Ask the Master Gardener: Resurgence in home gardening leads to demand on seeds

There may be a shortage of some varieties of seed this year, but there will be others from which to choose. If favored varieties are sold out in catalogs, check and support local stores that are selling seeds.

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A resurgence in home gardening and demand for seeds has led to an increased demand for seeds. Photo by Jennifer Knutson

Dear Master Gardener: I’ve been looking at seed catalogs and noticed that many varieties are already sold out. Is there really a seed shortage or is it just hype?

Answer: Several factors come into play regarding the “sold out” messages. With the onset of COVID-19 people became homebound and worried about food shortages, so there was a resurgence in home gardening and consequently a big demand for seeds. Burpee seed company reported they sold more seeds last March than at any time in their 144-year history. Seed companies buy from farmers who specifically grow crops for seed but orders are placed far in advance and farmers don’t have enough warning to produce more seed for the coming year. In addition, seed companies buy seeds in bulk, then package them into smaller packets, but with COVID-19 and workplace safety rules, the process has slowed down and made it more difficult to keep up with orders.

Related: Ask the Master Gardener: Flying squirrels are a common nighttime visitor There are two kinds of flying squirrels found in Minnesota, the southern and northern. Here in central Minnesota the habitats overlap.
Even without a demand for seed there can be shortages of specific varieties because seed is grown on farms where the plants are exposed to insects, disease, hail, floods and drought. If a grower produces a certain variety of vegetable and loses a large portion of the crop to a natural occurrence, there may be a shortage of that variety the following year. Don’t worry — there may be a shortage of some varieties this year, but there will be others from which to choose. If some of your favorite varieties are sold out in the catalogs, check (and support) local stores that are selling seeds.

Dear Master Gardener: What is the difference between a cantaloupe and a muskmelon?

Answer: A true cantaloupe is not grown in the United States. True cantaloupes grow in Europe and have a rind that is smooth and lumpy, whereas the muskmelon grown here has a webbed rind. True cantaloupes are usually smaller than muskmelons. The melon many of us call “cantaloupe” and grow in our gardens is actually muskmelon.


Related: Ask the Master Gardener: Protect your garden by rotating your crops It is important to avoid having plants of the same family in the same location in your garden for three or four years to avoid the buildup of shared pests.
Dear Master Gardener: I would like to grow asparagus this year. Should I buy seed or crowns? What is the best variety for Minnesota?

Answer: Asparagus is a perennial vegetable that will live from 12-15 years. You can either start it from seed or from 1 to 2-year-old crowns. Starting plants from seed requires an extra year before harvest. Seed may be started now in peat pots, then the seedlings transplanted in June. Crowns are usually shipped and planted in April or May. The University of Minnesota usually recommends ordering crowns rather than seeds because crowns establish much faster and have a higher success rate. The U of M recommends Millennium, a high yielding, long-lived, cold hardy asparagus variety that has shown great results in Minnesota trials. Other recommended varieties include Walker Deluxe (hybrid), Eclipse (hybrid), Mary Washington, Martha Washington, and Purple Passion. Mary Washington, Martha Washington, and Purple Passion are open-pollinated and widely available, but have lower yields and a less consistent spear size than the hybrids. It’s important to remember that asparagus spears should not be harvested the first season after crowns are set and harvested lightly the second season. Plants harvested too heavily too soon often become weak and spindly and the crowns may never recover.

Related: Ask the master gardener: Winter sowing and growing in small spaces Tips for creating your own mini-greenhouses using milk jugs, potting soil, and setting it in the snow with this relatively new alternative to starting seeds under lights.
Dear Master Gardener: What kind of nut trees can we grow in northern Minnesota? Can we grow black walnuts?

Answer: Hazelnuts are hardy in northern Minnesota (zone 3). The hazelnuts you find in the can of mixed nuts at the grocery store are European hazelnuts and do not grow in Minnesota. In fact, most of the commercial hazelnuts grown for world consumption come from Turkey. Most of the U.S. commercial hazelnut crops are grown in Oregon. There are two species of hazelnuts native to Minnesota, the American hazelnut and beaked hazelnut. They are multi-stemmed bushes, not trees, and the pea-size hazelnuts from them are edible and tasty.

There has been a growing interest in hazelnut production, so hazelnut breeders have been crossing native and European hazelnuts trying to combine the cold hardiness and disease resistance of the American species with the better qualities of the European species.

The black walnut tree, prized for its wood as well as its nuts, is hardy to zone 4. The northern edge of the black walnut’s natural range is the Twin Cities, but they can be found farther north.

Related: Ask the Master Gardener: There are positives and negatives to winter bird feeding Dangers for birds eating from feeders in the winter include contaminated food, injury or disease.
Dear Master Gardener: A friend said he picks and eats buffaloberries. I’ve never heard of them. What are they?

Answer: The silver buffaloberry (Shepherdia argentea) is a native shrub noted for its silvery foliage and bright red fruit which matures in fall. It is dioecious, meaning you need a male and female plant in order to get fruit. Although the shrub has berry in its name, the fruit is not actually a berry but a stone fruit. The ripe fruits are edible, but quite sour. It is recommended to eat the fruit in moderation because the berries contain saponin and eating too many of them may give a person diarrhea.


Dear Master Gardener: What causes green skin on potatoes? If a potato has a lot of green on it can you still eat it?

Answer: If potatoes are exposed to light, it can cause the tissue just below the skin to turn green. The green parts of the potato taste bitter and are mildly toxic due to the solanine compound. It is safe to eat the potato as long as you peel or slice off the green tissue before cooking. In addition, cooking a potato will break down most of the solanine in it.

Related: Ask the Master Gardener: Aloe vera plant grown indoors offers surprises Plant also features an aloe baby -- offsets or pups and produced around the base of the mature plant.

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.
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