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University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota


April 17, 2012

Gardeing Q&A-300

Julie Weisenhorn, director of Extension’s Master Gardener Program.

By Adam Overland (

It has been an early spring, but that doesn’t mean that it’s time to start transplanting seedlings to your garden. But if you haven’t begun growing those seedlings inside yet, you can and should get going. There’s a frost-free growing season in Minnesota of about 140 days—give or take a few as you move north or south—and whatever challenges you may encounter, through the heat, the bugs, and the chilly days, U of M Extension has the answer.

Q&A with Julie Weisenhorn, director of Extension's Master Gardener Program 

Spring got off to an early start, and lately, seems to have sprung back. When is it safe to start planting?
Well, you really have to consider that we live in Minnesota, we have fluctuating temperatures, and we can get a frost or even snow as late as May. Our frost-free date in the Twin Cities area is around the third week of May, and a little later as you go north, so folks should wait until then to plant warm-season crops like tomatoes and peppers. You can plant things like radishes, lettuce, kale, and peas now, but if you put tomato plants out right now, they may have some cold damage. 

What should I be doing now?
You can do cleanup in your yard. Remove debris to eliminate places that could harbor insects. Prune shrubs. We're going into fairly drought-like conditions, so watering trees and shrubs right now is important. 

Spring Plant Sale!
Your garden may not look like the grounds of the U's Landscape Arboretum right away, but keep trying. You can visit the Arb for inspiration, and no better time to do that than at the 44th annual Auxiliary Spring Plant Sale on Mother’s Day weekend, May 12–13. Browse among thousands of unique plants, hard-to-find varieties, and U of M introductions.

What advice would you give to a new gardener, someone just getting started or considering a garden?
If you're just getting started, or consider yourself a brown thumb, do what we call a "site analysis." In other words, just get a cold drink and spend an afternoon in your yard, map the sunlight and the shade. Wherever you decide to put your garden, get a soil test done at the U's soil testing lab. It's only $15 and you'll learn so much about your soil—how much nitrogen you might need to add, how much organic material your soil contains... A soil test is especially important if you're establishing a garden in an area that was once something else, such as a lawn.

And if I am new to gardening, what should I plant that is most likely to be successful, to keep me gardening again next year?
Herbs are really great plants for beginning gardeners because they not only look interesting—they have many kinds of leaves and different colors—but they also have this amazing fragrance—lavender, sage, and basil—so that even if that's all you have, you still get not only a beautiful looking plant, but it smells great and you get to eat it. And they're very pest resistant, too. They have a lot of essential oils in them and insects pretty much leave them alone. 

Become a Master Gardener
In 2011, Extension’s more than 2,200 active Master Gardeners gave 131,000 hours of horticulture education to their communities, benefiting schools, community gardens, youth programs, farmers markets, and more. Learn how to become a master gardener.

I don't have a yard, so what's an option for me?
Community gardens are everywhere, and Extension Master Gardeners have a lot of experience volunteering in those gardens. They're there to help advise, and teach best proven methods in gardening based on University research. And if you don't have a local community garden, start one. Extension works with Gardening Matters—an organization that helps to start and sustain community gardens, including offering grant money for plants, tools, compost, and more. 

If my garden gets into trouble this summer, what should I do?
Call us. Consumer horticulture is part of Extension's tradition—we have hotlines all over the state. We talk to people on the phone and face-to-face. We also have an "Ask a master gardener" tool online. Just type in your question, and a Master Gardener will research it and get back to you.

Tags: College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, Extension, University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum

Related Links

Tours, classes, and workshops

Gardening for the city: SULIS: Sustainable Urban Landscape Information series

Julie Weisenhorn's gardening blog, "Over the backyard fence"