Steward – March 2021

Contents (Click on a title or scroll)


Composting with biochar

Seed Starting

Bale Raised Beds: My experiment and project for this year’s growing season – Part 2

Planning for Planting (moved to Nourish)

Getting Started with Vermiculture, AKA Worm Composting

Spring Clean-Up in the Garden



Composting with biochar

Featuring presentations by Tim Overdier and Nate Walton.

MGANM January Meeting Notes by Erin Paxson -Extension Master Gardener Trainee

BiocharBiochar is the latest buzzword in the gardening world. What exactly is biochar?  What benefits does it have in the garden and how do you utilize it?  Tim Overdier is based in Northport, and after years of research as a soil scientist in 10 different states and twice as many Indian reservations, he has collaborated with grazier Paul May to sell to and educate the public on biochar use. Their company, The Biochar Guys ( create biochar using old home heating tanks made into 10ft trough kilns.

Although many of us are just now becoming familiar with biochar, Tim tells us it was utilized 8,000 years ago in the Amazon by indigenous people to enhance soil fertility.  Biochar has the ability to absorb water, minerals, nutrients, even fertilizer nitrates, heavy metals, and chemicals that can contaminate the groundwater. Biochar’s high surface area and honeycomb-like structure can provide a home for soil microbes. It is negatively charged, absorbing nutrients with positively charged cations thus contributing to higher cation exchange capacity (CEC). Another benefit of biochar is that it stabilizes 50-65% of carbon in organic matter, slowing down the normal decomposition cycle.  

Tim believes Michigan is an ideal place to experiment with biochar.  Our sandy Kalkaska soil has a low cation and water holding capacity.  Using biochar can provide a solution.  It is possible to make your own biochar but not all material can be burned. It best to stick with branches 0-3” in diameter left over from pruning or old wood mill waste. The process of pyrolysis is also key to making quality biochar.  Tim recommends applying 2 cubic ft of biochar mixed with compost into a 100 sq ft garden.  Adding compost to the biochar helps prevent it from initially absorbing too many nutrients in the soil. Amazingly, biochar does not need to be reapplied each year, it does not break down and will last hundreds of years in the soil!  The char has a pH of 8 so its best to add it in increments and monitor the pH. Adding too much can have a liming effect.

Dr. Nate Walton rounded out the presentation by discussing the finer points of using biochar in compost for the garden. He reiterated the fact that the ideal soil is comprised of 5% organic matter.  This includes humus (decomposed organic matter) and living organisms. Building healthy, active soil can be done with mulch, cover crops and compost.  During the composting process, as organic matter decomposes, methane, carbon dioxide and ammonia are released.   The optimal ratios for compost are 2:1 or 3:1 by volume (carbon: nitrogen). The carbon or brown material you would add to create compost might include leaves, straw, twigs, shredded paper.  The nitrogen or green material could come from grass clippings, food waste, weeds, and coffee grounds.  For example, add 2 buckets of shredded paper and 1 bucket of lawn clippings. When composting, 1) layer material up to 4 ft in height. 2) Add water so the compost feels similar to a damp sponge. 3) Add a shovelful of moist soil. 4)Mix well.    If you choose to create hot compost (aerobic) the moisture level and temperature will need to be monitored and it should be turned.  This is the best type of compost to mix with biochar.  When adding char to compost, consider the source of the biochar.  Add 5-15% by weight at the beginning of the composting process.

 As of today, biochar lacks the research and funding to be a widely used product.  Hopefully, this will change.  The benefits of biochar appear to be well worth the effort. More info can be found here:



Seed Starting

Presentation by Sue Newman- AMG

MGANM February Meeting Notes by Erin Paxson -Extension Master Gardener Trainee

Seed SavingThese rare sunny days have us gardeners ready to get our hands in the soil!  Advanced Master Gardener Sue Newman shared with us some valuable tips for successfully starting seeds indoors, allowing for a head start on the short growing season.  It begins with browsing the seed catalogs. Look for the helpful key in the first few pages to quickly learn the light requirements, disease resistance and many other factors that will allow you to choose the seeds that are right for your garden.  Long day seeds grow well in northern climates. Sue recommends AAS- All America Selections as a great resource for finding new highly rated seeds based on flavor and growth and tailored to specific regions.  She turns to Mother Earth News and Fine Gardening magazines for articles on current trends. 

When determining when it is safe to being planting, Sue combines the last frost dates found at with information found on the back of individual seed packets.  Here you will also find days to germination and whether the seed should be direct sown or started indoors.  Finding the right growing medium can be as simple as purchasing a packaged seed starting mix or mixing you own using coconut coir or a combination of vermiculite, perlite and sphagnum moss. Using topsoil is NOT recommended! The medium must be sterile to avoid damping off disease and other fungal issues.  When considering containers for seed starting, smaller seeds should begin in 2-3” cells.  Some larger seeds may be moved to a bigger pot before planting (cucurbits) and in this case starting off with a 4” pot will do. With so many options one thing is for certain, containers MUST have holes in the bottom for proper drainage. Sue commented on the use of soil blocks noting the roots of plants have a chance to grow together. Peat pellets may dry out faster and have restrictive netting.  Peat pots don’t always break down and can rob moisture from the plant.  Seed starting systems are worth considering although if it is made of Styrofoam it cannot be used with heating mats and will float in water.  The Burpee self-watering seed starter system has been a go to product for Sue.

A short video of Sue’s workspace in her garage featured a long work bench, totes for soil storage, a sink with filtered /heated water and grow towers with attached lighting.  Full spectrum bulbs make a difference in growth rate and the ability to raise the lighting component is helpful. Lighting should consistently be 1-2” above the seedlings as they grow. Timers can assist in maintaining 14 hours of light.  The type of water used is just as important as lighting. Chlorinated water should sit in a container for 24 hours for the chlorine to dissipate. Soft water can be filtered. Tepid temperature is preferable and when watering those fragile seedlings, start from the bottom or mist. Warmer soil temperature will speed up germination. If your growing space is below 65 degrees, adding heat mats will increase the soil temperature. Fertilizing is not recommended until the first two true leaves appear.  Fish emulsion can be used, but Sue prefers not to use pre-mixed fertilizers. 

When seedlings are large enough to handle without causing damage, its time to transplant! Sue prefers transplanting into square 4” pots to save space under the lights.  Burying the stem of tomato plants will prevent legginess.  When using a plastic dome/lid, seeds with similar germination rates should be planted together.  This way, you won’t be stuck with some seedlings pushing at the lid while others are barely popping above the soil.  Please remember to label the seeds as you plant and transplant them otherwise you may run into a case of mistaken identity.  Store remaining seeds in the original packets in a dry, dark area. Once the seedlings are ready to venture outdoors, the hardening off process begins.  Begin by placing the plants in a shady spot protected from harsh winds.  At first, they will sit outside for just a few hours. Each day increase the amount of time they are outdoors, finishing with some time spent in direct sunlight.  The whole process should take 7-10 days. Once acclimated, the plants can begin their lives in the garden!

The presentation ended with Sue sharing some of her improvement goals; sharing seeds with buddies, creating a planting plan, planning for succession planting and remembering to document everything. Recommended resources ranged from Nancy Bubel’s The New Seed-Starters Handbook to various seed catalogs and garden supply websites (Lee Valley and Gardeners Supply).   As usual, Sue’s presentation was packed with useful information and entertaining visuals. Stock up on seeds and soil. The time to start seeds will be here before you know it.

Seed Starting Recording
Seed Starting Presentation





Bale Raised Beds: My experiment and project for this year’s growing season – Part 2

Article and photos by Michael O’Brien, Advanced Master Gardener

In my first article (Part 1 of Bale Raised Beds-The Real Dirt, July 2020), I discussed creating bale raised beds.  In this second part, I will discuss some of my successes and my disappointments or better put as my frustrations.  I got my plants planted around June 19th, which is a little later than usual.  Building the bed and filling it was delayed due to the coronavirus and the state mandates at the time. Within a few days after the plants were planted, the temperatures went into the nineties with clear skies and no rain in sight for two weeks.  My plants were already stressed due to the delay in planting them.  All my plants could do was transpire just to stay alive.  I found drip lines that weren‘t watering plants enough so some plants died. For two weeks, my plants hadn’t grown.  It was now the beginning of July, I was so far behind in the growing season.  I was ready to give up.  Deep in my heart, I knew I couldn’t do that.  I had the training to see and know what was needed to fix this problem.  Besides, if I gave up I wouldn’t be able to write the second part of this article.

It was time to get to work, fix the problems and give the plants what they needed.  I replaced the drip lines with spray emitters.  I also increased the amount of time the garden was getting watered, twice a day a half an hour each time.  I also noticed the soil I used didn’t have enough nutrients to support the plants.  Yes, soil testing would have helped though I was behind schedule.  After a few days of good healthy watering I then added a slow release fertilizer.  The fertilizer would be enough to get the plants through the growing season.

Bale Garden


This picture was taken on June 23, 2020.

By the third week in July, I really started to see the plants were really growing.  I knew my harvest was going to be late due to the late start and high temperatures.  I was just happy to see the raised bed was working ,and the plants were happy.


By the end of August, I was beginning to harvest some tomatoes and the squash plants were doing well.  I was amazed to see how much my plants had grown.  Using the center support for the plants was just what the plants wanted and needed.

Bale garden grown



This picture was taken on August 30, 2020.





SquashThis Photo is Red Kuri Squash, a cultivated variety of the species Cucurbita maxima.

To summarize my experience working with a bale raised bed, I loved it!  The soil was so soft making it really easy planting plants.  At the end of the season, seeds that were in the bales did sprout.  The bales raised the height of the grow bed which made it easier to work with.  The plants were more protected during early morning frost especially if a tarp covered the plants.  The tarp kept the heat around plants which allowed my plants to continue to ripen vegetables.  This year I plan to surround the remaining bales with cinder blocks.  I will also do some experimenting with the cold frame that is attached to the side of the bed.  This is really a great design though your’s doesn’t have to be as big as mine.




Getting Started with Vermiculture, AKA Worm Composting

By Jane Denay, Extension Master Gardener Trainee

My journey with vermiculture began seven years ago when a friend donated her working tray worm compost system to me. It wasn’t that she failed, however she had purchased the two tray systems and she wasn’t able to provide enough food scraps for her worms. I had been a long-term composter with varying degrees of success. I have done heap composting but found it hard to have the proper blend of ingredients to get a hot pile.  I’ve used layered, lasagna method composting in starting new beds. I have also used a compost tumbler. The vermiculture system has taught me to be a better composter, with all my methods I have the right balance of carbon to nitrogen, moisture, and aeration. With the help of my worms, I have turned our limestone lot into a virtual Eden.  

Vermicomposting is similar to traditional composting. Both use natural processes to break down organic matter. Traditional composting relies on fungi and microorganisms to breakdown the organic matter; therefore, it is sometimes called microbial composting. In vermiculture worms do most of the composting. Both microbial and worm composting are aerobic processes since they require oxygen to function. 




Vermiculture, worm composting tray system, located in our utility room.




Setting up your vermiculture:

  • Worm Bin: I use a worm bin with four stacking trays. This allows for an ongoing addition of food in the upper tray while allowing composting to proceed in the lower trays. There are also homemade systems using plastic totes, buckets, even old coolers. All bins need a source of oxygen and to be covered to conserve moisture and provide darkness for the worms. 
  • Location: Locate your worm composter in a space that is warm, dry and well ventilated. The temperature should stay between 55-80 degrees year round.
  • Worms: You’ll want to get Eisenia fetida, which are commonly known as red wigglers; for your bin. They thrive on organic matter at the surface. These can be ordered on line or procured from a friend. Do not use earthworms as they live deep in the soil and don’t tolerate the confinement of a bin.
  • Preparation and maintenance: In preparing and maintaining a bed for your worms, keep the carbon:nitrogen (C:N) ratio of 50:1. Worms thrive at this ration. At lower ratios, the environment becomes acidic and microorganisms will out compete the worms.
    • Carbon bedding: To begin, start with 3 inches of moistened bedding materials. You can use shredded newspaper or cardboard, shredded fall leaves, chopped-up straw, sawdust, paper towels and napkins. No glossy colored paper or plastic window in envelopes. Vary the bedding in the bin to provide more nutrients for the worms and to create richer compost. Add two handfuls of sand or soil to provide the necessary grit for the worm’s digestion of food and to provide microscopic organisms necessary for decomposition. Pulverized egg shells may also be used for grit.
    • Nitrogen is provided by food scraps: Fruits, vegetables, coffee grounds, and teabags. Chop scraps into small pieces to speed worm digestion. Do not use citrus, onion or salty items which worms avoid. Also avoid animal products, oily foods scraps and grains.




Keep a separate compost container for foods like citrus that worms will not eat.



  • Add food after the last feeding is mostly eaten. When using the tray system, spread a thin layer of food waste 1 ¼ inches deep, then cover with two inches of fresh bedding. New bedding is needed to keep the C:N balance. Overfeeding can lead to a C:N imbalance. Put surplus food scraps in a traditional compost bin.
  • Getting the C:N balance correct is more an art than a science. The tendency is to provide too much nitrogen. Clues to too much nitrogen are found under the troubleshooting section.





Food scraps provide nitrogen.Vermiculture



Strips of newspaper provide necessary carbon.


  • Moisture
    • Water is necessary for worm survival. The optimum moisture content is 70 percent to 85 percent with the bin’s content being like a wrung out sponge. Dampen new bedding as you apply it.
  • Harvesting:
    • Using the tray compost system move the bottom tray of finished compost to the top and leave the lid off for 24 hours. Red wigglers don’t like light and most will migrate to the lower bin.
    • Treat vermicompost like manure and mix in an 8:1 ratio with garden soil.
    • In the winter finished compost can be kept in a 5 gallon bucket for spring use.




Red wigglers worms on top of the finished compost ready for fresh food scraps.



 Finished compost tray brought to the top.
When exposed to light red wigglers will migrate to lower bin.



  • Troubleshooting
    • Odor: This is your first hint your C:N balance is off. Stop feeding for two weeks and cover with 3 inches of bedding. Do not over feed.
    • Escaping worms: Red wigglers can survive in saturated bins for short periods, but will escape the bin when oxygen starts to run out. Taking the lid off helps dry it out, and the light will drive the worms back into the compost.
    • Flies: Flies can be problematic if you overfeed or leave food scraps exposed.
  • Leachate
    • Leachate is the brown, excess liquid byproduct of vermiculture. All vermiculture systems have a means of draining it off. As this liquid is not oxygenated, microorganisms in it are growing under anaerobic conditions. This can lead to harmful bacteria and thus it should not be used in vegetable gardens. Flush it down the toilet or dilute and use on nonedible plants.
    • If your system has the proper C:N ratio, you should have minimal leachate forming.
    • Leachate is not the same as compost tea which is made with compost and water under aerobic conditions using an aerator.


.MSU Extension Master Gardener Training Manual “Backyard Composting” pp15-19




Spring Clean-Up in the Garden

By Cheryl Gross, Advanced Extension Master Gardening

Garden CleanupAs this is being written, northwest lower Michigan is covered in snow.  We are anticipating deep chill and daily snowfalls.  Spring seems A-LONG-WAY-OFF, and yet, before we know it, green will begin to emerge.  After our long winter season, gardeners are simply itching to get into the soil!  The desire and longing are real.  This article is about curbing your enthusiasm.  I know, I feel your pain, and I am sorry.

In the fall, there were articles and Facebook posts and a wealth of information shared about “leaving the leaves”.  The writers emphasized the ecosystem created by leaf litter.  There are many critters who depend on leaf litter for their very survival.  Some overwinter as eggs, others as pupa, and some as adults.  By destroying the ecosystem during fall clean-up, the very survival of these populations is doomed.  The advice then was to take it easy, leave the leaves, and take a fall hike instead.  So, now as we emerge from the cold and dark winter months, WHEN can we disturb the leaves we so lovingly left for the good of nature?

The easiest way is to watch the thermometer.  When the daytime temperatures are consistently 50 degrees or above, MOST of the critters will have emerged.  In early May when hiking at Pete’s Woods and the temperature reaches 50 degrees, bees will begin to emerge to feed on the nectar of our early spring ephemerals and Mourning Cloak butterflies, who overwintered as adults, will emerge to begin feeding.  Not picky eaters, when there are few flowers, I have seen them nourishing themselves on scat.  These early insects return to safety when the temperatures drop.

So, what does that mean in our home landscape?  Wait until temps are consistently 50 degrees or more.  It is not easy.  Many neighbors will be out well before that key marker raking leaves, fertilizing, spreading fresh mulch, and generally disrupting the micro ecosystem living in the beds and stems that were left intact over the winter.  If you were willing to wait it out in the fall, do not jump-the-gun in spring.

Besides protecting our critters in spring and letting them emerge when ready, holding back in spring is important in other ways. 

  • Soil should not be worked when wet.  Allow all of your beds to warm and dry before digging.  Worked wet, soil becomes compacted and clumped.
  • Most seeds are happiest with warmer soil temperatures which is why delicate vegetable seedlings go out after the last date for a frost. (Some, like peas, appreciate cooler temperatures.)
  • Plants that emerge under leaf litter will not be stunted; they just might look a little sickly at first, but will harden and green-up quickly.  Remember, delicate Dutchmen’s Breeches need no help clearing leaf litter to emerge from the forest floor.  Additionally, fern and mushrooms can break through blacktop to grow.  Plants are tough. Spring bulbs are strong enough to blossom through leaf litter so do not fear.
  • The last plant to emerge in my gardens is Wild Petunia.  I have learned to use that as my clean-up signal. In some seasons when too eager, it is easy to damage the plants or roots of plants if their exact location is not clear.
  • Birds may use garden materials to build nests.  In my yard, Cedar Waxwings collect strips of plant material from the dead Swamp Milkweed stems left over the winter.  What might they use if my gardens were neat, tidy, and cleaned in the fall or cut back in early spring?
  • Finally, the hollow stems left for bee nurseries need to remain standing until the next generation emerges. 

What is a gardener to do when the air smells of soil and leaf mold and the sun is out and warm?  Take a walk, read a book, observe your gardens.  Watch for insect life and check for winter damage.  Do anything you can to anticipate the gardening season, and WAIT for the magic of consistently 50-degree days to garden.





Steward – January 2021

Contents (Click on a title or scroll)


The Importance of Garden Journals

Pruning Matters… Or the Matter of Pruning


The Importance of Garden Journals

By: Nancy Popa, AEMG

Generally, a garden journal is a place where you record details, patterns, observations and plans for your garden.  I have two types of journals that serve me well.  I have an electronic journal and a spiral bound journal.  Of course, a garden journals can take any form that meets your needs.  Ring binders are convenient in that you can add inserts such as graph paper, calendar pages, pockets for seeds and tags.  Hard cover journals provide a surface to write on.  Some specialty journals are waterproof. A Garden Journal is very personal, there are no rules, and you can use it in any way that meets your needs! 

My electronic journal has two sections that are continuously updated.  The first section is a calendar in paragraph form.  January, February, March etc.  In each paragraph I list the tasks that I must do year to year in that particular month for example…April-thin boxwoods, May-feed heavy flowering plants, June-stake asters.  I also identify when to start looking for certain pests. For example, look for saw fly larvae on Lysimachia mid-June, around 400 Growing Degree Days (that is another article).  The fact that I can continuously update this section and keep it in chronological order is very convenient.  The second section in my electronic journal is the area where I alphabetically identify each plant by genus and species, common name, and optimal growing conditions.  It is always nice to be able to quickly look up one of the plants in your yard and be reminded that they thrive in moist soil or like to be cut back at certain times.  The ability to update and keep it alphabetical makes it extremely easy to keep track of your plants.  Another advantage of this level of documentation is that when you share a plant with someone, you can be sure you tell them everything they need to know. Take a look at Nancy’s Journal by using this link (opens a pdf): Garden Calendar

My second garden journal is the one that I love to write in out in the garden!  I have sketches, “must have plants”, a list of this year’s Fall moves and divisions, notes on where I top dressed in the Spring before I ran out of compost, lecture notes and much more.  I carry this one around in my garden wagon…it gets dirty and sometimes wet…but it has all the good stuff in it.  The daily observations and ideas make gardening so fun.  I strongly recommend getting started with some type of journaling and see where it takes you.



Pruning Matters… Or the Matter of Pruning

By:  Cheryl A. Gross, AEMG

Pruning can be fun and beneficial to trees and shrubs. On the other hand, pruning can significantly damage trees and shrubs! The Master Gardener Volunteer Training Manual lists nine reasons to prune most of which are included here. The secrets to healthy pruning are timing, goal, and technique.


A gardener should remove dead, diseased or damaged branches any time of the year. Late Winter and early Spring are the best times to prune most woody plants.  They are dormant and there will be little insect or pathogen present to attack the open wounds.

There are exceptions. Some shrubs should be pruned shortly after they are finished blooming in Spring. Examples are forsythia and lilac.  They bloom on year-old stems so later pruning limits the profusion of blooms the following year.  Major refreshing of all shrubs will be addressed later.  This timely advice is for size and shape control.

Deciduous trees are best pruned in Winter, although some can wait until Spring.  Waiting until the leaves are off the trees and shrubs allows a much clearer view as to branching structure. In Winter, insects are no longer active, and the tree is dormant making Winter pruning the healthier option.  This is especially true for Oak trees.  Temperatures must be at or below 32 degrees for an extended period of time for safe pruning to prevent an opening for Oak Wilt.  Also, shrubs that need a major reshaping or resizing should be pruned in Winter when you can clearly see the branch structure.

Evergreen trees should be pruned, only when absolutely necessary and then in late Spring.  Any cuts will produce a flurry of growth so can be useful when looking to fill-out the shape.  The exception are spruces and firs which should be pruned in Winter.


Most of shrub pruning is used to shape or re-size the plant.  If a shrub has a natural globe shape, keep that shape.  If the shrub has a natural vase or arching shape, keep that shape.  Please, never cut a naturally vase-shaped shrub into a globe.  The most obvious example of this mistake is seen in forsythia pruning.  If a forsythia is shaped like a lightbulb, it has been mistreated.

Tree pruning is performed to shape the tree as it grows.  Trees grow in two directions:  wider from the trunk and longer from terminal buds. A branch 8 inches off the ground will never grow up.  Therefore, tree pruning especially, on young trees, is accomplished primarily by removing entire branches from the trunk.  As a tree grows through each terminal branch end, please do not remove a terminal end anywhere along the branch.  Take that stem back to where it began on the trunk or a larger branch.  Topping a tree is never a good idea, although utility companies do it as necessary to protect the power supply.


Always use proper tools for the job.  Sharp hand pruners, a pruning saw, loppers, and ratchet loppers are all helpful in a pruning toolbox.  Include alcohol and a rag for wiping the blades between plants.  Bypass pruners are preferred as they are better for the branch being cut; anvil style pruners can bruise and crush the branch.

Begin by taking a good look at the plant.  Stand back and examine it from various angles.  Globe or topiary-shaped shrubs are shaped and reduced in size by snipping the outside edges of the plant.  Before beginning, dig down inside the branching and remove any dead/diseased branches.  On evergreen shrubs, always keep a conical shape to allow the sun to reach all branches, down to the ground.  A top-heavy evergreen will shade the lower branches allowing them to lose needles and look straggly and dead.

On vase shaped or arching branch shrubs look first for anything dead and remove it at the ground or at a larger, live branch.  Then, look for interior branches that cross other branches, especially if they rub against another branch.  The goal here is to clear-out the internal branching for light accessibility and to limit branch damage.  Stand back once more and evaluate the size and shape.  Many times, the first two steps may be enough to keep the shrub healthy.  Use a thinning technique to open up the plant to light and more vigorous growth.

Once a plant has gotten larger than the location allows, it is time to refresh.  By refreshing, the pruner is taking the shrub back to a dramatically smaller form.  This process should take three years and includes significantly cutting back the shrub a third each year.  Refreshing does not act like a buzz saw to “top” the plant.  It is accomplished one branch at a time.  First-year cuts are deep into the shrub and remove large stem/branches to open the lower sections of the shrub to light. In the second year, the first-year cuts begin to branch and fill in when the second third of deep cuts are made.  By the third year, the first cut regrowth should be vigorous while the second-year regrowth is beginning.  By spreading out the significant pruning action, the plant has strength to regrow and maintains a semblance of attractiveness.

Many plants are stimulated by pruning and will quickly push out new branches and leaves, especially when pruned during peak growing season.  This is desirable when refreshing an overgrown shrub, shaping a Christmas tree, or to fill-in a cedar.  If done improperly or at the wrong time, pruning can actually make the shrub larger!

Finally, there are shrubs that can be refreshed by cutting back to the ground.  This is especially helpful with red twig dogwood which has old branches turning brown.  It is easy to remove these selectively and the shrub will push new growth.  The plant can be completely cut to the ground and will regrow, but there will be an unsightly blank where it once filled the space. 

For more detailed descriptions and illustrations, review the Woody Ornamental chapter in the 2013 edition of the MSU Master Gardener Volunteer Program Training Manual.

Additional resource:  Pruning Made Easy: A Gardener’s Visual Guide to When and How to Prune Everything, from Flowers to Trees, Lewis Hill, Storey’s Gardening Skills Illustrated, c. 1997

Pruning Young Trees

Pruning Young Trees

Minimal Annual Pruning

Minimal Annual Pruning

Refresh Pruning Over Three Years

Refresh Pruning Over Three Years





Steward – July 2020

Citizen Science Project

MSU Extension Master Gardener Volunteers, MGANM, and the Downtown Development
Authority are collaborating on a citizen science project based around the flower planters
running down E Front St. between Park, Cass, and Union Streets. To participate all you have to
do is count pollinators for 3 minute intervals. You can enter the counts via an online survey that
you can reach by scanning a QR code that will be located on a sign in each planter. An example
of the sign is below

Citizen Science Project Real Dirt 7_2020 (1)






Thank you for participating in our citizen science project! Your responses will help us learn about how these planters are helping pollinators and how we can be better at helping them in the future. 

What is the number on the sign in this planter?




Please use a timer set to 3 minutes, stand in one place near the center of the planter and use the sliders below to record how many of the 2 main categories of pollinators you see in 3 minutes of observation time. Use the “Other” category for insects that don’t fit into either the “Bees/Wasps/Flies” category or the “Butterflies” Category.

Upload a photo of the planter today (optional)

Steward – May 2020

Contents (Click on a title or scroll)

DEER, BUNNIES, MICE…OH MY! – Throwback 2016

Lawn Removal by Smothering OR Creating a Landscape in a Lawn

DEER, BUNNIES, MICE…OH MY! – Throwback 2016

By Lillian Mahaney, Advanced Extension Master Gardener

As a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, I have always tried to help people understand that there are many ways to keep the various forms of wildlife from destroying their gardens.  I’m sure that almost every Master Gardener has also received the question “how do I protect my gardens without harming the wildlife?”.  I have included a number of suggestions below that have had successful results over the years:

Rodents love to burrow under the nice mulch surrounding plants in the winter since this gives them a nice home and a food supply.  Tucking an unused fabric softener sheet (the stronger the fragrance the better) under the mulch usually sends them to less “smelly” homes.  This also works well if you are storing a boat, car, closing up a cottage or have a rodent problem in a garage or shed.  Just be sure to not place the dryer sheets on surfaces where the oils can do damage.  Placing a few sheets under a deck also helps to keep animals from using that area for a winter den.

Please do not use any type of rodent poison (such as DCon or TomKat) to control rodents.  These rodenticides have a large amount of an anticoagulant and if another animal eats the rodent it will suffer the same fate.  Owls, hawks, opossums, skunks, raccoons and even dogs and cats are dying at an alarming rate.  The entire wildlife rehabilitation community has been trying to have these products banned.  Using the old fashioned snap mouse traps is a much more humane way to control rodents without harming the other species.

A good method for keeping deer and bunnies from browsing vegetation is to buy some of the little inexpensive muslin drawstring bags from your local feed store.  Put a small piece of Irish Spring Original Scent soap in the bag.  The bags can be tied to tree branches, fencing or even to small bamboo skewers placed at intervals around the area you want to protect.  The lower bags work well for the smaller animals like bunnies.

As it rains or snows the scent permeates the bag and usually makes the odor more intense.  The soap doesn’t seem to drip from the bag and just soaks into the muslin.  Just remember to keep the bag at “nose level” for the particular animal species.  The soap seems to work for a much longer time than other things like hair, blood meal, etc.

There are many other products on the market such as Liquid Fence, garlic products and predator urine.  These products have good results also, but they can be costly, may not last for as long a time and sometimes the odors are offensive to OUR noses.  Using the castor oil products (Mole Med, etc.) are good ways to deter moles without harming the animals.

If you have a good sense of humor and want to be the talk of your neighborhood I suggest buying some of the little foil pinwheels to keep bunnies and deer from your gardens.  They twirl with even the slightest breeze and seem to work better than the foil strips in most cases.  They also have the added benefit of making you a fun topic of conversation with your neighbors!

You may need to try a few different methods before you find one that works well for your circumstances.  I have a cherry farmer friend that uses the muslin drawstring bags in his orchard and has had great success and another that thinks the fabric softener sheets work better in his orchard.  If you have any questions please do not hesitate to give me a call….231-256-8844.

Lawn Removal by Smothering OR Creating a Landscape in a Lawn

By Cheryl Gross, Advanced Extension Master Gardener

As gardeners we tend to like plants.  In fact I love many, many plants including trees, shrubs, perennials, clump forming grasses, sedges, and ferns; EXCEPT turf grass AKA lawn.  I do not like lawn.  I do not like how people care for it either.  Lawn belongs somewhere else, where it has rich soil and ample moisture without hot, dry summers.  The root of turf grass is about 3 inches deep.  This means it has difficulty accessing nutrients and moisture, as it is mostly out of its reach.  Homeowners spend countless hours and expense on maintaining this out-of-place plant.  However, it can be walked on which is its ONE big advantage over all of my favorite plants.

Ecological gardening practices encourages homeowners to increase the number and diversity of native plants in the landscape.  An ideal way to do that is to replace existing lawn with native plants.  There are about four methods to get rid of lawn:  -dig it, -apply herbicide, – solarize it, or -smother it.

-Digging lawn is hard work.  To remove the lawn you take up about 3 inches of reasonably fertile soil and disturb any beneficial activity in the root layer.  Then you need to decide whether to replace the space with additional soil and decide what to do with the sod.

-Herbicides are effective in killing lawn and I advise it on a steep slope where smothering is not effective because of gravity.  The advantage is that you may be ready to plant in a few weeks.  The disadvantage is the chemical.

-Solarizing is an effective method when done in summer.  Apply a thick sheet of black plastic held down by landscape staples or another method and wait until the lawn is completely burned.  A black plastic lawn patch is not very attractive, although effective.

-Smothering is my favorite.  Outline the bed shape, trench the edge, cover with layered newspapers and mulch and wait a season… smother in fall to plant in spring or smother in spring to plant in fall.

In early April while self-isolating, I began a new landscape bed in my daughter’s yard.  My gardening clothes emerged from winter hibernation… jeans with patched knees, Birkenstock gardening shoes, and heavy duty gardening gloves.

The plan was a second landscape bed to mirror an existing one and smothering the lawn for fall installation.  Measuring tape in hand, we marked the distance from the front walk and distance from the road. We measured an approximate shape/size and used marking spray paint to outline the bed.  Note:  Marking spray is much easier to use than regular spray paint because it is designed to spray down.

Next, we made a small trench along the line to cut grass roots. This is where an edging will go. When landscaping in a lawn, especially with native plants, I believe it is important to edge the bed.  It gives a clear indication that the plants are purposely designed to be there. The soil/sod clumps were shaken and divided to settle into the new bed.

Finally, we layered 4-5 sheets of newspaper, tucking new layers under the previous with a big overlap. Do this only when wind is NOT an issue. It was still when we began, but we wrestled with layering the last sheets when the breeze began.  As we layered the newspaper, we piled on 3 inches of mulch. Usually I prefer shredded pine bark mulch from Four Season Nursery, but with them closed we settled for cheap bagged shredded wood from Menards.









We are done now. The bed will sit and decompose till September or October when we return to install plants. There will be no need to remove the newspaper or the mulch.  The benefits of this method include leaving the soil undisturbed AND adding the dead plant material, newsprint and wood chips to the ecosystem.  

Seeing the bed site over the season will help us to evaluate the available light under the two oak trees facing east for morning sun. It will be easier to decide design and plant layout with the bed in place.  Plus, understory plant choices will be fun.  









Please note:  this simple method is most effective on turf grass with typical lawn weeds.  Invasive species such as spotted knapweed, bladder campion, English ivy, periwinkle/ vinca, and smooth brome grass are more difficult to eradicate.  

Steward – March 2020

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Nicotine doesn’t affect my seeds, does it?

Take a load off

Master Gardener Coordinator’s Corner

Nicotine doesn’t affect my seeds, does it?

By Michael O’Brien, Advanced Extension Master Gardener

Now that March is here the ideas are flowing, spring is coming.  Thoughts of what to grow this year are beginning to pop-up in our mind.  Starting plants from seed is fun and economical too. It’s also a fantastic way to teach children.

So the question is, does nicotine really have an effect on seeds?  Yes! If a person was to smoke a cigarette there would be trace amounts of nicotine on their fingers.  And it’s the same for chewing tobacco too. Surprisingly enough, if that same person was to touch seeds, there is a high probability that nicotine would get on the seed.  

In a study done by researchers, they studied the effects of nicotine on the germination of radish, kale, lettuce, wheat, rice, barley and rye seeds.  The results showed the seeds had a very noticeable delay in the rate of germination in all cases. Scientists found that it caused a reduction in the levels of certain enzymes known to be significant in the germination of these seeds.

In the 1950’s researchers started testing the relationship between nicotine, seeds and plants.  They found nicotine can be very affective in killing insects. It was a great discovery, it protected the plant and with the plants being protected it would increase yield production as well.   The goal was to assist farmers so their seeds purchased would have a higher success rate in seed germination. The challenge they were working with was, how to limit or stop insects and funguses from destroying the seed.  The answer was to coat corn seeds as well as other seeds used for mass production with a powder that had nicotine in it. Though the years of using this type product it has now created farmland that is saturated with nicotine.

There was another product created that is still in use today as an insecticidal spray.  This spray is made from derivatives of nicotine. This product is classified as a neonicotinoid.  This spray is designed to over stimulate the nervous system of insects, causing the insect to experience paralysis and death.  Today, there are currently around three hundred different products in this classification. The specific active ingredients include acetamiprid, clothianidin, dinotefuran, imidacloprid, thiacloprid, and thiamethoxam. 

Research has shown the problem with these insecticidal sprays is that they can’t discern between harmful insects and beneficial insects.  Many beneficial insects that are seriously being harmed are bees, ladybugs and Monarch butterflies to name a few. What is so concerning about neonicotinoids is the effects it is having on wildlife that pollinate our crops, its ability to infiltrate groundwater and its cumulative and largely irreversible effects on invertebrates. As practicing gardeners and stewards to the environment, whenever possible we should avoid all products that contain neonicotinoid, to be safe. Gardening pesticide-free is ideal.

Pawpaw leaf-rolling caterpillar (Lepidoptera), Ompalocera munroei, and webbing in a pawpaw leaf (Asimina triloba). Photo from Missouri Botanical Garden

Take a load off

By Cheryl Gross, Advanced Extension Master Gardener

It is March!  April is around the corner.  With each day of warming gardeners develop a real itch to get into the garden and begin spring clean-up and preparing the soil.  Not so fast, buster. Remember all of the articles and Facebook posts last fall about leaving the leaves to protect insects? Rushing clean-up defeats all of that good thoughtful fall effort.

Some of our wonderful, beautiful, valuable insects overwinter in leaf litter.  The smart gardener knows now to leave the leaf litter where it is to house and protect the eggs, larval forms, and even some adult critters.  Therefore if you have taken the “smart” fall practice, rushing your spring clean-up will ruin all of your good works.

What we know now is that many insects need about 50 degree daytime temperatures to get moving.  This means that you should allow your gardens a minimum of 5 days of nice warm 50 degree weather before you begin to disturb the leaf litter.  

Some may argue, but what about the spring bulbs and early bloomers?  Don’t they need to be uncovered to grow? Not likely. Look at the woodland floor for evidence.  Trillium, Dutchmen’s Breeches, Trout Lily, Celandine Poppy, and more all manage to push though leaf litter with no help from a gardener.  If they can do it, crocus, daffodils, and tulips can do it too. Additionally, leaf litter helps warm the soil slowly without the sun directly beaming on the soil surface.

As for prepping beds for planting, the soil needs to reach at least 55 degrees for successful germination and working wet soil has very bad outcomes ,  including disruption of soil biology and compacting the dirt.

Best gardening practices in northwest lower Michigan in April?  Take a hike, visit a botanic garden, start seeds indoors, and read a good gardening book.  Resist the urge to garden too soon. The short gardening season will still arrive and you will be plenty busy on your knees then.   Until the bugs are out and about from the leaf litter, go ahead and take a load off.


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 (

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. 

Steward – January 2020

What do i do with that tree?

Below are three options for Christmas tree disposal in the Grand Traverse County area. While this list is by no means exhaustive, the programs mentioned are supported by MGANM. 

  1. Traverse City Parks and Recreation Department:

    “The Parks and Recreation Division offers a Christmas Tree drop off site for City residents. The trees are chipped and used for trail surfacing for City parks and Brown Bridge Quiet Area, mulching material and erosion control.

    Trees can be brought to the boat launch parking lot at Hull Park at the west end of Hannah Street, just west of Woodmere Avenue beginning December 26, 2019 and will run through Sunday, January 19, 2020.

    There is no charge for this service. Please do not leave trees in the alleys, streets or City parks. The City will not be collecting them there.”

  2. Norte:
    Live in Traverse City but can’t get your tree to Hull Park? Norte is here to help. For a $25 donation, they will pick up your tree at your doorstep, load it on their bicycle  trailer, and take it to Hull Park for you.

  3. Inhabitect, LLC

“Inhabitect, LLC is passionate about designing, building and growing resilient and ecologically mindful landscapes. One aspect of this mission is to utilize materials that are readily available, that are sourced as locally as possible, to meet the needs of our projects. This is why we have planned our 1st Annual Christmas Tree Drop-off at the Elmwood Township Park.

There is no charge to drop off your tree. Our first event is Sunday, January 5th, 2020, from 11am until 3pm, at the Elmwood Township Park in Greilickville, just outside of Traverse City. Additional drop off opportunities may be added, follow the Inhabitect FB page for updates. Be sure to remove all decorations, including lights, artificial snow, ornaments, and tinsel, from the Christmas trees, Inhabitect will not accept any trees that contain these items or are (sic) otherwise been treated with harmful chemicals.”

3. Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy

“Want to dispose of your Christmas tree and help GTRLC’s invasive species fighting goat herd at the same time? Conifers are packed with vitamin C and other essential nutrients, making them a great addition to our herd’s winter diet. We’re asking folks to donate their trees (free from decorations or chemicals, please). Pick a time and location listed below. Look for signs and a trailer with trees.

We (and the goats) thank you!”


Steward – November 2019

Native Grasses and General Update: MGANM September Meeting Notes

By, Nancy Larson, Extension Master Gardener   

We had a friendly educational meeting September 3rd with five public guests and over thirty Master Gardeners present.  Michele Worden, MGANM President, welcomed everyone and answered the question, “What do master gardeners do?” for our public guests.  We educate; we beautify and improve our community; we work with youth in schools and fields; we assist MSU in their diagnostic clinic; we promote food security with assisting in food gardens, and we do volunteer management of various projects. Find out more about MG’s on-line at  

Michele introduced Lisa Hagerty our new newsletter editor.  Lisa encouraged the MG’s to write articles to share with others about their science-based growing experiences. Michele also appealed to the group for nominations for the upcoming board election. In addition, Michelle told us there is a survey coming out soon that will help the board determine events and guests to schedule in the upcoming year. The survey will be asking members what they would like to see/hear about so our monthly meetings can be interesting and engaging. Michele indicated our record breaking event attendance in 2019 is because we asked for members interests.

Nate Walton, MSU Entomologist, announced that there are still plenty of volunteer project hours available. He advised us to check the VMS page daily for updates

Cheryl Gross, Plant It Wild President, introduced our guest speaker, Vern Stephens, owner of Designs By Nature in Laingsburg, MI, to talk about native grasses. Vern said he has a 30 year working history with native plants and specializes in MI eco-types.  He has developed outreach programs to the north, south, east and west areas of the state; has created an on-line site for purchases of perennial garden starters; is looking forward to expanding his searching for native plants into the Detroit area; and has encouraged “NO USE” of neonic pesticides, as it stays in the plants for 2 years. Recommended Books: 1) “Bringing Nature Home” by Douglas Tallamy, 2) “Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide” by Lawrence Newcomb, 3) “The Tallgrass Restoration Handbook” by Stephen Packard & Cornelia Matee.

So, why use native grasses?  Because of their roots. They have a deep root system, don’t need irrigation, once established, or fertilizer, attract insects & birds, make good nesting areas, and are good for grazing fields.  Native grasses are wind pollinated so if you don’t want them to spread, remove their seed heads.  Normal grass lawns have to be watered and fertilized, have short root systems, and have to be cut. Vern discussed ten different types of native grasses and provided live examples of them: Dunes grass, Prairie Drop Seed, Little Blue Stem, Big Blue Stem, Indian Grass, Bottle Brush grass, Side Oats, Grama Grass, Purple Love Grass, and Canada Rye Grass.  He then talked about sedges.  What’s the difference between grasses and sedges?  Grass stems are round or flat while sedge stems are triangular.  Sedges are solid, while grasses are hollow. Sedges are usually 3-ranked where they lie in three vertical planes along the stem.  They both reproduce by seeds, can form clumps, and have a bloom season. Vern discussed and shared examples of five types of Sedges: Wood Sedge, Fox Sedge, Brown Sedge, Pennsylvania Sedge, and Plantain Leaved Sedge.

The program ended with Vern answering many questions.  He also brought a large variety of native plants for us to “happily” purchase because we all know how we love to get into the dirt. 

Steward – September 2019

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Doug Tallamy in NW lower Michigan

Morgan Composting: The Home of Dairy Doo



Doug Tallamy in NW lower Michigan

By Cheryl A. Gross, AEMG

Have you read Bringing Nature Home by Doug Tallamy?  If not, I suggest you do.  It is an extremely important gardening book of our time.  It was published in 2007. In 2016, Tallamy published The Living Landscape with Rick Darke.  In February 2020, Timber Press will be releasing Tallamy’s third book, Nature’s Best Hope.  The release of his third book is eagerly anticipated.

Dr. Douglas Tallamy is an entomologist at the University of Delaware.  His research about the relationship between insects and plants was a breakthrough for environmental and ecosystem gardeners.  Generally speaking, entomologists are not “Rock Stars” however, publishing Bringing Nature Home changed Dr. Tallamy’s life dramatically.  He is highly respected for his research and a sought-after speaker. He was the Keynote speaker at the Wildflower Association of Michigan’s March 2019 Wildflower Conference and the speaker at Saving Birds Thru Habitat’s Annual Fundraising event on August 24th. We are fortunate to have him visit Michigan frequently.

Tallamy’s research makes the very strong connection between insects and the native plants that host them.  These relationships are critical to the food web. We know that birds, 98% of them, feed their young insects. (The other 2% eat fish.  Not one baby bird is raised on seeds.) We know that a clutch of chickadees needs hundreds of insects a day and 6,000-9,000 insects to successfully fledge.  We know that most insects are specialists in that they can survive on only one type of plant, i.e. the Monarch butterfly caterpillar that can only eat plants in the milkweed family.  Monarchs aren’t the only picky eater by a long shot.

The plants that best support the food web are native to the region.  Coevolution between plants and insects has been going on for millions of years.  Introduced plants simply cannot provide the same ecological services. Too few insects are adapted to them.  No insect biomass, no birds. Introduced plants may be a lovely fashion, but they are useless at feeding birds.  Some introduced plants may be harmless except they take space away from a native plant. However, some alien plants escape and are causing severe ecological damage.  Some invasive plants may be well known. Myrtle, Lily of the Valley, Japanese Barberry, Kudzu, Buckthorn, and Autumn Olive are known to be problematic. Other, problematic plants may not be so well known such as Bradford or Callery Pear, Butterfly Bush, and Rose of Sharon.  Keeping these plants in your yard can cause harm when they move across the street or into the woods next door. Lesson: plant only native species.

There is always a question of “cultivar”.  Tallamy’s research addresses both the harm caused by introduced plants and the vastly understudied topic of “nativars” or cultivars of native plants.  We do know some things. If cultivation has destroyed the pollen and nectar of the native plant as it can, it has rendered it useless to pollinators. If the blossom has been altered to be a double blossom, it is no longer accessible to pollinators.  Pollinators identify flowers by their ultra violet markings, and as far as we know there has been no study on the effect of changing a flower color on the pedal’s ultraviolet markings. We have no understanding of this or the potential harm created. Finally, studies have found that changing a leaf color from green to red in a Ninebark renders the leaf no longer digestible to the insect that requires the green leaf to live.

Since Bringing Nature Home was published, Tallamy’s research has continued.  We are learning more, but not fast enough to protect the insect biomass that makes bird food from plants.  We must stop messing around with nature and stick to native plants. Our ecosystem is in need of ecological gardening practices in every yard.  Will Nature’s Best Hope provide enough science to change gardening practices?  I sure hope so.

Morgan Composting: The Home of Dairy Doo

By Cheryl A. Gross, AEMG

Should you have an opportunity to visit Morgan Composting in Sears, Michigan, I suggest you make time to go.  I visited the site with a group of Plant it Wild members, (also Master Gardeners) on August 23. It was well worth the distance and time required to get there.

Morgan Composting is a family owned business with the fourth generation just reaching the age to operate the pedals of a tractor.  It was born out of a failing dairy farm that struggled to support the family. Incredibly, (after years of risk, hard work, and luck) Morgan Composting happened.  The family has a clear and strong work ethic and sense of fairness from the inputs to the products, the recipes, and the distribution system. There are now 40 employees in 4-5 sites across the state of Michigan.  Their work is science-based and organic. Nothing is wasted.  

The business continues to grow.  DairyDoo is the flagship product.  Organic compost created from dairy cow manure.  The manure is aged and processed in large windrows on the farm.  We had a wagon ride through the property where we saw the piles and piles of inputs in process.  Wood shavings and sawdust are added. Pile heat is maintained at 140 degrees for several weeks to ensure “clean” compost.  Specialized formulas have chicken waste added. Others have mineral elements. All inputs are sourced sustainably.  

In addition to the traditional compost and fertilizer products, Morgan Composting produces liquid fertilizers and worm castings.  We were able to tour the vermi-composting area. It was stunning. Rows and racks of stacked worm bins filled with shredded paper and a food slurry to turn into castings.  After 25 days, the bins are turned out onto the floor. Food is added to the far side to send the worms out of the casting bedding. This is done so the castings can be fed into a screen tumbler to separate the fine castings from the bulkier castings and any remaining worms.  

Besides Dairy Doo, Morgan Composting offers worm castings, seed starter fertilizer, Healthy Garden Fertilizer, Healthy Lawn Fertilizer, and several more specialized products for flowers, vegetables, tomatoes, and more.  In our region you can find Morgan Composting products at Four Season Nursery, Barker Creek Nursery and Pine Hill Nursery. 

Note:  Organic composts and fertilizers improve the soil, thereby providing nutrients for plants.  Synthetic fertilizers feed the plant salt-based chemicals that do nothing to improve soil health, and in reality, degrades the soil health.  While some see organic soil amendments as more costly, in the long run you are saving money by building healthier soil. 

Steward – July 2019

Contents (Click on a title or scroll)

The WHY of Native Plants

Native Grasses and Flowers…an ecosystem

Uvularia grandiflora, Large flowered bellwort. Photo by Whitney Miller

The WHY of Native Plants

By Cheryl A. Gross, AEMG and Plant It Wild President

There exists a connectivity between the soil, plants, and insects which are the first links in the web of life.  Insects are the creatures who turn the energy from the sun, processed by plants into biomass. This insect biomass is what begins to feed the world. 

Soil, plants and insects evolve together in ecosystems all over the world.  In plant communities, they create habitats. Insects feed on plants, predator insects feed on insects on plants as do birds, amphibians, and mammals.  Everything is fed and kept in check. Control of plants is provided by the soil, moisture and the critters that feed on them.  

Once you begin replacing native plants with alien plants moved within continents and from one continent to another, the ecosystem is disrupted.  The alien plants just don’t fit. Some require extensive and continuous soil amendments and water to succeed (think turf grass). Others, without their own ecosystem controls, escape and become invasive (Bradford Pear, Japanese barberry, and myrtle to name three). The insects who need to be supported cannot live on alien plants. Insects are picky eaters and almost all eat only those plants with whom they have co-evolved. Replace their natural plant communities with non-native plants and there is no insect food. Consider the well-known Monarch butterfly whose larval form lives only on plants in the milkweed family.  We hear about Monarchs everywhere. However, they are but one. All other butterflies and moths have the same habits. When we landscape with non-native plants a food desert is created. 

Food deserts are places that lack access to foods that make up the full range of a healthy diet.  Our food desert can be best seen in the decline of our migratory bird population. Some of our birds are in danger of extinction because of the food deserts we have created.  To begin, 98% of all baby birds are fed insects by their parents. (The other 2% are fed fish.) The best food for these baby birds are soft, squishy caterpillars. Caterpillars contain valuable nutrients that baby birds need to grow and fledge.  Research estimates that chickadee parents need to feed 6,000 to 9,000 insects, mostly caterpillars, to their clutch each year. That is ONE family. When enough caterpillars/insects are not available, the nest will fail. 

It is because of this beautiful and complicated food web that we must focus on landscaping with native plants.  Recent research has determined that to create a healthy food-web ecosystem, the plants on any site must be at least 70% native.  This number includes ALL plants…including your turf lawn. To answer the question then, Why Native Plants? To support life. 

Trillium grandiflorum. Photo by Whitney Miller

Native Grasses and Flowers…an ecosystem

By Cheryl A. Gross, AEMG and Plant It Wild President

Prairie means grassland, and comes from the French word for “meadow.”  So even before we begin to think of the space that is comprised of clump forming grasses and flowers (forbs), with few trees and shrubs, we have identified it by three different names…grassland, prairie, and meadow.  We typically think of the prairies of the Midwest. The grasslands crossed by wagon trains and plowed for agriculture. In Michigan, there were once areas of grasslands, mostly in the lower half of the Lower Peninsula.  Those spaces are mostly urban, suburban, and agricultural areas today.

Like each separate plant community, a meadow creates specific habitat and plays an important role in the ecosystem over-all.  We have lost much of that ecosystem, thereby destroying the life supported in a grassland habitat. Restoration of prairie habitat has been on the rise in recent years. For example, Saving Birds Thru Habitat in Omena, Michigan converted a large tract of land into a grassland.  This property has the native grasses and flowers (forbs) which support the shelter and food needed by birds. The Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy rescued old fields in the dry upland area of their Arcadia Dunes property and rehabilitated a grassland ecosystem. Further, the Michigan DNR has grants for property owners to install meadows and are actively working in northern Lower Michigan to restore grassland habitat.  The meadow ecosystem is highly valued and productive as it contains the plants to provide shelter and food for insects, birds, small mammals, and more.

There are three types of grasslands based upon the size of the grasses and the amount of moisture they typically receive.  These are Tall Grass, Mixed Grass, and Short Grass. Large tracts of land are perfect for Tall Grass or Mixed Grass. These plants typically require less moisture.  In suburban areas, a mixed grass or short grass may be more appropriate for scale and esthetic. Shorter grasses thrive with a bit more rainfall than tall grasses. 

Native grasses have deep roots.  Really deep roots. These roots perform a valuable function… they stabilize soil, are able to access more nutrients than short rooted plants, filter water, and provide their own organic matter by dying off a bit each year.  They need no soil amendments and typically need no additional irrigation once established. These are tough plants.  

Some species to consider in a short grass meadow:  Little Bluestem, Schizachyrium scoparium, June Grass, Koeleria macrantha;  Prairie Dropseed, Sporobolus heterolepis; Sideoats Grama, Bouteloua curtipendula; Northern Sea Oats,  Chasmanthium latifolium; and Bottle Brush Grass, Hystrix patula. A taller grass, Indian Grass, Sorghastrum nutans has gorgeous yellow blossoms, while side oats blossoms are fire engine red.  These grasses provide shelter for birds and small wildlife, habitat for insects and their seeds provide late season food.

Grasslands are far from mono-cultures.  There are many, many forbs that grow in grasslands.  These plants cover the spectrum from early bloomers who find the sun before the grasses shade them, to tall flowering plants which grow supported by the grasses and bloom above it all.

Catherine Zimmerman, author of Urban and Suburban Meadows will be speaking at Trinity Lutheran Church in Frankfort at 7 pm July 17.  She will explain how to make a meadow where you live. On July 18th at 10 am there will be a grassland field trip beginning at the Arcadia Dunes Grassland on Keillor Road.  Come to see the beauty of the prairie. Finally, Zimmerman’s documentary, Hometown Habitat: Stories of Bringing Nature Home will be screened at the Garden Theater in Frankfort at 3 pm on July 18th with filmmaker Q & A.  

Catherine Zimmerman is being hosted by Plant it Wild with support from Four Season Nursery, the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy, and Watervale Inn.  All of Plant it Wild programs and field trips are free and open to the public. Memberships and donations fund our work. For more information contact Plant it Wild on Facebook at PIW-Plant It Wild or on the web at



Michigan DNR, Large Grasslands


Grassland Biome


Urban and Suburban Meadows, Catherine Zimmerman

Steward – May 2019

Contents (Click on a title or scroll)

Rain Gardens: MGANM March Meeting Notes

What’s happening to my Blue Spruce?

The WHY of Native Plants

Photo by Superior Watershed in the U.P.

Rain Gardens: MGANM March Meeting Notes

By Cheryl Gross, AEMG

MGANM hosted another full house at their March monthly meeting.  Carolyn Thayer, with a BLA (Landscape Architecture) from MSU, owner of Designs in Bloom in Frankfort, a Certified Shoreline Professional, and founder of Plant It Wild was the presenter.  Carolyn Thayer discussed the key elements of rain gardens, shoreline buffer strips, and permeable surfaces. The key takeaway: Keep all stormwater from roofs and hard surfaces ON SITE.

Slow it down, Spread it out, Soak it in… is the slogan of the Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council.  Slow it down by using rocks around downspouts and gullies, spread it out by creating depressions and spaces for the water to collect, and soak it in by using native plants with deep roots to move the water through the soil.

Carolyn Thayer showed how even small depressions lined with rocks and planted with moisture loving native plants can manage the run off from a foot washing station at a home near the beach.  She detailed a project at Gateway Village in Frankfort where all the stormwater from the roofs and parking lots are directed into rain gardens that offer beautiful year-round interest and keep all stormwater on site and out of Betsie Bay.  Her most recent project is at a Frankfort Beach parking area on Crystal Lake which involved significant excavation and land shaping to accommodate the runoff and the plants. Finally, Carolyn introduced permeable hard surface products that can capture some storm water on the surface for drive ways and walk ways and limiting the runoff from traditionally impenetrable hard surfaces.

It was a very educational presentation.  Carolyn offered handouts and resources as well.

Read:  Bringing Nature Home by Doug Tallamy

Download a resource from Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council, “Plant a Rain Garden” a how-to guide for homeowners:


What’s happening to my Blue Spruce?

By Michael O’Brien, EMG

It was a really sad day when I realized my forty foot Blue Spruce trees, that are now thirty years old were under attack.  For the past two years I’ve been wondering why my trees were developing brown patches. This past summer I was involved in an advanced diagnostic workshop.  That’s when I became aware of Needle Cast disease.

The Colorado Blue Spruce is not native to Michigan.  There are many trees that aren’t native to this state, unfortunately they are succumbing to disease and insects.  This may be happening as our climate is changing.

Needle Cast disease is a fungus with spores.  It requires the right temperature and humidity to disperse spores.  These spores can travel about a mile with ease especially if the winds are correct.  The fungus that effects Colorado Blue Spruce is called Rhizosphaera kalkhoffii Bubak.  There is also another fungus called Stigmina needle cast. Many times Stigmina needle cast is misdiagnosed for Rhizosphaera kalkhoffii Bubak.

The spores attach to the needles, they drain the nutrients out of the needle, and eventually the needle dies.  In May just when the tree is about to open its new buds the fungus is also getting ready to disperse. Some of these new spores will attach to the new growth, while others travel in the wind.  This fungus can do serious harm to the tree and eventually the tree can die.

To diagnose this disease you need an eye loupe, a microscope or an arborist.  The disease shows up as little tiny black dots that can be too small to see by eye.

The good news is the trees can recover.  It may be necessary to apply around three treatments in early spring to keep the fungus from spreading into new areas of the tree.  It may take a couple of years for the tree to produce new growth to replace what has been lost. Most importantly do not cut out the diseased branches.  April and May is the best time to call a tree specialists to begin treatment.

Trillium grandiflorum and Dicentra canadensis. Photo by Whitney Miller

The WHY of Native Plants

By Cheryl A. Gross, AEMG, Plant it Wild President

There exists a connectivity between the soil, plants, and insects which are the first links in the web of life.  Insects are the creatures who turn the energy from the sun, processed by plants into biomass. This insect biomass is what begins to feed the world.

Soil, plants and insects evolve together in ecosystems all over the world.  In plant communities, they create habitats. Insects feed on plants, predator insects feed on insects on plants as do birds, amphibians, and mammals.  Everything is fed and kept in check. Control of plants is provided by the soil, moisture and the critters that feed on them.

Once you begin replacing native plants with alien plants moved within continents and from one continent to another, the ecosystem is disrupted.  The alien plants just don’t fit. Some require extensive and continuous soil amendments and water to succeed (think turf grass). Others, without their own ecosystem controls, escape and become invasive (Bradford Pear, Japanese barberry, and myrtle to name three). The insects who need to be supported cannot live on alien plants. Insects are picky eaters and almost all eat only those plants with whom they have co-evolved. Replace their natural plant communities with non-native plants and there is no insect food. Consider the well-known Monarch butterfly whose larval form lives only on plants in the milkweed family.  We hear about Monarchs everywhere. However, they are but one. All other butterflies and moths have the same habits. When we landscape with non-native plants a food desert is created.

Food deserts are places that lack access to foods that make up the full range of a healthy diet.  Our food desert can be best seen in the decline of our migratory bird population. Some of our birds are in danger of extinction because of the food deserts we have created.  To begin, 98% of all baby birds are fed insects by their parents. (The other 2% are fed fish.) The best food for these baby birds are soft, squishy caterpillars. Caterpillars contain valuable nutrients that baby birds need to grow and fledge.  Research estimates that chickadee parents need to feed 6,000 to 9,000 insects, mostly caterpillars, to their clutch each year. That is ONE family. When enough caterpillars/insects are not available, the nest will fail.

It is because of this beautiful and complicated food web that we must focus on landscaping with native plants.  Recent research has determined that to create a healthy food-web ecosystem, the plants on any site must be at least 70% native.  This number includes ALL plants…including your turf lawn. To answer the question then, Why Native Plants? To support life.

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