Spring is that time of year when everything seems magical. Plants seem to leap from the ground and daffodils and tulips can easily find themselves peeking through wet, spring snows. We look for the return of birds, of insects, the sweet smell of things growing. And we look for smiles on the faces of eager gardeners!

All of the Digs articles (below) have appeared in print in slightly edited form in the Rapid City Journal.

Think of this column as an instructive tale with three main characters: native soil, yard waste mulch and water and three crucial vocabulary words: hydrophobic, hydrophilic and infiltration.

            Say the word “hydrophobic” and most would think of frothing, rabid dogs, not city yard waste mulch.  The first meaning of hydrophobic means tending to repel or fail to mix with water. The water puddles on the surface of the material and seemingly refuses to penetrate.

            The issue has several natural explanations: hydrophobic behavior can be caused by fine particles creating a surface tension that can resist water. Think: peat moss and fine mulches or compost. Waxy residues from plant material can coat the soil particles that resist water penetration. Think: freshly ground wood and/or sawdust.

            The most common way to remedy this hydrophobic behavior in garden soils/mulches is to apply water to very thin applications of the mulch. Thoroughly rake to saturate as water is applied then repeat this process as more compost is applied.

            As more mulch is added and saturated the physical property of the mulch will change from hydrophobic to hydrophilic, or water holding. Broadly speaking, it is this changed chemical and physical condition that supports the water retaining ability of organic compost.

            Most of the activity of mulch – water retaining, soil cooling, at least according to the eyes of the gardener, takes place on the surface mulching area of the soil.  But there is another, less discussed value of organic mulch when it is incorporated into the soil. The process of incorporation is similar to applying surface mulch.

            Begin by spreading a thin (1-2”) application of mulch on the soil and working it in with an earth fork or a broadfork. Then repeat the action. Repeat it again until you have applied, in total, 5-6” of compost, almost all of which you have worked into the soil.

            When water is applied it should disappear into the soil as rapidly as a sink drains water. That is the rate of infiltration. Keep in mind that water moves through the soil in a number of ways. One is by water vapor in the soil, another is by water film on soil aggregates which is related to good structure in the soil, another is by gravity. Simply speaking, the greater the amount of soil organic matter (SOM) in the soil from the compost, the greater and faster the process of infiltration and water retention or holding capacity of the soil. Water lost to run-off or evaporation is greatly reduced.

            Although the chemistry of soil is wonderfully complicated, the gardener can simplify the process with great success: apply and work in wet compost to moistened soil in thin layers or small amounts until between 4-6” of compost has been incorporated. When the infiltration rate of moisture into the soil is rapid you know that the soil is taking and holding the water efficiently with minimum water lost to run off or evaporation.

 Mother’s Day and Memorial Day are rightly seen as the beginning of the planting season, if the thousands of hanging flower baskets that suddenly appear on decks and porches and in decorative pots are any measure. These baskets often contain some of my favorite flowers: pansies, snapdragons, violas and petunias. They are vigorous growers but often break gardeners’ hearts because they can become unattractive - leggy and stringy with few flowers or one sad bloom at the end of a long, seemingly naked stem.

            There is a simple way to keep the four plants named above in abundant bloom throughout the summer. The solution – an understanding of a bit of basic botany.  Examine the stems of any of the four mentioned plants and you will see two or more leaves  in an arrangement – alternate, opposite, or whorled - near or at the base of the stem. This is a node.  Clusters of leaves along the stem are more nodes and the space between each of them is called, obviously, an internode.

            Every stem has an apical or terminal bud at its very end. An apical bud governs the growth activity of that stem. It releases a hormone that prevents axillary buds (found at the axils in nodes) from growing or causes them to grow slowly. This growth-governing action allows the plant to grow taller to reach more light or causes a hanging basket to become stringy.

            But once the stem (with its apical bud, hormones, nodes, internodes and potential stems and leaves at the axils) has produced a flower, that stem wants to produce seed. For the lover of summertime hanging flower baskets, it is time for a botanical hormone intervention. Cut that  long stringy stem back to just above a leaf node that is close to the base of the plant. When the stem containing the growth-governing apical tip is removed, the hormone signal now affects the axillary buds which begin to grow vigorously. This act of removing the terminal bud by cutting just above one of the nodes alerts the growth hormones to get in gear and produce more shoots, each of which is an exact copy of the main stem and equipped with the power to produce more nodes, internodes and flowers.

            In gardening terms, removing the terminal bud is known as “pinching back” and the plant’s resultant more compact, bushy growth is called “stooling out” (which I think is an unfortunate description.)

            Violas (or petunias, snapdragons or pansies) are lovely when regularly pinched back to produce compact and colorful fullness. To support this vigorous growth, it is generally recommended to feed the plants with a liquid fertilizer at one half or one-quarter strength at every watering.          

I had to check Wikipedia to get a solid description of the increasingly popular and loved garden broadfork. Local broadfork user, Piedmont gardener Brenda Pates lovingly calls her 28 pound, all metal 4-tined broadfork from Meadow Creature “the bomb.”  Rapid City gardener Mary Deibert has a 3 tined broadfork with wooden replaceable handles and replaceable tines that she purchased from Grelll (yes, three lls) in Ft. Collins, Colorado. She says it easily did the trick to break up poor soil and add compost. Jeremy Smith of Cycle Farm in Spearfish purchased his nine-tine broadfork (with replaceable parts) from Johnny’s Seeds (in Maine) and he uses it to cultivate, weed and harvest potatoes and parsnips.

         Wikipedia also calls the tool a U-Fork (because of its shape) or a grelinette . I have yet to find a good historical reference but I suspect it has been around since a crafty farmer had a great idea centuries ago.

         Wikipedia describes its use perfectly: “  The operator steps up on the crossbar using full bodyweight to drive the tines into the ground, then steps backward while pulling backwards on the handles, causing the tines to lever upwards through the soil. This action leaves the soil layers intact, rather than inverting or mixing them, preserving the topsoil structure.”

         There are many good reasons to consider this obviously old idea one of the best new cultivating strategies. As stated above, for the person wanting to break the tiller habit, this opens the soil without breaking the soil structure. For the person wanting to reduce the carbon inputs that a tiller gas and exhaust would provide, the broadfork is carbon zero. For an adult of regular strength the broadfork uses your own weight to drive the tines into the soil and your weight plus gravity to pull the arms back to complete the act.

         A search of the Web produces a number of vendors closer to us (Colorado and Montana) in addition to Johnny’s Seeds in Maine. On-line vendors like Amazon also sell broadforks. To the best of my knowledge, there is no local source for broadforks. Hopefully, this might change.

         It is easy to find good informative articles about the broadfork on the Web.  Magazines like Mother Earth News and The Modern Homestead might not figure prominently on your coffee table, but their articles about the broadfork are worth a good read on the Web.

         Good garden tools are essential. While we dream of broadforks, here are some best-friend-tools: a two-wheeled wheelbarrow that won’t dump a load as you push; a good grubbing/soil knife; some regular size clippers (that can be taken apart and sharpened) and a pair or two of the much smaller ones which are excellent for close trimming of plants; a hand rake for quick tidying of the beds and a selection of hoes. The common garden hoe is great for trenching and moving soil; the circle hoe is a masterful weed remover; the Warren (or pointy) hoe is excellent at removing weeds and making rows and the stirrup or scuffle hoe will move both soil and weeds.

It’s that time again. The citywide, almost-free annual Plant Share is scheduled for Saturday, May 20. The location is in the Erickson Building (the old Rapid City Club for Boys thrift shop, across from The Journey Museum.)

            The procedure remains the same as in past years. Persons can drop off potted and labeled plants between 8-9 a.m. Each person bringing at least one potted plant will receive a blue numbered coupon good for four plants. Persons who have no plants to share and those who want additional plants may purchase up to three additional numbered yellow coupons for $1 each in the refreshment area inside the building beginning at 8:00 a.m.

            The doors will open to admit small groups of blue coupon holders according to the number on their coupon(s) at 9:30. When all the holders of blue coupons have gone through, numbers will be called for yellow coupon holders.

            During the Plant Share there will be door prizes awarded (write your name on the slips of paper at the refreshment area for the drawings).

            During the share there are free refreshment and drinks provided by the Master Gardeners and members of the Rapid City Garden Club.

            There will also be an Ask Me table where Plant Share committee members will try to identify plants and talk about problems or answer questions.

            In addition, anyone who has extra or no longer used garden equipment, pots, decorations, garden magazine or catalogs in good condition may bring that for the Free Table. Selecting items from the Free Table begins at 10:00.

            There will be a load of yard waste compost from the landfill in the skate park. Persons should bring their own containers and shovels. It is a load-it-yourself compost give-away.

            There will be plenty of Plant Share volunteers to assist people in moving their plants in or carrying their choices to their vehicle.

            The Rapid City annual Plant Share began almost twenty years ago by a group of gardeners who realized that their gardens contained many shared plants and that the word sharing in all its philosophical definitions for gardeners means pass along plants and their stories, sharing encouragement and instruction, making new gardening friends, and sharing the harvest. The Rapid City Plant Share is unique among most because it is not a sale nor is it a fund-raising event. It is an almost-free sharing of plants and garden lore among friends.

            Over the years the items at the Share have included small shrubs and trees, an abundance of flower, vegetable and herb seedlings, houseplants and more. We never know what kind and amount of plant material will come in.

            Persons who have received a Habitat for Humanity home in the past year and have a letter awarding plants are asked to make themselves known because we put them at the head of the line when the share begins.

Warming days and slowly warming nights have every gardener I know eager, almost desperate to get his or her hands in the soil. And some are eagerly preparing  for an annual beginning of the gardening season event – tilling the garden.

            My position on tilling is well known. Don’t do it.  If it’s a habit – break it. If it is a fondness for the roar of the motor and the smell of the exhaust – start the motor in the garage, breathe deeply only once, turn off the tiller and pick up and earth fork.

            I say this with assurance because I have been following the National Resources Conservation Service Merit or Myth series on YouTube about soil health. I admit that I previously thought that YouTube was noted for funny cat videos but I eagerly advocate watching the NRCS series of short and cogent soil health programs.

            A recent one on Soil Structure for Water Infiltration by Dr. Tom Schumacher (SDSU, retired) and Dr. Dwayne Beck, Dakota Lakes Research Farm, is excellent in all aspects. Schumacher gives an analogy of a building to describe the vital structure of the soil, which as we all know is comprised roughly of 50% mineral bits, 25% air pores and 25% water film and roughly 5% or more of organic matter.

            Schumacher illustrates the vital inter-relationships of the macro(large)pores, the meso(middle-sized) pores and the micro(small)pores that are part of good soil structure. To visualize this, think of a popcorn ball or a hand full of marbles – all of which structure gives space to the movement of air, soil bacteria, fungi and soil insects, and water.

            It is in and through these pores that air and water move as well as plant roots, insects, bacteria and fungi. Bacteria enhance the structure of the soil exuding a sticky material in the form of polysaccharides (sugar) that helps bind tiny soil particles into small aggregates that give stability to the soil. Earthworms perform a similar function.

            This sort of soil-structure-building is going on all the time in a healthy, well fed, water infiltrating soil. However, soil research states that when soil is tilled to be ready for planting, the tilling is a catastrophic event, in the words of Dwayne Beck. Scientists have determined that it can take as long as nine months for tilled soil to rebuild its structure.

            Damaging the soil’s structure and then expecting that soil to produce a crop as it rebuilds its structure is similar to placing a cast on the broken leg of a runner and saying, “That’s a great cast. Go run that race.”

            An option to tilling? Again, according to NRCS disturb the soil as little as possible, keep the soil covered (mulch), keep living plants(roots) in the soil as much as possible, and practice diversity in the crops. For small home gardens, an earth fork is adequate and less destructive to open the soil to receive plants or seeds. Gardens that are well fed with mulch and compost have excellent structure and rarely need the deep disturbance of shovels or harrows.  more information


According to the National Weather Service on average there is a 90% chance of a killing freeze of 24 degrees on May 2 and if that is not discouraging, another killing freeze of 28 degrees on May 14. This is more specific than the general area folk wisdom of the last killing or damaging temperatures coming on May 21. Any way one looks at it, the information is cautionary.

            Here are some thoughts about early spring in the garden that may be helpful. First, buy a soil thermometer. The six-inch oven probe thermometers are more than adequate. They are inexpensive and come with a slip-on case for the probe and a clip to keep it in your pocket.

            Check online for appropriate soil temperatures for seeding or setting out plants. Google something like “soil temps for germinating seeds” and you will be rewarded with an abundance of helpful information.

            If you have begun to open up the mulch around roses and other mulched plants, keep it nearby in the event you need to cover the plants again.

            Check your stash of milk jug plant protectors or walls of water or similar materials for providing shelter for recently set out  plants.

            If you have been watering, be certain that the hose is disconnected from the house on cold days and nights.

            Is the garden located near a shed or a garage? Consider putting in a rain barrel to capture rainwater from the roof. Many of the stores are selling rain barrels now. There is also an abundance of diy directions on the Web. To figure how much water you can collect from shed/garage/home roofs, go to www.blackhillsgarden and under the Soil/Water tab click on Catching the Rain. On the site there is information on Harvesting Roof Water. Master Gardener Joe Hillberry worked out a chart with directions for figuring how much rainwater an individual can harvest for the garden.

            Plans for raised beds this year?  Google “root depths of vegetables” for information that will help you know just how high/deep those beds should be for the crops you want to grow.

            When the soil is wet from rainfall, remember to stay on your paths. Walking around in the wet garden beds will compact the soil.

            The Open Houses at the local greenhouses and big box stores will start the end of this month. Hopefully the weather will stay mild but do remember that young plants need to be ‘hardened off’ by exposing them to outside temperatures  - starting with an hour or so and working up to total acclimation before the plants go in the ground. This can cause a population of pots and seed trays appearing temporarily as part of the house décor around windows and doors and porches.

            Finally check your tools to be certain that they are ready and in good shape. I prefer our hoes, spades and pruners to be sharp enough for surgery. Know that most of us are working with soils that contain a variety of manures – chicken, cow, horse, llama, alpaca and more. In that situation having good gloves as well as a current tetanus shot are advisable.

            And as the warming days tease us outside, be certain that you have a garden bench or chair where you can rest to enjoy the garden.

Happy fifth day of spring! Many of us are waiting for the stirring of the actinomycetes bacteria in the soil to release their sweet smell of spring. Others of us, myself included, perform the spring search and stoop. Here is how it goes: we stride purposefully to the garden, eyes alert, searching for the emerald green tips of early spring bulbs. Aha! Can it be? We drop to the ground or bend over and grab our knees and descend into a graceful (or not so much) adoring posture to admire the first green stirring of life in the garden.

             On Monday I discovered the first flower in our new garden. It was a little Pushkinia. At its largest, the plant is only four inches tall and it would take four or more of the flowers to cover a dime.

            However, sighting it delivered abundant, almost foolish joy. Signs of life! I felt excited, reassured that this new garden will thrive – all because of a small single flower not much larger than a grain of rice. “This is really a ridiculous response to spring,” I thought.

            But we have been making happily ridiculous responses to spring for centuries. Remember the 13th century poem we all read in high school, “Summer is Icumen in….” with the memorable verse, “The ewe is bleating after her lamb, The cow is lowing after her calf; The bullock is prancing, The billy-goat farting.” We all have ridiculous spring-inspired moments.

            But there is a sublime side to spring as well. Years ago I learned selected verses of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s (American poet, 1807-1882) poem, “A Psalm of Life” as a song. And I confess that each spring, as I work in the garden, I recite this just loud enough for the garden to hear. It is part of my personal spring ritual. It seals the contract between the garden and me for another season. Here are the verses I speak to the garden as another sublime season in the garden begins.

            Tell me not in mournful numbers,

                        Life is but an empty dream!

            For the soul is dead that slumbers,

                        And things are not what they seem.

            Life is real! Life is earnest!

                        And the grave is not its goal;

            Dust thou art, to dust returnest,

                        Was not spoken of the soul. 

            Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,

                        Is our destined end or way;

            But to act, that each to-morrow

                        Find us farther than to-day.

            Let us then, be up and doing,

                        With a heart for any fate;

            Still achieving, still pursuing,

                        Learn to labor and to wait.

            Gardens bring promise but no guarantees. Much of the activity in the garden is  beyond our control. In the midst of reckless garden joy and wild abandon, I remind myself  that we must “be up and doing, and …learn to labor and to wait.”

Raised Beds.  Several years ago my good friend Tammy Glover had knee replacements. While acknowledging gratitude for after market body parts, she realized that working in the garden on her knees was no longer an option. She wanted a garden bed about the height of a kitchen counter. I am not certain that Tammy’s “bunkers” were the first raised beds in Rapid City but they are surely the best known. The plans for those are on blackhillsgarden.com as “30” high raised bed” under the Save$$ menu tab.

         Don’t think for a minute that raised beds of any description are exclusive for those of us who can’t easily get up and down. Beth-Anne Ferley at the Education building at the Rapid City landfill has several raised beds configured for persons standing or in wheel chairs. A raised bed was built at one of the Rapid City elementary schools for a youngster in a wheel chair. Some have been built at nursing homes.

         There are, I believe, two cautions to extreme raised bed enthusiasm. The first is review everything you should know about special soil mixes for container gardening. The second relates to my preference for exposing any grand new idea to the following question: how can I do this (fabulous idea) simpler and cheaper?

         We are experiencing, a “Raised Bed Revolution: Build it. Fill it. Plant it, Garden Anywhere,” which is also the title of my favorite new book by Tara Nolan, published by Cool Springs Press. I recommend the book heartily. In addition to being chock full of great ideas to use or adapt, there is ample construction information and helpful photographs.

         Gardeners Supply (Google it) is one of several catalogs that offers good products and great ideas. Among these are raised boxes on wheels, or with attached benches or seats, or with handles for those who need a secure grip, or with drip lines or faucets installed ready to connect with a hose, or with built in or removable trellises, or with fittings to set up hail screens or row covers. The list goes on and on.

         Mary Lou Paulson has a small “bunker” raised bed on one end of the driveway of her Rapid City home. Not only is this easy to get to, she and her husband Glenn get radishes, lettuce, spring onions, tomatoes, beets and carrots from it because spacing can be tighter than normal in a raised bed.

         On blackhillsgarden.com look under the Welcome tab for the K-State Horticulture Newsletter Number 16, 4/19/2016 (scroll down) to watch the video presentation, “Growing Vegetables in Containers.” It demonstrates how much can be grown in a large pot or bunker.

         And if chipping your fingernails and having garden-soil-stained hands isn’t your favorite summer pursuit, consider this suggestion from French author, Marcel Proust, “Let us be grateful to people who make us happy, for they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.”

Gardening with age.  I have mentioned that LeRoy and I are experiencing that grand adventure of “downsizing” by choice. He is 80 and I am 77. We have no need of a large home, outbuildings, a small barn, large garage and extensive gardens.  We do have a need for a smaller garden for me, a workshop for LeRoy and a slightly smaller home that will continue to welcome family and friends.

             As a gardener and a garden writer I talk with many persons about their gardens or the pleasures of gardening. What saddens me are those who sigh, “I had to give up the garden,” or “I really miss gardening”, or sadder yet,  “I guess I am too old to garden.”

            I don’t think people have to give up gardening. Several studies of the “wellderly” – well elderly over the age of, ahem! are clear about the value of continued  participation in activities that bring pleasure and other positive feelings. But they/we may have to do it in other ways, learn about adaptive gardening opportunities, investigate tools that are designed for arthritic hands, for example, and change attitudes about the size of the garden or one’s own energy and staying power. None of this is giving up; it is adapting. It is the behavior of the wellderly.

            When we move to our “downsized home and garden” I will take some of my iris, some bulbs, some peonies, some rhubarb and a few others and that will go into a small, already prepared garden.

            I will not move my beloved ‘Bonica’ shrub rose because the old girl is almost 25 years old. She will bloom on joyfully at our present home. But I love easy care, floriferous, hardy shrub roses. Accordingly, I purchased a Harison’s Yellow because LeRoy loves it, the native bees love it and it is tough. I bought two ‘Bonica’, a ‘Hope for Humanity’ and ‘Kashmir – all hardy, reasonably small, vigorously blooming, care- free shrub roses.

            Many persons complain about how messy, grassy, and labor-intensive irises can become. That’s true, but here is a way to fix that. When you plant the iris, know that the tuber will generally grow away from the curve of the fan. Leave room for that root growth. And then plant the secret weapon! Plant some Sweet Woodruff near and amongst the iris. Sweet Woodruff is a perennial groundcover that blooms fragrantly in the spring and spreads easily and quickly.

            Many do not like that aspect of the plant, but I do because it makes a very low, dense groundcover that very few seeds/weed can penetrate. The two plants co-exist beautifully because the iris has hefty roots and the Woodruff has very shallow ones. Iris should be lifted and divided every three to four years and the Woodruff pulls easily to reduce it almost any time.

            So, how have we adapted? We selected plants (the shrub roses) that require very little care. We have learned the first (of many) really grand weed-blocking groundcovers. We have learned that smaller space is better if it allows us to be active and keep the love and importance of gardening literally in our hands.  And, partnering with an adapted garden, we can be comfortably, safely and happily wellderly.

Numbers and gardening.  Every now and again I get numbed-out by numbers. For example, thanks to television political talking heads, don’t we all know by now the significance of 1237? (Hint: it’s not part of the Fibonacci series.) Earth Day today is a major event as it has grown in importance over the last 46 years. The cover of the June issue, (number 129) of Garden Gate magazine highlighted four of the five key articles by using numbers. “6 Smart Ideas…” “4 Simple…”, “11 Easy-Care…”, and 7 Colorful…”. Advertising copywriters know that we are suckers for someone else’s numerical rating of…almost anything.

            In the spirit of that great truth, here is my effort at gardening by the numbers.

            THREE is the number of ingredients in good potting soil mix: equal amounts of a good, fertilizer-free commercial potting soil plus either city yard waste or home-made compost plus enough perlite or vermiculite to lighten the soil a bit.

            SIX is the generally accepted depth of the rhizosphere – the first six inches of soil wherein most plant roots and microbial life are.

            ONE is the number of years that freshly cut woodchips or sawdust should rest before being used as mulch around trees and shrubs.

            FIVE is the number of leaflets on a rose stem that generally indicates to the gardener to cut just above that stem to encourage the rose to rebloom.

            ONE HUNDRED AND SIXTY is the temperature of a compost pile that will kill most weed seeds.

            THREE inches is the ideal depth of organic mulch on the garden year round.

            EIGHT is the number of sun hours that most sun and heat loving plants – tomatoes, peppers – prefer.

            THREE best rules for tree care: water, water, water.

            TWENTY EIGHT is the number of days it will take a ‘hot compost’ pile to be ready to be used in the garden.

            ONE HALF of the foliage of an established tree should be in the lower two thirds of the tree.          

            TWELVE to EIGHTEEN inches is a good width for dedicated paths in the garden.

            ZERO is the number of males a female aphid needs to reproduce  parthenogenetically.

            ONE HUNDRED yards apart is the best spacing for bluebird boxes.

            THREE major ecological groups of worms are 1) surface soil and litter worms, 2) upper soil (endogeic species) and 3) deep burrowing (anecic species).

            TWENTY (of May) is generally taken to be the last frost day in our area.

            THIRTY SEVEN MILLION Americans are estimated to be backyard gardeners..

            FOUR rules for caring for the soil: 1(add organic material regularly, 2) reduce pesticide use, 3) use synthetic fertilizers sparingly, 4) avoid compacting or over tilling the soil.

            ONE BILLION is the amount of beneficial bacteria in a teaspoon of healthy garden soil.

            The number you will want to circle on your calendar right now is Saturday morning, May 21 which is the annual Plant Share held at the previous Club for Boys Thrift Store, across from the Journey Museum and Learning Center. This much-anticipated event is sponsored by the Pennington County Master Gardeners, the Rapid City Garden Club, the Rapid City Club for Boys and the Rapid City Landfill. There is more information on www.blackhillsgarden.com.

Smells of Spring.  While some folks sing about April showers and others write poetry, I am out in the garden smelling these spring rains. Actually I am smelling the fascinating chemicals that are released by the soil, the rain, the soil bacteria and the electricity of a spring thunderstorm.

            However, vocabulary first. Most of us recognize the significant smell of ozone. Sources state that lightening can split oxygen and nitrogen molecules in the atmosphere and they can recombine into nitric acid, which interacts with other atmospheric chemicals and produces the odor we all know. Scientists suggest that mankind has long associated the smell of ozone with rain – obviously.

            Next, all of us have noticed the strong odor of wet clay associated with making pottery. We also recognize the strong scent that rises when either rainwater or hose water is applied to a super dry clay surface.  That event allows for the release of plant oils deposited into the soil by plants during a drought. That oil, in tiny aerosol bubbles is released and we call that smell petrichor (say: PET-ree-kur). To see an amazing video of this, Google “Huffington Post, crazy slo-mo video explains why rain…” Petrichor was only studied and understood within the last fifty years.

            Warming soil and the exciting chemistry of spring also increases the microbial activity in the soil, especially those microbes that we know and appreciate as the source of antibiotics.  South Dakota Public Radio carries the program, “Science Friday”. The program (listen on line) on April 1 featured microbial ecologist, Noah Fierer,PhD, from the University of Colorado speaking about the springtime sweet smell of soil. That smell is geosmin (say: gee OZ min). The odor is caused by the combination of warming soil and rain which signals the plant roots to begin active growth, which means that root exudates – mostly carbon compounds – will be released into the soil. This attracts a multitude of the members of the soil biome- the life forms in the soil. The various bacteria are tough according to Frierer, but there are many competing for a limited amount of food. In this biological and bacterial food fight, the bacteria then release antibiotics, which kill the competition (and with some chemical tweaking, cure our ills). And it is the odor of this activity that we recognize as geosmin – the sweet smell of spring.

            Interestingly, science first began to identify and study geosmin over a century ago but only very recently have we begun to understand the dynamic of the formation of geosmin.

            Science is fun and fascinating and filled with garden trivia. But now that we understand more about the life in the soil, we can agree vigorously with Dr. Frierer who commented that what we can do as gardeners is to reduce or stop tilling because it disrupts and destroys the communities of bacteria and educate ourselves about the macro organisms – beetles, worms, nematodes, millipedes and centipedes and more to reduce our use of pesticides. So take a deep breath of spring …and remember that our first and most important crop is soil. 

Spring violets and mulch. I am delighted when various seemingly unrelated bits of information suddenly come together to deliver a clear message… like seeing the image finally form in a complicated table puzzle. That happened recently.

            Recently the Journal ran an article about garden violets (and ants). I am a great fan of garden violets – those cheerful, hardy, colorful, gently spreading plants that delight my winter-weary eyes in spring, cover the soil and cool it in summer, bloom again in the fall and barely go dormant in the winter. A wide variety of insects feed on and pollinate them and the flowers and young leaves can be added to spring salads, according to the article. Remember the violets, we will return to them.           

            Distantly related to the information on groundcover violets are the best  educational short videos about soil health available Search YouTube for ‘USDANRCS Soil Health.” The most recent one is a 5 part discussion about “bringing the science of soil health care home.” Filmmaker R. “Buzz” Kloot begins this summary series with the following quote from noted American efficiency expert, Harrington Emerson (1853-1931).

            “As to methods, there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The person who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The person who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”

            Now, we apply this to understanding and caring for soil…and bring in the violets.

            Principle #1: Do not disturb the soil (which is a living environment). Don’t till it, don’t walk in planting areas or park or drive vehicles on it. Leave its vital structure, created by those that inhabit the soil, intact.

             Principle #2: Keep the soil covered. Even raindrops and water from sprinklers compact the structure of bare soil. Remember the violets, the living mulch, the little plant that hosts and feeds a huge variety of beneficial insects and underground life forms? They, and other dedicated groundcovers do an excellent job of covering garden soils. (In vegetable gardens, use straw and organic mulch.)

            Principle #3: Utilize plants that have living root activity for as many days of the year as possible. For flower gardeners, this suggests a majority of perennials. For vegetable gardeners, use cover crops that can be gently turned under in the spring.

            Principle #4: Feed the soil (and its community of micro and macro organisms) with a diversity of plant material. Think of luscious, floriferous English cottage gardens. That is a diverse planting. We can do something similar by changing from row planting to block planting and planting flowers amongst the veggies and vice versa. Mix it up a bit.

            This USDANRCS soil health series is the best combination of current good science, excellent photography and instruction I have found. The segments are short (rarely four minutes each) and to the point. YouTube has links to many of the videos and the following long link will deliver Seasons 1-3 of The Science of Soil Health video series: http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detail/national/soils/health/?cid=stelprdb1245890.

            I use living mulch (violets, sedum, sempervivum) as well as annuals that reseed) widely in the gardens. My favorite is the fragrant little viola odorata, the “Queen Charlotte” violet that is usually available at the local greenhouses. It cares for the soil and delights me. That seems a winning combination.

Killing voles in the garden.  What made me think that multiple containers of vole-killing compound would rid us of voles? Despite my praying for the help of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, it is our petulant cat, Hitam (hee-tom) that has saved the family gardens. Each morning, golden eyes glinting, she eases her sleek body through the pasture to the barn or sits stonily on the rock walls waiting…to kill voles. And for weeks she has brought us two to five garden-eating voles daily.

            “Goodgirlwhattagirlgreatjobgoodcat!” I croon to her as she bathes herself casually. I read in a gardening book some years ago that the best control of voles was a hunting cat. We agree.

            The predictable spring blizzard brought needed moisture but I was  interested in the state of my miniature irises, most of which were in glorious bloom. I have long promoted packing the spring garden with these littlest of the iris. The reason is that the blooms, which are always abundant, are barely higher than the tips of the iris leaves, protected from wind and supported by the leaves and bloom stems.

            As the snow melted, I rushed to check the iris. None were bent, some of the blooms were snapped right at the base of the flower, but generally speaking, it looked like nothing had happened.

            My pleasure is viewing the irises was dulled as I spotted columbine plants being attacked again by an unidentified gnawing creature. Quick reading of (begin italics) Garden Insects of North America (end italics) by Whitney Cranshaw disclosed that the culprit is the tiny caterpillar of the columbine sawfly, Pristophora aquiliga, that appears only in May. They are hard to distinguish because they are so small, the same green as the plant foliage, and usually on the underside of the leaf in daylight. They can be handpicked or anointed with an insect dust.

            The recent Plant Share brings up special memories for me. I like the fact that the event promotes what I think gardeners do best…sharing plants as well as enthusiasm and experience and encouraging gardeners to learn more and to teach more. It also reminds me of persons who taught me a great deal about sharing the gardening experience.

            Ev Merrit who had a greenhouse, Cottonwood Acres, came to a classroom where I was working to talk to the children about seeds and plants. She poured the unbelievably tiny bedding begonia seeds into her hand and asked the children, “Can you believe that each tiny seed has the ability to become an adult plant and produce flowers and seeds of its own?” That might have sailed over the heads of kindergarten students, but it resides permanently in mine.

            Early in my friendship with Lee Anthony, another Rapid City gardener of note, I admired the stunning display of various sedum trailing splendidly over a rock wall and asked if I could have a few starts. I expected a half dozen short pieces but Lee gave me a huge basket filled with sedum. I continue to do my best to walk in the shadow of the wonder of plants recognized by Ev Merrit and the generous heart of Lee Anthony.

            I get irritated at some computer programs that think they can read my mind and mindlessly ‘correct’ my spelling. I was trying to write the phrase ‘can grow’ and the computer changed it to ‘kangaroo’.  So, I hope as the growing season begins, everyone’s garden kangaroo.

It’s time for the All Rapid City Almost Free Plant Share on Saturday, May 16. The location is new this year, so make a note of it. The Share will be held in the Erickson Building, which was the previous Boys’ Club Thrift Store, right across the street from The Journey Museum. There is ample free parking and access to restrooms. This is not an event for small children or dogs.

  • Persons may drop off healthy, potted and labeled plants between 8:00 and 9:00 and receive your numbered coupon for four free plants.
  • You may buy up to 3 additional numbered, differently colored coupons for $1 each. Each coupon is good for four more plants. Persons purchasing coupons will make their choices, in numerical order, after the persons who brought plants to share have made their selections.
  • The Free Table holding all manner of diverse garden items will be in the white tent at the back of the Erickson building. Anyone can bring extra garden items, pots, tools, catalogs, and vases to share.
  • Persons are invited to enjoy free refreshments while they wait for the Share to begin.
  • Free city yard waste compost will be available. Bring your own buckets and shovels. (This is by the bucket, not pickups, please.)

            Rapid City’s Plant Share has been an eagerly awaited event for almost two decades. Come join the fun. Questions? Call the Master Gardener Hot Line at 394-6814 (M-F from 9:00-2:00) or look on www.blackhillsgarden.com under the Welcome tab or call 348-1322.

            Support for the Plant Share is provided by the Pennington County Master Gardeners, the Rapid City Garden Club, Rapid City Solid Waste and the Rapid City Club for Boys.

            One of the main purposes of the Plant Share is to pass along plants, meet new gardening friends, and share the enthusiasm and experience of gardening. To find give-away plants in your garden demands a little close inspection to find those that are over-achievers or that offer only their colorful blooms to answer the question, “What are you doing there?

            I had that rather one-sided conversation with some tulips in the front garden that (begin caps) I KNEW (end caps) I had not planted. I knew that these dark, smoky mauve tulips were offspring of Queen of Night almost black tulips that have been in the ground for more than fifteen years. Queen of Night is a Darwin hybrid and should produce the same color for many years. But there are a few of the species tulips in that garden that must have crossed with Queen of Night providing fertile seeds that were planted by the wind in those seeds’ seed shadow.

            I found other evidence of seed shadows at work. A lovely yellow clematis, (clematis Tangutica) produced a seedling at the base of the plant. But by looking in the direction of the prevailing wind, I found several more to take to the Plant Share thanks to knowing about the seed shadow.

            I love studying how and where the plants naturalize. I pass them along knowing they will do well.

            Remember: May 16. Plant Share. Hope to see you there.

Earth Day is a good thing. Hopefully, as gardeners, it reminds us that we owe our lives to the soil. More probably it reminds us to tidy up our public areas as well as our yards and gardens. Sometimes I get a little discouraged that many continue to equate reverencing and honoring the Earth only with cleaning up our own messes. Perhaps to be fair, that’s not a bad thing.

            But here’s the point. In the twenty plus years I have been writing this garden column, reading my way through countless books, listening to the concerns and triumphs of area gardeners and learning from them, I have seen positive changes that are not included in the typical Earth Day celebrations. That is ok because these are behaviors and understandings that I think people have intuitively imbibed and put into action.

            To be specific: dealing with the “yuk factor” of manures and recycling waste has become almost a non-issue. Gardeners speak of their compost piles as though they were exchanging recipes. Many of us are wonderfully appreciative of the work of red worms that live in bins in our homes and consume clean kitchen garbage. Putting up rain barrels is not only smart but also trendy. People are discovering just how much rain they can collect from sheds, garages and our homes.

            Even better, in my view, is that the nature of gardening books and magazines has changed radically from presenting gardens simply as eye candy to discussing gardens developed and maintained by gardeners who are turning to the science of plants, soil, insects and the broader ecosystem for both guidance and understanding.

            One of my favorite authors in this wise is Linda Chalker-Scott. She has a Ph.D. in Horticulture from Oregon State University, is an ISA certified arborist, and is the Extension Urban Horticulturist at Washington State College among her other responsibilities. She is the author of four books: the award-winning, horticultural myth-busting The Informed Gardener and The Informed Gardener Blooms Again, Sustainable Landscapes and Gardens: good science – practical application, and most recently How Plants Work: The Science Behind the Amazing Things Plants Do.

            Earth Day is also about passing along the knowledge. Gardening seminars, classes, presentations are filled with persons wanting to know more, understand more, be more responsible in their partnerships with our soil, water and life forms. In Rapid City schools are establishing gardens, raised garden beds and other adaptive gardening strategies.

            Plants are being developed specifically for container gardens – green beans, cucumber, eggplant, zucchini and tomatoes are all available in the “bush” varieties. More and more container gardens are appearing – either because space is limited or as adaptive strategies.

            The “kill everything that moves” approach to insect control has morphed into insect science to understand not only which insects might harm a plant but also when. Add to this the understanding that most insects are good guys and given a chance will control the unloved predators. And add to that the growing appreciation that if we really want the beauty of butterflies and the songs of birds, we need to maintain their habitats.

            Wait…their habitat is ours also. We share this Earth and must care for it…for all of us to thrive.

Nativars are cultivars of native species (e. g. purple Joe Pye weed).  So here we are in the full embrace of spring. Easter is past, daffodils, tulips and other bulbs are fully out and glorious. The soil is a bit cold to do any seed planting outdoors and I, at least, hope for two or three reasonably warm, wet spring snows or rain.

When I no longer feel that a hands and knees weed-digging event is the brightest spot in my day, I retreat to the many magazines, blogs and gardening websites that inform or bore me.

The March/April edition of The American Gardener, the magazine of the American Horticultural Society, is an excellent example of current garden trends. The cover shows an attractive birdbath surrounded by a pleasantly full, informal and slightly chaotic selection of plants with the statement, “designing an inviting garden.” My first thought was that I don’t have many friends I would invi

te to our birdbaths but the other teaser titles made the focus of the magazine clear: “Add Wild Berries to Edible Landscapes” and “Nativars: Should You Plant Them?”

What are we being encouraged to invite to the garden? Birds, butterflies and insects, of course. More and more magazines and websites are invoking the name and work of Doug Tallamy and his highly influential book, Bringing Nature Home.

Understanding the use of nativars in our gardens is becoming more important if we commit to educate ourselves about creating a sustainable ecosystem in our yards and gardens.

Gardening expert and author Alan Armitage coined the term nativar, a combination of NATive and CULtivar, to describe a native plant selection that occurred in cultivation or has been chosen for its value in gardens. The issue is that some true natives, Echinacea for example, support butterfly and bee activity but some of the designer cultivars (CULtivated VARiety) do not produce pollen or seeds or the flower petals have been “designed” or changed through breeding in such a manner that insects cannot reach the pollen.

The catch is that not all true natives have been modified through plant breeding and some of the new nativars still support bird and insect life while providing new and interesting color in the garden.

Those of us who are interested in including plants that support the Monarch butterfly know to include any of the Asclepius (milkweed) varieties in the garden. Native to this area is A. tuberosa, a knock-your-socks-off bright orange butterfly magnet that the deer generally avoid. But, good news! There is now available for us in Rapid City a nativar of A. tuberosa, “Mellow Yellow” which supports the butterflies as vigorously as its orange-flowered native.

How can the concerned and motivated home gardener make nativar choices that will bring the desired beauty to the garden and support the birds and insects? There are no specific guidelines, but here are some clues: if the “new” variety has close to the same color and flower petal arrangement as the native but might, for example, bloom longer, that’s probably OK. However, the article in American Gardener warns, if the insects are not eating it, the plant is not fully participating in supporting the living community in your garden.

Comment:  “I really like the A. tuberosa as well as the "Mellow Yellow" version of it. I think I am going to make a run to town and see if I can find one of each to plant this year.”

Great Gardening Truths.  Area gardeners will remember Doug Tallamy, chairman of the department of entomology and wildlife ecology at the University of Delaware, who was the guest speaker at Spring Fever in Rapid City five years ago.  His message delivered then and also expanded in his popular book was Bring(ing) Nature Home. This was a simple explanation of a complex web of the co-evolved interconnectedness of our soils, insects, and animal life.

            A second book, The Living Landscape co-authored with Rick Darke addresses designing for beauty and biodiversity in our gardens. A recent Op-Ed by Tallamy in The New York Times, March 11, titled “Chickadee’s Guide to Gardening” stated, “We have to raise the bar on our landscapes. In the past, we have asked one thing of our gardens: that they be pretty. Now they have to support life, sequester carbon, feed pollinators and manage water.”

            Let’s face it: we like our gardens to be pretty, and speaking for myself and probably others, I’m not thrilled to see a carefully grown ‘pretty’ hanging from the mouth of a deer, or gnawed to shreds by grasshoppers or twisted out of shape by aphids or thrips. I take that personally.

            Then, rethinking my behavior and restored by a cup of tea, I review what I know to be Great Gardening Truths.

            1. Gardens need to support (insect) life. I know that almost all insects are beneficial. They pollinate, they attack and destroy others. Some are part of the soil food web. They are food for the birds. Explore the programs at the Xerces Society and buy and install a sign that proclaims your garden as a protected area for pollinators.

             2. Gardens support wildlife. Native shrubs provide shelter, food and nesting areas for birds. Fencing, as distasteful as it is to some gardeners, can construct a compromise between deer, turkeys and the garden. The National Wildlife Federations has simple guidelines that, if met, will qualify a yard and garden as a Certified Wildlife Habitat.

            3. Gardens sequester carbon. Plant trees and care for them correctly. In this area our locally owned greenhouses are excellent sources for native trees and shrubs. If you lust for the beauty of an exotic shrub or tree, buy it but buy two native shrubs or trees also.

            4. Gardens feed pollinators. The Internet is full of lists of plants, appropriate to our area that support the lives of butterflies. Use that information to choose plants that, for example, will support the Monarch butterflies. Certify your garden as a Monarch Way station.

            5. Gardens manage water. We know that mulching the soil helps retain soil moisture. Do it. The city yard waste compost is an excellent, inexpensive part of soil water management. Water wisely, close to the ground. Know how much water various parts of your landscape need.

            We can “raise the bar in our gardens” as Tallamy and his Op-Ed ghost writing chickadee encourage. Remember: we cannot do just one thing. Everything has a consequence. If the consequence desired is a garden filled with beautiful, healthy plants, then that must include carefully grown and fed soil, a vigorous insect population and birds that find food, water and shelter in the landscape.

I once had a friend who wrote a humor column. We asked how he always had something funny to write about. He answered that everything that he saw, heard or read he ran through a “humor filter” in his mind that captured funny bits.

            I confess to employing the same filtering process. It causes me to quote poetry, dredge up pieces of obscure history and make possibly vague connections between gardening and some event or person.

            Recently I’ve been listening to and participating in a number of conversations that affirm the hope that this will be a good gardening year…the rain…the weather…the vigor of the plants… a gardener’s eternal illusionary self promise of wild success.

            That was my state of mind as I read the latest Brainpickings Weekly, a blog managed by Maria Popova for readers and writers. She states that the core idea behind Brainpickings is that creativity is a combinatorial ability to tap into our mental pool of resources – knowledge, insight, information, and inspiration and to combine them in extraordinary new ways…and to cross-pollinate new ideas from a wealth of disciplines…and to build new ideas.

            Discussing a book entitled You are Now Less Dumb and launching into a discussion of how our delusions keep us sane (!) I found the following caught in my gardening filter:  From a writing on optimism by Helen Keller, “Nothing can be done without hope,” followed by a comment from Popova, “But a positive outlook, it turns out, isn't merely an intellectual disposition we don – it's a deep-seated component of our evolutionary wiring and the product of powerful, necessary delusions our mind is working around-the-clock to maintain.”

            So many times we viewed gardens hammered by hail and responded in part hope, part promise, “It will be better next year.” It is my view that generally gardeners are endowed with an almost transcendentally hopeful sense of time…’compost now for healthy soil in years to come’ or ‘pick that rhubarb or asparagus on the third year’ or ‘in twenty years that tree will give us shade.’

            Those of us gardeners who are not enslaved by the contemporary have-it-all-right-now, instant gratification view of life but who take a longer view of things are fortunate, I feel. Not because we have longer to endure disappointment and disaster surely, but rather because we exercise our minds by practicing a belief named hope, by cultivating an outlook named optimism and, quoting Popova, “…cross-pollinate new ideas from a wealth of disciplines …and build new ideas.”

            If an optimistic outlook is a gift of my mind working overtime to sustain an illusion or a delusion, I’m all for it. If it also brings creativity and curiosity and courage and enthusiasm, all the better. And if gardening is not a healthy and sane mixture of knowledge, possibly illusion but surely hope and grit, I’ll eat my hat.

Welcome flowers of early spring.  What passes for spring here often is a series of disheartening gray, cold, sunless days (or weeks) that drive down spirits of gardeners eager for sun and spring flowers.

            Long ago I realized that some of the very early and usually very small spring flowers do not have the attitude problem I do and will emerge and flower in spite of seemingly discouraging weather.

            This is my attitude adjustment list of early spring flowers: the tiny bulbs of chionodoxa, muscari, scilla and the slightly larger bulbs of galanthus and leucojum. Then along come the many varieties of crocus and the tiny iris cristata and the pasques.

            Appearing as the frosting on the spring cake are the miniature dwarf and the standard dwarf bearded iris. I loved these first because they can survive the late spring snows and emerge unbroken. Although I tend to swoon in ecstasy in the presence of some of the tall, later bearded iris, I linger longer and more lovingly over the little dwarfs. For range of color and charm these cannot be beaten.

            And the best news is that slowly but surely one can find these in the local market as well as the bulb catalogs. The foliage of the dwarfs is about 10-12” tall and the flowers bloom just barely above it, which protects them well from wind. I also like the dwarfs because several colorful clumps can be planted in the space of one large clump of traditional irises. I try to deadhead the spent blooms, not because I am compulsively tidy in the garden – a behavior no one could level against me since I prefer a bit of wildness and interesting chaos.

            But deadheading brings up another interesting point: what do you do with the daffodils and narcissus when they have bloomed and are starting to die back? The most common gardener response is to cut them to the ground (bad plan) or braid them (a waste of time) or let them wither naturally (not lovely, but best for the plant.)

            Scott Kunst at Old House Bulbs, a mail order source for heirloom bulbs posted an interesting discussion about the after bloom care of bulbs. Citing the experience of daffodil growers from New Zealand, Ireland, North Carolina and beyond, the best, science-based after bloom care for daffodils (and narcissus) is this: Ted Snazelle, a research scientist, stated…”Deadheading is important. Otherwise a fruit (seed capsule) might develop; fruits are said to be “sinks” for sugar. Thus less sugar would be available to transport down into the bulb and ultimately less sugar for the carbon compounds and energy required to make a new flower.”

            So there you have it. What could be more pleasing than to (figuratively) tip toe through the tulips …or daffodils…snippers in hand to clip off the spent blooms? And remember that allowing the foliage to die naturally is the best policy for assuring hearty growth of the bulb and beautiful, large flowers next spring.

James Madison, American Gardener

Exactly 196 years and 10 days ago on May 12, 1818, James Madison, barely out of office as the fourth President of the United States delivered an address to the Agricultural Society of Albemarle, Virginia on the occasion of his accepting the presidency of that organization.

            Madison’s interest in and understanding of the importance of agriculture in the young American nation is profiled in Andrea Wulf’s Founding Gardeners a companion book to her The Brother Gardeners. Madison’s full address to the group at Albermarle is available on the Internet.

            The bulk of Madison’s talk is an exposition demonstrating the breadth of his reading of agricultural history, his understanding of developing science in agriculture and his observations and cautions about damaging practices to the soil. It is this last bit that we also should heed as our planting season begins.

            Referring to the practice common in the early 1800s of wearing out crop land and simply opening up more, Madison warns and then instructs: “Nothing is more certain than that continual cropping without manure deprives the soil of its fertility. It is equally certain that fertility may be preserved or restored by giving to the earth animal or vegetable manure equivalent to the matter taken from it…”

            This is exactly the same understanding of the soil voiced by Sir Albert Howard’s (1873-1947) Law of Returns. And by Ruth Stout’s (1884-1980) vigorous support of mulch gardening. Return animal and vegetable manures. Simple. Compost. Mulch.

            Madison notes, presciently the truth of no-till farming and the value of contour plowing: “The stubble, and the roots of small grains, not being taken from the earth, may be regarded as elapsing into a fertility equal to that of which they deprived the earth…Besides the inestimable advantage from horizontal plowing, in protecting the soil against the wasting effect of rains, there is a great one in its preventing the rains themselves from being lost to the crop…”

            These days, in my view, it is too easy to apply a chemical fertilizer and confuse that with the very different reality of feeding the living soil.  Madison uses a phrase,  “the good heart of the soil” that is also found in the contemporary writings of Wendell Berry, American novelist, poet, environmental activist, cultural critic, and farmer.

            Madison states with poetical force, “There cannot be a more rational principle in the code of agriculture, that every farm which is in good heart should be kept so; that every one not in good heart should be made so; and that what is right as to the farm, generally, is so as to every part of the farm.”

            In our neighborhoods our gardens take the role of farms. It is our responsibility to care for our soil’s good heart.

            Gardeners soon will have an opportunity to practice another important gardening skill - sharing. The annual almost free Plant Share is May 17th at the Rapid City Landfill. Plants can be dropped off from 8-9 that morning. The share begins at 9:30. More details are on www.blackhillsgarden.com

Good news! Bugs are finally getting good press. Or, to put it another way: insects are vital to worldwide food production. Bees, as we know, are acknowledged to be a keystone species whose reduction or removal from the habitat would be  devastating.

            A highly praised book, Insectopedia, by Hugh Raffles, includes a discussion of the passion for collecting insects and keeping them as pets in Japan. At one insectarium, a table display “Befriend a Cockroach” caught his eye. In case you are feeling friendly toward a cockroach, stroke it gently on its back, pick it up carefully with thumb and forefinger and place it on your palm. Or not.

            Personally, I am attracted to and advocate those things that a gardener, even on a small scale, can do to attract, support and keep a healthy and varied community of insects.

            Let’s go beyond the five-color paradisiacal advertising for plants that “attract insects.” Let’s learn to recognize what we regard as “good guys.” Let’s understand a bit more about predatory insects that stalk and eat others. Let’s make a place for the parasitoids, those insects that lay their eggs in or on other insects. Let’s include in our gardens those plants that provide the pollen, the nectar, the shelter that will support a large, varied and balanced community of insects.

            A quick glance at a garden magazine at the grocery store checkout revealed an article urging parents and children to “plant a pollinator garden.” That’s a cute idea, but let’s give it a bit more heft by thoughtful planning and plant selection.

            Recently I mentioned Jessica Walliser’s most recent book, Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden and now I emphatically recommend it. The photography, much of it Walliser’s is splendid – illustrative, colorful and engaging. There is much to read and reread about the various insects and their behaviors. But as warm days appear, we gardeners want to put action to intent and know what to plant as hosts for insects.

            The book includes an illustrated directory of useful plants and a guide for designing for the bugs. Knowing what you are doing matters because Walliser states, “The design of the border greatly influences the types of predators and parasitoids lured in as well as the length of their stay and even their health and well-being.” Her plans and plant lists for insectary gardens include one for a vegetable insectary garden, a weedy ornamental bed, and a modular plan. All these suggestions and plans can be modified to fit your situation. The key is to act positively.

            We are fortunate to have Dr. Paul Johnson, SDSU Entomologist in the Hills on April 23. He will be discussing the common native bee and other pollinators in the Black Hills area, and how to attract and protect them.  He will make an afternoon presentation in Hill City at 1:00 in the Super 8 Motel community room and an evening presentation in Rapid City beginning at 7:00 in the 4-H building. Both events are free and open to the public. Come enjoy an informative and entertaining presentation about these often overlooked critters that keep our forests, prairies, and garden productive.  

Rethinking the wild behavior of plants

Jessica Walliser is one of my favorite garden writers. Her books, Good Bug, Bad Bug and Grow Organic, were instrumental in educating me about the value of insects in the garden. Her latest book, "Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden," fascinated me by her excellent discussions of the various examples of needful insect/plant cooperation. These range from flower forms and nectars that accommodate specific pollinators to plants that produce poisonous sap, with a twist.

We know the Monarch butterfly lays its eggs on milkweed and the caterpillars eat the poison-containing foliage (with no ill effect) and that poison in their system then protects them from predation. I was trying to learn how and what to plant to accommodate insects when I realized that this communication in the garden is much more complex, much more fascinating and almost spooky.

I watched Dr. Stephano Mancuso’s TED talk on the Internet. He is a founder of the study of plant neurobiology, which explores signaling and communication at all levels of biological organization. His presentation, “The Roots of Plant Intelligence,” builds a case for greater sensitivity and creative response in plant behavior than many of us thought possible. He feels we have much we can learn from plants, and he is probably correct.

Surely agreeing with Mancuso would be the scientists featured in a recent Nature program on PBS, “What Plants Talk About.” Researchers in Pennsylvania proved that the parasitic and rootless dodder weed chooses its host purposefully.

Other scientists study the unbelievably complex life of the wild tobacco, a plant that depends on fire for germination of seeds and on horn worms to eat its foliage. It then can signal by volatile chemicals the insects that will parasitize the worm. It is a wild world of poison, parasitism and manipulation, as well as cooperation, nurture, cooperative nutrient sourcing and deadly turf wars — all occurring both above and below ground.

Many will say that it is a step too far to suggest that plants think in a manner easily understood by us. I might be one of them. Walliser’s book on planting landscapes to attract beneficials convinced me of the imperative to learn more about the garden dynamics, the necessary insect/plant and insect/insect interactions.

Mancuso’s talk expanded my genuine respect for the root system — he would say network — of plants and is causing me to see plant behavior in a much more complex, interactive and exciting way.

The activity of roots of the trees in the rainforests of British Columbia was studied to determine that nutrients are passed from tree to tree through the community vascular system.

An article in a 2007 edition of Scientific American described a single fungal growth in Oregon that covers 2,384 acres. It also discusses a colony of male quaking aspen trees (yes, aspens are sexed), each tree growing from one connected root system that covers more than 107 acres in Utah.

Scientists estimate that more than 80 percent of a plant’s total mass is underground — and we are just beginning to understand the chemical, mechanical, hydraulic, fungal and bacterial activities managed, some would say, or at least utilized by the plants.

The gardens, for all their beauty, are wild places. And we can watch and read and learn.

Vernal equinox…

the first day of spring

I have already planted hyacinths that got overlooked last fall and yes, they will live and probably bloom. But as unusual as that might sound, the next six weeks are strange no matter the weather. We may be teased by warm days, the sounds of returning birds, the intoxicating odor of geosmin, released by soil organisms as they respond to warming soil and then, perhaps… shovel our way out of a spring blizzard.


Spring-onset garden behavior takes many forms. I find myself fascinated by my unchipped fingernails, a sight I won’t enjoy again for many months.

            The serious business of spring for me is establishing a budget. I believe in buying the best quality tools I can afford and caring for them. I also believe in buying the best quality seeds and started plants I can afford. So where is there room for economizing?

            Here are the answers – a sort of Memo to Self.  A retired toothbrush can clean small pots. Teaspoons, table knives and forks work as trowels with seedlings. Plastic gallon milk jugs, filled with water placed around recently set out plants become a pseudo Wall ‘o Water. A gallon milk jug with a small hole in the bottom is an excellent drip emitter. A milk jug or a more durable vinegar jug with its bottom removed is a fine cloche to shelter seedlings.

            Plastic clamshells that hold fresh fruit at the grocery work as seed-starting containers (the lid keeps the moisture in.) The bottom of the clamshell (with a coffee filter or paper towel liner) becomes a container for transplants.

            Turn large plastic buckets (cat sand, pet food) into tool or soil totes.

            When it comes time to plant your seed rows, use plastic picnic knives, or 6-8” pieces of Venetian blinds, or craft wood tongue depressors to label the rows or plants.

            Need a convenient place to organize tools? Check the thrift stores for an old bow rake and use just the head of it as a tool hanger. Repurpose a breadbox or a mailbox as a container for tools. Leave a small storage tote (or similar watertight container) in the garden for storage of tools, hose washers and other garden bits and pieces.

            With a heated nail or small drill make holes in the lid of a small plastic Skippy peanut butter jar and label and place a small amount of insect dust or similar and leave that in a waterproof container in the garden so it is always at hand.

            If you have a compost pile, buy a long (18”) compost thermometer. If you need to check soil temps for planting, buy an instant read thermometer in the kitchen area of the hardware store. If you are curious about an insect on the underside of a leaf or want to gaze into a down-hanging bloom, buy a small, telescoping inspection mirror at an auto shop.

            Raid the kitchen, the bathroom, the garage and the thrift stores to find numerous items that are ready to be repurposed in the garden.

Cultivate some Chaos...Harvest some joy

By any measure, this has been an unusual year. Everyone has stories about plants blooming early. Greenhouses are enjoying good business supported by fine weather and equally fine, enthusiastic and increasingly educated gardening attitudes and aspirations.

Because I believe it is as important to look back and reflect as it is to look ahead and plan, here are some positive gardening behaviors I have noticed.

A decade ago, the word "mulch" brought looks of confusion to many. Now there is a greater understanding of the uses and values of mulch. (Just for the record, they are weed suppression, soil enrichment and temperature moderation in the soil). The garden waste compost/mulch produced by the city of Rapid City is making a fine product available easily accessible.

We are learning the truth that nature abhors bare soil and as we improve our garden soils, we keep that soil covered with mulch/compost and ground-cover, which I prefer to call living mulch. Ground cover sounds like the lid of a pan. Living mulch provides beauty, all the benefits of organic mulch and yet another haven for beneficial insects.

"Native landscaping," "sustainability" and "xeriscaping" are no longer short-lived trends but rather guiding principles of gardening in concert with our soils and climate.

Vegetable gardening is flourishing in marvelous ways. Surely there are still traditional veggie gardens, but people are also growing vegetables with their flowers, in containers, in hoop houses and backyard greenhouses. Many of the plants that are being cultivated are heirlooms, which open up a whole new chapter of American gardening to be explored.

Gardens of bedding plants, laid out in neat rows, massed for effect are being challenged by those of us who prefer a little chaos in the garden and who are not only willing but eager to see what the plants can teach us if we do a bit less managing and a lot more watching.

At Spring Fever in 2011, we learned from Doug Tallamy of the fascinating and vital connection between our native plants, native insects, native wildlife (especially bees, butterflies, and birds) and how important it is to learn about and understand the inter-related food webs.

A native plant takes nutrients from the microorganisms in the soil, the plant is a food source for all stages of insect growth, the insects are food for the birds. It can get much more complicated, but understanding this is a good beginning.

The point to be taken is that we are well advised to garden for the life of all, not only for the pleasure of our eyes and nose.

While it is impossible to replicate the lush beauty of the traditional English border bed, I have learned that a garden full of plants that are almost self-managed in humus-rich soil is a rainbow of color, a banquet for beneficial insects, and a celebration for butterflies, birds and bees.

Cultivate a little chaos. Harvest a lot of joy.

Get a garden fix with Spring Fever

Many gardeners assuage their need for a "garden fix" in the winter by hovering around the potted plant displays in the grocery, big-box and floral stores. Others of us fill table and counter tops with our "domestic greenhouses."

I have always felt that in the summer a gardener’s hands should be in the soil. In the winter those hands should be holding books — books about soil, books about insects, books about tools, books about garden design.

Ideally, of course, there should be books that combine all of those topics. And one comes to mind: "Small Space Gardening" by Melinda Myers. She is a well-known Wisconsin-based garden writer and media host and will be the featured presenter at Spring Fever on March 2 at the Alex Johnson Hotel in Rapid City.

She will speak about small-space gardening. We all know that can mean using one or several containers; or making the most of a very small gardening space; or creating small, beautiful and efficient gardens for some older gardeners looking for a way to reduce space and maintenance. Her book is well-thought-out, with abundant, correct information and excellent color photographs that are instructive as well as beautiful.

We should expect this abundant, experience-proven and scientifically based instruction because Myers has a master’s degree in horticulture, is a certified arborist, began the Master Gardener program in Wisconsin and is a college horticulture instructor.

The Pennington County Master Gardeners are finalizing plans for Myers’ appearance. Brochures with registration blanks and additional information will be available soon. A registration blank can be downloaded from www.blackhillsgarden.com.

While we look ahead with enthusiasm, it is important to observe some winter gardening imperatives. Did you plant young trees and shrubs last fall? Carry water to them on our predictable warm days. Standing at the window, warm and well-hydrated, I watch with horror as the temperature swings 50 plus degrees in 24-36 hours and worry about frost heaving and drying soil.

Our shrub roses are watered as long as the soil will absorb it. I discovered that several of the tiny fall crocuses that I planted have popped from the soil as a result of frost heaving. My mothering instincts prompted me to appear with trowel in hand and put those babies to bed again and cover them with compost.

I have felt that January and February are particularly hard on our gardens because the temperature and potential moisture are wildly unpredictable. By March, many of us are hoping for the wonderfully wet spring "mashed potato" snows.

Until then, surround yourselves with credible garden books and magazines, drool over the seed and plant catalogs, check the garden regularly to monitor winter health of the plants and carry water if needed.

I am glad that healthy plant stalks were left in the garden to catch the snow and provide winter sanctuary for numerous insects. I know that vast quantities of sloughed roots are feeding the living soil and that when the time is finally right the garden will rouse itself and bloom again.

Talking to plants helps color spring forth

I read recently that Prince Charles of Great Britain has taken some heat because he not only talks to his plants, he states that plants need dialogue with the gardener.

I agree. I claim my place in princely company and admit that every spring I recite to our garden portions of “A Psalm of Life,” written in 1835 by the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. I am convinced that it is the best spring tonic for the garden as well as the gardener.

Surveying vast portions of the flowerbeds where plants are still dormant, and sweeping my hand in a grand gesture, I declaim:

"Tell me not in mournful numbers,

Life is but an empty dream!

For the soul is dead that slumbers,

And things are not what they seem."

I know that brown, mulch-covered beds only temporarily hold back the riot of color and form, insect and bird activity that is to come. I offer ringing reassurance and encouragement and hint elegantly at the value of compost:

"Life is real! Life is earnest!

And the grave is not its goal:

Dust thou art, to dust returnest,

Was not spoken of the soul"

I admire those who speak seriously and with passion about their connection to the soil, to the web of life, to the challenge of sustainability, stewardship and responsible life choices. I give voice to Longfellow’s words of challenge:

"Lives of great men all remind us

We can make our lives sublime.

And, departing, leave behind us

Footprints on the sand of time."

And finally, I savor the "us" of the following exhortation and reaffirm that gardening is a multifaceted, vital partnership:

"Let us then be up and doing,

With a heart for any fate;

Still achieving, still pursuing,

Learn to labor and to wait."

There is a reason that moments of natural beauty evoke Technicolor prose from poets (and princes). Stunning sunsets, hillsides of flowers, rainstorms advancing in glistening gray sheets, insects dancing on flowers, the smell of blooming clover, freshly cut grass, fruit blossoms – all this and more turns our minds to wildly metaphysical thoughts – and, if we are truly fortunate, we surrender to sublimity.

Spring Storms Don't Phase Small and Species Tulips

I was seduced by a bundle of clear yellow tulips in the grocery store. These are the ubiquitous Darwin hybrids, grown by the mile in the Netherlands and sold by the billions worldwide.

On any given day, I will and can sing the praises of the magnificent species tulips, those shorter, earlier, more wildly colored children of Central Asia that for centuries have colored the high mountain meadows of the Tien Shan and Pamir Alai — but not that day in the grocery store.

At home, I was smitten, struck down by the behavior of the Darwin yellows when they began to dance. We know that a bunch of tulips, all the same length, when placed in a vase that is at least half their height, will in a matter of hours begin to bend and sway. Over several days, we watched ours move from an upright bunch to form an obtuse-angled triangle with the lower stems lolling languorously. Each day as the flowers opened more fully, the “arrangement” struck another pose. We were enchanted.

Briefly, I could understand the madness of the tulip bubble, the famous greed/speculation frenzy known to history as tulipomania that ravaged the Netherlands in 1636-07 when a single bulb would sell for the price of a man’s home and business. Fortunes were made but primarily lost at this time. While the economics of the bulb business has been cleaned up through the centuries, the Dutch remain passionate promoters of their tulips.

Few of us here have the luxury of the space for “bedding out” hundreds of bulbs of the same color that cause visitors to the Netherlands to swoon over the rainbow ribbons of tulips, in miles of bloom. And the grocery store Darwins come from stock that grew routinely almost 3 feet tall.

All of this encourages me to buy the tall dancing tulips in the store and enjoy them on the table. But the tulips in the garden must be the smaller, wilder, more varied, more unpredictable species tulips. They are coming into bloom now.

In the event of a snow, I know they will survive, undamaged. And they demand that I journey through the gardens daily to see what’s up. There are always surprises. For example, we have a clump of the magnificent little tulipa humilis violocea. It has narrow leaves, a single raspberry-colored flower about an inch and a half tall and a bright yellow basal blotch on the inside of the petals.

Tulips multiply by making offsets, daughter bulbs, and also by seed, which can take three to seven years to develop and flower. Thus imagine our surprise and delight this spring to find a single t. humilis violocea in bloom a full 10 feet from the large humilis clump.

“Welcome. How did you get here?” LeRoy and I chorused in appreciative wonder.

We know the answer: pollinating insects, a breeze or wind, some welcoming soil. We see the insects on the flowers now. We will watch carefully to identify the seeds. We will dream of flower-filled spring meadows in the magnificent Pamir Alai of Kyrgyzstan, ancestral homeland of these little jewels.

The Value of 'Staying Connected'

Remember the Luddites, the social movement led by Ned Ludd in England in the early 1800s when textile artisans bashed and destroyed the new mechanical looms? They gave a name to those persons who question, are skeptical or even fearful of the changes brought by technology. They saw not only their skills and jobs but also their culture, cultural values and experience being tossed.

Several current events, in addition to the lousy economy have encouraged me as a gardener and a reader and writer of gardening material to think fondly of old Ned Ludd and his followers and their complaints if not their behavior.

The Daily Beast (www.thedailybeast.com/galleries) recently listed the 20 most useless career choices. As gardeners, members of the tribe that needs food, clothing and shelter, I noted with anxiety the first six careers, in order of uselessness. They are journalism (defined by me as delivering accurate information in a serious and honest format); horticulture (defined by me as understanding how the plants that keep us alive grow); agriculture (defined by me as the positive management of the soil and food crops for the sustainability of the planet and all life forms); advertising (defined by me as knowing how to obtain and discern accurate information) and child and family science (defined by me as making good choices). Rounding out the list of useless pursuits are such trivialities as…mechanical engineering, chemistry, literature, psychology, English and animal science.

Have we gone mad? Perhaps. What we have become and what we must acknowledge at our peril is that as a culture we are mindlessly, hopelessly, recklessly addicted to Greed. And that pernicious mindset loosens and devalues our vital and sustaining bond to our agrarian roots.

Cruising the Web the “hot jobs” are rated by starting, median or projected income, not, I would suggest, for their value to the maintenance of a healthy, sustainable, informed, vital society. The lists include occupations like these: actuary, financial advisor and analyst, logistician, meeting planner, public relations specialist, sales manager, training specialist and others of a similar description.

 Surely those are useful in the context of business. What concerns me is that the passion, education and execution of occupations that demand discriminating reading and writing, understanding of the care of our soil, water, plants and animals and families are seen as useless…because, in the name of Greed or whatever…they just can’t deliver the wealth.

I rush for the reassurance and wisdom of my garden heroes – Wendell Berry, Nikolai Vavilov, Dr. Albert Howard, Doug Tallamy, J.I. Rodale, Ruth Stout – whose wisdom resides in my gardening library.

And while my non-Luddite relationship with the computer, television, cell phone and other mechanical bits and pieces is sometimes adversarial, I incorporate them into my life. But the real wealth? A basket of fresh veggies, a bouquet of flowers for a friend, the rolling gurgle of a hen announcing a newly laid egg, the smell of fresh bread, a garden filled with insects and birds, a bucket of compost to spread on the garden. My feet are on the ground, my hands are in the soil, my head is filled with experience and knowledge – that’s the wealth. I strive to stay connected, grounded, aware. That’s priceless.

 The Rain..gentle and otherwise   

     This spring, waking up morning after early morning to cold, wet dawns…and puddles ringed with pine pollen covering the ground…and seedlings shivering and no doubt wishing for sweaters and umbrellas, my thoughts run to Dorothy and Toto in movie version of Wizard of Oz, the English Romantic poet, Robert Browning and atmospheric and environmental scientists, all unlikely allies in my increasingly impatient need for sunshine.

            Leave it to some clever screenwriter to pen the phrase that many of us use to describe a feeling that we are perhaps 90 degrees from where we want to or should be. Hence Dorothy, after a brief commute in an tornado, comments to her dog, “Toto, I don’t believe we are in Kansas anymore.”

            Could this be the sort of spring that the English rhapsodize about? I wondered. I went to English poet Robert Browning, an incurable romantic. In Home Thoughts, From Abroad, he begins with an enthusiasm that the mind’s eye sees as the poet with head back, arms akimbo, addressing the heavens,

” Oh, to be in England

 Now that April's there,

And whoever wakes in England

Sees, some morning, unaware…”

Here, Browning, the piker, should have said THE SUN but he goes into denial and raves about blossoms and buttercups.

The impact of my allies waned: a young Kansas weather observer stating the obvious and an English poet in romantic denial have left me still wet, cold and frustrated.

 I rescued seedlings after a recent rather grim, hard, late day rain that deposited three inches of rain in our rain gauge in a very wet hour. My basil seedlings were reduced to pesto in a peat pot. What happened to Shakespeare’s gentle rain that ‘droppeth’ from heaven? Where was that when I needed it?

The answer is in the physics of atmospheric science. An article by Hammond and Clarke of the Faculty of Environmental Sciences, Griffith University in Queensland, Australia states the situation clearly.

“Raindrop size plays a pivotal role in detaching individual soil particles making them liable for subsequent movement (read: erosion) by water.

The damage done by raindrops is related to raindrop size and ‘the energy of a moving object is equal to its mass multiplied by its speed squared: e=mv2. As water droplets grow in size, both their speed and mass increase. The mass of a 5mm raindrop is 5x5x5 = 125 times that of a 1mm raindrop and its ‘terminal’ (limited by atmospheric friction) speed doubles, resulting in a destructive energy 500 times larger!’”

Here, in clear terms, is the best argument for gardeners to keep their soil covered with mulch to protect it from the measurably destructive impact of rain. Even more clear is the concept that hard rains beat up on unprotected soil particles, pulverize, tear them apart. If we as gardeners cannot call out the sun, we can at least, protect the soil.

Things turned out well for Dorothy and Browning’s reputation is intact. And understanding that every action, even of a raindrop, has an equal an opposite reaction as well as a consequence, we can protect our soil and plants, and as graciously as possible, wait 

  Spring, foodsheds, and eating from the garden

There are times when I am teetering on the cusp of frustration and discouragement about some cause near to my heart when truly disparate events occur that reassure my commitment to hope. One of these moments occurred recently. It involved the concept of local foodsheds and the growing importance of urban agriculture featured in publications that could not be different. One was an article on the importance of local foodsheds in the spring edition of the magazine of Heifer International, a organization (originally part of the Church of the Brethren volunteer service in the 1940s) we have supported for years, another was an article on soils in the current issue of Discover magazine, the third was a letter to the editor in a recent issue of the Economist which referred me to the March issue of The Ensign, a publication of the Mormon Church.

         As I said – truly disparate. Here is what I found exciting: the Discover article on soil speaks of some growers embracing “regenerative agriculture” (an old idea in a new vocabulary) that stresses boosting soil fertility and maintenance of soil moisture through composting, keeping soil covered year round, reducing tillage and increasing plant diversity. It also speaks at length about carbon sequestration in soils, something I know we will be hearing much more about. The final thought in the article was thrilling, “Farmers should get compensated for protecting the ecosystem” rather than chasing productivity through large applications of fertilizer.

         The Heifer article (World Ark, Spring 2-11) describes the development, growth and continuing evolution of the Little Rock, Arkansas Farmers Market.

         A foodshed is similar to a watershed, a collecting area that drains to a river system. Foodsheds are those areas that surround a city and could feed (or substantially contribute to) a city. The common components of foodsheds are farmers markets, community gardens and CSA (community supported agriculture) programs, shared neighborhood gardens, and urban agriculture in all its manifestations – bee, rabbit and chicken keeping, in addition to urban orchards and more visible and numerous home vegetable gardens.

         The article in The Ensign addresses fully the advantages and rewards of planting a garden. It mentions a setting familiar to us all. “… improved nutrition, the satisfaction of working together to sow seeds and pull weeds, and the joy of a successful harvest.” More specifically it discusses gardening on a budget, sharing a garden (with neighbors or friends), finding (or making) space, using containers, learning (and teaching) by doing, never giving up, and reaping the blessings and the harvest.

         What thrills me is that we are hearing the same vital conversation about stewardship of the soil, about healthy food, about the value of community –nuanced to be sure, but it is a conversation in which we all have a voice.

         To learn about the scope of foodshed potentials for this area, check out the local food links at http://dakotalocalfood.com. More and more of the area towns have farmers markets. Support them.

         Grow and eat one new food this season. Just one. How about the lovely salad green, mache? Culinary dandelion greens? Shallots? Get growing – be part of the foodshed.

 Spring in the Black Hills offers special moments

It would seem that spring in the Black Hills is more a moment than a season.

Those blue skies, soft air, emerald meadows, bird song and fragrance are so fleetingly exceptional that vernal praise begins every conversation.

At the grocery store, it is “Beautiful day, isn’t it? Did you find everything?” When friends meet, it’s “What a day! How are you?”

In England, there are vistas of bluebells and daffodils; in Texas, the bluebonnets are putting on their show; in the European Alps, wild crocus carpet the slopes.

Here, we lack vistas and shows and carpets of spring flowers. We have little moments. And, as the song written in the mid-1950s states, “Little things mean a lot.”

My childhood excitement encountering our native pasque in open pine forests or shooting stars in bloom on rocky slopes is recaptured in our garden where those same plants, obtained from commercial sources, grow, bloom and spread. Not in carpets, to be sure, but rather in small clumps that demand rather than invite my attention.

Over the years, I have made my peace with spring smallness and discovered that the way to avoid the heartbreak of elegant iris, stately tulips and flamboyant daffodils laid low by late snow or wind, at least for me, is to ferret out old, small, hardy heirloom varieties of the spring bulbs and tubers and give them a place in the garden.

Small bulbs, often described as rock garden and/or species varieties, are an excellent fit in our environment. D. Landreth Seed Company (www.Landrethseeds.com), Brent and Becky’s Bulbs (www.brentandbeckysbulbs.com) and Old House Gardens (www.oldhousegardens.com) are trusted sources for the heirloom bulbs and tubers.

Recently, after I finished swooning over our fragrant double snowdrops, Galanthus Flore Pleno, I discovered the tiny (the size of my index fingernail), Crocus tommasinianus roseus.

I dropped to my knees to admire this one, a tiny rosy cup with a white heart. Blooming near it is Crocus flavus Yellow Mammoth, known in gardens since 1875 and large enough to drink from.

In the same area is another old (1860) favorite, the Tulipa humilis violacea, a 4-inch treasure known as the Red Crocus Tulip.

To my delight, species miniature narcissi are becoming more available in the bulb bags each fall.

I wonder if people realize how pleasing they are. The Yellow Hoop Petticoat narcissus, Narcissus blubocodium conspicuus, grown since 1629, is a mere 6 inches tall and tough as nails.

Tete-a-Tete and Minnow, each 5 to 6 inches, are frequently forced and sold as a spring plant, but, purchased as bulbs, they do well.

I am a huge fan o dwarf iris (usually 4 to 8 inches).

Most of these are very old varieties with astonishing color and markings.

Iris reticulata, another dwarf, has almost grass-like foliage but the most wildly marked, sublime color of any.

Prowl the greenhouses and some of the dwarf iris can be found and planted this year.

These early, small, heirloom spring bulbs and tubers delight me greatly.

Each day is an invitation to find and enjoy another tiny treasure.

 First day of spring

The first day of spring was just sunny and warm enough to encourage me to gather some random gardening thoughts and examine some things I had read that made me curious.

         As a child I loved connect-the-dots puzzles, the bigger the better. As a teacher I was fascinated to watch a student’s mental assembly of bits of information until the Aha! moment occurred.

         So the pleasurable curiosity of “Where is this leading?” encouraged me to examine several recent disparate conversations and articles through the filter of gardening.

         The first was a dinner conversation in our home with Bob Schnell who was commenting on the taste and health benefits of grass raised and finished beef. “But of course,” he said, “you have to have land for cattle. And that land is rapidly being taken for development.” There it was: the land-cattle connection.

         The next day I read Divide and Diminish, the March 16 Opinionator column by evolutionary biologist, Olivia Judson in the New York Times. She is writing this year on biodiversity. In this column she explores the connection between the size of animals and the ‘islands’ they live on.

         She defines ‘islands’ not only as bodies of land surrounded by water but also as oases surrounded by sand, caves as islands of darkness surrounded by light, parks as islands of green surrounded by pavement. Chillingly, I think, she comments, “…we humans are island makers. We routinely fragment former “oceans” – be they tracts of forest or prairie, or some other vast ecosystems – leaving remnants her and there…(which are)…from a biological point of view, islands.”

         Judson further describes human-made ecological islands as ‘splinters’. She suggests that as we change, destroy or try to manipulate an established ecosystem there is “a kind of unraveling, a fraying, a dissembling such that the ecosystem becomes simpler” (read: less diverse).

         If you think a bit, you will know that we see this all around us. How many times have we said or heard, “We used to have bluebirds (or blue jays or garter snakes or hear coyotes or see owls or have a patch of pasque…) but not any more.”

         We have seen interface development sell property comprised of native meadows with intact ecosystems of insects, plant life and animals  splinter into sterility. When meadows are mowed the plant life cycles are interrupted. The plants cannot support the life cycles of the insects and birds. Without the natural growth, pollination, seeding and death of plants the soil languishes and loses vigor. Plants are introduced into the landscape that are not native – not a good fit for the native insects, bird and soil conditions.

         Here is the single best argument for learning to ‘read’ our landscapes and to utilize our native plants in our gardens and landscapes.

         Judson comments soberly, “When we break up rainforests or steppes, or build roads through pristine landscapes, we start to fray the fabric of nature.”

         Splintering our ecosystem is not a sustainable behavior. If the English poet John Donne was correct in stating that no man is an island, then we can state with equal emphasis that no garden is an island…we must learn to see and care for the whole.

 All hail the bugs of March


Ah! March 15. The Ides of March, made notable to contemporary society as the day in history, 44 BCE, when Julius Caesar ignored the advice of the soothsayer to “beware the Ides of March” and was stabbed to death at a meeting of the Roman Senate.

Ignoring the ripe opportunity to make tasteless jokes about the Senate, as gardeners, let us consider some gardening issues that present themselves at this launching of the gardening season, this mid-point of March.

In the spirit of "soothsaying,” here are my concerns. Because the aquifers in the Black Hills are recharged by snow and rain and we have had precious little of either, we face desperate water issues this season.

Water, as is often explained, is a finite resource. If we understand the beautifully complex water cycle we also understand how important it is to care for the water. We do that by using it wisely, by avoiding polluting it or the ground through which it percolates.

In our gardens, we can use water wisely by growing healthy soil that will receive and use the water efficiently. We can mulch our gardens to retain that moisture, and we can keep the water delivery close to the ground. This is the year to put the arching sprayers in storage and put together a drip system.

We know that when the first warm day comes we will begin to see the first of the summer insects, most notably the early pollinators. Given the great stresses on the soil, the aquifers and the plants, we are well-advised to learn to recognize the pollinators (hint: almost all insects) and provide for them.

What? Make insects welcome? Provide for them?

Well, yes. Most of us know that almost all of our food crops are pollinated by insects (and birds and some mammals).

Most commercial insecticides kill many more insects than the one currently in residence on a leaf. We need to remember that most insects are susceptible to insecticides and it is easy for us to do more damage to them (and to their ability to pollinate, to be food for birds and to play their role in general insect population control) than we intend.

While we cannot create more water, there are things that allow us to be better stewards of our gardens and the life in them. We can plant our gardens to be pollinator habitats by including a broad selection of plants that will provide shelter and food for the insects (and birds).

The Xerces Society is a leader in the effort to conserve North America’s pollinators. It has published a fine, highly readable, beautifully illustrated book, "Attracting Native Pollinators," that should be widely read and used as a faultless reference and guide.

If you are uncomfortable about admitting that you advocate for insects, simply plant the garden with insect-drawing plants, keep shallow bowls of water available among the plants for water sites and pull back on the broad-spectrum insecticides.

Then instead of meeting the Ides of March with concern and trepidation, we can enthusiastically welcome spring five days later.

 Spring! It's a great time to learn!

I am conflicted about the advent of spring this year. I’m not certain we have had much of a winter and frankly, I miss it. Perhaps when daylight savings time starts on March 10, I’ll have a better answer to “Are you ready for spring?” than a polite polysyllabic mumble signifying not much.

            Actually there are some things that interest me greatly. The dire predictions of continued drought ought to finally bring the needful good sense of drip irrigation into focus. Yes, let’s finally learn to water our plants, on the ground, and not spray the air. Let’s quit apologizing for bucket-catching tap water as it warms rather than watching it swirl down the drain in the bathtub and kitchen sink. Let’s put up more rain barrels.

            Let’s get smart about co-existing with insects (which hugely outnumber us and most of which are beneficial, good guys). Several years ago I exchanged my containers of chemicals of indiscriminate killing for the opportunity to learn how to garden as a part of the organic whole – applying knowledge of insect and plant life cycles and not gardening from the top down with me as the anointed killer of anything not in my “plan.” Last year, to my delight two praying mantises spent the summer in our garden and we had a pleasant, season-long human-insect relationship. I think of this as an achievement because the mantises are highly  susceptible to insect spray and ours thrived.

 This  spring I ordered two egg cases of mantises from Landreth Seeds and when the weather is right, I will hang them in the garden and hope for more of the lovely ‘walking sticks’.

            Let’s remember that soil is our first crop and we are its custodians. We need to feed it well (yes, use that mulch) and to treat it gently (store the tillers). Plant roots grow in spaces between tiny bits of soil and thus the soil needs to stay loose, light and the many microscopic creatures that have truly built the soil need to be spared the destructive results of impaction and tilling.

            I am thrilled at the enthusiastic response to this spring’s gardening events and classes. It seems to me that persons really want to understand how this whole gardening thing works. That is orders of magnitude removed from simply wanting ‘something pretty.’ And I have no quarrel with ‘pretty’ if it comes wrapped in understanding of soil dynamics and plant needs.

            I am certain that what pushes my Bring on Spring! button is the welcome reassurance that there are many things still to learn. Cases in point: at a recent workshop, gardening friend Toni Schmidt remarked that parsley has a taproot so small plants should be transplanted carefully and with an undisturbed root. She also remarked that one of the big problems with less than lovely containers (which pretty much describes mine) is inadequate soil volume. I shall transplant parsley gently and plan to get some new large paper pulp pots (biodegradable) of adequate soil volume and try, yet again, to have a lovely container or two.

            So, am I eager for spring? I’m ready to learn.

 Gardening in Spring (add some lovely math)

There is a time each spring when I wish I had had more mathematic and science aptitude. My only memory of high school chemistry is my seat in the class. And LeRoy is the family numbers guy.

            As I began my yearly euphoric ramblings about the warming soil, I appreciate but do not fully understand its complex chemistry.

            Our garden soil, especially the first six inches, the rhizosphere or root zone, is comprised of about 50% of mostly tiny mineral particles, held together by chemical ‘glue’ deposited by billions of microorganisms. These miniscule globlets of minerals are formed into irregular and still tiny masses (think: loosely formed popcorn ball), the various surfaces of which are coated with water film (25% of the rhizosphere) and form open areas for the soil to breathe (25% of the rhizosphere is air and other gases). These soil structures are called peds, which is apt because that is the Latin for foot.  If the living soil is not the foot, the base, the support of all we do in the garden, I don’t know what is.

            Spring soil is moisture-rich and myriads of microorganisms are busily reproducing, eating each other and the organic matter in the soil and in the process building the soil structure. Tiny roots are penetrating the soil, traveling along the moist outer edges of the peds and absorbing the nutrients laid down by water moving through the soil and by the activity of the microorganisms.

            It is important to think of active, healthy soil’s structure as something resembling a sponge with boundless chemical and microscopic activity in the spaces. Knowing that, we had a conversation over tea about how to know the damage inflicted on the soil by the simple act of walking on it.

             “How many square inches is the sole of one shoe?” he asked. (I remembered why math confused me.) We figured that I had roughly 21 square inches per shoe sole.

            “Here’s the formula,” he said. “If W (weight) equals pounds per square inch, and you have 21 square inches on a shoe sole (call it ‘pedestal’) and your weight is 134, then divide your weight by the surface square inches of the pedestal and that will tell you how much pounds per square inch one foot is delivering to the soil.” I did. It is 6.3 pounds per square inch. If I stand with both feet on the soil (W = 134/42 my weight is compacting the soil by 3.1 pounds per square inch.

            Consumed by guilt and distress at the extend of soil compaction done by my activity in the garden, I calculated what the pounds per square inch would be if I were stepping on a piece of wood 12 inches square. Divide 134 by144 and the answer is .9 pounds per square inch.

            I may not remember the math formula (W = pounds/sq. in.) but I know that spring soil is fragile and dedicated garden paths are important to allow the living soil to work its architectural and nutritional wonders.

Losing the war, but gaining battlefield insight

 Losing the war, but gaining battlefield insight

Ah, spring! Ah, summer!

Ah, phooey…

One never knows what weather each new day will bring so most of us slog on, applying sun screen when necessary, or gloves and parkas.

Here is a case in point: During a recent cool, misty, more-than-breezy week, I engaged a fine crop of dandelions in a battle to the death in our hilly and rocky back yard. I was outnumbered to be sure, but I was armed with a grubbing knife and some knowledge about the plants and their importance in the garden.


Yes. The bright-yellow blooms are host to myriad early spring pollinators and those creatures are menu items for the spring birds, which were arriving daily.

So, to secure the pollinators and feed the birds, I had to stand by while the many dandelion flowers bloomed.

The easy response would have been to spray to kill the dandelions. But they were in or near several communities of native bluebells, Artemisia and pussy toes that had moved in, and spraying would wipe those out.

In the updated spirit of the Greek historian Herodotus, who probably also understood war on dandelions, I mumbled, “… Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night, stays this gardener from the swift completion of her appointed rounds."

Dressed in cold-weather gear and wearing earmuffs, I fell to my knees and. grubbing knife in hand. dug dandelions before they could release their billion seeds.

That was when I knew I could attack, but would never win.

Dandelions are members of a small group of plants that reproduce asexually. Every single achene is fertile and is genetically identical to the parent plant.

However, equally interesting to me was that many of the flower stems held perfect blowballs of seeds erect ready to catch the wind. Other stems had a small “bruise’ about an inch below the flower head where, presumably, some of the stem cells ceased to function which caused the stem to bend and release the fully formed but not yet opened seed head directly on the ground at the base of the plant.

My respect for the dandelion grew. It reproduces genetically identical plants without pollination, with seed that either is carried on the wind or deposited immediately on the ground.

Gardening is not all war on dandelions.

This summer, the Pennington County Master Gardeners are sponsoring the “Come and Go” public gardens walk. The goal is to encourage residents and visitors to spend a pleasant afternoon enjoying Rapid City’s lovely public gardens, especially the four featured: the Herb Garden at Sioux Park; the Rapid City Garden Club Educational Garden at the Canyon Lake Senior Center; Mary Hall Park, 3220 W. South St.; and the Rose Garden at Memorial Park.

Master gardeners and garden club members will be present to answer questions and will provide free water at each site. It is a free event. Make a family time of it with a picnic with family and friends.


6 Delicious Edibles You Can Grow Indoors All Winter


Most homes are heated to a comfortably warm temperature range of 65 to 75F during winter. This is ideal for growing many vegetables, so the winter cold is not as much of an issue here as low-light conditions. Your choice would be limited unless you provide sufficient grow lights to imitate the sunny outdoors.

    As a general rule, leafy vegetables can manage with much less light than root vegetables. Fruiting vegetables such as tomatoes and eggplants need more light to ensure a good yield.


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