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Master Gardener: Bring on spring, but don’t rush your garden

Don’t be in too big of a hurry to start working in your garden. A good rule of thumb is to grab a handful of soil and squeeze it. If the soil doesn’t crumble but stays in a ball, stay out of the garden. You will do more harm than good at this stage.

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After the severe drought last summer and fall, the open winter and greatly fluctuating temperatures all winter, master gardener Sue Morris doesn't know what to expect from perennials, shrubs and trees this spring. However, she cautions gardeners not to be in a rush to get started on working in the garden outdoors. Not just yet.
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For as long as I can remember, I’ve heard “late Easter, late spring.” My neighbor Gene says that we have to have snow on the backs of the first robins we spot three times before it is spring.

Since this column needs to be written in advance, as of this morning we have now had snow three times since I first spotted robins in my yard. So, bring on spring. I think we are all ready and we all deserve it.

Don’t be in too big of a hurry to start working in your garden. A good rule of thumb is to grab a handful of soil and squeeze it. If the soil doesn’t crumble but stays in a ball, stay out of the garden. You will do more harm than good at this stage.

I’m not sure what to expect from perennials, shrubs and trees this spring. After the severe drought we had last summer and fall, the open winter and greatly fluctuating temperatures all winter — who knows.

We will find out soon.

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Since I have several perennial flower beds and some are a long way from a water source, they didn’t get watered last summer unless it rained. Most of the time was spent keeping the annuals in pots alive.

The University has said in years past that after a drought, we probably won’t see the effects it had on trees for several years — and by that time we will have forgotten about the drought and wonder why a tree is dying.

Wildlife can do some damage

Did any of your trees or shrubs suffer varmint damage this past winter?

Since I lost my precious dog in January, it seems like it has been an open invitation to all critters to my yard.

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Winter bird feeders can attract all sorts of wildlife other than birds to your yard, including rabbits, squirrels, deer and voles. Those animals can also end up causing damage to shrubs and trees during their visit, so it's important to check for wildlife marks when getting ready for spring gardening.
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I got up before dawn one morning and looked out and there was a raccoon, a possum and a skunk all eating under the bird feeders. It sounds like the beginning of a joke; it isn’t.

I’ve seen multiple rabbits there, and the squirrels don’t show up until daylight. A while back there were seven wild turkeys grazing there as well. They came through several days in a row but have since moved on.

The herd of deer so far has stayed out of my yard and just hung out in the woods. I’m sure they have done damage out there. Not to mention the pocket gophers who are digging their way all along my driveway ditch.

According to the University, there are three main types of wildlife damage you might observe:

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1. Rabbits, voles and squirrels can all strip bark. In doing so, they may also leave small tooth marks on the wood.

According to John Loegering, University of Minnesota Extension wildlife specialist, if the bark is stripped all the way around a branch, that branch will probably not survive.

Prune off the damaged part of the branch, as the healthy portion of the branch below it is still likely to produce new leaves and shoots from the buds.

2. When a small mammal chews on a branch or trunk, they “girdle” it. Girdling partially cuts off the transport of water and nutrients from the roots to the canopy. Girdled branches are unlikely to survive for very long.

Bite wounds also allow pathogens into the wood, introducing diseases like black rot.

Loegering says that if the tooth marks look like a scoop from a spoon, they are likely from a rabbit. If the mark looks like it was scraped with the tines of a fork, it is likely from a vole.

3. Cane or trunk removal is much more devastating for small, newly planted, or slow-growing shrubs compared to mature shrubs or fast-growing plants like raspberries.

There is not much to do about existing damage except to be patient and let the plant regrow over time.

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According to Shane Bugeja, Extension Educator, applying sealants to wildlife wounds is unlikely to rejuvenate girdled perennials. If a mammal has chewed into the wood, the damage to the plant’s vascular tissue has already occurred regardless of the presence of a sealant.

Support your plants by ensuring they have adequate soil nutrients. However, fertilizers are only recommended if a soil or tissue test indicates a nutrient deficiency.

If the plant is otherwise healthy and already getting all of the nutrients it needs, then additional fertilizer is unlikely to compensate for wildlife damage. Excess nitrogen can reduce fruit load in favor of vegetative growth and leach out of the soil into our precious Minnesota lakes and rivers.

If the damage consists of partial removal of trunks or canes, focus your pruning efforts on removing the damaged wood.

Reduce pruning efforts on healthy wood to compensate for the lost growth. Prune off damaged branches and canes below the lowest point of the damage.

The worst case of wildlife damage would be a single-trunk plant like an apple or tart cherry tree, where the trunk has been stripped or girdled. Severe damage will likely either kill or severely limit the lifespan of the tree.

You can choose to wait out the season to see if the tree continues to survive, or remove the tree and plant a new one.

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To prevent damage from wildlife that might be attracted to winter bird feeders, use wire mesh (rabbit fencing, chicken wire, etc.) to create a physical barrier around each plant. Apply this in the summer or fall.
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In the future, use wire mesh (rabbit fencing, chicken wire, etc.) to create a physical barrier around each plant. Apply this in the summer or fall.

The mesh should be narrow-gauge so that the holes are too small for a rabbit or vole head to fit through. The mesh must also be tall enough to rise one foot above the maximum snow depth.

Rabbits can stand on snow and reach one foot above it.

During the winter, if the snow becomes deep enough to approach the top of the mesh, you can shovel it away.

Keep an eye on your plants during the winter. Apply more mesh or fix existing structures as needed if you start to notice wildlife damage or droppings.

Houseplants continue to be popular

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Houseplants, and succulents in particular, are growing in popularity for new and experience gardeners alike.
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It seems like houseplants are gaining in popularity once again. For a while, there weren’t too many available in stores and nurseries.

Succulents are becoming very popular. As are orchids.

One thing to keep in mind is municipal water may be safely treated with fluoride and chlorine to provide dental benefits and disinfect water. But some plants are sensitive to these additives.

For example, peace lilies are sensitive to fluoride and may exhibit burned leaf tips. Softened water can also have a negative effect on plants like orchids.

So use rainwater or reverse osmosis water for your houseplants. You can also use well water.

Add a small amount (about half the recommended strength) of fertilizer to provide the nutrients plants need.

The weather last summer might not have been favorable for my perennials but winter was very kind to my orchids. I currently have 13 or 14 and 11 of them have been in full bloom for months.

It seems in order for them to rebloom, they need cooler nighttime temperatures to bring on the bloom.

Let’s all look forward to a great gardening and farming year.

Master Gardener Sue Morris has been writing this column since 1991 for Kandiyohi County newspapers. Morris has been certified through the University of Minnesota as a gardening and horticulture expert since 1983. She lives in Kandiyohi County. To consult with a Master Gardener, call your county Extension office.

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