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College of Continuing Education News

From Mad Men to Green Thumb

Five, four, three, two, one bits of garden greenery wisdom from Master Gardener and LearningLife instructor Julie Weisenhorn.

She started out with Mad Men...and now she's got a Green Thumb.

U of M Extension educator and Master Gardener emerita Julie Weisenhorn didn't have "roots" in horticulture--she began her career in marketing and advertising, in fact. It wasn't until she and her husband bought their first home and all the greenery that came with it that she became interested in landscape gardening.

"Our house had been owned by Cary George--the curator at the time for the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden in Minneapolis--and as he was walking me around the property, I began to think to myself, 'Oh boy. I better figure out what's going on here, because I'm going to have a responsibility to keep this up!'"

Julie Weisenhorn.jpgIt didn't take long before Weisenhorn discovered that not only was she capable of taking care of all those plants, she had a natural affinity for it. And then, responsibility turned into hobby turned into...new career. "I found I really enjoyed figuring out what worked and what didn't, learning new things, trying things, so eventually I enrolled in the Master Gardener program. Which got me turned on to teaching others."

At that point, she realized that a career switch was feasible. "Digital photography was new, and our processor product lines were being replaced. I read the writing on the wall and decided I needed a career that was going somewhere...and [let me] give back to people and the community. I heard about the master's degree in agriculture [offered by Horticulture] here at the U, was accepted, and fell in love with the program. From the first tree identification class, I was in heaven."

She went on to teach landscape design in the Department of Horticultural Science at the U for six years, and then served as state director for the Extension Master Gardener program from 2007 to 2013. After handing over the reins to current director Tim Kenny, she is now a full-time Extension educator in horticulture, specializing in plant selection and sustainable landscape design topics.

Now, she's bringing her talents to LearningLife, where she is co-teaching the short course, Your Sustainable Home Landscape: Designing Gardens (with landscape consultant James Calkins). And while the weather outside is struggling to cast off the last vestiges of winter, the calendar says spring...and she joins Living a LearningLife for five, four, three, two, one sneak peeks of the garden greatness to come (yes, even in Minnesota we do eventually get to have summer)!

FIVE things to consider when selecting plants:

Start by understanding your landscape site, and then choose plants that fit the site. Understanding your landscape means doing an inventory and considering many things, including the soil, the light, and the moisture levels, yes...but also taking into account the access to your property, the neighboring properties and how yours interfaces with them, other landscaping, trees, etc.

Weisenhorn Gardens.jpgAfter you've gotten that far, we advise people to think about the five considerations of sustainable landscape design: function, maintenance, impact on environment, cost effectiveness, and visual appeal.

FOUR Big "Ooops" gardening moments (that most everyone makes at some point):
One: selecting a plant simply because you like it [without regard to the above factors], and just figuring, "I can MAKE this work." We've all done it...no one is immune from the inspiration a plant can bring when you first see it in full bloom in a garden center! Unfortunately, then you may end up with a plant that dies, has to be pruned so severely it no longer blooms, or doesn't resemble what you wanted to begin with. Worst case, you have to remove it. Not a sustainable situation! You should always choose plants that grow in the conditions you have in your landscape.

Two: being scared because you'll make a mistake. Gardening should be fun; an experiment. Understand your landscape and do some planning, but don't be afraid to try something that is out of your comfort zone. Just stay in your hardiness zone.

Three: Failing to read and understand plant labels! (And/or reading and ignoring them) Read the tag--and believe it. People might look at the label and say "Oh, five by five feet? It won't get that big..." and then they are shocked when they have this flourishing six by six foot plant that has now outgrown its space. It's part of understanding your location and trusting the grower's information.

Four: Planting and forgetting. After the planning and the planting, sometimes people forget about the fertilizing, the watering, and the pruning. The next thing they know, summer has gotten away from them, and the poor plant is stressed, lacking nutrients, maybe infested with pests or in dire need of pruning. Plants are living things and need ongoing care.

THREE tips for people who really do have "black thumbs":
One: Containers are a great low-risk way to start gardening. After you know what you'd like to go with, whatever size container you think you need...buy one size bigger. Even if you DON'T fill it (but you will), you can always add more.

Some good container plants include:

  • Colorful annuals--many colors and varieties are available as transplants and seeds.

  • Kale--healthy to eat, colorful and textural, and long-lasting even into fall.

  • The nightshade family--tomatoes, peppers, eggplants--are great edibles for containers. Many varieties are available that are bred for containers and can be decorative, too.

  • Herbs--always popular and great for flavoring foods. Pick them right outside your door.

  • Zonal geraniums--colorful, hardy, tough, and can be overwintered indoors.

  • Ornamental grasses (both annual and perennial) can add variety as well. If you grow a perennial grass in a container, treat it as an annual or protect it and overwinter in a dormant state.

Two: Don't start with too many varieties--a small pallet of compatible plants is good. Three to five is a nice, manageable number. And make sure they all grow in similar conditions--all full sun or all shade.

Three: Education! Read Extension publications--there is a wealth of information on the site. People can find the answers to almost any question they might have about Minnesota gardening. Northern Gardener magazine from the Minnesota State Horticulture Society is a great resource.

Ask questions! Master Gardener volunteers are there to help, whether it's online, via phone, or in person. And get out and talk to people--everyone loves to talk about their gardens. When you're out walking your dog, and you see something intriguing...ask the homeowner. Ask co-workers, friends...you can learn a lot by asking questions.

TWO big garden trends for 2014:
Science and knowledge! For example, people are questioning how the climate is affecting what they are growing (or not growing). Take advantage of the research-based information from the U of M Horticulture and Extension websites.

There's so much more information out there to be had on the internet (good and bad, right and wrong), and people are wanting to know more about the how's and the why's and the science behind the gardening--why things work and don't work. U of M Extension is a great place to start.

Bee-friendly gardening! Pesticide-free growing and plants that are not treated with neonicotinoids (in other words, safe for bees and other pollinators), are very popular. Again, it's all about asking questions--whether people ask Extension or at their garden centers. And garden centers employ some very knowledgeable professionals--their customers want to know, were these plants treated? What with? And many of the garden centers are responding.

ONE last thing...what's your favorite plant?

My favorite plant isn't a single plant. Rather, it's a plant that has a personal tie or meaning for me. A history that's tied to people I know or other experiences I've had.Northern Accent Rose.jpg

So, for example, the Northern Accent Roses--'Ole,' 'Sven,' 'Lena,' and 'Sigurd'--as they were developed here at the U, and my friend and fellow Extension educator Kathy Zuzek was part of the rose breeding team. And I have three cultivars of hostas in my yard now that I brought from my first house: 'Frances Williams' and 'Krossa Regal,' and one other cultivar I can't even identify...Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for 608px-Hosta_Krossa_Regal, Vienna Botanical Gardens.jpg but it made the trip with me. I grow U of M grapes and make my own jelly, as well. I have a yellow dogwood (Cornus sericea) that I propagated as a student that's now an enormous shrub. Those are things that have a connection, a story, a history. That's my "favorite plant" in my yard...like a living photo album.

Want to get your green on? Visit the LearningLife website and heck out the full course details for Your Sustainable Home Landscape with Julie Weisenhorn and James Calkins!

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