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Spring Gardening Three Gardeners Share Insights

By Lavender April 23, 2010

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If you know a gardener, then you know it’s spring. Get a gardener started, and he or she can’t stop talking about what to plant, how to do so, and what to try next.

Don Engebretson

Don Engebretson, owner and operator of Renegade Gardener Landscaping in Minneapolis, says, “You learn something new every day, so the underlying goal is to hang in there, and rack up as many days as you can.”

Engebretson, whose approach to gardening integrates two basic facets, explains, “The first is fact-based. The how-to of gardening— how to plant, how to grow something, how to prune, how to build a pond—is all as concrete and systematic as basic mathematics.”

Regarding the second facet, creativity, Engebretson continues, “Having learned the basic truths of how to plant a tree, now you decide where to plant the tree and what to plant around it. Now you can do anything. The plant combinations are completely up to you. There is really no right and wrong involved in this phase, only wise and unwise. You develop your own personal style, develop the artist within, and create a garden or landscape that is unique.”

Engebretson, who finds trends emerging in his daily work, notes, “I continue to see growing interest in hardscape features, things like patios and walls and garden rooms. People are going to continue to accessorize, to personalize their landscapes with unique containers, art and sculpture, fountains, and boulder outcroppings—all the nonplant items that make a landscape one of a kind.”

All the latest hubbub about sustainability, while fueled by good intentions, rings hollow for Engebretson: “I think the whole sustainable gardening concept is terribly convoluted. Most of it is marketing aimed at getting you to buy something. Given a choice, we should always do what’s best and/or least harmful to the Earth’s ecology. Gardening by its very nature is sustainable. Good gardeners have always been mindful of keeping soils healthy, of making good use of resources.”

The general public has access to free resources that often don’t get enough attention, so Engebretson invites, “Join a garden club or your state horticultural society if gardening becomes one of your primary hobbies. The trick is to weed through all the mountains of superfluous information, as well as the mountains of erroneous information.”

Theresa Rooney

One of the best resources is the Master Gardener program, which trains volunteers prepared and available to answer questions from the public about all things green.

Theresa Rooney, a Master Gardener with Hennepin County, loves sharing what she knows and learning more.

Rooney enthuses, “I have always loved to learn about plants, and the Master Gardener program taught me so much. It seems like a perfect match to me.”

In her own gardening, Rooney uses sustainable practices to save time and grow more efficiently. For others who want to make their gardening more sustainable, she advises starting with one idea—like composting.

Rooney states, “Find out what it is, how to do it, then start composting everything.”

Kitchen scraps and shredded documents can be composted. These steps take the hassle out of everyday tasks, while in turn making gardening easier.

Rooney relates, “It is easier to capture rain when I can than to lug hoses everywhere. It is easier for me to lasagna-garden than to double-dig and disturb the soil.”

Lasagna gardening requires no tilling, digging, or weeding. Layers of organic material are alternated with peat moss. Old newspaper, cardboard, and compost work well as layers. This method enhances the soil. It requires much less time and effort than traditional methods.

Rooney remarks, “I let nature do the hard work. If I work with nature, the small input I add results in huge output for me later.”

For smaller gardens, Rooney suggests making the most of limited space by planting strategically, instructing, “Think about vertical gardening. Let the lettuces hide in the shade of the tomatoes. Grow a succession of plants in the same space.”

Stressing the importance of building the soil, Rooney insists, “Without good soil, the plants will struggle, and so will you.”

Rooney believes that you should grow what you really love to eat, declaring, “If you like cucumbers, try bush cukes.”

It helps to think of the relative cost of favorite vegetables, so, in Rooney’s words, “Grow heirloom tomatoes, as they can be quite expensive.”

Bonnie Dehn

Bonnie Dehn knows all about growing for the market as a fourth-generation farmer at Dehn’s Gardens in Andover, Minnesota.

According to Dehn, “We’re a true family farm. Everyone from grandparents to kids is involved.”

Dehn’s Gardens is in a more densely populated area than most farms, and Dehn recounts, “We have been told by the new neighbors, ‘We’ll let you stay here’—even though we have farmed this property for nearly 30 years. Even the attitude of the government has changed. The county and city level would much rather call us open space than agricultural in zoning.”

But the farm’s proximity to the Twin Cities comes with benefits, as Dehn observes, “We are located about 40 minutes from Downtown Minneapolis and the markets we address. It’s a big plus with the cost of transportation.”

Dehn’s family sells produce through local stores, plus four days a week April to October at the Minneapolis Farmers Market.

As Dehn reveals, “The Minneapolis Farmers Market is a large percentage of our income for the farm. The wholesale market changes, often not to the advantage of the local producers. Many local farms have almost given up on the wholesale markets, because buyers find it easier to call their connections in California.”

More than 200 growers supply the Minneapolis Farmers Market. The Lyndale location is open from mid-April to mid-November, while the Nicollet location is open from late April to early November. All vendors are members of the Central Minnesota Vegetable Growers Association, which emphasizes sustainable practices. The market supports small farms and agriculture in Minnesota.

While Dehn’s Gardens has not been certified organic—which would increase production costs and market prices—it has used sustainable practices for many years.

Dehn points out, “Our customers know how and where we farm, and a circle of trust has been established.”

The organic label might become necessary, but the family’s history and personal contact with customers convey the right message.

Dehn comments, “Surprisingly enough, we were sustainable before the trend. When we started farming, my husband was going through cancer treatments. We decided not to use pesticides and commercial fertilizers.”

Conventional methods like chemical spraying had to stay in the past, but other family traditions continues.

Dehn adds, “We use the old-fashioned tools of the trade, such as small garden hoes. Most hoes in the garden stores are huge. You need a small blade, no paint on the blade, and a much thinner handle to be comfortable.”

Another Dehn insight: Use a small children’s swimming pool to wash garden vegetables.

Little tips here and there, whether from experts or a next-door neighbor, can take any garden in a different direction. Inspiration and passion are the foundation of a good garden.

As Dehn puts it, “Just have fun. The more you enjoy the garden, the more willing you are to do it again!”

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