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Over the Garden Fence

More Seasonal FAQs from the Master Gardener Help Desks

Gardeners have left the warm comfort of the house, and the impacts of winter are very evident as we do that “walk about” the yard and begin to formulate spring gardening plans. Master Gardener Help Desks have been open for a couple of weeks already with a lot of questions.

Q: I have noticed “runs” in the lawn, focusing near the bird feeder and then going in all directions. What is it?

A: This one was noted last week yet may need some more detail. These are the feeding runs of the vole. The vole is active all year long and needs to eat often. These trails part the lawn grass to allow the vole movement along the soil surface and under the cover of snow and remain protected from predators. In the summer, they have free rein of the entire lawn and landscape, but in the winter are limited to the runs and repeatedly use them in search of food. (This is why they appear by the bird feeder.) The normal spring flush of the lawn is enough to take care of any signs they were there during the winter. In some areas, a light raking to remove the dead grass and even perhaps some topdressing will hasten the recovery.

Q: When and how should I take a soil test?

A: Most often soil tests are done at the end of the season after all the amendments and fertilizers have been utilized by the plants and micro flora in the soil. Consistency of timing is what really counts, so if you do a soil test in the spring, keep doing them in the spring in the future. Several vertical samples, 6- to 8-inches in depth throughout the garden or landscape bed should be taken and then mixed all together to give a representative sample. An easy way to do that is to dig a hole in the garden, then slice down one side of the hole to get that 6- to 8-inch sample. Repeat as needed to collect that representative sample. The next part of the question is usually, “Where I can get the soil test done?” Your local county Farm Bureau is a great starting point. The typical test will be for pH, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Gardeners also may want to get an organic matter content test too. The more we learn about organic matter, the better we can take advantage of all the good things in that compost.

Q: I used a lot of composts from my own yard last year, and now I have weeds and other plants everywhere. Is it a coincidence?

A: There are so many great benefits of composts and rotted manures that sometimes we forget that weed, vegetable, and flower seeds survive the cold composting process in the backyard bins and compost piles. While it may give gardeners a bit of pain to see plant parts leave the yard in the yard waste bag, certain plant parts are better left to the commercial composters. When deadheading our flowers, any viable seed will be spread about the yard if added to the compost bin. If any weeding is done and those plants are setting seed, kick them to the curb in the landscape waste bag, rather than compost them at home. Dandelions, for example, can have viable seed just days after they start to flower. A rotten tomato or squash also can contain viable seed, though we seem to tolerate the random vegetable better those weeds.


About the author: Richard Hentschel’s expertise extends across several subject areas with specialties in lawn care, fruit tree production, woody ornamentals, and home and community gardening. During his 45-year career in horticulture and agriculture, Hentschel became a well-known and respected expert for commercial and homeowner audiences, industry organizations, and media. He retired from University of Illinois Extension in April 2022 with nearly 30 years of service as a Horticulture Specialist and Educator in northern Illinois.