Secret to U.P. gardening: Right plant, right place

R. R. Branstrom | Daily Press In one of the greenhouses at Seven Acre Gardens and Gifts, owner Dan Doyen holds a tray of nasturtium.

ESCANABA — The onset of spring means that gardening season is near. Seasoned and educated gardeners say that it’s safe to plant outdoors when soil temperatures are in the 50s and 60s, but there are a number of other considerations to factor in, too.

Dan Doyen, a Master Gardener certified with the Michigan State University Extension, owns and operates Seven Acre Garden and Gifts in Hyde along with his wife, Theresa. The two recently sat down with the Press to offer tips that may help hobby gardeners to be successful growing at home.

Whether the intention is to grow vegetables, flowers, shrubs, or anything else, “the first step is to think about what you want to have, because there are certain plants that do better in our environment than others,” Dan said. He said that local providers and greenhouses that will typically carry starter plants that do well in the area, but “the zone changes depending upon how far away you are from the lake.”

He was referring to “plant hardiness zones,” which follow a metric established by the USDA based on the average annual minimum temperature in a region over the last 30 years. However, soil type can also very greatly within a zone.

Dan said that the first question he asks customers is where they live.

“Right here (Hyde) and say, Escanaba, is a 5a hardiness zone. If you go to somewhere 15 miles away north, even to like, Cornell, you could be a zone 4. There (are) differences, especially in flowers and perennial plants that will survive — some of them can’t take the real hard frost in the wintertime. If you want a plant that’s going to come back, you’re gonna want to have something that fits your hardiness zone,” said Dan.

Carolyn Bissell, another Delta County Master Gardener, pointed to the value of “smart gardening,” which begins even before planting and includes encouraging the health of pollinators. Bissell said that she herself was only going to begin trimming the tops of her hydrangeas in April, making sure to leave the soil undisturbed.

“There’s been a big push the last few years to do ‘no mow May,’ which means you don’t even touch your grass through May, because that’s when the dandelions and the clovers and all of that stuff is just coming up in the yard, and that’s particularly good for pollinators,” she said.

When it’s time to begin planning a garden, the wise horticulturist looks at the amount of sunlight a potential spot gets and makes sure they’re matching a chosen plant to the level of light exposure. For example, Dan said that all vegetables typically need full sun, while certain flowers are shade-loving.

“The biggest thing is right plant, right place,” said Bissell.

In the area chosen for a garden, a soil test is recommended, which can be done by taking samples and sending them to MSU Extension. Kits may be purchased online from shop.msu.edu or from a local extension office. Delta County’s extension office is at 2840 College Ave. in Escanaba; Schoolcraft County’s is at 100 N. Cedar St. in Manistique; Menominee County’s is at S. 904 Highway 41 in Stephenson.

While MSU used to test in their own lab, samples are now sent to A&L Great Lakes Laboratory in Fort Wayne, Ind., where the physical analyses are done, but it is the extension who interprets the data — using both algorithms and human review — and makes recommendations “for the unique needs of over 100 crops … built on decades of research,” according to an article on the MSU Extension website.

Consumer Horticulture Educator Brent Crain emphasized that the home lawn and garden soil tests are for mineral soils only, and are not meant for raised beds or pots with potting soil and compost — unless mixed with mineral soil. A different kit is available for commercial soil and wildlife food plots.

The right soil should be tilled, whether by machine or with tools by hand, so that the dirt is loose enough to allow for germination and the permeation of air, moisture, and roots.

Seeds or young plants should be planted when soil temperatures reach the mid-50s, which is usually when air temp is consistently in the 60s, said Bissell. On the odd night when frost is expected, the Doyens said to cover outdoor plants — making sure the cover does not touch the plants — and to remove it promptly in the morning.

Watering, when necessary, should also be done in the morning so that there is time to dry throughout the day.

Different plants of course have different requirements, but Theresa warned that it’s just as easy to over-water as under-water, and that symptoms can even appear similar. Wilted-looking or yellow leaves may be seen on an over-watered plant.

An easy test is to feel the soil.

“Poke your finger in there, down to the bottom,” suggested Theresa. “Many times it’ll look dry at the top.”

When beginning a garden, the Doyens said to make sure to leave enough space for plants to grow. If the aim is to have bushes or perennials that will get larger from one year to the next, they suggested planting annuals in the emptier gaps until the others reach full size and occupy the area.

When it comes to maintenance, many may choose to fertilize. Composting is effective, sustainable and easier than people think, said Theresa, and may be done even in a small yard.

Dan said that liquid fertilizers — which also should be administered in the morning — are easy to apply, provide rapid results and are hard to overdo. He said that granular fertilizers, if used in excess, can burn plants, but they are the more economical option and generally are slow-release and longer-lasting.

Pests are a major concern for gardeners, and prevention is always best.

In lieu of actual fences, there are plants and products meant to deter mammals from bothering gardens. Dan and Theresa recommended Green Screen, a Michigan-made product sold at Seven Acre which they use because they’ve found it to be effective and safe around pets. It’s a satchel containing organic compounds that may be hung near a garden or sprinkled upon it.

Nasturtium, which Theresa called “pretty and useful,” is a brightly-colored, relatively easy-to-grow flower that is known to deter some bugs from eating other plants.

“Bugs can happen literally overnight… so you always want to be on the lookout,” said Dan, adding that a way to prevent them is to clean up a garden by removing debris and dead leaves in the fall.

During the growing season, nuisance bugs can hide on the underside of a plant’s leaves in the daytime.

Some insects, however, are beneficial, so it’s important to know what’s crawling on a plant. Products like sticky traps exist to aid in identification, and then treatments may be applied for the specific problem. Some pesticides are unsafe for certain plants and especially those for consumption, so instructions should be read carefully, and questions should be posed to professionals and experts.

The MSU Extension provides resources to help, including Master Gardener diagnostic responders. The Lawn and Garden Hotline at 888-678-3464 is answered by staff and volunteers between 9 a.m. and noon on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $2.99/week.

Subscribe Today