INTERVIEWS WITH EXPERTS: Dana Althoff, Commercial Grower and Retail Manager

Dana Althoff is the retail manager at a large greenhouse and landscape center in the Midwest. She has a degree in horticulture with minors in business and agronomy.  Dana has experience both as a commercial wholesale grower and in retail sales at several different locations in several different states.

Allium flower Photo by Wanette Lenling

On a sunny Saturday morning, I sat down with Dana at her kitchen table to learn more about her vast experience and love of gardening.   I wanted to find out how she got started in the gardening business and where her love of gardening came from.  I also wanted to know what advice she had for new and experienced gardeners alike.

Dana’s Gardening Tip #1:  “Water it or it’ll die.”

What is your background in gardening?  How did it become an interest of yours?

Dana said she began gardening with her mom and her grandmother as a little girl.  Her mother let her take over the planning, planting, and care of the flower beds when Dana was in the fourth grade just as her grandmother had allowed her mother to do  as a little girl.

As an adult, Dana went on to study horticulture and agronomy in college during which time she worked for her uncle at a whole sale nursery.  Dana recounted the joy she had working in the vast flower fields at her uncle’s nursery.

Do you have a specific plant group that you like to work with?

Dana said she enjoys working with all plants, including annuals and perennials, but she has a particular fondness for hostas.  She said the ‘Sum and Substance’ Hosta is among her favorites.  For those of you that have never seen a ‘Sum and Substance’ hosta, it’s a beautiful giant yellow variety that can reach 2 to 3 feet in height with a spread of 5 to 6 feet!

Dana’s Gardening Tip #2:  “Don’t get tied up with the idea that growing a certain plant is hard to grow.  Just try it!”

Do you enjoy working in the garden on your time off?

Dana said she does enjoy working in the garden at home but only in fair weather.

Planter created by Dana, photo by Wanette Lenling
Planter created by Dana, photo by Wanette Lenling

Working in the retail business requires Dana to work in all kinds of weather so she prefers to be comfortable when working in the garden at home.

I mentioned that one of the assumptions that customers always had of me when I worked at the garden and landscape nursery was that my gardens at home were immaculate.  Dana laughed and said she gets that too.  Dana said that most of her gardening energy is spent at work with little left over for home, so home gardens tend to suffer.  It’s akin to a plumber having a broken faucet at home that never seems to get fixed.

What questions do you get the most frequently and how do you answer those questions?

  1.  Question: “How do I plant this tree?”  Answer:  Dig the hole 2 times as wide as the root ball and plant it no deeper than the root flare.
  2. Question:  ” How do I water this plant?”  Answer:  It depends on what the plant is and where it’s planted.  In general, keep it moist for the first few years, then supplement with water when dry in the years after that.

You have worked as a commercial grower as well as a home gardener.  How is commercial growing different from home gardening?

With commercial growing, you must please the customers so the plants must be of generous size,  a visually pleasing shape, and attractive coveted colors while the home grower must only please themselves.  However, with both types of growing, the gardener must still use diligence in fertilizing and awareness in scouting for the early signs of disease.

What advice do you have for hobby gardeners that would like to start growing in a home greenhouse?

Pansies photo by Wanette Lenling

Start simple.  Start with a handful of different types of plants and be prepared to care for them every day.  There are no days off.  Try growing some plants that are easy to grow from seed like tomatoes and peppers for vegetables and marigolds, petunias, and zinnias for flowers.

Dana’s Gardening Tip #3: “Don’t be afraid to try new things.  Plants die.  Keep going.”

You have worked a great deal with encouraging children to engage in gardening.  What is your motivation?

Container 2 planted by Dana. Photo by Wanette Lenling

Dana explained that she was encouraged at a young age by her mom and grandmother to engage in gardening. She mentioned the fact that some of the kids she worked with have never touched soil before.  She said that during her children’s potting class, kids get the tactile experience of touching and smelling the soil and the plants and working with the plants in order for them to grow in the child’s flower pot creation.


Dana’s garden book recommendation:  Small Space Gardening by Melinda Meyers.

Finally, you were trained in horticulture and agronomy before organic gardening became a trend.  How do you feel about organic gardening?

According to Dana, organic gardening has its place.  Dana said she understands the desire to use organic gardening with food plants for safety but not with ornamentals because you don’t eat them. She said she tried using organic methods in commercial growing but she didn’t have any luck with it so she reverted to the use of synthetics.

Big thanks to Dana for taking time out of her busy schedule to sit down with me to discuss gardening, a topic we both love.  Gardening is all about learning whether through your own research or by asking the experts.  Keep learning and growing my gardening friends.

Happy Gardening!

White spirea flower, Photo by Wanette Lenling

Quote of the Day

“Success is no accident.  It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice, and most of all, love of what you are doing or learning to do.”

-Pele, retired Brazilian professional footballer


Acidifying Garden Soil Naturally

Gardenias, azaleas, rhododendrons, hydrangeas, blueberries, spruce, pine, maple, oak – the list goes on and on of plants that grow best in acidic soil. If you love acid loving plants and the ph of your soil is below 7, you won the acid soil lottery.  Plant away! But what if your soil is alkaline and you have a love for acid loving plants?  There are many synthetic means available to acidify your soil but there are also ways to do it organically.  By adding specific amendments to the soil, you can lower the ph naturally.

Tip:  Creating an acid soil situation where there wasn’t one before may injure alkaline-loving plants nearby.  If you choose to acidify your garden soil, use care  so you don’t  damage nearby plant life.

Amending The Soil

If you have plants that prefer acidic soil or you would like to add plants to your garden that prefer acidic soil, you can amend the soil to lower the ph if necessary.  Plants prefer acidic or alkaline soil because the chemistry of the soil determines which types of nutrients in the soil are amending the soilavailable to your plants. For example, alkaline soil chemically binds up the  iron that is already in the soil.  This makes most of the iron in the soil unavailable for plant use.  Because acid loving plants require a good deal of iron to thrive, this situation results in iron deficiency.  A lack of iron results in a condition, called chlorosis.  It is generally identified by a yellowing of the leaves on the plant.  When the soil is amended to create a more acidic soil condition, the iron that is already present in the soil is chemically released and becomes available for use by the plant.

Tip:  Changing a soil’s ph level is generally a slow process that may take several applications and a lot of time before it takes effect, even with chemical treatments.  Have patience my friends!

Sphagnum Peat and Peat Moss (Best Option)

Sphagnum peat and peat moss, which are highly acidic, are the best means of lowering the ph of your soil naturally. (Hint:  It also adds organic matter to the soil which improves soil structure!)  These materials lower the ph of your soil while they break down.  Adding peat or peat moss along with compost to your acid loving plants every year will make your acid-loving plants very happy and it will  improve you soil structure as well.  Also, in my opinion, this is the safest and easiest way to acidify your soil naturally.

bag of peat moss

The soil in my area is quite alkaline.  I planted an azalea with a soil mixture of  50% soil and 50% sphagnum peat moss.   Then every year after that, I added a hardy layer of sphagnum peat moss around the azalea and it grew quite nicely.

Mulching with Pine Needles

There are current ongoing arguments over the idea of whether or not pine needles will acidify the soil.  Scientists are saying that while pine needles are acidic while they are on the tree, they lose that acidity fairly quickly once they fall to the ground and by the time they are decomposed their ph is at a neutral level.  But, life-long gardeners swear by using pine needles as a natural mulch to acidify the soil.  In this debate, you will have to choose a side but my advice to you is this:  if you have pine needles readily available, use them as a mulch around your acid loving plants.  It won’t hurt.  Even if pine needles don’t acidify the soil, they will improve the soil structure as they break down into compost.

The arguments concerning pine needles are the same with oak leaves. Again, it never hurts to mulch with them or add them to your compost!


While conducting research for this article, I read numerous articles and watched a multitude of videos about watering plants with a water/vinegar solution to acidify soil. Personally, I wouldn’t try this. Vinegar is a natural herbicide (i.e. plant killer).   It would be far too easy to burn or kill your beloved plants. And from what I read, it only acidifies the soil slightly and the results are short-lived which would require the process to be repeated frequently. My suggestion – don’t do it.

For more information on acidifying garden soil,  check out the Iowa State University Extension website.

Globe Blue Spruce
Globe Blue Spruce photo by Wanette Lenling

My best advice to you  is to grow plants that like alkaline soil if you have alkaline soil and acid loving plants if you have acid soil.  If you really love a plant that likes acid soil and you have alkaline soil, grow the plant in a pot with potting mix for acid loving plants and enjoy, enjoy, enjoy!

Happy Gardening my friends!

Quote of the Day

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

-Reinhold Niebuhr, American theologian




Shade Loving Heuchera, a.k.a Coral Bells

Heuchera, also known by the common names Coral Bells or Alumroot, is a sensational shade plant that is very easy to grow. These plants are generally pest-free and require little care once established.  This shade loving perennial is grown almost exclusively for its vibrant colorful foliage and they are gorgeous! Check out these colors:



Heuchera are a herbaceous perennial plant that is native to North America and it’s root is known to have medicinal qualities which is where the common name alumroot comes from.

Heucherella 'Alabama Sunrise' by Bluestone Perennials
Heucherella ‘Alabama Sunrise’.

Heuchera have been placed in the Saxifragaceae plant family which also includes perennial favorites like astilbe, bergenia, and tiarella (foam flowers).  In fact, the tiarella has been crossed with the heuchera to create the heucherella!


The heuchera is a relatively small perennial at between 10 and 20 inches tall with flower stems that reach 1 to 2 feet above the colorful foliage. The size of the leaves vary by variety.  They can quite petite or as large as your hand!

Foliage and Flowers

The foliage of the heuchera is the main attraction to this plant.  With so many colors of foliage to choose from, there is just the right heuchera to light up a shady corner in any landscape.

Heuchera does produce lovely delicate flowers on long 1 to 2 foot stems in early to mid summer.  The flowers are less showy than the foliage but they do add subtle beauty. The flowers also attract butterflies and hummingbirds to the garden.  The flowers make a beautiful filler for any cut flower arrangement.

Heuchera 'Berry Smoothie' in bloom. Photo by Bluestone Perennials.
Heuchera ‘Berry Smoothie’ in bloom. Photo by Bluestone Perennials.

Growing Requirements and Care

Heuchera will grow as a perennial in zones 3-8, depending on the variety.  These plants grow best in part sun, although different varieties tolerate different conditions.  In general, darker colored varieties are able to withstand more sunlight than lighter colored varieties.

Heuchera grow best in neutral to slightly acidic moist well-drained soil. Good drainage is a must in order to avoid root rot situations.  Add a good amount of compost to the soil when you plant your heuchera to improve soil structure and add nutrients to the soil.  Once your newly planted heuchera begins to sprout new leaves, add a slow release fertilizer to the soil to give the plant an extra boost.  Every spring add a good helping of compost and some slow release fertilizer to your heuchera plant to keep it happy and healthy all season long.

  Heuchera should be watered deeply once or twice a week depending on temperature and soil conditions.  Heuchera grow best when the ground is mulched to keep it moist but keep mulch one to two inches away from the stem to avoid stem rot issues.

Heuchera can be a beautiful addition to rock gardens, especially on slopes where the drainage is good.  Additionally, it’s easily grown as a potted plant to provide just the right punch of color for a mixed planter!

Trouble shooting


  • Powdery Mildew is a fungus that looks like baby powder on the leaf of the plant. It may also infect the stems, fruits, and flowers.  During hot wet weather, use a preventative fungicide before symptoms appear. Natural neem oil  is effective at preventing and treating powdery mildew.  As always, carefully read and follow the directions on any garden chemicals before use.
    • Powdery mildew fungi will overwinter in plant material so any plant debris (like fallen leaves) affected by this fungi should be thrown away.  Do not place infected plant material in the compost or it will spread the disease.
    • Spores spread on the wind and will take up residence on wet plant leaves so water using soaker hose or drip irrigation system to keep root moist and plants dry.
Powdery Mildew on lilac leaf. Photo by Iowa State University Extension.
Powdery Mildew on lilac leaf. Photo by Iowa State University Extension.
  • Downy Mildew is caused by a parasitic organism that is not a true fungus but has some fungal qualities. Downy mildew tends to appear in spring during cool damp weather. It appears as a  fuzzy white, grey,  purple, or brown growth on the underside of the leaf.  Yellow or brown spots may  be seen on the top of the infected leaf.  There are few chemical controls available to the home gardener for this disease but  Bonide makes a product called “Liquid Copper Fungicide” that can be used to help control downy mildew.
    • Remove infected plant material as soon as possible and  as Downy Mildew survives the winter on dead plant material, clean up dead plant material in the fall. Discard it in the trash.  Don’t place it in the compost pile or the disease will spread.
    • This disease is spread through water so use drip irrigation or soaker hoses to water plants.
Downy Mildew on a leaf. Photo by PennState Extension.
Downy Mildew on a leaf. Photo by PennState Extension.
  • Stem Rot can be caused by a number of issues from injuries to fungal issues related to overwatering and wet conditions.  To avoid stem injury, keep all mulch several inches away from the stem.  This will also help with wet conditions.  Make sure to water deeply once or twice a week and avoid quick frequent waterings, especially water on the leaves and stem. It’s best to water the ground around the heuchera and avoid getting the plant wet.  Stem rot can also be caused by a fungus so care in watering is very important.
    • Once stem rot has occurred, a fungal spray may help but most often the plant will need to be removed.

Insect Issues:

  • Aphids are a common pest among garden plants but they are relatively easy to control.  I use a soap and water mixture as a natural remedy to control aphids.  You can also encourage carnivorous insects like ladybugs and lacewings to take up residence in your garden to help control unwanted insects like aphids. Manufactured sprays containing pyrethrins can also be used to control aphids but some of these sprays will kill beneficial insects like butterflies and bees so use with caution.
  • Weevils may cause damage to the leaves and roots of the heuchera. In the larval stage, weevils look like worms or grubs in the ground.  In the adult stage, these bugs look like black beatle-type insects. To control root weevils, parasitic nematodes are added to the soil to kill the larvae and a shallow bowl of water will attract the adult beetles.  The adults will crawl into the water and drown.  Synthetic pesticides can also be used to control weevils as well.  Read and follow the directions on all manufactured pesticides before use.
Heuchera 'Delta Dawn' Photo by Bluestone Perennials
Heuchera ‘Delta Dawn’ Photo by Bluestone Perennials

Heuchera is an exquisite garden perennial with colors that will light up any shade garden.  They are extremely easy to grow and are versitile enough to grow in planters as well as a rock garden.  Add a few to your garden to add a shock of color!

Happy Gardening!

Quote of the Day

“Happiness radiates like the fragrance from a flower and draws all good things towards you.”

– Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Indian Philosopher

Laundry Basket Planter Video

Using a laundry basket as a planter.  What a great idea!  But, it’s not my idea.  I found this video on Youtube on the Garden Answer Youtube channel.  This is such a unique inexpensive idea for a garden planter.  I had to share it with you.  Happy Gardening!

Note:  I do not own this video and I am not paid to advertise it.


NEW SERIES: Interviews with Experts

Coming soon, a new series called Interviews with Experts for Simply Gardening.  This series will give readers insight into the careers of expert gardeners along with tips and hints to make your gardening experience more successful.

potted fern

The first interview is with Master Gardener Renita Kainz.  She worked as a professional gardener with several different greenhouses over the years.  She then became a certified master gardener in 2010.  I asked her about her past experience in gardening including how she got started with this life-long passion. I asked her about what garden questions she is asked most frequently and what tips she has for fellow gardeners.

Additional interviews will include experts in the area of commercial growing and greenhouse professionals with tips and hints for growing healthy beautiful plants.  The information shared by these professionals will provide you with the knowledge to create the lush beautiful gardens you dream of.

Happy Gardening!

Quote of the Day

“Remember every gardening year has successes and failures, just like people.”

-Renita Kainz, Master Gardener







What Do The Numbers On Fertilizer Mean?

There are a few basic things that every gardener should know and one of those basics is what the numbers on a container of fertilizer mean. You may have seen the numbers on fertilizer2seemingly random numbers, usually in larger print, on a container of fertilizer that look something like this:  “5-10-5” or “10-6-4” or “24-8-16”.  It’s very important that gardeners know what those numbers mean, BUT DON’T WORRY it’s not hard, so keep reading.

What do the numbers on fertilizer mean?

The numbers on a fertilizer container are simply the ratios of the nutrients the fertilizer contains, specifically nitrogen-phosphorous-potassium.  These nutrients are similar to a well-balanced diet for a human.  The right balance of nutrients for your plant will make it thrive in your landscape and garden.

numbers on fertilizer


The first number refers to the amount of nitrogen in the fertilizer.  Nitrogen is important because:

  • It promotes top growth on plants and grass
  • It is essential for lush green foliage growth and grass blades
  • A lack of  nitrogen causes plants to have yellow-green foliage and little to no top growth
  • Too much nitrogen reduces the production of flowers and fruits

Nitrogen that is found naturally in the soil comes from the decomposition of plant matter so adding compost to the soil is a natural source of nitrogen for your landscape and garden.

Autumn Joy Sedum: Photo by Wanette Lenling


The second number refers to the amount of phosphorous the fertilizer contains.  Phosphorous is essential for:

  • stimulating root growth and development
  • promoting the development of flowers and fruits
  • promoting plant vigor with deficiencies resulting in slow or stunted plant growth

Phosphorous is retained in the soil well as it binds itself tightly to soil particles so it’s important not to add too much phosphorous as it may lead to leaf burn and unhealthy growth.

Mock orange : Photo by Wanette Lenling

Potassium (Also known as Potash)

The third number is the amount of potassium in the fertilizer.  Potassium is necessary for:

  • Overall plant health as it allows the plant to regulate its physiological processes  (This simply means that potassium helps a plant’s internal mechanisms function better, like when you take a vitamin everyday.)
  • Inadequate potassium leads to lowered disease resistance  and a reduced tolerance to environmental stresses, like drought

Potassium also tends to be retained in the soil well so don’t add too much.  On the other hand, a deficiency is easy to spot as the lower leaves of the plant will be yellow in color between the greener veins.

Cabbage: Photo by Wanette Lenling

There you have it.  That’s what the those funny numbers mean on a container of fertilizer. But,  this is just the basic information. If you would like more in-depth information on fertilizer, click on the links below from three great educational sources of horticultural information including South Dakota State University, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Illinois.

Happy Gardening!

Quote of the Day

“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.”

-Albert Einstein, physicist


Fertilizing Gardens (University of South Dakota, pdf)

Garden Issues: Nutrient Deficiencies (University of Minnesota)

Characteristics Of Natural and Manufactured Fertilizers For Lawns (University of Minnesota)

Choosing Fertilizers for Home Lawns (University of Illinois Extension)







Gardening DIY’s Using Broken Items and Plain Old Trash!

Gardening is great fun because you can allow yourself to create what you see as beautiful, without limits. Items such as broken pots, old furniture, broken fixtures, door knobs, and more can be used to make treasure for your garden instead of adding trash to the landfill.  Let your imagination go wild and read on.

Here are a few ideas to get you going:

  • Cut the spindle back off an old wooden chair and push it in the ground as a support old wooden chairheavy peony blooms; then…
    • cut a hole in the seat of the chair to make a  stand for potted plants!
  • Remove the doors of an old hanging kitchen cabinet and paint the cabinet with weather resistant paint to mount on the side of your house or a potting shed as a display for garden treasures or cascading potted plants.
    • Bonus: You can paint the base cabinet and add a weather proof top to make a great outdoor potting bench or serving buffet near a patio!
  • Paint old picture frames with weather proof spray paint and mount them on the side of your house or a wood fence.  In the center of each frame, mount a small potted plant to “frame” your new hanging garden.
  • Mount old doorknobs on the side of a fence to make great hangers for hanging baskets, garden art, or perches for birds to rest on.
  • Broken pots – don’t throw them out…here are some ideas:terra cotta pots
    • Bury the broken part of the pot in a garden bed leaving the unbroken part showing and plant annuals around and in the pot as a focal point; …or how about this flashy idea…
    • Decorate the broken pot with waterproof paint and glue on some bling with waterproof glue to use the broken pot as a piece of art for water to flow through in your new water feature made out of a solar powered water pump, your broken pot on a pedestal and a garden style whiskey barrel! For a really great look, add water-proof floating lights.  That will really make your new water feature pop!

Let your imagination go wild and try your hand at making trash into treasure. Try one of these ideas or get inspired to try one of your own but the most important thing is this…have a great time doing it.  Having fun is what gardening is all about!

Happy Gardening!

P.S. If you have any great gardening ideas to make trash into treasure, please comment so you can share your ideas too!

Quote of The Day

“At the end of the day, if I can say I had fun, it was a good day.”

 – Simone Biles, American Olympic gold medalist in gymnastics