Top Gardening Tips of 2013

No matter how long you have gardened, there’s always something new to learn. Looking over back issues of Northern Gardener and items on this blog and the one I write, I found dozens of tips that could be considered among the best garden tips of 2013. So as the old year ends and the new one begins, here are 13 that worth keeping in mind for 2014.

Water consistently for a great tomato crop.

Water consistently for a great tomato crop.

1)    Water tomatoes with a 5-gallon pail. We’ve heard this in a couple of places. (The ones I remember are from Bobby Jensen ofGrow with KARE and Eric Johnson, one of our Northern Gardenercolumnists.) The idea is that vegetables, especially tomatoes, need consistent watering, and one way to do that is with a 5-gallon pail. In the bottom of the pail, you drill several really tiny holes (1/8 inch or less). Set the pail in the garden near the plants that need water, then once a week, fill it up. The water will slowly seep into the ground, giving plants a steady, adequate supply of water. I tried this with a tomato bed this past season and those tomatoes did better than any other ones I grew.

2)    Plant spring vegetables in mid-summer. Jackie Smith, a Carver-Scott County Master Gardener, offered this idea at a horticulture day last year. Our springs in Minnesota are short, tough and unpredictable, so skip the pain of trying to grow “spring vegetables,” such as Chinese cabbage and spinach, in spring and plant them in mid to late summer. Then, harvest the crop when the temperatures cool in fall.

3)    Grow potatoes in containers. I heard about this on a garden tour in Duluth years ago, but haven’t tried it until this past year. Just plant the potatoes in a large container – I used one of those 50-gallon plastic containers – filled with compost and potting mix. The potatoes grew well and were ready for harvest early. Another side benefit: No problems with insects.

4)    Bring indoor plants outside for the summer. A lot of houseplants really benefit from a summer vacation. (Check out what happened to my mom’s succulent collection when outdoors for the summer.) There are a couple of tricks. First, just as you would ease vegetable plants grown under lights to the outdoors, you need to do the same with houseplants. Give them a few days of going to a shady spot before exposing them to full sun. When they come back indoors in fall, give the pot a good bath and check them carefully for bugs.

This simple entry garden is welcoming even in early spring.

This simple entry garden is welcoming even in early spring.

5)    Engage visitors at the front door. One ofNorthern Gardener’s great garden profiles of 2013 was of Heidi Heiland’s garden. The article, which appeared in the May/June issue, was full of ideas and design tips. But here’s a great one: Make sure your front door is inviting. Even if most of your gardening is out back, people will come to your garden through the front. Containers, shrubs and a nice wide path or courtyard tell your guests they are welcome at your place.

6)    Search smartly when you have a plant problem. The Internet can be a scary place, full of folks trying to sell you things and people with half-baked ideas. If you think you have a plant disease, here’s a good way to make sure your Google search leads you to research-based information. Put in the symptoms or other keywords in the search box, then type “site: .edu”. This will guide you to university websites, which are most likely to have accurate information.

A small jar of apple cider vinegar drew more bees and produced a bumper crop.

A small jar of apple cider vinegar drew more bees and produced a bumper crop.

7)   Apple cider vinegar increases your apple harvest. I had thebest apple harvest ever on my Haralson tree and the cause appears to be a little jar of apple cider vinegar that I hung in the tree as part of a University of Minnesota research project. (The project had nothing to do with apples.) A knowledgeable plant person speculated that the vinegar attracted bees to the tree, resulting in better pollination that in the past.

8)    Beware of free plants. Martin Stern, the knowledgeable and creative proprietor of Squire House Gardens in Afton wrote an article in 2013, which we called “Too Much of a Green Thing.” It talked about that fine line between plants that are healthy and hardy, and those that are just too aggressive. Martin’s advice for home gardeners: Be wary anytime people offer you free plants. No matter how pretty, they may be inclined to spread.

This photo was taken in November. It looks a little rough, but the verbena is still blooming.

This photo was taken in November. It looks a little rough, but the verbena is still blooming.

9)    Choose annuals that like the cold. Michelle Mero Reidel, photographer, Master Gardener andwinter-sowing expert, wrote about 15 Frost-Friendly Annuals in our September/October Northern Gardener. She offered some wonderful suggestions of plants that can take the cold and will continue to bloom and look pretty well into the fall. Some of her picks: Verbena, calibrachoa and nemesia.

10)    Consider hydroponic fertilizers for seed starting. Also in September/October, writer Meleah Maynard introduced us to David Nackerud, a Minneapolis gardener who starts 1,000 or more plants from seed each year. This guy knows a bit about seed starting! He recommends using fertilizers blended for hydroponic gardens on your seedlings. Brands he suggests include FloraGrow, FloraBloom and FloraMicro.

11)    Make your own potting soil for great results. Susy Morris contributes photography to Northern Gardener from time to time and also blogs at Chiot’s Run. Susy is a do-it-yourself gal and makes her own potting soil. I tried her mixture of two parts peat moss, two parts vermiculite and one part worm castings in 2013 for seed starting and was stunned by how well my indoor seed-starting worked. Here’s a video in which Susy gives her recipe for a container potting soil, which is a variation on the recipe I used.

Oak leaves persist into winter, adding a russet color to frosty days.

Oak leaves persist into winter, adding a russet color to frosty days.

12)    Plant oaks for winter interest. Nurseryman Leif Knecht has long advocated planting oaks for winter interest. Oaks tend to hold their leaves well into the winter, adding a russet dimension to an otherwise white and gray landscape. Check out the cover of our November/December issue to see how beautiful oaks can me.

13)    Never stop learning. We learn this over and over. No matter how long you have gardened, how many experiences you’ve had or books you’ve read, there is always something new to learn. We hope 2014 will be a great year in your garden, one filled with joy, peace and the excitement of new discoveries.

What was your best garden lesson of 2013?

Happy New Year!

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About Tom McKusick 30 Articles
It is the mission of MSHS to serve Northern gardeners through education, encouragement, and community. Through a variety of educational programs, classes and conferences, and by publishing an award-winning magazine, Northern Gardener, MSHS helps its members and the general public to be better gardeners in USDA plant hardy Zones 3, 4 and 5. MSHS’ plant donation network, Minnesota Green, started in 1988, serves the greening efforts of volunteer gardeners throughout the state. Minnesota Green promotes grassroots efforts to revitalize communities by coordinating the donation and distribution of nurseries and greenhouse’s flowers and trees to be planted in public spaces statewide. MSHS was formed in 1866, as an association of fruit growers who took on the challenge of growing apples and other fruits in a northern climate. Two years later, the association became the Minnesota State Horticultural Society to recognize the importance of all phases of horticulture development in rural and urban Minnesota. In 1873, the Minnesota Legislature approved an act providing for the publication and distribution of 2000 copies of all the transactions of the society. 1894 marked the birth of one of the longest continually published horticultural magazines in the country: Northern Gardener, formerly known as Minnesota Horticulturist.