MSU Extension Service Resource For Lawn, Garden, Vegetables, Yard, Fertilize Lawn and Related Links

  • For hardy lawns, mow first, fertilize later
  • Mulch Matters By Robert Gough
  • Plant shrub roses for colorful blooms and beautiful foliage
  • Home Composting
  • Why and how to compost at home - Building Bins and Boxes for Yard Waste Compost
  • Growing Raspberries in Montana Gardens
  • Growing Tomatoes in Montana
  • Successful Lawns
  • Keep the bloom, but lose the crab apples
  • Spring Gardening Tips
  • Spring follows its own schedule, not ours

    Robert Gough, PhD, Montana State University Extension Horticulture Specialist

    1. As I told the MG classes a week or so ago, the first question on spring bulbs coming up so early will be coming in this week. It did. In fact, I got one each from Great Falls and Livingston. People are panicking. Crocus, tulips, and narcissus are up now, especially on the south side of buildings. In fact, they were up a month or so ago, but lay beneath the snow and so out of sight and mind. People believe they will be hurt by subsequent cold and want to mulch them or otherwise protect them. Don't worry about it. The plants will be fine. If it gets extremely cold they may be burned back a bit, but they won't be killed.
    2. Questions continue to come in on the winter scorch problems with the pines. This seems to show mostly on Ponderosa pine, but I have seen it on Scotch and Austrian Black pines as well. About every 5 or 6 years we get a real scorch problem through combinations of factors I mentioned in my last email. Again, there is nothing you can do about it now. Expect even more damage to show up as the temperatures warm, but remember that damage was already done last winter (it just hasn't shown up yet). If the needles remain flexible they may green up again in spring; if they are brittle they're probably gone. DO NOT cut out limbs you think are dead until the Fourth of July. They may not be dead and may take much of June to green up. You've wasted no time…if they are dead, they'll be dead in July; if they are not, they'll be green. Be sure you water the plants sufficiently through the spring and summer and pay close attention to fall watering.
    3. Time to prune your trees and summer flowering shrubs. The rule of thumb is to prune in early spring before the buds begin to swell but after the danger of hard freezes has passed. There are a few exceptions, but I wouldn't worry about them. Pruning paint is not usually required over the wound.
    4. If you follow a high maintenance lawn fertilization regime (5# actual N/1000 sq. ft/yr) put on the first application (1 # / 1000 sq. ft) as soon as the ground thaws and the grass begins to show some green color. A high N fertilizer will do the trick.
    5. Pull winter mulch from your strawberries after severe cold has passed. Ditto for the rhubarb. Check the beds every few days once the weather warms and pull the mulch before the new growth etiolates.
    6. Start crucifer transplants about 7-8 weeks before you will set them to the garden; tomato transplants about 8-9 weeks; peppers 8-10 weeks; cucurbits about 4 weeks.
  • How to make that Christmas cactus bloom
  • Are your roses ready for winter?
  • Plant bulbs now for a splash of spring color
  • For ripe garden goodies, hold the H20
  • Herbs for Montana Gardens
  • Manure is a great soil amendment
  • Watering: The secret's in the soil
  • Grazing the Garden: Asparagus
  • Deck gardeners, keep it cool
  • Show purslane no pity
  • Crop rotation: It's not just for farmers
  • A bright idea to perk up houseplants
  • Minor trees and shrubs can yield tasty fruit
  • Trash the ashes
  • Only the pluckiest survive: Apple varieties in Montana
  • Fall tree and shrub planting
  • After the leaves drop: Tips to tuck in your garden for winter
  • Recycling your geranium
  • Seed Savers: Who were the parents?
  • The Truth About Green Taters
  • Keeping an eye on iris
  • When Peonies Won't Pop

    Robert Gough, Montana State University Extension Horticulture Specialist

    What's native to China and Tibet, does well in our dry climate and heavy alkaline soils, but sometimes refuses to bloom? The peony.

    Peonies need lots of nutrients to bloom profusely. Plant the flowers away from the root zone of other plants and top-dress with compost in the fall.

    Be sure your plants are in full sunlight.

    Overcrowding is a common cause of small flower size. Transplant your peonies every few years in the fall, when their foliage has died down but before cold weather sets in. These plants will not bloom the following spring, but will be in their glory the third spring. Prepare new beds deeply with plenty of organic matter. Divide the old crowns so that each piece has four or five buds. Set the crown pieces so the buds are within an inch or so of the soil surface. Planting too deeply will encourage all shoots and no flowers.

    If your plant still isn't blooming, excess nitrogen could be the culprit, forcing shoot growth instead of flowers. In early spring, use a fertilizer high in phosphorus and potassium and low in nitrogen to correct the problem. And leave the ants alone! They're just gathering the sticky syrup excreted by healthy peony buds.

    Want to know more about peonies? Contact your local MSU Extension office at 538-3919 or e-mail

  • Using old saws for lawn care: Doctor Bob's Northern Gardening Tips

    If you have a hard time remembering when and how often to fertilize or water, sometimes an "old saw" (an old saying) comes in handy.

    When do you fertilize? Wait until you mow twice, then fertilize. The reason for this old saw is that if you fertilize too early, all the nitrogen goes into top growth. You'll be mowing like crazy, but it won't be of much benefit to root development. A normal application rate for Montana is to apply 1 lb. of nitrogen per 1000 square feet, three times a year, around Memorial Day, Labor Day and Columbus Day.

    When do you water? Even if the grass is brown, it won't do much good to water it until the ground is thawed and the soil temperature is above 45 degrees. Once the roots are growing, they can pull up water. Encourage deep root growth by using this old saw: Water deeply and less frequently. Don't sprinkle for five minutes every night. Moisten the root zone down to 6 inches deep. To measure this, punch a hole in the ground and stick your finger in. The soil will feel cool if it's moist. A rule of thumb is to apply an inch of water per week. Setting a tuna can on your lawn will help you get an idea how long to water. When the tuna can is full, you're done.

  • Chokecherry Poisoning

    by Dr Bob Gough

    Every year we get a few calls regarding chokecherry poisoning-its cause, symptoms, etc. I thought it appropriate to get out ahead of the calls this year, so am providing the following information for your use. Although chokecherry is usually the culprit, Prunus demissa (Western Chokecherry), Prunus pennsylvanica (Pin Cherry), and Prunus serotina (Wild black cherry), have similar properties and can also become involved in poisoning.

    The consumption of the leaves, seeds, and shoots of the chokecherry (Prunus virginiana) has caused mortality in livestock and children. The toxic qualities of the chokecherry were first described in 1847.

    The inner bark, buds, flowers, seeds, leaves, suckers, and young shoots (particularly vigorous, young shoots) contain the cyanogenic glycoside prunasin which, during digestion in the stomach, yields hydrocyanic (prussic) acid. This can result in cyanide poisoning. Prunasin levels are highest in spring and summer and the leaves become relatively non-toxic when the fruit mature.

    Symptoms of poisoning occur from less than 30 mins. to 3 or 4 hours following ingestion of the tissue. These include rapid breathing and gasping, salivation, slowed pulse, dilated pupils, staggering and convulsions, protruding tongue, rolling eyes, cyanosis and finally, loss of consciousness. The blood becomes cherry red and cause of death is respiratory failure. Death often occurs within an hour of consumption.

    Most livestock avoid eating chokecherry leaves but may do so when deprived of other forage sources. The degree of poisoning varies with the amount of leaves or fruit ingested, the season, size and kind of animal, and the ability of the animal to detoxify hydrocyanic acid. Wilted leaves are more dangerous because, with less internal water, the concentration of the acid is greater. Fresh leaves contain about 143 mg hydrocyanic acid per 100 g (0.02 oz per 1 lb) of leaves; wilted leaves 243 mg per 100 g (0.04 oz per 1 lb). Consumption of 0.25% of the potential victim's weight (about 1.5 lbs of leaves for cattle and 0.25 lbs of leaves for sheep), consumed within a 30 to 60 min. period, can cause poisoning. Hydrocyanic acid is metabolized rapidly and doesn't accumulate, though constant exposure to the compounddoes not confer immunity.

    Children are most often poisoned by chewing the young shoots of the chokecherry.

    With the increasing use of these species in Montana landscape plantings I suspect the number of calls will increase regarding the advisability of using chokecherry in the landscape. It is a fine plant that tolerates the tough conditions of much of Montana. It presents no problem so long as parents impress upon their children the policy of never eating anything in the landscape which is not normally eaten. I find no mention of domestic pets being poisoned by these plants.

    I hope this helps as we prepare for the spring season.

  • To Prune or not to Prune!
  • Got some thyme on your hands?

    Robert Gough, PhD, Montana State University Extension Horticulture Specialist

    If you're sitting around thinking of what to plant this spring, thyme is a possibility. The Greeks drank it mixed with beer to overcome shyness. The Scots drank it as a tea to gain strength and courage and prevent nightmares. These days it's a seasoning in many foods.

    You can grow thyme successfully in some parts of our region, but it is only marginally hardy in most areas. Still, it's a useful herb that you might want to try planting.

    Sow the seeds indoors and start new plants every few years. Older plants get too woody and don't produce tender, highly aromatic leaves.

    Harvest the leaves when the plants are in bloom by snipping off five or six inches of the flowering top. Dry, strip off the leaves and store them in a closed container.

    Caraway thyme (Thymus herba-barona) is a native of Corsica and has the fragrance of caraway. Sicily thyme (Thymus nitidus) is used in poultry seasoning. Other thymes include Thymus serpyllum, Thymus thracicus, and Thymus vulgaris, the common thyme so popular in rock gardens.

    Most families can get by with only a plant of two. After all, how much thyme do you need? You don't want to end up with too much thyme on your hands.

    Want to know more about herbs for our region? Contact Dave Phillips, MSU Fergus County Extension Agent.

  • Turning up the Heat in Peppers

    Robert Gough, PhD, Montana State University Extension Horticulture Specialist

    Some people go to great lengths to get the hottest peppers around. So what can you do to turn up the heat in hot peppers?

    Perhaps the best way to get the most pungent fruit is to plant the hottest cultivars you can get your hands on, assuming that they'll ripen in your area. There is another route, but I caution you to try it only on a small plot.

    Spanish researchers reported that peppers of the cultivar "Padron" were significantly hotter when the plants were drought stressed. It stands to reason. Drought stressed grape vines produce more flavorful wines, and many other fruit, when shy on water, develop more intense flavors.

    The trick here is not to go too far. If you withhold a little too much water, plants will not yield well. If you withhold a lot too much water, they die. Peppers are no exception.

    The Spanish research did not report yields, but it's likely that the water stressed pepper plants had lower yields than plants that received sufficient irrigation. So if you skimp on water in hopes of heating up your peppers, best limit the experiment at first and pay attention to yield decreases.

  • Do plants drink coffee?
  • Putting Strawberries to Bed for Winter

    Strawberries are productive in our region and supply lots of fine desserts for the kitchen table. What should you do with them now to keep them healthy over winter?

    Strawberries usually overwinter well, provided that you give them a little protection. Since they have a relatively small root system, strawberry plants sometimes fall victim to frost heaving. The water in the soil expands as it freezes, pushing the plants out of the soil a bit more each time it thaws and re-freezes. Strawberry crowns are also subject to drying in winter, especially where there is little or intermittent snow cover.

    To avoid these problems, mulch the plants with at least 2 inches of straw, after the soil freezes in winter. The object is not to keep the soil from freezing, but to keep it frozen--eliminating the freezing and thawing cycles that produce frost heaves. The straw also insulates and traps snow, protecting the crowns from drying winds. Remove the straw when growth begins in the spring.

  • Winter Drying Threatens Lawn Life

    Winter desiccation causes your grass to turn white or brown. It's most severe on elevated sites and slopes where little snow builds up and grass is exposed to drying winds. These areas also have a lot of surface runoff, and little water soaks into the ground. In other words--they're very dry.

    When air temperatures are above freezing and the soil is frozen, grass loses water through its blades, which causes drying--even death. The severity of the drying depends on air temperatures, the exposure of the turf and how long or hard the wind blows.

    Snow is a natural insulator for turf during the winter, keeping grass moist even on the coldest days. But expect a certain amount of winter drying each year. Just mow off the brown leaves in spring and little damage remains. Severe cases may need overseeding.

    Here is what you can do to reduce winter drying. In early fall, rent equipment or hire a professional to de-thatch and core-aerate your lawn. Irrigate in late autumn before the ground freezes. And don't forget that fall fertilizer application.

    Want to know more about lawn care? Contact your local county Extension office or visit

  • How do I prune my roses?

    Roses probably present the most mystery regarding their pruning, but it's really simple to care for them. All you need to do is separate those that need regular pruning from those that don't, and learn a few details.

    If your rose has been grafted (like many of the hybrid tea roses) and the graft union remains above ground, remove all suckers arising from below ground. Species roses, including the shrub roses, need almost no pruning. Early each spring remove dead, diseased and broken canes and branches, and remove spent flower heads from the bush right after flowering. Cut back winter-killed wood to healthy wood. Maintain the plants with about four or five healthy canes and keep the center of the plant open. That's it.

    Cut back Hybrid Teas, Grandifloras, Floribunds and Polyanthus to sound green wood and treat them as described above. The simple plan of keeping the dead and unhealthy wood removed and the center of the plant open applies to all roses.

    During summer bloom, as soon as a flower begins to shatter, remove it and the attached shoot back to a five-leaflet leaf with a bud pointing toward the outside of the plant. This will help the plant become bushier and set more flower buds.

    In fall, shorten the canes of hybrid teas to 12 to 18 inches. This will facilitate winter protection. Shorten them again in spring, leaving about four healthy buds on each of the main canes of the plant. As I mentioned before, simply remember to keep the unhealthy wood pruned out and the center of the plant open.

    Horticulture Hotline: 1-877-GRO-TIPS

  • Does sugar water help preserve cut flowers?

    We used to think so, and it may help a bit, but microorganisms soon flourish in the vase and clog the water-conducting tubes of the flower stems. The best material to use is one that contains sugar as well as a chemical that inhibits growth of microorganisms and an acidifier to help the plant take up the mix. You can't go wrong with commercial preparations-they work great. But if you're stubborn, you can make your own by adding 2 tablespoons of a "mediciny" mouthwash to a gallon of water. Fill the vase with this and your flowers will last noticeably longer. Remember to use the plain kind of mouthwash-don't baby your plants with the sweet, mint-flavored products.

  • Can I use household ammonia to water my houseplants?

    I first heard of this homemade fertilizer as being used during the war - WWII - when fertilizer was in short supply. Yes, you can. Add about a teaspoon of clear, household ammonia - not the soapy or lemon-scented kind - to a quart of water and use this sparingly as a source of nitrogen for your plants. It won't add any of the other nutrients and so commercial fertilizers would be better a better choice.

  • Garden Herb Guide Available

    A new publication can help Montana gardeners begin creating beautiful herb gardens.

    "Herbs for Montana Gardens" was written by Montana State University Extension Horticulturist Bob Gough. It is an eight-page MontGuide giving both history and growing information about 30 herbs that can grow in Montana, from the well-known basil and chives to celeriac, costmary and bee-balm.

    While primarily intended for gardeners, commercial growers might find some new herb production possibilities, though they would need far more information than in this publication, says Gough."Herbs for Montana Gardens" (MT 200003) is available from your local Extension Service office. Also visit:

  • How can I renovate my raspberry patch?

    Red raspberry plantings can get overgrown rapidly, reducing berry size and plant vigor. If your plants appear to be healthy otherwise, with no discolored or deformed leaves that may indicate a virus infection, you can renovate the planting. When the leaves have fallen and the plants are hardened, but before the ground has frozen, mow the plants to within a couple inches of the ground. Remove the stubs of dead canes and thin the remaining canes to stand about 6 inches apart in the row. Rows should be no wider than 3 feet. Roto-till the areas where you want to establish walkways and top-dress the entire planting with a complete fertilizer, such as 12-12-12, at the rate of about 20 pounds per 1000 square feet. The canes will grow vigorously next spring and produce the following year. If you don't want to miss a year of production, do half the planting this fall and half next fall.

  • How can I get my African violets to bloom?

    Often a difference in humidity can cause the plants to stop flowering. You indicated in your letter that the plants were flowering when you purchased them, but soon after ceased to bloom. Here’s what to do. First, pinch off faded blooms to prevent seed formation. Second, be sure there is enough fresh air entering the house, though not circulating directly onto the plants. Third, be sure the plants are getting enough light. Fourth, set the pots on a bed of pebbles or small stones and keep them moist all the time. This will keep the humidity high around the plant. Fifth, feed your plants
    lightly at every watering except during prolonged overcast weather. Don't feed them during the summer months. More details, visit:

  • Do herbal oils make great insecticides?

    Maybe. Japanese researchers have tested several plant-derived oils for their repellency to the green peach aphid. Of 13 oils tested (thyme, peppermint, lavender, rosemary, basil, mint, spearmint, hyssop, marjoram, patchouli, oregano, pennyroyal and sage), those of rosemary, peppermint, thyme, lavender and spearmint showed significant abilities to repel. Of these, oils of rosemary and thyme were the best. Also visit:

  • Fishing Line Deters Pesky Birds from Garden
  • Should I plant garlic in the spring or the fall?

    All of the gardening books claim that northern gardeners should plant garlic in the spring. However, our summers are very hot and they begin and end abruptly. This gives the plants little time to produce a good bulb, since garlic forms few bulbs when temperatures are above 77 degrees F. Another factor that comes into play with garlic and its cousin the onion, is photo-period, or day length. Garlic and onion cultivars right for planting in the north are considered cool season plants. They make their leafy growth under the cool days of spring. Then, when the days become long, they stop their leaf growth and begin to make bulbs. If the plants were not set early enough in the spring to allow a long enough time for them to produce good root and leaf growth before bulbing commences, then the bulbs will be a disappointment.

    Unfortunately, our springs are usually short and we go right into summer. Spring-planted garlic produces a weak top and a small bulb in many gardens. If this is so in your case, try planting garlic in the fall. Set the cloves anytime from mid-September to late October, similar to the
    time we traditionally plant daffodils and tulips. The cloves will develop a good root system in the fall and early spring and the plants will begin to grow very early, even beneath the snow. With this head start on the season they'll have enough time to produce the requisite root system and top growth before bulbing begins, and you'll have a good crop of bulbs for your Italian dishes. Also visit:

  • Internet Great Garden Resource

    For the serious gardener, Ohio State University's Gardening Factsheet Database ( listed under its "Webgarden", contains thousands of horticultural fact sheets from academic institutions and cooperative extension offices around the country. The site has a searchable database of more than 3,000 plants, disease, and insect images. Also visit, Internet Resources for Family and Consumer Sciences:

  • What do the numbers on a fertilizer package mean?

    A surprising number of people don't know how to read a fertilizer package. Those three numbers on the side of the bag are collectively called the "analysis." They represent respectively the percentages of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium that bag contains. Those are the three major nutrients all plants need. So a bag of 5-10-10 fertilizer contains 5% nitrogen, 10% phosphorus and 10% potassium, also called potash. If the bag weighs 50 pounds, it contains 2-1/2 pounds of nitrogen and 5 pounds each of phosphorus and potash. Also visit: