April 28, 2022

How to Get Your Garden Ready for Spring

Show Notes

On this episode, Chuck Gaidica is joined by Sue Hudnut, president of the Master Gardeners Association of Northwest Michigan. Together, they discuss tips on how to get your garden ready for spring.

In this episode of A Healthier Michigan Podcast, we explore:

    • The most important things to take into consideration when starting a vegetable garden.
    • Whether you should start your plants from seed or seedlings.
    • Pitfalls to look out for when maintaining your garden this season.

Transcript

Chuck Gaidica:
This is A Healthier Michigan Podcast, episode 105. Coming up, we discuss what steps we should be taking right now to get our garden started for the season.

Chuck Gaidica:
Welcome to A Healthier Michigan Podcast. It’s a podcast dedicated to navigating how we can improve our health and wellbeing through small healthy habits we can start implementing right now. I’m your host, Chuck Gaidica. Every other week, we’ll sit down with a certified expert to discuss topics that cover nutrition, fitness, and a lot more. And today, there’s a lot more to this episode. We’re diving deeper into what we need to get our garden ready for spring. With us is the president of the Master Gardener’s Association of Northwest Michigan, Sue Hudnut. Good to have you back.

Sue Hudnut:
Thank you.

Chuck Gaidica:
Yeah, it’s nice to talk to you. And you’ve got such an interesting story about coming out of corporate America, and then you leave there, and I know you were in downtown Detroit with Lafayette Gardens as an urban gardener and helping out there. And now you are in Northern Michigan, Leelanau, right? And you’ve got, what, 11 acres with you and your husband tending to your own gardens.

Sue Hudnut:
That’s right. I retired in 2020, and so did my husband, and we bought our little farmstead up here.

Chuck Gaidica:
Awesome.

Sue Hudnut:
And we just love it. It’s beautiful. Of course, we’re in mud season right now.

Chuck Gaidica:
Yeah. Yeah. But hope springs eternal, so we’re all looking forward to warmer weather coming sooner than later. So now is the perfect time, I guess, for us to start thinking about our gardens and what order we should plant things, what those things should be. And I know that vegetable gardens have a unique difference from flower gardens. Talk about that, would you?

Sue Hudnut:
Well, if you’re planting vegetables versus flowers, there’s maybe certain things that you want to do a little bit differently. One of the things here in Michigan is, we do have a shorter season and we do have to be mindful of the winter season coming to an end and spring coming and when we’re going to plant things. And we don’t want to plant things too early because we have frost, which in Michigan, it could be snowing in April, and then the very next day, it’s 70 degrees out. So a lot of times, we might want to jump the gun a little bit. So when we’re thinking about growing flowers and vegetables, we want to be mindful of when our frost season ends in Michigan, and that happens to be at the end of May. So we really want to be starting to think about how we’re going to clean up our gardens right now.

Sue Hudnut:
And I think one of the things that you want to do is kind of clean up all your old plants that are out there and get your soil ready and think about your tools. And a lot of things that I like to do is plan. So you want to plan what you’re going to plant, and what do you want to plant? In a vegetable garden, there’s so many things you can start with. I think if you’re a beginner gardener, maybe you want to start out with a little bit easier types of plants to grow, and maybe not start them from seeds, but you want to buy the little plants that come in the little plastic pots from a nursery. That would be the best way to go.

Chuck Gaidica:
So you mean not to use seeds to get stressed out about when to plant and if they got over watered. Actually start with a plant, a seedling, right?

Sue Hudnut:
Yeah. No. You know the little plants that come in the little plastic pots that you buy at the nursery?

Chuck Gaidica:
Yeah.

Sue Hudnut:
Yeah. Yeah. That’s probably the easiest way to start things. Then you don’t have to worry about starting seeds and everything like that. If you were a more experienced gardener and you have room in your house to set up lights and a heat pad and start all your seeds indoors. Because it’s so cold here in Michigan in April and May, a lot of those tomato plants and pepper plants, those are all started in greenhouses. So you want to plant the plants in the end of May, but if you started them from seed, you probably wouldn’t be harvesting tomatoes until about November.

Chuck Gaidica:
And there’s a lot. As you say, you may need equipment. You have to talk to your plants. I don’t know. It just seems like a whole lot of stuff to do, right?

Sue Hudnut:
Oh, sure.

Chuck Gaidica:
Hello, everybody.

Sue Hudnut:
Well, let’s say you want to start a garden. One of the first things you’re going to want to know about is, where am I going to put that garden? And you’re going to think about, like real estate, location, location, location. I need to have my garden in a place that gets at least eight to 12 hours of sunshine a day. Vegetables have to have sunshine, or you’re just not going to get a whole lot of fruit on your plants. So that’s probably the first thing you want to think about, is where is my garden going to go? If I don’t have a big plot of land, like hey, I’m on 11 acres, I’ve got land, maybe you’re in an apartment, you can plant in pots. Or maybe you have a small yard and you want to just build a raised bed. Those are all perfect things to do, but you got to make sure that you have sunshine.

Chuck Gaidica:
And it seems like another step in this is going to be considering, and that’s why I love you talking about making a plan, how much stuff do you want? How many tomato bushes are you going to plant? Because I know from my own experience and from my own family, it’s kind of nice to get all that free produce when it all comes along because somebody in the family’s got a zillion tomatoes. But part of the plan can include, is this the harvest you were expecting? Right? Do you want all that stuff? Yeah.

Sue Hudnut:
Absolutely. I think I planted 25 tomato plants last year, and I’m still eating tomatoes from my plants last year. I have a big freezer that I froze everything in. But if it’s just you, and say you have a family of four, two or three tomato plants would be plenty. And if you live in an apartment and it’s just you and maybe your partner and you just have two pots and you buy two patio tomatoes, that would be fine too. I think part of the joy of gardening is getting your hands in the dirt and planting your plants and then watching them grow throughout the summer.

Chuck Gaidica:
Well, sure. And there is that part of this, that we’re talking about some technical stuff about planting and then the enjoyment, of course, you’re going to get, but there are a lot of other ancillary benefits to getting out in a garden. I mean, goodness knows with all the amount of time a lot of us have been cooped up, just getting out has a great upside, right?

Sue Hudnut:
Absolutely. I think for me, being outside every day, that’s just something I crave. And I really think being outdoors, smelling the fresh air, getting your hands in the dirt, it’s just really great for the soul.

Chuck Gaidica:
It’s funny. When I’m gardening, and in my case, I’m talking more about lawn care and beds and flowers, it’s amazing to me how many steps. I check at the end of the day and it’s like, wait, how’d I get 13,000 steps today? Oh, I had to carry the bark mulch in the back of the truck, and I… And so the other upside is you are getting a lot of exercise.

Sue Hudnut:
I know I do, because I count my steps too, and during the summer season, yeah, I definitely get in over my 10,000 steps every day. And just being outside. I’m outside now with my dog. I got a dog, which I have never had, which also is a great way to get in a lot of steps. But yeah, just being outside, outside in the fresh air, and then growing your food. There’s nothing like being able to harvest your food and then cooking your food. That’s, for me, the real magic of gardening.

Chuck Gaidica:
Well, there is a certain level of accomplishment, I guess is a good word to put it, that you sit down. It used to hit me. I grew up with a grandfather who was a gardener for his whole life growing up, and I knew him of course later in his life. But it was always fascinating to me that he continued to grow everything. To him, the radish that he was about to eat with a little salt sprinkled on it, to me it was like chocolate. I’m looking at him as a kid, and I ask him one time. I said, “Why is that so important?” “I grew it. I grew that. I grew those tomatoes.” And there is this sense that like, “I’ve really done something here that’s important to me.”

Sue Hudnut:
That’s right. And the lonely radish, that’s one of the easiest vegetables to grow.

Chuck Gaidica:
Is it?

Sue Hudnut:
Yeah. And there again, what we were talking about with tomatoes and buying seeds and stuff like that, there is a lot to gardening. Do I buy seeds? Do I buy plants? And different plants have different needs, so you do have to do a little bit of reading and a little bit of experimentation. One of the things that I like to do is I like to keep a plant diary, so I like to write down what’s going on with my garden. And if you don’t like to write, if you have a smartphone and you can take pictures, I like to also take pictures of weekly what’s going on with your plants. That way you can always go back the next year to see, when did I do that?

Chuck Gaidica:
Oh, that’s interesting.

Sue Hudnut:
Go back and look at your photos and say, “Oh yeah, I can plant those radishes over there.” And going back to radishes too, you can plant a radish seed and have a radish fully formed, ready to pluck out of the soil in 30 days.

Chuck Gaidica:
Wow.

Sue Hudnut:
That’s just one of the fastest-growing vegetables you can do.

Chuck Gaidica:
So it literally does grow like a weed.

Sue Hudnut:
Literally.

Chuck Gaidica:
Yeah. So this idea of documenting, I find that fascinating because it’s like your own health. You’re creating benchmarks, like, well, what if stuff starts wilting? When you took your picture, you could say, “Well, maybe now I’m looking back at last year. Yeah, I was over watering.” I mean, it does give you some guidance what to do in the future too, doesn’t it?

Sue Hudnut:
Absolutely. Absolutely. When I worked at Lafayette Greens and took care of the gardens there too, I always went back and looked at my photographs to see, oh yeah, that was over there. So that is one good way to kind of make a plan, look back on what you did last year and what you want to do this year. Also, I do want to point out that MSU has a smart gardening series that’s available to anybody. You can just Google MSU smart gardening, and they have a whole series on gardening with videos and tips and notes, and you can learn about pollinators and soil. It’s a really great series to dial into. And also, if you’re on social media at all, there’s tons of gardening groups out there that you can join where everybody’s crowdsourcing answers, and it’s just a real big community out there where you can also learn. Because really, gardening is a journey.

Chuck Gaidica:
Well, sure. Yeah. And you’re waiting for the ta-da moments for so many different kinds of plants. So let’s focus on basics for a minute. You’ve talked about seedlings are good. You’ve talked about sunshine. Obviously, there’s watering. Is there any rule of thumb like there would be for a lawn? I’ve always heard an inch of water a week, but what about a garden? What about your vegetables?

Sue Hudnut:
And that’s exactly true too. MSU recommends one inch of water a week, but that’s if you have a garden that’s out in your yard. It’s just a garden plot. If you are gardening with pots or if you’re gardening with a raised bed, it’s going to be a little bit different. If you’re gardening in pots, you basically have to water every day. So your biggest tool are your eyes. You do have to put some time and commitment into it, so you have to pay attention to what’s going on. And if you’re going to go on vacation for two weeks, you probably should find a neighbor that’s going to help water, because watering is one of the biggest things for a gardener.

Chuck Gaidica:
And what about soil quality and/or fertilizer? And I don’t mean synthetic stuff. You don’t want to eat that. But where do you come down on adding anything outside of natural compost, et cetera, to soil?

Sue Hudnut:
Well, again, if you have a garden that’s out in your yard, that’s not a raised bed or not a pot, you’re going to want to be amending that soil all the time. And one of the first pieces of advice that I would give anybody is to get your soil tested. And you can get your soil tested through MSU. They make it very easy. You just go to their website, and I think you have to pay a fee. It’s like 20 bucks. And they send you an envelope, and you just dig up some of your soil, you put it in the envelope, and you send it back to them, and then they send you a report on basically the health of your soil. And then they give recommendations on what you would need.

Chuck Gaidica:
Wow. That sounds really cool.

Sue Hudnut:
Yeah, it is. It is. But if you were gardening in pots or in a raised bed, you probably bought soil, especially your pots. You’re putting new soil in every year. And in your raised bed, you probably put new soil in too, that you bought that does have a lot of nutrients in it. My other piece of advice would be to buy a good organic vegetable fertilizer that you’re going to use throughout the summer. And I would say, make sure you read the directions on the back on how much to use. But there’s many good organic products out there that you can purchase to keep your soil healthy like that. I also like to keep a little compost pile. I’ve got several of them at my house, and that’s where I throw dead plants. All my food scraps go in my compost, leaves, everything like that. And then it just sits there and it cooks up, and every year you can lay that down, and they call it side dressing your plants, and you just kind of lay that down there, and everything kind of just goes back into the earth, and you really want to encourage that.

Chuck Gaidica:
Well. And when you talk about a plan, what you just mentioned about having a compost pile takes you back to the beginning where you talked about prepping the beds, cleaning up. Leaves takes me back to last fall. So I mean, if you’re looking ahead, doing some of those things and creating the compost pile, the payoff is going to come next spring in many cases, right? But that’s pretty nice to think about.

Sue Hudnut:
Well, absolutely. And we are here in spring and we’re talking about getting our gardens ready. Probably the best advice is to be getting your garden ready last fall, cleaning up your beds, putting leaves down on your beds, mulching, cleaning up leaf litter, stuff like that. You get a lot done in the fall. Because again, in Michigan, we go from freezing cold to really nice weather, and we got to get out there, and then there’s all this stuff we got to do.

Chuck Gaidica:
So you know that there are a lot of people that could be listening right now who would say, “I mean, I just don’t have a green thumb. I mean, even a philodendron, which is hard to kill with turpentine, I just can’t do it, and nothing seems to live.” How can you encourage all of us that… I guess there is a difference between indoor and outdoor anyway, but how do you encourage those people who say, “I’ve tried. I failed”?

Sue Hudnut:
Well, you got to go back to the basics. Do you have sun? Do you have good soil? Are you watering it? Those are the first three things. And then, are you over watering it? Are you under watering it? Are you trying things that are maybe too hard to grow? I would not encourage anyone who’s a brand new gardener to grow celery or broccoli or cauliflower. There are vegetables that are hard to grow, that take a little skill. So like we talked about radishes, those are really easy to grow. And if you buy, again, little plants from the nursery, tomato plants, pepper plants, hot pepper plants are really easy to grow. And I don’t know why I even have problems growing sweet peppers. They just never get big for me. But hot peppers, I can grow all day long. There are certain things that are easier than others.

Chuck Gaidica:
And there are some that look so different, if you plant a pumpkin, if you planted a tomato. But my brother’s got… I probably mentioned it to you last time. He’s got like five acres up near Cadillac, and he’s done everything from green beans, and he’s got blueberry bushes. But when you get to that level where you’re now having to cover it with a net because birds swoop in, I mean, there is a little work, thought, and homework that goes into some of this stuff beyond just, let’s plant a tomato bush, and then we’ve got salsa for the next 20 years.

Sue Hudnut:
Right. Sure. And that’s why you need to make a plan, and that’s why it’s good to document what happened last year. There’s a saying about, all garden failures turn into successes. Something like that, because it’s not something you’re going to do once and be over with. There’s always next spring, next spring, next spring. And I think it’s like anything. It takes practice.

Chuck Gaidica:
Well, you’re going out there. You’re getting fresh air. You’re getting exercise. We know that you’re likely reducing stress, right? You can probably count that your blood pressure’s going to come down, which is another benefit. And to be honest, whether you’re keeping all the produce for yourself, giving it away to a food pantry, or sharing it with friends and neighbors and relatives, you are saving money. I mean, think of the stuff you can do with it. You can can it, you can keep it, just eat it fresh, whatever you care to do. Right?

Sue Hudnut:
Yeah. I do that too. I’m a big canner. I love to make salsas. I pickle beets, I pickle jalapenos, and I love to a cook. And I think there’s no greater satisfaction than bringing in a big basket full of produce, and you got your own farm to table.

Chuck Gaidica:
Yeah. My wife Susan went shopping the other day for dill pickles. We’ve got our favorite brand, and she came home with this fresher version, and I open it up and they taste awesome. And I’m looking at them thinking, those could be my cucumbers with fresh garlic floating around in there with real dill. I mean, it doesn’t have to be so complicated that you freak out and say, “Oh, I can’t do that.” I looked at them and I said, “Oh, I could do that. I could really.”

Sue Hudnut:
Absolutely. Cucumbers, or dill pickles are the easiest things in the world to do. Cucumbers are one of those easy plants to grow. Throw a couple seeds in the ground, and if you have a trellis, those things go like crazy. By July, you’ve got cucumbers, and all you need is a little vinegar, salt, dill, and garlic. You throw them in there, and within two weeks you’ve got pickles.

Chuck Gaidica:
So let’s do this real quick. I don’t know, if you want to give me 10, 12 items. If we were just going to start a garden, we’re willing to make a plan, we’re not total beginners, what would you say would be the kinds of vegetables we should plant this year as we head towards spring that would give us a unique and maybe varied bounty that we’d be really pleased with? What would those things be?

Sue Hudnut:
I would say tomatoes for sure, cucumbers, leaf lettuce, which we didn’t really talk about, but leaf lettuce is really easy to grow. What’s hard to grow is a head lettuce, but leaf lettuce, very easy to grow. Carrots, any kind of peppers, eggplant, green beans, pea pods, like spring peas.

Chuck Gaidica:
Watermelon is pretty easy too, isn’t it?

Sue Hudnut:
You know, I’ve never grown watermelon, but you need a lot of space for melons.

Chuck Gaidica:
Yeah, you do. You do. It’s kind of like a pumpkin patch. You do.

Sue Hudnut:
You need a lot of space. I would also grow a couple of basil plants and parsley. I like to intersperse a lot of herbs within all my plants. And those are pretty easy, like dill too, to just throw seeds in and just wait for those to pop up.

Chuck Gaidica:
When you plant, do you put the little sticks with signs on there so you know what’s coming up, especially for those of us who are not master gardeners, so I would know that that’s dill? Because I’m not sure I would know it.

Sue Hudnut:
I do until the plants get big enough, and then I do take them out, only because they’re plastic, usually, and I hate digging in the garden and digging up those plastic tabs that you see. But yeah, I mean, you want to know what you planted, and you want to make sure it’s coming up where you planted it. So yeah, I keep those little tabs.

Chuck Gaidica:
So one of the other issues I know that comes up from time to time are going to be pests, right? They can be as small as a ladybug to, could be the deer that you love to see in the morning, and then you realize they just ate a bunch of your stuff. So what are we able to keep an eye out for that is in the garden that, whether we can see it with our own eye or some of these little green buggers, we don’t even know they’re there until it’s too late? What should we be watching for?

Sue Hudnut:
You should be looking at your plants to see if things look funny, like there’s missing leaves or there’s holes in the leaves. Because tomatoes are one of our favorite things to grow, there is the tomato hornworm that is notorious. And I don’t know where they come from. They just show up. So one of the things that I like to do, and maybe you don’t have time to do it every day, but I like to take a turn in the garden. Every morning, I like to just kind of walk up and down my rows and just check things out. And you want to look for leaves being eaten or holes in leaves or moldy leaves. So you want to be observant of what’s going on out there. There’s also beneficial insects out there too. So we like ladybugs. We like praying mantis. Things that are going to eat other bugs.

Chuck Gaidica:
Right, right. So a ladybug would go after, what, aphids?

Sue Hudnut:
Yeah, they go after aphids. And praying mantis go after all sorts of things. Being up north that we are up here, I’ve seen way more pests than I’ve ever seen living in Detroit.

Chuck Gaidica:
Really?

Sue Hudnut:
Yeah. We had an invasion last year of a bug called a rose chafer.

Chuck Gaidica:
Never heard of it.

Sue Hudnut:
Neither had I. They look like little Japanese beetles, but they come out for two weeks in the very beginning of June, and they just invaded my garden.

Chuck Gaidica:
Oh. So they eat everything?

Sue Hudnut:
Everything. Oh my gosh. I was devastated. The only way to kill them, because birds won’t eat them because they’re toxic, is to pick them off the plant and throw them in a bucket of soapy water. And that’s one thing that you can do, is also go out in your garden and take a look. And if you do see some weird-looking bugs, you can Google, number one, what they are, because you don’t want to kill beneficial insects, but go out there with a bucket of soapy water and just pick them off and put them in that water. That’ll kill them.

Chuck Gaidica:
And aren’t there some good soaps that you can spray on certain plants? I mean, I know you have to do a little homework again, but you don’t want to be getting into all kinds of pesticides when you’re trying to eat this stuff.

Sue Hudnut:
Right. And I do not recommend pesticides, and that’s why picking them off with your hands… I mean, organic gardening, you wonder why the price is so high, and there’s a lot more work involved. But you got to pick those guys off and just stay on top of it.

Chuck Gaidica:
Well, listen, as we wrap this up, give us, of all the things we’ve talked about, and I don’t know if you want to step us through from beginning to end as we get into spring here now, talk about the takeaway for the audience. Encourage all of us that we can really do this, but give us a few points again. Go over what you talk, from planning on up.

Sue Hudnut:
Well, the three most important things, sun, soil, and water. You want to make sure that you have a good understanding of that, a written plan, or in your head at least, what do I want to plant? What am I going to plant? And then mulching, having a compost pile, and having time and commitment to give to it. And I think one way to get really excited about vegetables is if you’re walking in the grocery store and you see, ah, my green zucchini. They’re so boring. That’s all I see all the time. And then you can order, and they’re usually free from all the different seed companies. And I’ll say, Baker Airline seeds, Johnny’s organic seeds, and there’s a bunch of other ones out there. But if you go to their websites and sign up, they’ll send you a free catalog, and the catalogs are just filled with the different kinds of vegetables, different varieties that you can grow, and that gets you really jazzed up.

Chuck Gaidica:
Well, my sister and brother-in-law, they’re in Livonia, and I want to encourage everybody. If you’re in an urban setting, do not make the assumption that there’s nowhere for you to go, and I mean whether it’s in a big city or if you’re in the suburbs. Because in Livonia, there’s a shared area where as a resident, you can get a plot. It’s very inexpensive. But they started growing heirloom tomatoes. Oh my gosh. A real difference in taste and flavor. Really great stuff.

Sue Hudnut:
Absolutely. And there’s just so many different varieties that we don’t see in the grocery store. We just don’t see it. You got to go either to the farmers market or do it yourself. And I think doing it yourself is just… Boy, I get real jazzed up on that.

Chuck Gaidica:
Well, we’re so glad you are, and we can’t thank you enough for being with us. Lots of good stuff as we kick into spring, and we hope your garden… Watch that pest. What is it again?

Sue Hudnut:
It’s a rose chafer.

Chuck Gaidica:
It sounds so pretty, though. I mean, it sounds like it would be your buddy.

Sue Hudnut:
They aren’t.

Chuck Gaidica:
Yeah. Yeah. Well, Sue Hudnut has been with us. She’s president of the Master Gardner’s Association of Northwest Michigan. Sue, good to talk to you. Thank you so much.

Sue Hudnut:
Great talking to you, Chuck. Thank you.

Chuck Gaidica:
Hey, we want to thank you, too, for listening to A Healthier Michigan Podcast, brought to you by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. If you like our show, you want to know more, check us out at ahealthiermichigan.org/podcast, or you can leave us a reviewer rating on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher. And to get new episodes, old episodes on your smartphone or tablet, be sure to subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app. And don’t forget, if you have a lot of produce this season, we’re all here waiting. We’re all your friends. I’m Chuck Gaidica. Be well.