Gardeners gather at gazebo
About a dozen hardy gardeners huddled under Ellery Park’s gazebo on a rainy Friday evening last week to listen to advice from Northern Plains nurseryman and author Eric Bergeson.
Bergeson, who lives in the aptly named town of Fertile, Minnesota, told the group the unique growing conditions found in the Northern Plains motivated him to write his book, “Successful Gardening on the Northern Prairie.”
The small audience ignored the steady patter of raindrops and occasionally laughed at Bergeson’s enthusiastic presentation.
Bergeson said the Northern Prairie has three challenges for gardeners: alkaline soil, a lack of organic matter in the soil, and a harsh climate.
“What we have, and you also have in Rugby, is alkaline soil. 96 percent of this country’s population lives on acid soil. So, do you think the national gardening media cares about us?” Bergeson asked with a smile.
The group shook their heads, and answered, “No!”
“HGTV doesn’t care about us,” Bergeson continued. “And they will tell you on their shows to lime the soil, because 96 percent of the people watching should lime their soil, because it’s too acid. But ours is too alkaline. There shouldn’t be a box of lime within 500 miles of here. But, I assure you at Wal-Mart, there’s plenty of them!”
The group laughed.
“What does alkalinity do?” Bergeson continued. “Our soil is good; it has plenty of nutrients: iron, magnesium, phosphate, the whole works, but when you have higher alkaline, those nutrients are chemically locked up and unavailable to the root.”
Bergeson recommended using a fertilizer commonly used in farming to lower the soil’s PH level and unlock the nutrients.
“You do that with a fertilizer that’s more available in rural towns in North Dakota than in big towns. That’s ammonium sulfate 20/0/0/20,” Bergeson explained.
“Sometimes only the first three appear on the bag. It’s nitrogen, sulfur, ammonium sulfate, and it’s at the fertilizer plant for farmers. They use it to mix with their sprays.”
Farmers in the group chuckled and nodded their heads.
“I’ve got it at home. My husband’s a farmer. I’ve got like six bags at home,” smiled a woman in the group.
To meet the challenge of North Dakota’s harsh winters and other climate features, Bergeson said gardeners should pay attention to the “hardiness zone” recommended for their trees or plants.
When another audience member shared a story about a tree’s failure to thrive, Bergeson nodded and responded, “Buyer beware!”
“Black walnut and sugar maples grow in this area,” he said.
However, faster-growing trees tend to be weaker, even though they provide shade in their early years, because of the extreme winter temperatures in Zone 3, which covers Rugby and other parts of North Dakota. Other parts of the state are in slightly warmer Zone 4.
Because bright sunshine reflecting on snow in early spring can cause sunburn on trees, Bergeson recommended painting trunks with white latex paint.
Bergeson said hardiness and soil type also limit the types of fruit that can grow successfully in the area.
Recommended fruit for the Pierce County area include honeyberries, strawberries and aronia berries.
“Most fruit trees should be apple,” Bergeson said. “Plum trees are next. Apricots and pears can be experimented with. Some guy in Grand Forks harvested one peach good for him,” Bergeson deadpanned. “He didn’t eat it; he just tells about it!”
“They’re reviving heirloom apple varieties,” he continued, “and they’re good.”
Bergeson praised crab apples as well. “The Chestnut Crab is the best-tasting apple you’ll ever have.”
“Third problem we have cold, we have alkalinity, and then we lack organic matter in our soil,” Bergeson noted.
Composting and using sedge peat grown in Northern Minnesota and part of North Dakota will help with that problem. Bergeson said the sedge peat contains layers of organic material several hundred years old, and he buys it from Dakota Peat of Grand Forks.
After a question and answer period, Bergeson sold t-shirts and autographed copies of his book. He said his book tour covers 50 cities in North Dakota, and he’s added parts of South Dakota to his tour. “I may add Montana to my tour, too; I’m totally surprised that they’re covered in my book,” he noted.
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