Ask the Master Gardener: Here's a few tips to make your chives thrive

For identifying poison ivy, it's best to remember the old adage: Leaves of 3, let it be.

Photo courtesy Metro Newspaper Service

Dear Master Gardener: How do I keep my chives healthy and productive all summer?

Answer: The chive plant is a member of the onion family. It thrives in full sun (6-8 hours) and well-drained soil. When there hasn’t been sufficient rain, water your plant deeply to make sure the soil doesn’t dry out around the root zone. A light mulch of chopped up leaves or grass clippings around the plant will help retain moisture. Plant it in soil that is rich in organic matter, which should provide enough nutrients. Over-fertilizing can be harmful to chives. As with many herbs, slower growth that is more compact leads to stronger flavors and healthier plants. Harvest chives by snipping leaves from the base of the plant. Its hollow leaves have a mild onion flavor and are commonly used in salads, dips, sauces and omelets. The light purple flowers bloom in June and are edible. Cut flower stalks off at the soil line when they have finished blooming to prevent the plant from forming seed and to keep it more productive. Chives are a perennial herb and should be divided every three to four years. Spring is the best time to divide them.

Garlic chives are a variety of chives which have a garlic flavor. Garlic chives have flat leaves and fragrant white flowers that usually bloom in July and August. They can be used like regular chives.

Dear Master Gardener: I think I have some poison ivy in my yard and have forgotten how to identify it. If it is poison ivy what is the best way to get rid of it?

Answer: Poison ivy (Toxidendron radicans) is a plant that is important to identify, so it can be avoided. It produces urushiol, an oily resin that can cause severe itching and blisters on your skin. The substance can stay on your clothes, tools, and pet’s fur and later be transferred to you. Wash items with detergent and hot water. Poison ivy is very widespread thanks to the birds and deer that eat the berries and leave the seeds throughout the area in their feces. Poison ivy can be distinguished from other plants by its leaves, which are always divided into three leaflets. As the old saying goes, “Leaves of three, let it be.” The leaves each consist of three leaflets, which alternate on the stem. Each leaflet is oval-shaped, pointed at the tip and tapered at the base. The middle leaflet has a longer leaf stem than the two side ones. Leaflets may be slightly lobed or coarsely toothed. The leaves' surfaces may be smooth or hairy, glossy or dull, and can vary in color from yellowish-green and green to reddish-green. In the spring young poison ivy plants often start out with reddish leaves. Poison-ivy fruits, which develop in fall, are small white berries with sunken ribs. It is not always easy to identify poison ivy because it looks similar to several common backyard plants including Engelmann Ivy (Virginia creeper) and boxelder.


Photo courtesy Metro Newspaper Service

The best way to control poison ivy is with an herbicide containing triclopyr, a woody brush-killer. It should be applied directly to the leaves of the poison-ivy, not soaked into the ground. When used according to directions, this herbicide should not injure established grasses, only broad-leafed plants. Apply the herbicide in the spring when the new leaves are fully expanded and the plant is growing actively. Temperatures should be in the 60° to 85°F range. Avoid windy days when droplets might drift onto the foliage of nearby trees, shrubbery or garden plants. This is a tough plant to kill, so you may have to spray more than once. Wait two weeks or more between applications, and repeat only if weather permits. Some resprouting might occur several months later. Watch the area for at least a year and repeat the treatment as needed. As with any garden chemical, read and follow label directions carefully each and every time you use it. Be very careful cutting down poison-ivy because all parts of the plant are poisonous; even dead plants are poisonous. Never burn poison ivy as the smoke contains the oil from the plant and can carry toxins causing irritation to the lungs, nasal passages, skin and eyes.

Dear Master Gardener: My lawn looks bad – matted, thin, anemic, bumpy, riddled with dead patches. What can I do to renovate my lawn?

Answer: Figuring out why your lawn is not doing well before renovating it could save you time and money. You may just need to make some changes in basic lawn care practices in order to return your lawn to good health. The best time to over-seed and renovate a lawn is from mid-August to mid-September. The second-best time is spring when the lawn is beginning to turn green and grow. The University of Minnesota Extension recommends the following basic steps for lawn renovation:

  1. Conduct a soil test. Soil analysis instructions can be found at:

  2. Weed control. Use a broadleaf herbicide if the weeds are primarily non-grasses. Always follow the pesticide label directions attached to the pesticide container you are using. Remember, the label is the law.

  3. Provide adequate soil moisture. Wet soil to a depth of six to eight inches, then allow the surface to dry until steps 4-9 can be done. This may take one to two days.

  4. Mow existing lawn very short, which will allow good sunlight levels to reach the soil and encourage faster establishment of new seedlings. If you are only removing excess thatch, then the grass does not have to be cut as short as when you are over-seeding.

  5. Remove thatch by vigorous hand raking, which is effective for small patches of grass with little vegetation remaining.

  6. Fertilize. It is best to fertilize your lawn in early August through mid-October, but it is also okay to do it May through late June. Never fertilize in hot mid-summer months because it stresses the grass and can cause irreversible damage to your lawn. If you want to use a natural fertilizer rather than a chemical fertilizer your options are: Milorganite, Ringer, Sustane, manure, grass clippings, phosphate rock, or potash (a form of potassium).

  7. Seed with a mix recommended for the area you are seeding (sun or shady mix). Hand seeding can be used for small areas. Mix one-part seed with four parts of a natural organic fertilizer – this is called “bulking-up” and makes small amounts of seed easier to distribute uniformly.

  8. Irrigate. Water lightly and often enough to keep the soil surface slightly damp. Do not allow the soil surface to become too dry or too wet. Continue to keep the area moist until all varieties have germinated - Kentucky bluegrass can take two to three weeks to germinate.

  9. Mow again. Mow a shorter height until the seedlings are the same height as the existing grasses. This will ensure that enough sunlight reaches the new seedlings.

You may get your garden questions answered by calling the new Master Gardener Help Line at 218-824-1068 and leaving a message. A Master Gardener will return your call. Or, emailing me at and I will answer you in the column if space allows.
University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardeners are trained and certified volunteers for the University of Minnesota Extension. Information given in this column is based on university research.

Photo courtesy Metro Newspaper Service

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