You never know the power of a gift given or received. I thought about this a couple of weeks ago during my first trip in many years to the Des Moines, Iowa, area for a meeting of GWA, an organization for garden communicators. The gift was a book on tree identification, given to Iowa banker Buz Brenton some time in the 1990s by his sister. Brenton was in the family business—banking—but enjoyed walks on farmland the family had owned since the 1850s. With his tree identification book in hand, Brenton gained a deeper appreciation for the oaks, maples and hickories that dotted the rolling hills of the farm.
When he retired from banking, he decided he wanted to do something to help others understand the importance and value of trees. His family still had the farm his great, great, great grandfather had homesteaded in the 1850s and the 143-acres of rolling hills provided the perfect setting for an arboretum. The Brenton Arboretum is truly that — a place about trees, for observing trees, learning about trees, appreciating trees. Unlike the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, which has expanses of display gardens as well as trees, Brenton has groves of trees with very little garden space between them.
Since its founding in 1997, more than 2,500 trees of 500 species have been planted at the arboretum. It has collections of such midwestern favorites as crab apple trees, oaks, maples and the under-planted Kentucky coffeetree. Designed by Anthony Tyznik, former landscape architect at the Morton Arboretum near Chicago, the arboretum takes advantage of the rolling hills on which it is set. Paths for walking (even dog walking!) snake through the arboretum, giving visitors time to slow down and appreciate the landscape.
In addition to a visitor’s center, where classes, weddings and other events are held, the arboretum has a picnic shelter on the grounds with a green roof and a play area for children to explore nature.
The day we visited it was very hot and sunny in Des Moines, but as we walked around the paths, I kept thinking this would be a great place for a visit in fall. The arboretum is located outside of Dallas Center, Iowa, just about 20 minutes north of Des Moines. If you decide to visit the arboretum, be sure to stop at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden as well.
I have a hard time visualizing how drawings on paper will look in three dimensions and in real space, which means my garden beds get done and re-done, sometimes on the fly, as I try to get the look in the ground to match the one in my head. In the past, I’ve had the good fortune of working with a local landscaper who I trusted to take my ideas and give them an appropriate shape that looked good in both two and three dimensions. From there, I would revise the layout and reassess the plants.
With our new house, I paid to have a one-time consultation with a garden designer (something I recommend most gardeners do before starting a larger project) and she reinforced some of the ideas I had and gave me some good suggestions for bed shapes and plant materials. I’m using those ideas to plan my back gardens on my own. Next year, we will re-do some of the sidewalks and stairs in our front, which have drainage issues, and at that point, I’ll probably hire a designer to give shape to the front. For now, I’m on my own.
Before getting too deeply into garden planning, you have to to ask the big questions. Here are some I’ve been asking myself over the past year, and a few of the answers I’ve come up with.
How will the landscape be used? Our yard basically has three sections and I see them as having three purposes. The front faces the street and I want it to be welcoming and to fit in with the other landscapes on the block, many of which have big trees and more defined spaces than we have. I don’t see us using that space for sitting outside much, though I’m open to adding a front patio area in the future. For now, I’m adding and subtracting plants from the existing bed and we are putting our bird feeder (and probably a bird bath) on the east-front side of the house. This was a purely practical decision. There’s a small window in the house that I can use to watch the birds, and as my husband says, “where do you want the bird poop?”
The backyard has two sections, a patio area that faces what will be a mostly edible garden, in raised beds, with some native plants around the beds. This is a spot for entertaining or having morning coffee. It needs some soft screening from the alley and neighbors and a big table with an umbrella. The raised beds are in and planted. The third section is between the house and the garage. It is screened on three sides by buildings and, because we are very close to our neighbors back entry, needs more screening on the fourth side. My hope is to fill this with lots of plants and turn it into a quiet garden for reflection.
How will you get from space to space? We did some work on the paths last year, adding a brick path from the patio to the back gate. We walk that path several times a day and are very happy with how it turned out. We need to create a path from the back steps into the quiet garden and that will likely be done in grass with a brick edging. That’s on my to-do list for later this summer. A path from front yard to back on the east side is also needed and will be done in the future. On the west side, we have a narrow sidewalk and no option to do much about that.
What about water? There are two questions here, really. How will you get hoses from point A to point B to water plants, but more importantly, how will water flow be handled. We have a slightly soggy area in the quiet garden and I need to adjust both the outflow from our sump pump (which runs only during major wet periods, such as last month) and a downspout. This may take some engineering, but I don’t want people to be tripping over hoses and downspouts, so it need attention.
What’s your style? Several years ago, I read a very good garden design book that recommended people name their garden to help them get a feel for their style. Facetiously, I suggested “mole manor” as the name for our former yard, which had its share of critter issues. I have no idea what I would call this garden—Farm in the City? Urban Refuge? Howdy, Neighbor? I’m stumped. Our house is a 1939 bungalow, so something on the cottage-y end of design might work. I also like to use native plants, when possible. This is a question I’m still pondering.
What questions would you ask before designing a new garden?
Pictured above is an anise hyssop that I planted last summer for a little color with absolutely no hopes that it would survive the winter. Yet, come April, it was sprouting its pretty chartreuse leaves and getting ready for another season of bloom.
The plant is ‘Golden Jubilee’ anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum ‘Golden Jubilee’), a 2003 All-American Selections winner that has pretty purple bottlebrush flowers and is very attractive to bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. It’s listed as being hardy to USDA Zone 6 on the tag it came with, though I’ve found several other sources that says it is zone 5 hardy. (For reference, I live in zone 4, which covers the southern two-thirds or so of Minnesota.) Even if it was zone 5, I would not have expected it to survive the winter of 2016-17 because of the lack of snow cover. We did have a warm winter overall, but the temperature sunk to below -20 F in December, which should have been cold enough to ice even a zone 5 plant.
But like all politics, all weather—and all gardening—is local. In my garden, this plant faces south. I live in the urban heat island of St. Paul. The plant lies within 5 feet of the foundation of my house, which may emanate some heat. The extremely cold days in December came right after a snow storm, so the plant’s roots had some cover during the worst of the winter. Clearly, the local conditions were warm enough to get it through the winter.
It may also be that the zone 6 rating given the plant by this grower is conservative. That’s one thing to keep in mind when choosing plants—zone ratings are as much art as science and some companies are conservative in their ratings while others are more optimistic. Your local conditions may be warmer or cooler than the averages for your zone, too. Choose plants not exclusively by the numbers but by the local conditions. I bought the anise hyssop plants later in the summer. They were on sale and I expected they would be annuals. This brings to mind a good rule for gardeners who want to “push their zone.” Never choose a plant you can’t afford to lose.
Whether it was luck, a warm winter or a too-conservative rating, I’m happy to have this cheerful plant back for another year.
After 17 years in one house and nearly 30 years in lovely Northfield, Minnesota, I’ve moved. My husband is now semi-retired and for a variety of reasons, we decided to move to St. Paul. Last May, we sold our house (and garden!) and moved to a bungalow in the city.
Our new garden is smaller and flatter than our previous garden—both attributes I was seeking—and it is pretty much a blank slate. It is a work in progress, and I’m hoping to use this blog as a journal of our new garden as well as a place to share information on gardening in the North.
In our first year in the house, we did some of the big projects, mostly removing an old one-car garage, building a two-car garage and extending the brick patio that came with the house to connect to the new garage and the alley. We’ve added fences, too. In terms of plants, we removed one tree (roots threatening the foundation) and planted five more, plus a few shrubs. I’ve swapped out some perennials I don’t like (mostly daylilies and hostas) for a few I do, and I have likely ordered way too many plants for this coming season.
I know it takes at least three years to make a garden, and I’m counting this as year one. My plan is to focus this year on designing and planting the two back garden spaces (more on those in later blog posts) and then figuring out the front next year.
It’s been a long while since I’ve posted to this blog, and many people say blogging is dead. But I’m not convinced. People still want more in-depth information than an Instagram photo or tweet can provide. The original purpose of blogs was to serve as a shared journal — and that’s what I hope this blog will be for the next few years—a shared journal of my adventures in my new northern garden. Thanks for stopping by!
The joke about Minnesota, largely true, is that it has two seasons: Winter and road construction. For gardeners, however, there is another season to look forward to: Garden tour season!
From late June through early August, there are dozens of garden tours around the state. You can find a large list of tours at the MSHS website, and I’m still picking out which tours to attend. In the past, I’ve attended great tours put on by the Hennepin County Master Gardeners, Tangletown Gardens, and lots of great local garden club tours. Last year, my garden was even part of the Northfield Garden Tour, which gave me a renewed respect and appreciation for gardeners who open their yards and gardens to visitors.
One tour I’ve not attended yet, but plan to soon, is the Minnesota Landscape Auxiliary Private Garden Tour, which will be held Sunday, July 10, and Tuesday and Wednesday, July 12-13. There are three departure times each day for this annual bus tour to some amazing private gardens in the Twin Cities.
This year, the four gardens on the tour include, according to the arb’s press release “a beautiful shade garden with 20 garden beds and ponds on almost an acre; a restored shoreline that is a natural habitat featuring native plants, a rock garden and shady woodland area; a colorful collection of gardens from decorative to kitchen plots that includes a special chicken house; and an environmental garden created to attract birds, mammals, amphibians and bees that showcases water features, fine art and natural wooden sculptures.”
The tour costs $60 or $55 per person (depending on the day) and includes travel on air-conditioned motor coaches and a delicious brunch on Sunday (champagne included!) or a garden-inspired lunch on the weekdays, served on the Morgan Terrace at the arb. Reservations are limited and half of the ticket price is tax- deductible, with proceeds benefiting the Auxiliary’s work at the arboretum. You can register (before June 30) either online or by calling 612-625-9865.
Now that’s a great sounding tour! Let me know which garden tours you like to attend each year. I go on several each year to look for gardens to profile in Northern Gardener.
Sunday (March 13) I noticed this little Iris reticulata blooming in my front garden. This plant is often the first one to bloom in my Minnesota garden, and 2016 is the earliest ever for it to bloom.
In 2012, a notably warm spring, the plant bloomed on March 15. However, in many years, it is well into April before it blooms. Here are the bloom dates I have noted in the blog in the past:
2009 — April 16
2010 — March 25
2011 — April 4
2012 — March 15
2013 — April 22
2014 — after April 20 (no exact date noted)
2015 — last year I dropped the ball and did not note when the iris bloomed.
As you can see, there has been almost six weeks in variation when the iris blooms. I’m actually hoping we get some cooler weather over the next couple of weeks—spring needs to slow down. One thing I remember from 2012 is that the fruit trees bloomed early. Later there was a freeze, causing devastation for apple growers around the state.