Feed It? Buzz Off!
Spring 2012 Notes and Comment

By the dawn’s early light: Magnolia ‘Ricki’ breaking bud, March 30, 2012, Deephaven, Minnesota.

04-01-12 – Myriad topics left unreported this winter clutter my desk and office floor (I’ve always been a strong proponent of a vast CFP – carpet filing system – as it greatly reduces vacuuming time). So let’s take a quick, wide-ranging romp to include a current example of garden industry avarice, some recent, unsettling reports of GE crop research, and finally talk a little about spring gardening duties in this weird year. Then you can polish off another hour at work by perusing the new topics discussed under the Plant Spotlight, Top Pick, Myth of the Week and Don’t DO That buttons sitting over there to your left. Sorry you didn’t win the MegaMillions, neither did I.

An extremely mild winter across most of the US – here in Minnesota, we’re feeling cheated – has every indication of transitioning into an early and prolonged spring, with gardeners everywhere ready to rumble. So why not trot out those erroneous lawn fertilizer advertising campaigns a month early?

If you watch TV, you’ve seen it. One major lawn fertilizer company has apparently retired their long-standing spokesman, an unassuming, friendly older fellow, who for years has peddled inaccurate lawn care advice with the charm and patience of an elderly Lutheran minister. No more. The new television spokesman for the company is a fiery, in-your-face thirty-something with flashing eyes and cropped red hair. I won’t mention any corporate names, but it’s obvious from his quick, clipped brogue that he’s a Scot.

“Feed it!” he commands his dim-witted neighbor. “Your lawn is awakening from a long winter slumber, and it’s peckish!” Much as I appreciate the resuscitation of as charming and precise a word as “peckish” – it means somewhat hungry – you’ve already heard enough misinformation to last the entire new gardening season.

Dumping an early spring load of high-nitrogen fertilizer on your lawn is the last thing it needs. Peckish? Not in the least. If you follow a 4-Step fertilizer program (which, unless you are establishing a new lawn, you shouldn’t), or fertilize your lawn correctly, that is, two to three feedings per season, either way you will properly have made a late fall fertilizer application last year. Your lawn doesn’t use this food dose in late fall, it takes it up and stores it for spring.

Sunny, warm March temperatures have already greened up this Minnesota lawn, unfertilized since last fall.

The late fall application is the spring application. That’s why right now across the top half of America, lawns are green, getting lush, and are darn close to needing cutting. One key to a healthy lawn is to let it wake up naturally – well, OK, semi-naturally – by utilizing the stored food from last fall.

Hammering an established lawn with an early spring application of fertilizer, University of Minnesota (and others) research concludes, is too much nitrogen. New root growth has just begun, and slapping the lawn into excessive blade growth actually does more harm than good. The early spring fertilization actually decreases root growth, while increasing susceptibility to turf grass diseases, all due to excess nitrogen.

Regardless of your growing zone/region, plenty of solid, additional information on this topic is out there. Just stay away from the lawn fertilizer company and most turf grass associations’ websites. Here are some links:

Turf Grass Management (scroll down and click “Fertilizing Lawns”)

Consider developing a low-maintenance lawn that stays green and looks good all summer while needing less fertilizer and water:

Low Maintenance Lawn I
Low Maintenance Lawn II

Study Finds Possible Link Between GE Crops and Butterfly Losses

New research by the University of Minnesota and University of Iowa released last month finds evidence that varieties of genetically engineered (GE) corn and soybeans may be contributing to the decline in the number of milkweed plants that are depended upon as an egg cache for Monarch butterflies.

The dramatic decline in Monarch numbers has been concerning naturalists for the past decade. In the “corn belt” – the Upper Midwest and Midwest – milkweed grows naturally in the wild. But it also has long found a home in the sunny and fertilized farmlands of the region.

“Roundup-Ready” corn and soybean crops – plants that have been genetically engineered to shrug off applications of the herbicide glyphosate, used to kill weeds that occur in the crop fields – are allowing farmers in the last decade to greatly limit the number of weeds that compete with crops for water and nutrients. One such weed is milkweed. Less milkweed, the study suggests, less habitat for butterfly eggs.

Level-headed researchers at both universities are quick to point out that there is no longer any known, “natural” population level for Monarchs. Numbers have increased steadily from the time the first farm fields were cleared, when farmers had little recourse but to allow milkweed to comprise a portion of their fields. This increase in human-caused habitat, in addition to natural milkweed habitat, led to an increase in Monarch populations.

At least some of the decline in Monarch population is attributed to ongoing drought conditions across the Midwest, which has led to a decline in natural milkweed plant population. But there is little doubt that the advent of herbicide-resistant farm crops is also cutting down on the overall number of milkweed plants.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is already planning programs to increase the number of acres of native milkweed habitat, a plan being considered by other states. Homeowners everywhere are encouraged to plant milkweed in areas of their properties that can be devoted to a naturalized state. Doom-and-gloom environmental extremists have already glommed onto the study and announced the impending extinction of the Monarch butterfly, of course, when that is not even remotely the case.

It should be noted that the study’s findings are not related to an earlier study that appeared to link death of Monarch butterflies to feeding on milkweed that had been dusted with pollination from a different kind of GE corn known at Bt corn (Bacillus thuringiensis, a naturally occurring bacterium used as an organic insecticide). That study has been discredited due to major flaws in scientific protocol. For a good study paper that sorts that all out, and points out the positive advantages of Bt-corn, click here.

The study by the Universities of Minnesota and Iowa is exactly what is needed and what the citizenry of our country should expect as new technologies of any kind are implemented. Like it or not, genetically engineered crops are here to stay – raise your hand if you’d prefer to live in an age without airplanes, birth control, water purification, antibiotics, the Internet or computers – and without GE crops, populations across the planet today would be as susceptible to famine and starvation from naturally occurring crop pests and diseases as we were in Biblical times.

Kudos to my alma mater, the University of Minnesota, and to the University of Iowa. Our food sources need to be monitored, and unintended consequences corrected.

Early Spring Calls for Early Care

Budding Zone 4 crabapple tree – water, sit back, and enjoy.

A little warmer than usual where you are? Me too. The mild winter/early spring scenario is not too complicated. Just move your gardening chores up a month or so.

Most important is to water your plants, particularly trees and shrubs. Most of the country had a dry fall, and if that was the case in your neck of the woods, as deciduous trees and shrubs begin to leaf out and break bud, get some water down into their root systems. Not a ton – soils are still not warmed up to regular summer temperatures – and not too often. Every few weeks or so this month is ample.

Evergreen trees and shrubs, same thing. There was so little moisture from snow melt in much of USDA Zones 2-6 that soils are below the usual spring moisture content. No need to flood. But let ‘em know you’re out there.

Fertilization can also be moved up two to four weeks. Assuming somewhat decent soil, fertilize trees and shrubs with an all-purpose, organic granular fertilizer. OK, you want to get this bag for evergreens and this bag for deciduous shrubs, fine. Water first, let the roots wake up and start accepting moisture, then in a couple weeks hit everything with granular fertilizer. Scratch it into the soil around the base of each plant and water it in. With the exception of heavy feeders such as roses and some of the tony newer hydrangeas, you’re done for the season.

Perennials, clear the debris left over from last year from around them, but don’t go tromping around too much in the beds, you’re just compacting soil. Perennials can also use a shot of water about now, no need to swamp ‘em, and no need for weekly watering until prolonged heat in June. An early May fertilization always helps, after that, enjoy. I wouldn’t dig and divide anything yet in Zones 2-5. If we avoid frosts and this turns into a lovely normal spring, maybe divide a week or so earlier than normal.

Frost? Oh, it can happen. It’s a shame when you get an early spring and the Forsythia and Magnolias and Redbuds are blooming, then along comes a hard frost and boom goes the bloom. But it happens, and has happened to plants a thousand times since planet Earth grew plants. You miss having spring bloom that year but there is no need to be concerned about the plants. No harm done to them.

Not much else to say. Try to avoid the temptation to rake the lawn until it has greened up fully and you are seeing active blade growth, otherwise you just pull out half the plugs because the new root system hasn’t developed. Plant your lettuces early. Plant your tomatoes late. Rotate your tires.

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