In the Garden, in the Zone

a Chippewa Valley master gardener shares her gardening expertise

Maggie Cook, by Laura Wolter, photos by Laura Wolter |

Gardeners are lucky to have myriad traditional resources for finding plant information such as garden books, magazines, garden center staff, University Extension agents, and Master Gardener volunteers, as well as help from technology. With access to gardening websites, blogs and even smartphone apps, such as QR codes on plant tags, we can have information at our fingertips right at the moment of deciding which plant at the greenhouse will be a good fit for our project.

Laura Wolter is an avid gardener, tending a plot at the Chippewa Falls Community Garden at Marshall Park since it was established in 2009, in addition to maintaining her home garden and serving as an active member of the Chippewa Valley Master Gardener Association and the Lake Wissota Garden Club. Here she answers a few questions for beginner gardeners and families. 

Good Starter Plants

Making a mixed container of plants can be a very satisfying and lovely project. Buying plants from a greenhouse will give you a jump-start to having a nice full basket or pot after just a few weeks. Try the old standard recipe of having a Thriller (focal plant), a Spiller (a trailing plant), and a Filler (smaller plants to nestle around and complement the Thriller). The concept works with herbs and small vegetables as well as it does with flowering annuals and foliage plants. Try a combination of tomatoes, peppers, and herbs for an edible, fun, and pretty patio pot. Or get really crazy and mix up edible and ornamental plants in the same pot! 

Sun vs. Partial Shade vs. Full Shade

Sadly, there are few if any vegetables that like partial or full shade. That is one reason I and many others who do not have those conditions at our home garden lease community garden plots in bright, sunny locations. 

One strategy for shady yard gardening might be to grow vegetables in a container that can be moved to where the sun is. I have had good luck with a tomato plant in a pot on the driveway for example. Just remember to water faithfully.

As far as landscape plants go, most annuals also like sun. Impatiens and fuchsia are a couple of exceptions that do well in less light. Perennials provide more choices in each of the light availability categories. Lilies, iris, peonies, and daisies are sun lovers.

In partial shade cranesbill geranium, lamium, bergenia (pigsqueak), lady’s mantle, and ferns do well. Hosta, pulmonaria (lungwort), goat’s beard, and bleeding heart are reliable plants in the shadiest parts of the garden. 

Tools for Beginners

Nothing fancy is needed, but a good pair of well-fitting gloves (Atlas are my favorite) and a sturdy hand trowel for planting and weeding are essential. A big bucket or Tubtrug to haul around the yard to collect weeds and “dead-headed” spent flowers would be on my list along with a sturdy short-handled spade for digging and dividing.

Apartment Gardening

Plant pots, hanging baskets, window and deck rail boxes, and raised beds are great for people who have limited space for gardening. A community garden plot is also an option for those without access to growing space where they live.

Pots and raised beds, especially those high enough for standing next to or with wheelchair access, help make it possible for those who are have limited mobility to continue gardening. 

Common Mistakes

Oh my. I have made them all and still am. I usually learn from them, but sometimes forget what I learned and end up learning it all over again. 

A big theme of garden problems is our backyard wildlife population. Chipmunks! They are fun to watch, but maddening when they decide to take a big bite out of each and every tomato on the vine. The rabbits also like to try things out to see what is tasty, but it is a little easier to put a bit of fencing around tender new plants until the season progresses and the rabbits have more to choose from outside your thoughtfully planted (so they think) bunny buffet. The chipmunks, however, are small, agile, wily, and very persistent. Having access to a remote community garden plot, I will not be growing tomatoes for them at home this year. Before you dig into gardening think about who else is sharing your green space whether it is kids or other wild or domestic critters, and work around them (or with them) so the calming effects of gardening are not cancelled out by the frustration of trying to outwit Chip and Dale or Dennis the Menace.

There are always lessons to be learned, so just give it a go. What have you got to lose? Remember Miss Frizzle from The Magic Schoolbus?  Her advice to her students also serves as words for gardeners to live by: “Take chances, make mistakes, get messy.”

Kids Gardening Activities

When kids are little they are thrilled to plant a single bean in a container where they can observe its rapid growth. There are all sorts of other things that you can grow inexpensively or for free with simple equipment just to see how it works.:

• When you cut off a carrot top set it in a shallow dish of water and watch it re-grow its top greens. 

• Poke toothpicks in an avocado seed, suspend it over a glass of water, and see how that weird, hard, ball-shaped pit begins a new plant. 

• Plant a sunflower and photograph your child or grandchild next to it as it grows.

• If you have room, have your child plant their own Halloween jack-o-lantern. Make it a family or neighborhood contest and see who can grow the biggest one.

When you begin gardening with kids you may have more holes in the lawn then flowers. It is hard to have a garden-tour-quality yard when your hosta bed is home plate and the sandbox full of dump trucks is adjacent to your herb garden.  Time goes so quickly. Our sandbox is now a raised bed garden and the playhouse is my tool shed. When I used to wonder if we would ever have a respectable lawn again our wise neighbor would remind me of what Harmon Killebrew’s dad once said to his mom when she bemoaned the wear and tear of playing ball on the lawn: “We’re not raising grass, we’re raising boys!”

Laura Wolter
Laura Wolter