This Mother’s Day, give Mom the gift of thousands of flowers. A ticket to one of Kansas City’s many spring garden tours can be a fun and informative way to spend the day together. It also heralds that winter is over, and we are ready to get outside and enjoy Mother Nature’s beauty.
But keep in mind that beauty isn’t skin deep in the world of gardening. No matter what your design or style, you need healthy soil. And tapping the wisdom of fellow gardeners during tours is a great way to debunk soil myths and learn new planting techniques.
You and Mom can also hear about the trials and triumphs of their particular spaces, pick their brains for tried-and-true plants and find out where their favorite nurseries are located. Janine Bensman, of Overland Park, spoke with master gardeners during a tour in 2002. She was so inspired by their passion and knowledge that she became a master gardener in 2005. A self-proclaimed “crazy butterfly lady,” Bensman favors a garden with nectar-rich plants that host native wildlife. She created one of the gardens on this year’s Johnson County Extension Master Gardener Garden Tour.
Garden tours are a great, energizing source of beauty, according to Jayne Stone, of Olathe, another host on the master gardener tour.
“One can be rejuvenated or inspired to do things in life when you have been uplifted in the garden,” Stone said. “Even if you think you can never afford to do what someone else has done, you can imagine how to create something similar on your own budget.” While their personal garden styles are drastically different, both Bensman and Stone started with primarily clay garden soil. Both add compost on a yearly basis to ensure that their plants thrive. Stone prefers using natural soil amendments.
“I try to be resourceful with using what Mother Nature has provided to enrich the earth,” she said. Brooke Salvaggio, founder and owner of the Badseed Market in the Crossroads Arts District, uses only compost to fertilize crops at her Urbavore farm, one of the nations largest, most diversified urban farmsteads. “We cover our seeds with compost instead of soil, and we put several handfuls of compost in every single planting hole,” Salvaggio said. “It’s a lot of extra work, but it pays off.” As the garden grows from year to year, adding compost to feed the soil will keep it from being depleted of essential plant nutrients. Maintaining a balanced soil with compost is an easy and beneficial step in the gardening process and is the not-so-secret element in creating a garden worthy of touring. When it comes to fertilizing, you can go only so far with man-made chemicals. They’re the equivalent of eating a candy bar when you need an energy boost. “Instead of adding synthetic fertilizer, with compost we are making an ecosystem with usable food for the plant,” says Kevin Anderson, vice president/owner of Missouri Organic.
He believes that creating a beneficial relationship between the plant, the naturally occurring nutrients and soil microbes is key. Anderson warns against “immediate gratification” and suggests that if you build up your ecosystem correctly you will have fewer problems down the road. Compost fits perfectly into this scenario by slowly releasing what plants need over a longer period of time. Ward Upham, a Kansas State University research and Extension associate, agrees. “Even just a light layer of compost could improve your turf grass naturally. The best weed control for turf grass is a good thick lawn,” Upham says. It puts the focus on strengthening the plants that you want instead of only eradicating weeds. The best time of year to add compost is in the fall.
Upham and Manjula Nathan, Extension associate professor at the University of Missouri, note that it gives the organic material all winter to break down and the nutrients naturally and slowly release into your garden.
Incorporating compost to improve soil structure “helps the roots explore a larger volume of soil, and it also improves soil workability,” Nathan said. For vegetable enthusiasts, gardeners like Salvaggio use a no-till method to create a balanced ecosystem. She lays down a heavy layer of straw mulch to kill existing sod in the garden where she wants to plant. As the under-layer of sod dies, the worms, bacteria and fungi all work together to create the optimal conditions for plant growth. After the process is started, Salvaggio moves the heavy mulch and adds compost in the hole where each plant will grow. It is important to keep much of the mulch, as it suppresses weeds and retains soil moisture.
“The soil quality further improves with time, giving you healthier plants and bigger yields each season,” she said.
The great thing about compost is that everyone can afford it. Most compost piles, tumblers or bins are filled with the household yard waste and kitchen scraps. It’s one of the easiest, hands-on ways to recycle.
Some communities still frown on compost piles in yards. As an alternative, Bensman’s community collects the yard waste and takes it to a large compost facility. When it is time to add compost to the garden, Bensman gets her compost from an outside source. If you live in a community like hers or don’t have the ability to create your own compost, then consider one of the local alternatives here in Kansas City. Programs like Salvaggio’s Urbavore farm and Anderson’s Missouri Organic accept household compost. Some also will deliver it to your door. No matter where you live in Kansas City, fresh compost will improve your chances of growing a lush garden and will keep your soil from getting as hard as a brick when the weather turns hot. So if you really want your garden to be the envy of the neighborhood, take a cue from the experts and start from the ground up.
2014 spring garden tours
These fundraisers offer an opportunity for local groups to educate the community and show the horticultural heights that can be achieved in a Kansas City garden.
Johnson County Extension Master Gardener Public Garden Tour
Six gardens will be open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. May 16-17; $15. 913-715-7000; Johnson.KSU.edu
Lawrence Food Garden Tour
Sixteen gardens on a self-guided tour will be open 9 a.m.-noon and 5-8 p.m. June 7; free. On Facebook or send email to LawrenceFoodGardenTour@gmail.com
The Wornall/Majors House Museums Garden Tour
Seven gardens, including the one at the Wornall House, will be open 9 a.m.-4 p.m. June 7; $25 in advance; $30 after June 1. 816-444-1858; WornallHouse.org
Lee’s Summit Garden Walk
Gardens in downtown neighborhoods will be open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. June 14; $5. 816-246-6598; DowntownLS.org
Cottage Gardens of Weston
Gardens will be open 9 a.m.-4 p.m. June 20-21; $10 in advance; $12 day of tour. 816-640-2300; CottageGardenersWeston.com
Kansas City Water Garden Society Tour
Gardens will be open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. June 28-29; $10. KCWaterGardens.com or send email to email@example.com.