Ask Dr. Norm

Questions for the Expert Gardener

Caricature drawing of Dr. Norm

Meet Dr. Norm:
Dr. Norm Lownds is a faculty member of the Department of Agronomy & Horticulture. Dr. Lownds, remains active from his post as the curator of the 4-H Children's Garden at the Michigan State University.

  1. Tiny Green Bugs in the Lettuce
  2. Planting More Radishes
  3. Harvesting Lettuce
  4. Yellow Leaves
  5. Squirrels, Crows, and Corn
  6. Planting Beans and Corn
  7. When to Plant Squash Seedlings
  8. Growing Plants in Virginia
  9. Growing 3 Sisters and Chili
  10. Fast Growing Seeds
  11. Minerals in Soil for Growth
  12. Storing Seeds
  13. Garden in the Winter
  14. Where to get Seeds
  15. School Garden Night
  16. Rabbits are Eating Our Plants
  17. Dyes from Garden Plants

If you have questions to ask e-mail them to Dr. Norm at

The Questions and Answers

  1. Our leaf lettuce is growing great but yesterday we noticed a bunch of tiny green bugs fly out of the lettuce. Are these good bugs or pests?
    From: Melissa at Jornada Elementary
    Dear Melissa at Jornada Elementary
    I am not sure what the bugs are. They are probably not aphids. Watch your plants and if they start damaging them, eating the leaves or something, then I would check with an entomologist in the Extension Plant Science Department at New Mexico State University.
  2. Also our radishes are also doing great. We are begining to thin them out. When they are ready to eat do we keep planting more?
    From: Melissa at Jornada Elementary
    Dear Melissa at Jornada Elementary
    If you want to have more to eat then keep planting more. Just be aware of one thing - radishes do best in cooler weather. If you plant them when it is really hot they may not grow very well.
  3. The leaf lettuce is getting pretty big and almost ready to eat. Do we cut them down to the ground or pull it out? Do we keep planting them again?
    From: Melissa at Jornada Elementary
    Dear Melissa at Jornada Elementary
    You can do it either way, but I prefer to cut the leaves off. Again, keep planting if you want to keep having salad. Lettuce, like the radishes, does better in cooler weather.
  4. We planted Big Jim chili 4 weeks ago but the leaves are looking really yellow. Did we plant them too early? Or is it the sun? What do we do to fix this?
    From: Melissa at Jornada Elementary
    Dear Melissa at Jornada Elementary
    Yellow leaves is usually a sign that your plants need nitrogen fertilizer. Cool and wet weather can sometimes make this condition worse. I would try adding some fertilizer, you could use a liquid fertilizer right in your irrigation water, or add some granular fertilizer. Read the bag carefully about how much to add, because too much fertilizer could kill your plants. If you use a dry fertilizer, spread it on the ground around the plants then work it into the soil (1/2 inch or so deep) and then water the plants. Don't get any fertilizer on the plant leaves. Then you might want to keep tract of how many days it takes until you start to see changes in the plants. If the fertilizer makes them turn green, you will most likely have to add more later again.
  5. Miss Conner, our spanish teacher, has a question. She wants to know if there is anything we can do to help when we plant the corn. Is there any way that you can prevent the squirrels and the crows from eating the seeds of the corn?
    From: Abingdon Elementary
    Dear Abingdon Elementary:
    Yes there is something that you can do. Once you have planted the seeds, put a "cage" of chicken wire around each 'mound' or row or whatever. Make sure the wire goes into the ground a little bit and that should keep the squirrels out. To keep the crows out, add a cover to the "cage". The easiest way to do that is to get some bird netting from a garden center. This stuff is usually nylon and is real easy to use. Once your seeds germinated and the plants are 6 or so inches tall, you can take the "cages" off and the plants should be all right.
  6. Should we plant the beans with the corn at the same time or wait till the corn is 4 inches tall like the book says? Should we plant both of these in pots? The book says that you should plant one seed in each mound but some people say that you should plant two seeds just in case one is bad-- what should we do? How long and how much water should we water the garden when we first plant?
    From: Valley View Elementary
    Dear Valley View Elementary:
    Wait until the corn is about 4 inches tall. Otherwise, the beans may overrun everything. You need to have the corn up a little ways so that the beans can climb on it.

    If your garden area is ready, plant them directly into it. If not, plant them in pots so that as soon as the garden is ready you can transplant the corn into the garden. I would plant the beans directly into the garden too (in about 10 to 14 days). Make sure you have a way to keep them watered if they are in the garden.

    I suggest that you plant several corn, beans and squash seeds. If everything germinates and begins to grow you can always pull some of the plants out.

    Start by watering enough to get the soil wet to a depth of about 12 inches. This is probably best done by watering by hand. After that you need to make sure the soil doesn't dry out. I would suggest checking the seeds, and watering if necessary, first thing in the morning and again around noon or early afternoon. If it is very hot check them three times.
  7. HELP! We're ready to plant our 3 sisters and chili garden but we have aproblem. Our book, Native American Gardening, says to plant the squashseedlings which we began earlier about two weeks after you have planted the corn and beans. Well, we didn't get our seeds in time to start the squash early. We are running out of time and we need to get the seeds planted soon. Will it be okay to plant the squash seeds at the same time we plant the other seeds?
    From: Stumped by Squash Problem
    Dear Stumped by Squash Problem:
    The reason for starting the squash later is so that it doesn't shade out the other seeds and keep them from growing. If you already have the squash started in containers then I would plant the rest of the seeds, get them up so they are tall enough to have some leaves above the squash and then plant everything together. Is that at all clear? If not, ask until it is.
  8. Are there certain kinds of corn, beans, squash, or chiles thatwould grow better in the clay like soil we have here in Virginia?
    From: Abingdon Third Grade, Virginia
    Dear Abingdon Third Grade:
    Yes, there are certain kinds that grow better. Because of your special soil and climate, certain kinds (cultivars) are best for Virginia. How do you know which ones? The best way to find out is to contact someone in your neighborhood that knows. I usually ask the people at a local garden center or nursery, or I contact the local county extension office or I ask someone that has been gardening in the area for a long time. People that garden are usually very happy to answer your questions and help you out. Since this summer is the first that I will be growing plants here in Michigan (I lived in New Mexico until July of last year), I have been asking gardeners here what I should plant, when to plant, what problems I might have and any other questions I have about gardening in Michigan. I have been writing this information down in my gardening notebook, and now when I have a question I look there first. I already have lots of information and I think I am ready to go for the summer. But besides all this information, I want to know if some of my favorites from New Mexico will grow in my garden here. Nobody I have talked to knows the answer to that, so I am going to try them. It will be my own experiment! Maybe you can try some "experimental" plants in your garden too!!
  9. Is there a special way to grow the Three Sisters and chiles?
    From: Abingdon Third Grade, Virginia
    Dear Abingdon Third Grade:
    There are several arrangements for the plants. Your teacher should have the book "Native American Gardening" by Michael Caduto and Joseph Bruchac. It describes some of the ways on pages 81-94. You might want to try one of the ways in the book and then devise a way yourselves and compare them. That would make a "way cool" science experiment.
  10. Are there any types of seeds that grow faster?
    From: Abingdon Third Grade, Virginia
    Dear Abingdon Third Grade:
    Yes, most seeds grow at different rates. Usually the fastest growing plants are the ones that climb on things - sometimes they will grow 10 or more feet in one summer! Other plants only grow a foot or less. If you want to look at how fast plants grow, beans are good ones to use because you can easily get pole beans and bush beans. One grows 6 to 10 feet tall and the other grows only about 1 foot. They both produce edible beans, though.
  11. What types of minerals should we have in the soil to help the corn, beans, and squash grow?
    From: Abingdon Third Grade, Virginia
    Dear Abingdon Third Grade:
    Most of the minerals that your plants will need are already in the soil. Plants need Nitrogen, Potassium, Phosphorus and a whole bunch of other elements. In most cases, the main one to worry about is nitrogen. If plants don't have enough they won't grow as tall as they are supposed to, they won't flower or fruit very well and they will be yellowish in color. Nitrogen is easy to add to the soil, but you have to be careful because you can add to much nitrogen and hurt or even kill your plants. The best way to know what you need to add is to take a sample of your soil in to the county extension office and ask them to send it in for a soil analysis. Through chemical reactions they can figure out what, and how much, is in your soil and tell you what to add. If you can't do that, I would ask a local gardener. Or maybe an even better idea would be to set up an experiment to figure out if your soil has what it needs. For right now I am not going to tell you how to do that. If you are interested, think about it some, come up with an experiment and then email your plan to me. Then I will be happy to help you finish planning and setting up your experiment. If you do that, other people in the neighborhood will probably come to you for advice on how to best grow their gardens! You will be the local experts!
  12. My garden is done for the year, I want to harvest some seeds and store them for next year. What is the best way to store seeds?
    From: Wondering in Las Cruces
    Dear Wondering in Las Cruces:
    Collecting and storing seeds is great fall garden activity. It is also a good way to make sure that you have your favorite plants again next year. If you save extra seed, you can give some to your friends and relatives so they can enjoy your favorite plants too!

    Most seeds are best if stored at a low temperature. At home, a good place to keep them is in the refrigerator. Here is a good way to store your seeds. Once you have cleaned the seeds, here is a good way to store them. Lay four Kleenex on top of each other, place your seeds on the Kleenex, sprinkle two tablespoons of powdered milk on top of the seeds, wrap the Kleenex with the rubberband, put the Kleenex package in a glass jar, put the cover on the jar and store it in your refrigerator until next spring.
  13. What can we do in our garden in the winter?
    From: Too cold to go outside
    Dear to cold to go outside:
    In the winter you need to have a Winter Garden Vision. Is this a new program on TV, a movie, a computer game or some kind of new 3-D glasses? Well, it could be none, some or all of these things! It is your vision of what your garden was this past year and what is will be next year. It can be simple, but you will make it way cool!

    Here's how it works. On a cold winter day, when you can't go outside and don't know what to do, create your own Winter Garden Vision. Here are the materials you will need:

    • Your memory and imagination
    • Seed or garden catalogs that you can cut up
    • Pencils, crayons, markers or paints
    • Pictures of your garden

    Here are a few ideas about creating Winter Garden Visions. Use your imagination to come up with lots more. Remember this years' garden: Make a bulletin board that shows your garden and what happened in it. Use pictures, drawings, painting and whatever else you can think of. Create next years' garden: Make a plan of your garden for next year. Cut and paste, draw, paint, or create it on your computer. Then put your creation up on a bulletin board on your wall to remind you of what is to come. Plan a special event: Make plans to have a special event in your garden. This could be a Garden Day, a Birthday celebration, Tea for friends or relatives, or a harvest party. Make plans for the event, select the date, make invitations and send them out. Let me know what you do. Write or e-mail me about your Winter Garden Vision.

    Have Fun, be creative and let me know what you do.

  14. I want to have a garden next year. Where is the best place to get seeds?
    From: Next years' garden
    Dear Next years' garden:
    You can get seeds from almost any good nursery or garden center, but you may have to wait until after Christmas before they put them out. What I like to do is to send off for seed catalogs from all kinds of places. These usually come in the middle of winter and I take them and slowly look through them imagining all the things I will grow next year. The pictures are beautiful and looking through the catalogs is a great way to spend time on a cold winter night or day. Besides that, I can take old catalogs, cut out pictures of the plants that I like and "make" a garden.
  15. Our teacher talked to us about having a "garden night", what is this and can we have one?
    From: Not quite sure
    Dear Not quite sure:
    YES, you can have a garden night! Please do, it is a great way to show off your garden and all the great things that you have done in it. So, what is garden night? Well, in general, it is an event that you plan where you invite you parents, friends or whoever you want to come and see your garden. Exactly what you show them and what you do is up to you.

    Here are some ideas: Make signs with the names of the plants in your garden, show your parents the stories that you have written about your garden, show pictures of you planting and taking care of your garden, if there is ripe fruit from your garden let people taste it, tell stories in your garden, and anything else you can think of. Remember, HAVE FUN!
  16. We have started a garden at our school, but the rabbits are eating some of our plants. What should we do?
    From: 3rd grade teacher
    Dear 3rd grade teacher:
    Keeping rabbits out is tough. About the only way that really works is to put fence (chicken wire) around the plants or the whole garden. Instead of doing that, I would suggest that you use this situation to study the interaction between rabbits and plants. Observe the garden and take notes about which plants the rabbits eat first, what part they eat, and what plants they don't eat. Let your students come up with ways to prevent or minimize the damage. This is a great problem to let your students solve.
  17. Our class has been studying natural products and dyes. We want to dye some cloth using plant parts from our garden. How should we do this?
    From: 3rd grade, Jornada Elementary School
    Dear 3rd grade, Jornada Elementary School:
    This is a great project (experiment)! Basically what you need to do is to take the color out of the plant part and put it into the cloth . So, how do you get the color  out of the plant part? One of the easiest ways is to put the plant part in a small amount of boiling water. This will take color out of the plant part. Then you can put your cloth into the water and put the color into the cloth. To make this a "way cool" experiment, use a number of different plant parts and predict what color dye you will get from each. Boil the plant parts in something other than water, (vinegar, salt water) and see what happens.

    For details on doing this contact Mrs. Lucht's 3rd grade class at Valley View Elementary School. They have done it before and are experts.