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Ask a master gardener

Dear Master Gardener:

Q: I have recently planted some shrubs and would like to mulch them with some of my many white pine needles. My wife, however, says that pine needles will make the soil acidic and I shouldn’t use them. Is she right? If so, what should I use?

A: It is a long-standing myth that pine needles acidify soil. University tests show that there is little, if any, acidifying of soil from pine needles. Pines thrive in acidic soil but do not significantly acidify it themselves. Go ahead and mulch with them. Pine needles are plentiful and free in Crow Wing County. Other mulch options are wood chips, bark chips, shredded wood chips, cocoa bean hulls (which emit a mild and delicious chocolate aroma), wild rice hulls and many others. Mulch has many benefits. It conserves moisture in the root zone of plants, prevents weed growth, stabilizes soil temperatures, prevents the spread of soil-borne diseases, increases the fertility of soil as it decomposes, and gives a tidy appearance. In the winter mulch does not prevent the soil from freezing but it minimizes the heaving up of plant crowns from alternate freezing and thawing. Rock and stone mulches are attractive but are not weed-free, as many assume. They tend to compact soil, and are extremely difficult to remove.

Dear Master Gardener:

Q: When I was a child, living in southern Minnesota, we had ground cherries. I never hear about them and was wondering if they grow up here?

A: Ground-cherries are in the genus Physalis, which includes Chinese-lantern, tomatillo, and ground-cherry, and are native to Central and South America. They belong to the solanaceae (nightshade) family and are related to tomatoes, peppers and eggplants. Ground cherry, also known as husk-tomato, has fuzzy leaves that are oval or heart-shaped, with yellow flowers that have five brown spots on the inside. The yellowish-colored fruit is the size and shape of a cherry tomato and lies inside a papery husk. The husk turns brown when the fruit is ripe, then the fruit drops from the plant. The fruit will keep for several weeks if you leave it in the husk. The fruit has a unique, pleasing flavor that has been described as a tomato-pineapple blend. Ground-cherries can be eaten raw or used in salads, desserts, jams, jellies, or as a cooked sauce.

Like tomatoes, you can start the seeds indoors then transplant the seedlings into your garden after the last spring freeze. They do well in ordinary well-drained garden soil in a sunny location. Place the plants two to three feet apart. The fruit matures about the same time as late tomatoes (mid to late summer).

Dear Master Gardener:

Q: I saw an interesting plant in a picture of a garden that was tall and looked like a big purple ball. What is it and will it grow in the Brainerd lakes area?

A: It sounds like you are describing an Allium, which is an ornamental onion. There are two Alliums that are hardy to zones 3 and 4, Allium aflatunense (Purple Allium) and Allium giganteum (Giant Allium). Allium giganteum grows to about 4-feet tall and has purple globes that are 6-inches across. ‘Globemaster’ is similar, but shorter with smaller flowers. The bulbs should be planted 12 inches apart in early fall to a depth that is two to three times its diameter. Amend the soil with organic matter and plant them in full sun. These Alliums bloom in June or July. This is a deer resistant plant!


• Water, water, water. Lawns need one inch of water a week. Measure water while your sprinkler is running by putting a tin can (like a tuna can) on the ground within the area being sprinkled. Watering heavily once a week does more good than several shallow or light waterings.

• Mid-August to mid-September is the optimal time to plant grass seed in thin lawns. Scratch the surface with a heavy rake so seeds will make good soil contact. Apply some starter fertilizer and — unlike the advice above for watering healthy lawns — water frequently and lightly. Continue to mow as needed.

• Yellow jacket wasps are numerous in August and are attracted to sweet, ripe and rotting food. Be watchful of cans and glasses of beverages, which may harbor yellow jackets you don’t see or expect.

• If you haven’t done so already, mulch flowers and vegetables now.

• Fertilize roses a final time this month.

• Watch for sphinx moths in the early evening. They look very much like hummingbirds. They are about the same size, also flap their wings rapidly and hover, and they suck nectar from impatiens and other flowers with their long proboscises.

Denton (Denny) Newman Jr.
I've worked at the Brainerd Dispatch with various duties since Dec. 7, 1983. Starting off as an Ad Designer and currently Director of Audience Development. The Dispatch has been an interesting and challenging place to work. I'm fortunate to have made many friends, both co-workers and customers.
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