Steward – Sep 2017

Worm Bin (also called vermicompost), photo by MG Trina Ball


by Kellie Parks, MG Trainee

OK, I confess.  I am a worm cheerleader.  When I see them whilst working in the garden, I encourage them, thank them, and bury them back in the dark.  Worms are free labor in the garden working with microorganism to make nutrient rich humus.

Many gardeners are backyard composters in the summer months, turning years of kitchen waste into a valuable, organic, soil amendment.  However, in our northern climate, microbe activity comes to a screeching halt when the thermometer drops.  And so too does composting.  On the other hand, we still generate kitchen waste and many simply toss it into the trash during the winter months.  What if, we in the North could compost kitchen waste all year long?

Vermicomposting, or composting with worms, can be accomplished inside in any season.  The basic ingredients are simple: a container, bedding, water, worms, and kitchen scraps.

    • The container can be a plastic or wooden bin.  An old dresser drawer can be a great site or dimension.  Keep indoors or in a heated garage in winter months.
    • Bedding is a recyclable itself; shredded newspapers.  Beware of too much office or junk mail as some of the inks can be toxic to worms.
    • Moisture content is similar to your outdoor compost pile, like a well wrung-out washcloth.
    • Worms should be red wigglers, Eisenia foetida, and can be sourced on-line, at a bait shop, or from a vermicomposting friend.  Volume of worms will depend upon your kitchen waste. Figure approximately one pound of worms for each half pound of food scraps per day.

Worms do best on a diet of fruit and vegetable peels and trimmings, crushed egg shells, coffee grounds, and tea bags.  Avoid onion, garlic, citrus, cruciferous, dairy, fats, oils, and meats.

Castings can be dried or steeped into tea and used on indoor and outdoor plants or mixed into potting soil.  While nutritious, castings are mild and will not burn or over- fertilize.

Be sure to keep the red wigglers contained as they can become aggressive in the soil.

For additional information, see Mary Appelhof’s book, “Worms Eat My Garbage, and the MSUE article:  http//

Master Gardener Coordinator’s Corner – Sep 2017

Contents (Click on a title or scroll)

Plant Identification

Powdery Mildews and Powdery Mil-Don’ts

Plant Identification

by Nate Walton, MSUE Master Gardener Coordinator, MSU Extension – Leelanau County

Epipactis helleborine. Photo from Minnesota Wildflowers

Have you seen this plant?  This is Epipactis helleborine, or helleborine, a terrestrial orchid that was introduced to Michigan from Europe sometime towards the end of the nineteenth century.  It has recently been reported as a problem weed in Michigan lawns and gardens.  It is quite a difficult weed to manage, so if it is in unwanted areas around your home you might want to take some measures to control it.

Removing the flower heads before they go to seed is a key control measure for this plant, so you’ll want to take care of it right away.  At my house in Traverse City, the helleborine started to bloom in July.  If you’d like to eradicate the plant altogether, digging it up roots and all is the recommended method.  However, the roots go deep and it will re-sprout from the rhizome if any pieces are left behind, so you will want to be thorough.

Photo by BerndH via Wikimedia Commons

For more information on identification and control of helleborine, read the MSUE article “Homeowners battling a weedy orchid invading lawns and flowerbeds,” which can be found at:


Powdery Mildews and Powdery Mil-Don’ts

Click on photo for enlarged image. Photo by Nate Walton

The high humidity this summer has made it a really good year for powdery mildew.  You have probably noticed a white coating with a powdery appearance on a variety of annuals and perennials this summer.  The powdery mildew pathogen is a fungus, so it’s related to mushroom producing fungi such as the Morchella spp. that produce morel mushrooms.  Unlike morels, however, the mycelia of powdery mildews do not grow in a network under the soil.  Instead, they grow over the upper surface of the plant leaves.

In the summer, this mycelium produces tiny spores (conidia) that give the leaf its white powdery appearance.  The spores can be spread from leaf to leaf or plant to plant by wind or splashing water.  Lucky for us, most powdery mildews are very host specific, so they will not spread from, for example, your rosebush to your lilac.

When powdery mildew is found on adjacent plants that are not closely related, it just means that both species are susceptible and that the conditions are right for mildew in that location.  Choosing resistant varieties or growing susceptible varieties in locations with good air circulation and plenty of sunlight are some ways to prevent powdery mildew from gaining a foothold in your garden.  Also, avoid overhead irrigation and growing susceptible varieties (e.g. Monarda spp.) in crowded and/or shady areas.

Beginning in late summer, the powdery mildew pathogen starts to get ready for winter.  To do this, it forms a tiny black structure called a chasmothecium.  Chasmothecia show up as tiny black spots on the leaves infected with powdery mildew (see photo).  It is these chasmothecia that will produce fresh spores next year to reinfect the green foliage in the spring.  Removing and destroying the leaf litter under infested plants will help reduce the amount of powdery mildew attacking your garden next year.

If you would like more information on how to manage powdery mildew, read the MSUE article “P is for powdery mildew on ornamentals”, contact your local extension office, or call the MSUE garden hotline Monday through Friday from 9am to noon, and 1pm to 4pm.  The phone number for the hotline is 1-888-MSUE-4-MI (1-888-678-3464).  Thanks, and happy gardening!

Steward – July 2017

On The Radar – July & August  How is your compost pile doing?  Have you turned or watered it lately?  Adding water and aerating the pile will speed decomposition.  Be sure it gets good and hot (add more carbon-based browns if the green nitrogen-based plants slow the process).  You do have leaves saved from last fall, don’t you? 

Keep an eye on bugs in your garden.  Appreciate the work they do.  Do not run for a pesticide just because of a few bugs.  Take the patient route and work slowly to encourage the insect food web to develop.  Remember, birds need caterpillars.  Let a healthy crop of parasitic and predatory bugs develop in your yard.

Contents (Click on a title or scroll)

Nate Walton Introduction, Squash Bee Intro AND Volunteer Opportunity!

Why Plants and Pets Need Equal Care

Nate Walton Introduction, Squash Bee Intro AND Volunteer Opportunity!

by Nate Walton, Leelanau/Grand Traverse/Benzie EMG Coordinator

Greetings gardeners! As the new Master Gardener Coordinator for Grand Traverse, Leelanau, and Benzie County, I would like to take a few minutes to introduce myself to the MGANM. I am an entomologist (AKA bug nerd) by training, with an MS and PhD in Entomology from MSU. However, I have also had a great deal of interest in plants and gardening. Growing up in Suttons Bay, I often helped out in the garden at home and started learning the art of gardening at a very early age. More recently I have taught plant pathology at Northwestern Michigan College for the MSU institute of Agricultural Technology. I have also been very active in pollinator conservation, performing research and education activities centered around growing native plants to provide food and shelter for native bees and other beneficial insects.

Often, when people find out that I am an entomologist the first thing they say to me is, “Ok, so what’s your favorite bug?” Well, the answer to that question is not as simple as it may seem. There are millions of species of “bugs,” which makes it really hard to pick just one. I get around the question by telling people that I don’t have a favorite bug all the time, but I do have one this week. For example, this week my “favorite bug” is the squash bee, Peponapis pruinosa. Squash bees are solitary bees, which means they don’t make big communal nest in the ground or in trees like most of the bees and wasps that you are familiar with. Instead, squash bees nest in the soil near the vines of the cucurbits such as squash, cucumber, or pumpkin that you may have growing in your garden. These little black and yellow striped bees are essential for pollination of cucurbit flowers and without them we wouldn’t be able to eat zucchini, summer squash, watermelon, pickles, or pumpkin pie to name a few.

The reason that squash bees are my favorite bug this week is Michigan State University researchers are looking for Master Gardener volunteers to participate in a statewide squash bee survey. All you have to do to participate in the survey is learn a little bit about squash bees, count them on the cucurbits in your garden, and upload the data. There’s even an app for it! If you’d like more information or to participate in this exciting and educational citizen science project you can contact your local Master Gardener Coordinator or visit MSU’s Vegetable Entomology website (


Why Plants and Pets Need Equal Care

by Brian Zimmerman, Brian Zimmerman Associates

Buying a plant is much like buying a pet. For those who are pet lovers, not gardeners, this statement may seem a little over the top. But for those of us who love to garden, the parallel seems reasonable. Plants and pets are living, breathing entities and most likely when purchased they are infants, requiring considerable care and nurturing.

In our pet example, if you are shopping at a reputable source you assume the staff have treated the pet well to ensure its good health. Most likely the staff are pet lovers themselves. You in turn take time choosing your pet and great care getting the new pet home safely. If you are a new pet owner you are given sound advice in the care and feeding of your new pet. You would never consider putting your pet in the trunk of your car or the back of your truck, taking it home and leaving it there a few days until you are ready to play with it. This would constitute possible death or at least great harm to your pet.

Our plant example isn’t much different. If shopping at a reputable nursery the staff make every effort to ensure the nursery plants are well cared for. The nursery also has a responsibility to ensure the plant makes it to its new home in good condition and depending on the plant size and type this ‘packaging’ can take time. You are given sound advice on the care and feeding of your new plant. As with the pet example, the nursery staff are plant lovers themselves, taking their job seriously and are most concerned with the well-being of the plant.

Far too often new plants are not afforded the same treatment as pets. They are left in the trunk of the car or back of the truck. Often the plant has a guarantee and nurseries have an obligation to honor that guarantee even though they have no control over how that plant is treated once it leaves the nursery.

Plants require the same love and care as your pet. Treat your new plant purchase with love and it will reward you with its beauty for many years.

Steward – May 2017

On the Radar:  May

Cheryl Gross, Advanced Master Gardener, Vice President MGANM, President Plant It Wild

Begin May with a soil test!  Test your lawn soil OR your vegetable soil OR your flower garden soil.  Know what your soil needs and treat to address those needs.  Locally, McGough’s accepts soil samples and has results available in 7-10 days for $20.  MSU also conducts soil tests.  Go on-line and check it out.

Vow to avoid synthetic fertilizers in your yard this year!  Go organic.  Feed the soil to support the plants.  Stay away from chemicals and drugs that degrade the soil and boosts plant growth.

Plant native.  Add one or more Michigan native plants to your yard.  Begin with a Serviceberry, Amalachier leavis, or a Butterfly Weed.  Each will increase the food sources for insects and critters available in your yard.  The more, the healthier!

Steward – March 2017

Contents (Click on a title or scroll)

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.


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