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7 tips for big gardens

This 6-acre test plot can help you master low-maintenance gardening
The Master Gardener Education & Research Display Garden in Rosemount, Minnesota, is a large-scale outdoor environmental classroom for backyard gardeners.
To make the living fence shown above, willows are cut before they bud in early April, stuck into the soil at an angle, and tied with twine to form an open diamond-shape fence.
Master Gardener Trish Johnson (right) gives a few tips on vegetable production to junior Master Gardener Kaitlyn Crawford.
Barbara Stendahl builds a willow tower. The structure will support vining plants such as flowering annuals (morning glories) or vegetables (beans).
From the larval stage to the adult stage, all plants necessary for the life cycle of the butterfly are included in this special butterfly garden.

Minnesota Master Gardeners have a secret to share: Include at least one bench in your garden and plant yourself in it often.

"People work so hard in their yards, even when they are low maintenance," says Barbara Stendahl, Master Gardener coordinator for University of Minnesota Extension, Dakota County. "They should appreciate what they've done and relax."

It's a lesson more than 100 Master Gardeners have learned over the past seven years, as they converted a crop field into 40 garden beds covering 6 acres. Fingers of soybeans and corn (from the university's test plots) weave into the gardens' edges.

"We peacefully coexist," Stendahl says, pointing to a formal rose garden with a cornfield backdrop. "We gathered a group and decided to build an outdoor classroom for environmental education. We stress low maintenance and want to give practical hints for people to take home and replicate." Here are seven of those hints.

1. Get the weeds

The gardeners try to use the least toxicity possible when controlling weeds. Organic herbicides (such as plant extracts plus acetic and citric acid) are tested for weed control in turf plots. For flowerbeds, the gardeners oft en use preemergent herbicide once the plants are established, and then they follow with mulch immediately.

"The key is mulch," Stendahl says. The gardeners try all kinds -- from cocoa bean and cedar to shredded bark and wood chips. Wood chips (you can get them free from power companies and tree trimmers) are dominant in most beds and along garden paths. Even chips from diseased trees work if they aren't used around same-species trees.

Mulch depth varies. The gardeners put down 1 inch around some bedding plants to 4 inches around trees. Mulch shouldn't touch the stem since it can cause diseases. The gardeners also mulch with compost in annual flowerbeds. It looks nice and adds nutrients to the soil, says Stendahl.

The gardeners pull up dead plants in the fall and compost the debris over the winter. Also in the fall, most of the mulch is cultivated into the soil.

Mulch doesn't work everywhere, Stendahl notes, pointing to a bed of 1,400 irises, which need their crowns above the surface. "We've managed to grow exhibition-size dandelions in there," she laughs. "We're still looking for the perfect solution."

2. Water them right

Dragging hoses to water the garden the first year was not fun, Stendahl recalls. Since then, donated underground sprinklers have been installed in most beds. Watering is done in the morning so leaves can dry and avoid foliar diseases.

Water 1 inch per week and place tuna cans around the garden, Stendahl suggests, to make sure you're watering enough. Pay attention to each variety's needs, she adds. Full sun means sun all day, not just morning sun. Make sure plants have good air circulation around them.

"Follow good cultural practices," she says. "Put the right plant in the right place in the right cultural conditions."

3. Watch for wildlife

Planting gold and maroon flowers in an M shape (for the university) has been a tradition since the garden started in 2000. Gardeners have replanted the 2,500 flowers more than once because of deer.

"We ended up putting clear fish line 12 inches from the ground around the bed to deter them," Stendahl says.

In the bird garden, which also attracts deer, gardeners place fist-size nylon bags of Milorganite organic fertilizer on 24-inch stakes camouflaged in the plants. Deer stay away.

4. Go native

In the wide-open site, the garden's conditions can be harsh. "We don't fuss with things," Stendahl says. "These plants are rugged." Instead of tea roses, the rose garden has hardy shrub roses.

"We try to show visitors that for really low maintenance, native plants are good additions," she says. "But you always need to research before you plant, especially with natives and grasses. Some can become invasive." In Minnesota, little bluestem, grayheaded coneflower, and blue gentian have worked well. Buy locally grown plants when possible, Stendahl suggests.

5. Get creative

Though most beds are in rectangular spaces, gardeners are creative. For example, 76 peony bushes are planted in the shape of a flower.

Joyce Clarin and Sharon Moline add flowers for color and design to their heirloom vegetable garden. In 2006, they planted a 25x50-foot quilt design with a diamond in a square pattern. Bull's blood beets framed triangles of green drumhead cabbage, which surrounded white alyssum and purple basil with a lemon tomato center.

Heirloom varieties, dating back to the 1700s, aren't as disease-resistant as hybrids, but they can have more flavor and color. These include black radishes, Th ai pink egg tomatoes, and Chinese yellow cucumbers.

Clarin likes the challenge of heirlooms. Her team built a peaked arbor out of dead elm next to the garden for a summer kitchen. Roses and trumpet vine climb the walls and create a natural roof. They also planted a living willow fence.

6. Go with the flow

Everyone loves the butterfly garden, Stendahl says. Visitors and volunteers relax on a bench to watch the show. There are plants for all the butterflies' life stages. Parsley, dill, and shrubs support the larvae stage; milkweed, butterfly weed, and other flowering plants sustain mature butterflies.

Another popular area is the water garden. Two small ponds connected by a stream follow the garden's low-maintenance principle. Water is pumped from the lower pond to the upper pond, which is a bog garden. Bog plants filter the water to keep it clean. Use native plants and elements from your area, says Stendahl. Rocks for the water garden came from nearby fields, for example.

7. Share the joy

Share time in your garden with others, Clarin suggests. "I still think it's magic to put this seed into the ground and it grows."

She encourages people intimidated by gardening to try it anyway. "Don't worry about doing everything correctly the first time. Just give it a try. You will be rewarded for your efforts: a bouquet or fresh vegetables to share with someone. You just may get hooked."

"Gardening is therapeutic and helps people relax," Stendahl adds, warning not to take on too much. Even Master Gardeners have their limits.

How you can visit the garden

The Dakota County Master Gardener Education & Research Display Garden is in Rosemount, Minnesota, at the University of Minnesota Outreach, Research and Education Park. With 12 square miles of land, it's the largest contiguous property in the U.S. owned by a land-grant university.

"Not only is the garden beautiful, but also there are lots of educational opportunities," says Julie Harris, 2007 chairwoman of the garden's steering committee. She works in the flower trial beds and keeps data for Ball and Pan Am seed companies and the University of Minnesota. Each January, information is available about the newest varieties at research universities and through Internet searches of specific zones.

Besides trial beds, the volunteer Master Gardeners care for beds including prairie, culinary herb, and mass-planting gardens. This year they added a blueberry bed. There are no-mow and low-mow grass trials, and there is faculty research on ornamental grasses, turf, and roses.

The volunteer gardeners offer Tuesday evening classes, work with Scouts, teach junior Master Gardener classes, and sponsor camps for children. They teach community education classes and design landscapes for Habit for Humanity. Food from the vegetable gardens goes to area senior dining centers and food shelves.

Visitors are welcome free of charge during daylight hours. To arrange a group tour, call 651/480-7700. A free open house is scheduled for August 16, 2007, from 4 to 8 p.m.

Visit the garden online at www.mggarden.umn.edu.

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