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Gardening Minnesota

It's been a long winter. Reward yourself with a garden.

By Adam Overland

Julie Weisenhorn with camera 165
Weisenhorn wasn't always a plant lover. For 12 years, she worked in business marketing for the imaging industry.

April 26, 2011

Every year about this time, many of us start planting a garden. Whether because of overwatering, under-watering, animal appetites, or more, many of us fail. But there's help. 

In 2010, University of Minnesota Extension master gardeners gave more than 127,000 hours of service to their communities. Put a dollar amount on that service, and you have a public value worth about $2.6 million. Their activities benefit schools, community gardens, youth programs, farmers markets, and more—and all of that service is volunteerism.

Not just pulling weeds
Master gardeners can tell you everything from how to protect that carrot from a rabbit's nibbling mouth to which long-rooted plants best stabilize shorelines in times of flooding.

Nationally, there are nearly 100,000 master gardener volunteers, with a program located in every state and implemented by a land-grant institution. Julie Weisenhorn, assistant Extension professor, has been leading Extension’s master gardener program as state director since 2007.

Weisenhorn wasn't always a plant lover. For 12 years, she worked in business marketing for the imaging industry. In fact, while growing up in Rochester, she recalls disliking the whole idea of gardening.

"I thought my mom was crazy being out there, weeding the garden in the heat and humidity. I played outside in the garden a lot though, and loved all the flowering plants," she says.

An extension of Extension
Only after purchasing a home with her husband Karl in 1989, did Weisenhorn start to take a more focused interest in plants and horticulture. The home, it turns out, was owned by the curator (at that time) of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden in Theodore Wirth Park.

"I remember Carey (the curator) walking me around the yard very excitedly saying, 'this is the hosta, and this is the chokecherry tree….’ I felt responsible to learn how to care for these plants. And then I was hooked."

Weisenhorn began learning about the plants in her new yard—the cultivars and species, care and maintenance—even propagation. Her mom was helpful as were the local garden centers, and a few books. In 1992, the Weisenhorns moved to a new home in Mound where they live today, but the yard was sparse—just some wild daylilies and a few sugar maples. To Weisenhorn, it was a blank canvas just waiting for plants.

Become a master gardenere

To become a master gardener, you must first be accepted into your local program, which is usually county-based, says Weisenhorn. Then it takes 48-hours of class-time at the U. Tack on 50 hours of volunteerism the first year as an "intern" and 25 hours annually thereafter, and there it is—you're a master gardener. Not too shabby.

For more information, see UMN Extension Master Gardener program.

"In 1996, my mom told me about the master gardener volunteer program. After learning about it, I thought, 'Wow, what a great way to learn horticulture from University folks and do some volunteering.’ So I applied to the Hennepin County program, took the core course on campus in the winter, and loved it—especially the educators. They were inspirational and amazing people. Some still teach the classes today for me,” she says.

Weisenhorn also found teaching horticulture made her happy, and in 1999, she quit her job, enrolled in the College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resource Sciences' master of agriculture program, and upon graduation, took a position in the department as a teaching specialist in the sustainable landscape design program. Today, as director of the master gardener program, she and her colleagues in consumer horticulture educate about 250 master gardeners each year, who in turn go on to educate thousands about applying University research-based information in their own backyards.

Lately, she says, with some Extension positions lost, the demand for volunteers has become much higher than it used to be. There are currently 2,269 active master gardeners in Minnesota—with 230 interns added in 2010.

"These people are very active in their communities," says Weisenhorn. "They're teachers and they love to share their knowledge—they're really the extension of Extension. It's a very cool thing to do. Anytime people volunteer their time like this, I think it's quite remarkable, especially in this day and age with all the demands on people's time."

And who knows? Maybe, like Weisenhorn, another volunteer will be inspired to dig deeper and make horticulture their lifelong career.


Tips from Julie:
So you look out to your backyard and it's nothing but turf grass…where do you begin?

Julie Weisenhorn headshot 165Julie Weisenhorn Weisenhorn says figure out what you want to grow first, whether it's tomatoes, flowers, or something more intensive, like grapes. It also pays to observe your site. Is it sunny or shady? Dry or moist? On a hill or flat land? Take a soil sample and utilize the U's soil testing lab. “Once you understand the site, you can determine how big a space you want to grow and maintain,” says Weisenhorn. “And be sure to choose plants with characteristics that match the site—if it's full sun, don't choose shade plants.”

Minnesota Landscape Arboretum's Mary L. Griggs annual garden 165Your garden may not look like the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum's Mary L. Griggs annual garden right away, but keep trying. Visit the Arboretum for inspiration. If your new garden site is currently lawn, kill the grass off with an herbicide such as glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup. Remove the dead grass and amend the soil based on the recommendations from your soil test. When planting, be sure to space plants appropriately so they can grow to their mature width, and realize that they require maintenance.

What about rabbits, chipmunks, and deer? Master gardeners get a lot of questions about how to prevent animals from eating a garden,” says Weisenhorn. "A good fence goes a long way. I hear lots of sad stories of deer decimating gardens. You can spray with repellents, but you have to be diligent about reapplying them regularly and after it rains. Sometimes animals will grow accustomed to a repellent too."

Start root vegetables like carrots, radishes, and beets by sowing the seeds directly in the ground when the soil thaws.

Start warmth-loving plants like tomatoes and peppers indoors. When moving plants outside, use the solar power contained within a milk jug. Cut them in half, says Weisenhorn, and they're like little tiny greenhouses. Then start acclimating your plants by first moving them outdoors into the shade. Gardening doesn't have to be expensive. In fact, it can save you money on your grocery bill.

Learn more at Julie's master gardener blog, "Over the backyard fence."

P & A Audio Spotlight
Julie Weisenhorn, State Director for Master Gardner Program, University Extension

Julie discusses her daily work managing the University's Master Gardener Program.

Click to listen

Other resources:
UMN Extension Garden website

Learn about sustainable landscape design, implementation and management: SULIS, the Sustainable Urban Landscape Information series, another project of Extension.

Listen to Julie on a recent MPR segment.