Garden Resolutions for 2019

It’s that strange time of the year when every day seems like a Sunday, and there’s plenty of time to think about what you’ll change for the year ahead. For gardeners, the failures of the previous season have faded enough and it’s time to stiffen our backs, page through the seed catalogs arriving daily and make some garden resolutions.

Here are five I’m pondering for the year ahead:

light on house plants
My house faces south but a number of large trees affect the light on the boulevard in summer. Knowing your light helps gardeners choose the right plants.

Watch the sun, know its path. Gardeners in the North especially face extreme differences in sun paths and sunlight between the shortest days in December and the long ones in June. In my new urban garden, I’m planning a boulevard native plant garden for the front. But as I stood in the yard in September, removing sod for another project, I could not help but notice that the area seemed shadier than I’d thought. The trees from nearby yards and the planted median in front of our house were throwing a lot of shade in a full-south spot. Maybe all those grasses and coreopsis and coneflowers I had planned might not work? So starting this month, I’ll be watching the sun and shade patterns on that stretch of lawn. By May, when I plan to plant, I’ll have a good idea of where the sun falls and for how long. Knowing how much sun you have and when it hits is vital to making plant selections.

Mexican sunflower big
I may have let these get a little out of control. I am standing on a raised bed and still are shorter than the plants.

Plant BIG plants on the edges. Last year, I grew Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia) in my backyard. If you have ever grown them, you know how big they can get. And, while I loved the bright orange flowers (see the photo at the end of the post to see why) and the incredible privacy they gave us, it started to feel claustrophobic by fall. I still plan to plant them, but only on the edges of that yard. A gal’s got to breath.

Work on that second (and third) crop. While we don’t have a long vegetable growing season in Minnesota, it is possible to get more than one crop of many short-season vegetables, such as lettuce, spinach and radishes. Last year, I harvested all my ‘Minnesota Midget‘ melons by early August—leaving a big hole in a section of the vegetable beds. I ended up adding herbs that I purchased to the bed, but paying more attention to timing and planning for second or possibly third crops is a good goal for 2019. Speaking of timing….

Hold off on seed starting. I’ve gotten a lot better at this as I’ve matured as a gardener, but you really do not need to start a ton of seeds for Minnesota before late March or even April. Tomatoes, for example, can’t be planted outside without protection before Memorial Day (or the first week of June) most years. So, unless you plan to use row covers, cold frames or other season-extenders, starting seeds with the proper amount of time between germination and planting out will result in stronger plants. Check the back of the seed packet, count back from your last frost date (early to mid-May in most of Minnesota) and plan from there.

morning glory on fence
Growing flowering vines, like morning glories, on a trellis and fence increases privacy.

Grow up! As an urban gardener, my space is limited and growing plants on trellises and climbing apparatuses is the best way to grow more. I have a number of trellises in the garden, and by the end of summer, my back fence is covered with flowering vines. But I’ve got my eye on a couple of new places where I can grow vining crops. As the famous garden writer, Katharine White said, “onward and upward in the garden!”

Whatever your resolutions or plans for next year, I wish you a happy, productive and meaningful 2019!

monarch on mexican sunflower
Why let a sunflower get so large? Because of monarchs, of course.

Three Books for Beginning Veg Gardeners in the North

A few years ago (gosh, it was 10!), I did a list of best books for beginning gardeners, with a focus on vegetable gardening. Those books are still good options, but several more recent books are really worth adding to your collection. And, any of them would make a wonderful gift for a young gardener just starting out.

vegetable garden bookThe Homegrown Pantry (Storey Publishing, 2017) by Barbara Pleasant is the perfect book for a vegetable gardener who also loves to cook (and isn’t that most of us?). It’s also great for gardeners who aren’t sure how much to grow and want to make the most of their space, their time in the garden and their time in the kitchen. The focus of this book is both on growing vegetables, herbs and fruit, and on storing and processing them. It’s full of the kind of information your grandma learned from her mom, but updated for modern homes, kitchens and gardens.

The books starts with an explanation of why it’s good to grow your own produce, then covers basic storing and preserving techniques, including useful photos and step-by-step methods. The bulk of the book covers veg-by-veg information on how much to grow, best varieties and best ways to preserve the vegetable. For instance, she recommends growing five sweet pepper plants and 2 hot pepper plants per person. (I’d half that number for each child.) Then suggests varieties such as ‘Sweet Banana’ and ‘Early Jalapeno’. She covers when to plant them, how to care for them during the season and common pests and diseases to watch out for. She then explains how to dry, pickle and make sauce with them. Every vegetable and fruit gets this in-depth treatment.

Pleasant lives in Virginia, but her growing recommendations are based on frost-dates, so it’s easy to modify instructions for a northern climate. If you think this book might be too much for your newbie gardener, consider Starter Vegetable Gardens (Storey Publishing, 2010), also by Pleasant, which includes 24 plans for a beginner’s vegetable garden. One of the plans is specifically for shorter-season gardens.

The Timber Press Guide to Vegetable Gardening in the Midwest (Timber Press, 2015) by Michael VanderBrug is the perfect gardener’s Christmas gift because your favorite gardener can start using it in January. The book takes gardeners, month-by-month, through the year with what-to-do-when instructions. VanderBrug is a professional gardener who lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, so he knows cold. What I loved about this book is how well he explained the various climate zones of the Midwest and modified his instructions based on which zone a gardener is in. This is a basic vegetable gardening book, covering soil, watering, ways to trellis plants, seed starting and all the how-tos that go into vegetable gardening. The book also includes a helpful chart on when to plant and harvest each vegetable as well as variety recommendations specifically for Midwestern gardeners.

I did a mini-review of John Whitman’s Fresh from the Garden: An Organic Guide to Growing Vegetables, Berries and Herbs in Cold Climates, (University of Minnesota Press, 2017) about a year ago. Since then Whitman received the Gold Award from GWA, the organization of garden writers and communicators (beating out both my book and Pleasant’s). I’m a bit on the fence about recommending this book to a complete beginner, but if your gardener likes a thorough explanation of how to grow vegetables in the North and is committed to organic methods—this is your guide.

Whitman offers comprehensive information on everything from amending the soil when you start a garden to how to grow edamame organically in Minnesota. It’s the kind of book your new gardener will return to again and again as experience and love of gardening grows.

Three Gifts Especially for Northern Gardeners

Tis the season for lists of gifts for gardeners. There are lots of tools and books that make great gifts, but for cold-climate gardeners, you have some special choices.

Here are three any northern gardener would love.

A Mosquito-Proof Jumpsuit

mosquito jumpsuit gift
Photo courtesy of Meshed. Jumpsuits fit intentionally lose.

I was the lucky winner of this mosquito-proof jumpsuit from Meshed at the Garden Bloggers Fling in Austin, Texas, in May. The suit is made of a mesh material and is designed as a nontoxic way to keep mosquitoes, ticks and other nasties off your skin while gardening or in the outdoors. The suit fits loosely but snugs up against the wrist and ankles. The loose fit is intentional, and the suit can be used by pregnant women, as in the photo. Obviously, if you are going to be outside in the woods or garden in Minnesota, you want to add socks and shoes to your ensemble. Disclaimer: I did not get as much of a chance to test out the suit this summer as I had hoped. My new urban garden has fewer bugs than the one I had in rural Minnesota so I did not use the suit much. Still, this is a great idea, and if you are haunted by ticks or mosquitoes on your property, it would certainly be worth a try.

An Ice Scraper

The year my husband gave me a long-handled ice-scraper and chopper for Christmas, our daughters groaned. Really, can you get any less romantic? I had requested the scraper and I use it proudly still, though it’s now more than 20 years old. If you garden in the North, you likely have ice  and  hard-pack snow — on your sidewalk, your driveway, paths you want to keep open — and nothing is as good at removing snow and ice as a long-handled scraper/chopper. Using a scraper will keep your walks clear of ice and safer to walk on, as well as reducing the need for deicer, which can be harmful to gardens. Scraping up ice is also a great way to work out your aggressions about why winter is lasting so darn long!

apricot amaryllis in bloom gift
Amaryllis are easy to grow and bring a lot of joy to the cooped up gardener.

Something to Cheer Them Up

The holidays are wonderful, but those long dark days of December and January can be a real drag on gardeners. So give a gift that cheers them up. An amaryllis bulb in a decorative pot will grow and bloom for several weeks. A less-expected gift would be some new seed-starting equipment. I love the four-bulb shoplight I got last year — much better than a two-bulber for starting seeds. Or, how about this greenhouse ornament? That’s something a gardener could wish upon during December.

And, of course, you could always get them a book.

Happy Holidays!


Every Garden a Liberty Garden

Sunday marks the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, the end of what was then considered “the war to end all wars.” I have a personal interest in those sad and frightening days in November 1918, when the flu pandemic was sweeping through the world and Europe was in shambles. My grandmother was a very young graduate of St. Raphael’s School of Nursing in St. Cloud, Minnesota, in November 1918 (a photo of her class is below). Because all the doctors and experienced nurses were working nonstop dealing with flu patients, she was immediately sent to St. Cloud Hospital to deliver babies. (I’m sure the mothers-to-be were thrilled to see a 22-year-old there to help them through labor.)

So, when I was doing research for my book, I was especially interested in how gardeners responded during those years around the First World War and then later during World War II. Liberty Gardens – also called Victory Gardens – began in England in 1914 and came to the United States in 1917. A poor potato crop that year meant the military could not purchase enough food for troops, and President Woodrow Wilson and others encouraged home gardeners to join the fight and grow their own food. This would leave more commercially grown food for the troops and for distribution to people in Europe, some of whom were starving. Homegrown food also allowed railroads to be used to transport other goods and troops.

world war I garden poster
Posters and educational material encouraged home gardening during World War I.

The response was impressive, with all sorts of school and community gardens forming and home gardeners doing their bit. In 1917, 350 million pounds of food came from Liberty Gardens. Neighbors were encouraged to share land, tools and canning equipment. Seeds were precious commodities and instruction manuals (here’s one) gave explicit directions for garden location, soil amendment, how to sequence plantings, fighting pests and storing food for winter, both in the home and in community storage facilities. What’s striking about these manuals is that much of the information is still good (the pest stuff is a little chemical heavy for my taste)—and it’s given in brief, direct language. Buy seeds early. Space plants according to directions so you don’t waste seed. Plant cabbages 15 inches apart in rows 30 inches apart. Plant radishes and early lettuce between the rows. Dig potatoes on bright days and allow them to lay on the ground a few hours. Save next year’s seed from this year’s crop. Don’t waste anything. Help your country.

In World War II, the movement returned with Victory Gardens, community canning sites and other efforts to grow food to feed those on the home front. Some of those Victory Gardens are still in existence, such as Dowling Community Garden in Minneapolis. And, the idea of gardening in community or alone remains compelling. I don’t think its a surprise that in these times of vast technological change more young people are growing plants and food and many community gardens have waiting lists.

Every garden is liberating. Gardening gets us out of our heads and the social media din that surrounds many of us today. It’s something we do with our hands and senses. We smell the tang of marigolds; touch a tomato to feel its ripeness, hear the bees and birds that will flock to just about any garden. We taste the bitter leaves of argula or the tart cherries just picked in early July. We stretch our muscles while weeding and learn to spy the caterpillars and insects hiding in the soil and beneath the petals of flowers. We pay attention.  

Food gardening, particularly, liberates us to make decisions about what goes into our bodies and how we treat the plots of earth in our care. Gardening also connects communities, as anyone who has ever planted more than a couple of trees and some shrubs in the front yard knows. Nothing gets neighbors to stop for a chat like a front-yard tomato or a boulevard filled with pollinator plants.

Liberty Gardens started a long time ago, but it’s an attitude and a tradition we still need.

nursing students in white caps and gowns
St. Raphael’s School of Nursing class graduating in November 1918. My grandmother is back row, far right. Photo from St. Cloud Hospital School of Nursing Alumnae Association, downloaded via Minnesota Reflections.


What to Do with Not-Quite-Ripe Winter Squash? Recipes Included

My ‘Honeynut’ winter squash got a late start in the garden this year, and that, coupled with our cold, wet fall, left me with a big pile of not-quite-ripe squash. It’s not that the squash are not ripe enough to eat—although some are pretty green—they are just not ripe enough to store over a long period.

Butternut squash is the only winter squash I grow in my small urban garden, and Honeynut is by far my favorite variety. The plants sprawl like other squash, but they are extremely productive and the fruits are delicious. In the past, I’ve followed standard squash procedure, curing them outside on warm fall days, and then storing them for a few months in a cool spot in the basement. (My experience is that well-cured, ripe squash will keep until mid-January in a typical, unfinished basement in Minnesota. After that, it’s time to cook it off.)

But what to do with squash that is not ripe? You can continue to ripen unripe squash by bringing them inside, washing them off and putting them in a sunny spot. You watch them carefully, turning them occasionally until they reach the proper color for eating. About 10 of my unripe squash are currently taking the indoor sun cure. I will report later how they do.

squash on table
Not-quite-ripe squash bask in the indoor sun.

Three of the squash had some knicks in them, so they will be used in my fall mum pot for Halloween.

The rest I decided to cook. (Two recipes follow)

Roasted Honeynut Squash Half-Moons

Turn the oven to 400 degrees F. Cut off the tops and bottoms of a squash, then peel it and remove the seeds. Cut it in half and cut the halves into slices. (Mine are about 1/4 of an inch thick, but would have been better thinner.) Place the halves in a single layer on a sheet pan and sprinkle about 2 tablespoons of olive oil over it. Move the slices around to coat. Add a generous shake of salt and pepper. Slide the pan into the oven and roast for 20 minutes. Squash is not as dry as potatoes, for example, so it may be a bit mushy. An alternative would be to cut the squash into 1-inch cubes and roast it that way. Thinner slices will dry and crisp more and taste more chip-like.

Steaming the Squash and Muffins!

squash muffins on plate
The finished muffins.

The rest of the squash I steamed so it could be easily mashed and frozen. To steam it, I set a steamer rack in a large soup pot with an inch or two of water in it. I cut the squash into halves, leaving the skin on. Set the halves on the rack (about 2 squash per batch) and cover the pot. Steam for 25 to 35 minutes, depending on the size of the squash. You want to squash to be soft when you stick a fork in it so it can be easily mashed. Once cool, I packed the squash into quart size bags, two cups per bag. I flattened the bags on a cookie tray so they would freeze in an easy to store shape. Squash is a nutritious replacement for potatoes and a great addition to fall sweets.

Butternut squash are just one step away from pumpkin so I decided to make a batch of muffins with some of the steamed squash.

Honeynut Squash Muffins

Heat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Prepare a 12-cup muffin pan with paper liners or spray with nonstick spray.

Mixed together with a whisk:

2 cups all-purpose flour, unbleached

1/2 tsp baking powder

1 tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp salt

1 tsp cinnamon

Set aside, and in a large bowl mix together:

2 eggs

1/4 cup canola oil (or melted butter)

1/2 cup brown sugar

1 tsp vanilla

1 1/2 cups mashed squash (or pumpkin)

Whisk the wet ingredients until thoroughly mixed. I use an immersion blender to make sure the squash strings and bits are incorporated. Then gently add the dry ingredients to the wet and stir to blend. (You could also add a half cup or so of raisins, chocolate chips or nuts at this point. I went plain.) Divide the mixture evenly among the 12 muffin cups and bake in the center of the oven for 18-22 minutes. These are not super sweet muffins, so if you like a bit more sweetness consider adding the raisins or even frosting the muffins.



Sod Busted: 4 Ways to Remove Turf Grass

I spent a recent Sunday ripping turf from the front lawn of our house as part of a garden expansion project. It’s not the first time I’ve removed turf grass though it may have been the most painful! This grass was very healthy and had a good grip on the soil below. It had rained about five days earlier, but the lawn had had time to dry, the weather was fine and it seemed like a good day to rip the lawn.


sod removed from garden bed
I’m a long way from having the front of our house look the way I want it to, but this bed which will feature trees, spring bulbs and a native groundcover is a good start.

I know there are other ways to remove sod (detailed below), and I’ve done most of them. But because the space was relatively small and I did not want to do anything to hurt my back, which is a bit tetchy, I decided cutting the lawn in small pieces using a sharp shovel and then pulling them up by hand was probably the way to go. The method is detailed in this video by the folks at Garden Answer. The good news: my back felt great when I was done. The bad news: my hands and arms were in agony. It seems that pulling sod up by the roots for several hours is a serious work out.

What else could I have done to remove the sod? Here are four other options.

The sod kicker. I’ve used this tool before and knew it would wreck havoc on the back. The sod kicker looks like an old-fashioned person-powered plow, with a sharp blade between the two handles at the bottom and a wooden or metal rod a foot or so above that. You place the blade under the sod, then give it a kick on the rod. The kick moves the blade under the sod, giving you a neat cut. After it’s cut, you roll the sod up and haul it away. At least that’s the theory. I used a sod kicker at our garden in Northfield many years ago, and maybe the blade was not that sharp or my latent lack of coordination kicked in, but I could not get the blade to advance very far with each kick. (I vaguely recall giving one mighty kick and ending up on my rear-end in the dirt.) Nope. The sod kicker was out.

Rototilling. My next-door neighbors did this when they dug up part of their yard last year. You rent a Rototiller, then roll it around the area you want to remove the grass from. Once the grass is all turned up, you pick up the sod bits, shake off the dirt and plant your garden. I’ve always been wary of this method because you inevitably leave lots of bits of sod in the area, meaning you will spend years pulling grass from the bed. Rototilling is also a great way to dig up weed seeds buried in the soil and plant them in your new garden. Finally, while I did not want my sod anymore, it was good stuff, and through the magic of the neighborhood online message board, most of it went to good homes.

The Smother Method. This is my preferred method of transforming lawn to garden. As I’ve detailed on the blog before, the smother method (sometimes called the lasagna method) takes much less muscle but requires more time. You wet the area you want to remove sod from, put down layers of cardboard or newspapers, then cover it all with soil or mulch and wait until the next spring. I considered using the this method but … well, I just really wanted to get going on my new front garden design, which includes planting two more trees and a whole bunch of bulbs in this garden area. And, as gardeners know, fall is a great time to plant trees. This is not the first time my impatience has caused me pain.

Hire it done. Yes, I could have (and probably should have) paid for help.  But again, impatient. When I rip all the sod from the boulevard, which is part of next year’s projects, I’ll be looking for young people with strong backs to lend a hand. Send names.

Further good news: The project is complete, my hands are no longer swollen, and by the end of the week, two trees and about 300 crocus, daffodils, snow drops and other minor bulbs (no tulips!) will be planted. A few bags of mulch to cover and it will be mission accomplished!

What are your fall gardening plans? 

A Toast to Minnesota’s Heritage Melon, Recipe Included

It’s been a great summer for Minnesota Midget melons, a small cantaloupe-type melon that grows very well in the North. I’ve got three Minnesota Midget melon plants, all growing in containers and all doing great.  So great, in fact, that I’ve been looking for ways to use them, including the cooler recipe you’ll find at the end of the post.


cantaloupe cut in half
Minnesota Midget melons are small but tasty and grow really well in northern climates.

Minnesota Midget was developed at the University of Minnesota and introduced right after World War II.  I can’t help but wonder if the melon was developed in part to encourage owners of smaller properties to plant Victory Gardens. While researching the vegetable chapter of The Northern Gardener: From Apples to Zinnias, I read several pamphlets from the U on growing vegetables in very small spaces: they called them “rug gardens,” because you could grow a lot of food in a 9-by-12 space. But that’s another story.

Minnesota Midget melons grow on relatively short vines—mine are about 3 to 4 feet long, though the longest vine may be 5 feet. They flower profusely, and then set fruit. Each of the vines I have has 4 to 8 melons on it, varying from the size of a softball to just-a-bit smaller than a grocery store cantaloupe. When they are ripe, they separate easily from the vine. You should try to harvest before they fall off the vine, so right now I’m doing daily inspections to remove any melons that are getting ripe.

This year, they have not been hard to grow at all! I started the seeds indoors and set them in their containers in early June. The vines took off. Like all melons, they like sun and a relatively rich, well-drained soil.  Because they are in containers, I’ve been checking to make sure the melons are all supported well. I had to sacrifice a pair of pantyhose to rig up supports for a couple of them.

A Melon Cooler

icy drink in garden
Enjoy a refreshing melon cooler in the garden.

This recipe is a modification of one I found in Amy Thielen’s The New Midwestern Table, which is a fantastic cookbook full of good stories and delicious recipes.

1 cup sugar

1 cup water

3 limes, zested and the juice

Ginger root, a piece the size of your thumb

1 or more Minnesota Midget melons (or other cantaloupe)

Ice, fizzy water for serving

Put the sugar and water in a pot and bring it to a boil to dissolve the sugar into the water. While it’s heating up, remove the zest from the three limes (I peeled it off with a vegetable peeler) and peel and slice the ginger. When the water is heated, take it off the heat and put the ginger pieces and lime zest in to soak. Let the water cool.

When the water is room temp, juice the lime, and seed and remove the flesh from your melon. Put the sugar syrup (with the ginger and lime pieces), the lime juice and the melon flesh in a blender. Give it a whirl until it’s smooth. You may want to strain the resulting mixture through a sieve.

To serve it, put about 1/3 cup of the melon mixture in a tall glass with ice and top it off with fizzy water. I’m not a hard-liquor person, but if I were . . .

This recipe is not set in stone: Make it more or less sweet depending on your taste, add more lime, more melon, more ginger, depending on what you like and what you have on hand. Add some mint leaves to the infusion or anything else that strikes your fancy.

My melon was small so I added a bit more flesh from another melon to give the drink enough melon taste. Feel free to adjust and enjoy!



Update on the Container Tomatoes

Leaf curl and blossom end rot have been problems for my container tomatoes, but not serious ones — at least so far.  Despite the heat, humidity and rain of the early summer, it looks like this will be a good year for tomatoes.

First, the facts: As of mid-July, Minnesota has seen the highest combined levels of heat and humidity ever recorded. Ever. Recorded. That means, in terms of heat AND humidity, it is worse than 1936 or 1988, two years that were noted for their terrible heat and large number of 90+ degree days.  This time, it’s not just the heat, it really is the humidity. Fortunately, the last couple of weeks have been down-right pleasant for people and plants.

Green pear tomatoes on vine
Chocolate Pear tomatoes ripen on the vine.

So, how are the tomatoes doing?

With one exception, the container tomatoes (five plants total) look good. (I have another tomato in the ground that’s growing well.) They have adequate, healthy looking foliage with no signs of blight or spots on the leaves. I am seeing leaf curl, which can be caused by many things, but in my case may be simply because of inconsistent watering. We have had a lot of rain — often in short periods — and this can cause leaves to curl as a defense mechanism. I have watered the tomatoes daily during the dry periods at the soil level to keep watering consistent and prevent splashing soil up on leaves. I’m also giving them regular doses of fish emulsion because nutrients are probably running out of the soil with all the rain.

One of my tomatoes—a yellow pear—really, really did not like growing in a container. Its leaves always curled more than the other plants and its fruit had more blossom end rot than any of the others. One day last week, I threw in the trowel.

“You want out of the container—fine!”

I had a spot near our fence that gets decent light and didn’t have anything growing in it. I dug a big hole — the plant was large! I pruned the plant back to reduce the amount of foliage it had to support; added some organic tomato fertilizer to the hole, pulled it out of its pot and dropped it in. I gave it a good watering and added back the soil to make the fit snug. Frankly, I’m not sure how it will do . I’ve never heard of transplanting tomatoes at this size, but it actually looks happy. It has produced some new flowers since the transplant, though and that’s a good sign.

Yellow pears are one of my favorite tomatoes, because I like to make Thomas Jefferson’s jam with them. In the past, they have produced well into the fall.

Blossom end rot

Bleech! Blossom end rot.

Sorry for the gross photo, but that’s what I’m seeing on some of my tomatoes. Blossom end rot  is also related to inconsistent watering. Because most of the over-watering has been done by Mother Nature, there isn’t a lot you can do. I have been picking any tomatoes that show signs of blossom end rot off the plant as soon as I see it. Why have a plant put the energy into producing rotten fruit? It’s early enough in the season that the plants will continue to set flowers and produce healthy fruit.

Harvest Time?

We are getting into peak harvest season for tomatoes. So far, I’ve picked a half a dozen or so, mostly plum and cherry tomatoes. A couple of my big slicers have fruit that is ripening fast, so I’m hopeful I’ll be enjoying a big BLT within  a week or so.

How are your tomatoes doing?



Three All-Star Pollinator Plants

There are many plants that attract, feed and nurture pollinating insects and birds. And, every gardener will have favorites. In my garden, there are three plants that always seem to be covered with bees and butterflies. Here’s the rundown:

Bees swarm anise hyssop from the minute it blooms each summer.

Anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) is the biggest bee magnet in my yard. Sometimes called giant anise hyssop or hummingbird mint, I can attest to both its size and its lovely scent. I have three of these planted below the window in my garage that faces the back garden. (Check out the photo of the giant trio at the end of this post.) The plants are currently above the garage window sill and covered the blooms. One caveat: They do seed rather freely — like crazy freely! Fortunately, the seedlings are very easy to identify by their appearance and scent and are quick to pull.

orange monarch butterfly on purple flower
Monarch on liatris in Twin Cities garden

Blazing star (LIatris spp.) is a plant both butterflies and bees love. In my Northfield garden, I had ‘Kobold’ liatris in the front garden. This plant has a lovely bottle-brush flower and was a favorite with many butterflies as well as bees. Maintenance could not have been easier. Once it was established, I cut back the old flowers in spring. That’s it. Nothing more. Rarely watered and never fertilized it. For my new back garden, I planted meadow blazing star (L. ligulistylis) on recommendation from pollinator expert Rhonda Fleming Hayes. It’s in its first year in the garden, so it has not gotten as tall as advertised yet. I’m hoping for good things from this one!

monarch on orange flower
Mexican sunflower (Tithonia) is a monarch magnet

Mexican sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia) is that plant you see all over Instragram with monarch butterflies on it. (Check out my feed to see one.) After milkweed, which is the only plant monarch’s lay eggs on, Mexican sunflower is probably the most popular plant with monarchs that I have ever planted. Once the blooms start doing their bright orange thing, the monarchs are there. Bees also love it. The plant itself is large—4 to 5 feet tall—and the foliage is big and not exactly pretty, but the flowers, the flowers, the flowers. For them and the monarchs, I plant this one.

What are your favorite pollinator plants?

Three giant hyssop plants easily fill the space below my garage window.

Why Grow Tomatoes in Containers?

This is the first year that I am growing the majority of my tomatoes in containers, and wow, are they doing well! I decided to go with containers because I’m using my raised beds for a cutting garden, and I’ve found that growing tomatoes in my regular garden beds results in slow growth and late-season diseases. I planted one tomato in the ground and it is definitely lagging behind the guys in the containers.

Why grow tomatoes in containers? A few reasons:

An 18-inch container may be a little tight, but most tomatoes do well in 18- to 24-inch containers.

1. You control the soil. For my container tomatoes, I used large containers and a high-quality potting mix.  The mix has most of what the tomatoes need in terms of nutrients and I will add some bone meal or liquid fish emulsion as the tomatoes produce fruit to keep the calcium and fertility levels up.  The potting soil also lacks all the soil-borne diseases that tend to hang out in the ground—that’s a good thing!

2. Decent drainage. We’ve had a pretty wet early summer in Minnesota. (We had a solid 3 inches in the past week and many areas of Minnesota had much more.) Unlike the ground, which can get water-logged, containers drain well. (I’m considering adding pot feet to my containers to ensure even better drainage.) They have holes in the bottom so excess moisture moves away from the roots, preventing root rot. One disadvantage of container tomatoes is that in dry spells you have to stay on top of watering. Tomatoes need consistent—but not excessive—moisture throughout the growing season to perform best and avoid blossom end rot.

3. Air circulation, easily. Every time I plant tomatoes in the ground, I end up putting them too close together. They look so little when they go in the garden and it’s hard to imagine how big they will get — and how entwined in each other.  With tomatoes in pots, I can move the pots if they get bigger than expected and start encroaching on their neighbors. Air circulation is another important factor in the health of tomatoes.

4. Easy to cage. The pots I chose for my tomatoes are all 18 inches in diameter. For really large tomatoes, you could go even bigger, but the 18-inch pots are a perfect fit for the standard size tomato cage, which I put on the tomatoes a few days after planting. Don’t wait to cage your tomatoes.

Green tomatoes already on some of the plants!

5) Easy to pick. Container tomatoes are elevated by the height of the pot so it’s easy to see when fruit is ripe. The elevation also makes it harder for rabbits and voles (though unfortunately, not squirrels) to get at the tomatoes. For squirrels — a bit more engineering may be necessary.

Many of the usual instructions for growing tomatoes apply to container tomatoes — place them in a very sunny spot, plant them deeply in the container to allow roots to form, and pinch extraneous foliage to keep the plant focused on producing fruit. Generally, determinate tomatoes are recommended for container growing, though I’m growing several types of heirloom tomatoes and I think most of them are indeterminate.

I will report how things go as the season progresses! Do you grow tomatoes in containers?