section acts as a hinge to hold the container together.

Next, fill the bottom of the miniature greenhouse with potting soil. Moisten the soil and allow it to drain. The soil should have a moisture level like a damp sponge. Light and fluffy soil that drains well works best.

Fill the bottom with about 3″ of potting soil and plant seeds as directed on the packet, but you may plant closer together as you will be transplanting them as soon as they are large enough and the weather warms.

The container is now ready for seeds. Small seeds can be left on top of the soil, however larger seeds require more attention. Follow the instructions on the seed packet for planting depths of larger seeds. Make sure there is good contact between the seed and the soil. Replace the lid and secure with duct tape. Label the container with the date and the type of seed planted. Your small greenhouse container is ready to go outdoors. While the mini-greenhouses should receive sunlight and have exposure to rain and snow, they should be placed in an area that is safe from strong winds.

Remember to leave the cap off so snow and rain can get to your seedlings.

The temperature variation prepares the seeds for germination at the proper time. When the days begin to warm, seedlings will emerge. After emergence, open the container on sunny days, but close it at dusk to protect the seedlings from cold night temperatures. The seedlings naturally harden off and can be transplanted when soil temperatures reach proper levels. Cut flaps along the side of the miniature greenhouse to slide seedlings out. Divide the clump into pieces and plant as you would a store variety.

Wait to begin winter-sowing until January or February. If there is a warm spell, the seeds can germinate, but won’t be hardy enough to survive when temperatures fall.  “Do your homework when choosing seeds,” Flowers-Kimmerle says. “Frost-tolerant flowers and vegetables such as petunias, cosmos, kale, broccoli, spinach, and Brussels sprouts successfully withstand the cold temperatures of early winter. Frost-sensitive species such as zinnias, tomatoes, and squash need to wait until the warmer temperatures of March or April before sowing using this method.” Winter sown seedlings grow into healthy, sturdy plants. Plants will be ready to thrive in the garden when spring arrives.

For more information about this topic, there is a very active Facebook group called “Winter Sowers” and a website at  Both have lists of annuals, perennials, native plants, and vegetables that are good candidates for this process.

I encourage you to give this method a try, it’s inexpensive and you’ll get a jump start on planting next season.



Nourish – November 2019

Landscaping for Our Friends the Bees, Butterflies and Beneficial Insects

By Nancy Popa, Extension Master Gardener

As lawns and hardscapes have increased, sources of nectar, pollen and shelter for bees, butterflies and beneficial insects (BBBI) have decreased, causing stress on these important insects (our friends).   Our own yards can be an important source of nectar, pollen and shelter for BBBI if their needs are taken into account.  

We have all seen entire neighborhoods of perfectly manicured lawns.  Even if this landscape is aesthetic, it is unnatural and it does not support a healthy ecosystem.  Your neighbors may object, depending upon where you live, but consider adding plants to your lawn like clover, black medic and even dandelions to provide nectar and pollen for BBBI. An even better idea is to shrink the lawn and add flowering  annuals, perennials, shrubs and trees, which provide many benefits beyond what a lawn provides such as decreased use of fertilizer and herbicides, shade for home cooling, deep roots with filtration capabilities and of course, beauty. When you do this, make sure that you select plants that provide the nutrition and pollen needed by BBBI.  Native plants are a great way to assure that the plants you have planted will provide the nutrition need by our native BBBI. When selecting plants always go by the scientific name, as common names are often confusing. For instance red salvia, the popular annual bedding plant, is not highly attractive to bees but blue salvia (Salvia farinacea), and several types of perennial salvia (Salvia nemorosa) have allure.  Useful information about native plants can be found at Michigan State University Native Plants and Beneficial Insects website:

It is important to provide nectar and pollen throughout the year.  Observe your yard and add plants that flower in the months when you have no flowers.  If you were to plant Golden Alexander (Aizia aurea), Shrubby Cinquefoil (Potentilla fructose), Cup Plant (Silphium perfolatium) and Riddel’s Goldenrod (Salidago ridellii), you would be providing rich sources of nectar and pollen for BBBI in the months of June, July, August and September, respectively.  When garden beds are designed, color, height and bloom time are usually considered. Think about adding a fourth dimension to your design criteria—importance to BBBI health.

Maintaining a healthy landscape will minimize the need for pesticides that have detrimental effects on BBBI.  Planting the “right plant in the right place” is the first step to keeping a plant strong and resistant to infestation.  The soil pH, soil type, sunlight and moisture are critical to strong plants. When selecting plants and trees, choose species that are not susceptible to disease and pests that will require control with insecticides and fungicides in order to remain healthy.  Ash, elm, spruce and euonymus and examples of problem species. 

It is never too late to get rid of bad performers and replace them with plants that the BBBIs will love.



Protecting and Enhancing Pollinators in Urban Landscapes for the US North Central Region.  MSU Extension Bulletin E3314.

Attracting Beneficial Insects with Native Flowering Plants.  MSU Extension, Fiedler, Tuell, Isaacs, Landis


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