Dear Master Gardener: I cannot keep up with watering everything in this heat and drought! Is it OK to let my lawn stay brown or am I causing irreparable damage?

Answer: The past few weeks have brought record-breaking temperatures above 90 degrees along with no rain. Kentucky bluegrass starts turning brown after about seven days without water, and goes into dormancy to survive the drought. Don’t worry — the base and roots of the grass are still alive and will green up when it rains again. Lawns with a lot of tall fescue and fine fescue stay greener longer. To minimize damage to your lawn limit traffic (foot, lawnmower, equipment), do not apply fertilizer, and postpone mowing until moisture returns.

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Dear Master Gardener: I would like to purchase a birdbath for my garden and was wondering if some are better than others. Should placement be a consideration?

Answer: Providing water for birds can improve the quality of your backyard bird habitat and give you an excellent opportunity for bird-watching. Not only do birds need water to survive, they also use water for bathing, cleaning their feathers and removing parasites. The typical birdbath sold in lawn and garden shops (picture a concrete basin mounted on a pedestal) make nice lawn ornaments, but are not necessarily what is best for most birds. First, they tend to be too deep. Second, they can be hard to clean. Third, they can crack if left out during the winter.

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When you choose a birdbath, look for one that can be cleaned easily and won’t break if the water freezes. A birdbath with a gentle slope allows birds to wade into the water. If you want to make your own, you can use a garbage can lid, saucer-style sled, or even an old frying pan. The goal is to try to imitate a natural puddle as much as possible. Birds seem to prefer baths at ground level; however, if there are cats around, raise the bath 2-3 feet from the ground. To give birds footing, place some flat rocks in the bottom of the bath. You could place a few branches or stones so birds can stand on them and drink without getting wet (especially in the winter). The best place to put your birdbath is in the shade near trees or shrubs. The shade will keep the water fresh longer and slow down evaporation. The trees or shrubs will provide nearby cover from predators. To really make your birdbath attractive to birds and prevent mosquito breeding, provide moving water. You can purchase products that drip or spray water into a birdbath. Keeping your birdbath full of clean water at all times is the key to attracting a large number of birds to your yard. It is important to clean it every few days and clean it immediately if you see algae starting to form. A special heater can be added to provide open water for the birds all winter long.

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Dear Master Gardener: Is rhubarb a native plant? Should I fertilize it this month?

Answer: All plants, of course, are native somewhere. In the case of rhubarb (Rheum rhaponticum), it is native to Russia and named after the river Rha, today known as the Volga. It came to America with the British in the 17th century and was often referred to as “pie plant” because that was its most frequent use.

Although it can be grown from seed, most people buy rhubarb already started, either from a nursery or as a division from a friend’s existing plant. The best time to plant it is in early spring. Because it is a large, spreading plant, it needs space, at least a 3-foot square of rich, well-drained soil in full sun. Its rhizomatous root gets large and deep, so a hole 2 feet deep should be prepared for it. Do not plant it too deep; the crown should be just level with the soil.

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Rhubarb is a heavy feeder and should be fertilized in early spring and again in midsummer. Keep it well-watered. If white flower stalks appear, remove them promptly so that they don’t deplete the plant’s vigor. There are few insect or disease problems.

Although rhubarb is very tart, it is used largely in sweet things such as pies, cakes, sauces, muffins, and jams. Cultivars with red stalks are most popular because of their color while the greener stalks are rather lackluster. The red also tend to be sweeter. To harvest the stalks, hold them firmly, pull and twist. Do not use a knife. Remove the leaves promptly to avoid wilting of the stalk. The leaves are poisonous — high in concentration of oxalic acid. When ingested, the leaves cause cramping, nausea and even death. The stalks also contain oxalic acid, but in a lower concentration, and are harmless to most people, the exception being those with gout, kidney disorders and rheumatoid arthritis. A myth persists that rhubarb stalks also become lethal after midsummer, which is not true. They can be used all summer long but most people stop using rhubarb after early July both because there are then many other fruits available and to let the plant store up energy for the next year.

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Dear Master Gardener: One of my neighbors planted some honeyberries. Are they edible and hardy here?

Answer: Honeyberry plants (Lonicera caerulea) are a deciduous shrub in the honeysuckle family and are extremely cold hardy, with some being hardy to USDA Zone 2 (-50°F). They are also known as Haskap. These plants are very long-lived, easy to grow and quite adaptable. You will usually get honeyberries the first year you plant your shrub and will be at full production by the third year. A mature plant can produce up to 7 or 8 pounds of fruit each year. Honeyberry plants produce clusters of unique, blue, elongated berries that have high levels of antioxidants and vitamins with a sweet flavor that tastes similar to blueberries. The berries are delicious eaten fresh (some cultivars are tastier than others) or they can be used to make jam or jelly.

Unlike blueberries, which can be difficult to grow due to pH requirements, honeyberries thrive in almost all soils. Their root system is not deep, so it is important to pay attention to moisture. Water new plants weekly the first year and give mature plants extra water during fruiting. Honeyberries, because of their strong growth habit, are heavy feeders. They need to be fed twice annually, early spring and after fruiting with a well-balanced 10–10–10 fertilizer. Prune after fruiting is over to encourage new growth. They perform best in full sun. Honeyberries require cross-pollination between different, unrelated varieties that flower at the same time. Pollination is achieved by insects moving pollen from flower to flower.

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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 umnmastergardener@gmail.com 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.