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.

Two New Garden Books to Read

There are so many solid gardening books out now that it’s hard to keep up with them. Here are mini-reviews of two that I’ve read lately and appreciate.

The Wellness Garden

Chicago-area gardener, writer and blogger Shawna Coronado recently came out with a new book on her experiences gardening with chronic disease. Called The Wellness Garden: How to Grow, Eat and Walk Your Way to Better Health (Cool Springs Press, 2017), it describes how she used food, gardening and walking to deal with extreme chronic pain.  The book begins with her own health journey. Coronado was diagnosed with severe degenerative osteoarthritis of the spine, which made gardening and other activities incredibly painful. Working with a nutritionist, she changed how she eats, banning grains, sugars and dairy from her diet and adding in more wholesome fats (avocados, seeds, etc.) and organic vegetables. This anti-inflammatory diet reduced her pain levels significantly, and she was able to add walking 60 minutes a day and yoga, as well as gardening, to her health routine over time.

For gardeners, the book offers encouragement and advice on growing foods organically and extending the gardening season so you can enjoy healthy homegrown vegetables for much of the year. She also offers wonderful tips on growing food in raised containers to reduce stooping and bending as well as how to use tools in ways that are less likely to cause injury or pain. These techniques are thoroughly illustrated and explained—and should be mandatory reading for gardeners over 50. Some of the gardening information may be familiar to experienced gardeners, but Coronado’s focus on health and exercise makes this a unique book for gardeners. It also recognizes and celebrates something many of us know in our hearts—physically, emotionally and spiritually, gardening heals.

For those with health concerns, especially chronic disease, the book offers a well-researched road map to improved well-being. I loved that Coronado rebutted some of the silly health claims floating around the internet. Her advice about a vegetable-heavy diet, yoga for improved mental health and walking as a way to strengthen and heal the body is given with clarity, kindness, enthusiasm and appropriate caveats about seeking medical advice for your specific condition. My only quibble is I wish she had included a menu of what she eats each day—I think that would have helped readers understand how to put the diet together better. But that is minor. Overall, this is an inspiring book for anyone who wants to be healthier and knows that can be achieved in the garden.

Fresh from the Garden

I was happy to attend the Terrace Horticultural Book Awards event earlier this year for John Whitman, author of Fresh From the Garden: An Organic Guide to Growing Vegetables, Berries and Herbs in Cold Climates (University of Minnesota Press, 2017). John has written or co-written several other guides for northern gardeners and is an expert at getting the most from your garden. His books are known for being thorough and well researched.

Fresh from the Garden is a comprehensive guide to growing vegetables in the North. Whitman begins with more than 100 pages of instructions on everything from building soil to growing vegetables in containers, raised beds and straw bales as well as thorough descriptions of seed types, seed starting procedures, transplanting, watering, staking and just about anything else you need to know to grow a good vegetable garden. The remainder of the book is a plant-by-plant list of what you might grow in a northern vegetable garden.

Each chapter covers growing needs, seed selection and starting, diseases and pests as well as mulching, thinning or pruning, if needed. It also includes lists of varieties of each vegetable that grow well in the North. I plan to use this as a reference as I’m selecting seeds and deciding what to grow in next year’s garden.  It’s also helpful for plants you have had problems with in the past as Whitman covers so many of the possible problems you might have with each plant.

For a dedicated vegetable gardener, this would be a fantastic gift and eventually a well-worn reference from a source you can trust.

What books are you gardening books are you reading now?




Holiday Mini-Container, Book Signings and a Very Chilly Dog

It’s a big weekend ahead for me, with two book signings and lots of holiday decorating to do around the house. I love putting together holiday containers for outside my front door, so I thought it would be fun to do a mini-container to take with me this weekend to spruce up my table at the signings.

The first event is from noon to 4 at the Warden House in Stillwater, where I will be one of several authors signing books of regional interest. Stillwater is a fun town for shopping and wandering around—it reminds me of another terrific Minnesota town: Northfield! I hope folks will come down and check it out. The second signing is at the Minnesota History Center, where it is double discount days for members of the historical society. I’ll be hanging around on Sunday from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. signing books. A whole bunch of the Minnesota Historical Society Press authors are being featured this weekend.

Once everything was assembled, putting this together took about 10 minutes.

Because it’s nice to have something to talk about with people (besides the book, of course), I put together this simple pot. The container is a small terra-cotta pot that I painted red and black, and filled with dirt. I found the reading Santa figure at Joann Fabrics for 60 percent off and he seemed like an appropriate addition. I glued a large nail to his base so he would be anchored during transport. Then, I surrounded Santa with greens, mostly from my yard, such as spruce, arborvitae, rhododendron and sedum. The boxwood and other greens came from a bouquet I purchased at the store, most of which is available for other decor.

We really do not keep our house as chilly as Lola’s blanket might indicate. She watched the container decorating with interest.

Once I had painted the pot, snipped the greens and bought the Santa, the whole project took less than 10 minutes to put together, under the watchful gaze of Lola, the dog, who is not enjoying our recent cold weather. While I like the way the pot looks, I may add a bow or something to brighten it up.

I’m working on a bigger container for my porch, which I hope to get finished soon since the holidays are coming on fast.

What are your favorite holiday container ideas?

Minnesota’s Horticultural Heroes

On Sunday, I’ll be in Northfield talking about a few of Minnesota’s horticultural heroes who I encountered while working on my new book, The Northern Gardener: From Apples to Zinnias, 150 years of Garden Wisdom. The book will be released in about two months! But because I have a long association with the Friends and Foundation of the Northfield Public Library, my friends in the Friends asked if I would give a pre-publication talk for the Friends’ annual meeting. Happily! The talk follows the Friends’ annual meeting at 2 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 24, at the library.

The Northern Gardener book is a fun combination of history and how-to. It’s the kind of book I would have liked when I first started gardening, full of practical tips, solid information for northern gardeners, fun stories and an occasional eccentric character. It’s this last part that I’ll be focusing on in my talk with the Friends.

When early European settlers first came to Minnesota and other northern states, they were stunned by the weather—and by how limiting our cold climate was to what they could grow. They were particularly obsessed with fruit and their inability to grow the apples, cherries and other fruits that they enjoyed in the eastern part of the United States. This desire for apples is what led to the formation of the Minnesota State Horticultural Society and to more than 150 years of apple breeding, peony growing, tree hybridizing and a relentless drive to create hardier, more prolific and more beautiful plants.

One of these ladies was a Gold Star mother and state Victory Garden leader during World War II.

Minnesota’s horticultural heroes were an interesting lot, from the spiritualist who developed one of the state’s first hardy apples to the priest/professor who tested thousands of plants on the grounds of St. John’s Abbey to the Gold Star mother who organized Victory Gardens throughout Duluth and was the first woman president of the state horticultural society.

If you live in Northfield, please stop by to learn more about these horticultural heroes. Another note: the wonderful people at Content Bookstores will be taking pre-orders of the book at my talk.



Book Review: Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life

Beatrix potter bookWhen my children were young, an older relative gave us a petite set of books by the children’s author Beatrix Potter. With their warm water-color illustrations and sweetly droll humor, the books soon became a favorite of mine. I think the girls liked them, too. So I was thrilled to receive a review copy of Marta McDowell’s Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life: The Plants and Places that Inspired the Classic Children’s Tales (Timber Press, 2013).

Potter’s books are filled with illustrations and stories that gardeners can appreciate, from Peter Rabbit’s forays into Mr. McGregor’s garden (the longer I garden, the more I side with Mr. McGregor) to silly Jemima Puddleduck picking onions and sage for a dinner at which she is to be the guest of honor — and the main course — to country mouse Timmy Willy, who falls asleep in a peapod before he is shipped off to the city in a basket of garden produce. Potter loved nature and the country life and her stories and illustrations show it.

McDowell’s book is really three books in one, and each has its own merits. The first part is a biography of Potter, a shy and lonely girl, who took refuge in keeping rabbits and drawing plants and animals. She was a skilled botanical illustrator (mushrooms were a particular specialty) but achieved recognition when The Tale of Peter Rabbit was published in 1901. Her parents were the demanding Victorian type, and disapproved of her writing as well as her romance and engagement to her publisher, Frederick Warne. Sadly, Warne died in 1905 from leukemia.  Grieving and seeking independence, Potter bought Hill Top Farm in the Lake District of western England. There, she continued to produce books (23 in all) and garden. At 47, she married a local attorney and began to buy more property in the area. She published her last book in 1922, and spent the final 25 years of her life as a farmer and conservation activist in the Lake District.

The biography section of the book is entertaining, marked by vibrant prose and an abundance of  drawings and photographs. You get a genuine sense of how Potter’s books reflected her interest in nature and her life as a gardener.

The second section takes a reader through the year in Potter’s garden, from the dark winter to the blooming primroses in June to fall and the harvest season. It’s evocative and well-illustrated and gives a full picture of English country life. Through letters and other material, McDowell shows Potter dealing with many of the problems familiar to all gardeners — invasive plants, poor weather, more ideas and work than time. The last section is a short introduction to visiting Potter’s gardens and farms and the Lake District. Potter left most of her property to the National Trust, so there is a lot to see, if you are able to get to this somewhat out-of-the-way part of England. The book is rounded out with resources and suggestions for further reading as well as plant lists, including lists of all the plants that appear in each of her books as well as those she cultivated.

For Potter fans or lovers of English country life that is not of the Downton Abbey variety, this gardener’s biography is a great read.

Book Review: The Wildlife-Friendly Vegetable Gardener

wildlife friendlyI will never develop the equanimity that Tammi Hartung has towards rodents, rabbits and raccoons, but I admire her dedication to working with nature, respecting natural cycles and accommodating creatures that will pretty much take what they want anyway. And, her new book on vegetable and wildlife gardening has me thinking about new strategies for keeping the critters — and the gardener — happy. If you enjoy wildlife and you enjoy the fruits of your vegetable garden, it’s well worth reading.

The Wildlife-Friendly Vegetable Gardener: How to Grow Food in Harmony with Nature (Storey Publishing, 2014) offers gardeners a philosophy toward wildlife and a variety of methods for giving creatures what they want while still growing enough food for yourself. Hartung, a medical herbalist and organic grower from Colorado, encourages gardeners to begin with careful observation of wildlife and their interaction with your garden. Sit with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine some day and watch what’s happening in your yard. That squirrel you see running about may be burying an acorn, not attacking your green beans, she says. Knowing which creatures frequent your yard, how they interact with each other and what their needs are will help gardeners determine whether action is really needed to curtail their activities.

She gives the example of the tomato hornworm — a creature I’m very familiar with. Large, green and spiky, they look nasty. And, tomato hornworms can indeed defoliate a tomato plant in short order, Hartung says. But their lifecycle is short — 20 days for the caterpillar stage — and the sphinx moths that they morph into are masterful pollinators, as well as stunning garden visitors. Tomato hornworms also are food for parasitic wasps, which may handle hornworm removal for you. So, your better approach might be to tolerate and appreciate rather than destroy. Or, do as one gardener does and plant one tomato just for the hornworms. When hornworms are present, move them over to the designated plant and they will leave the rest of your plants alone, she says.

Hartung’s suggestions of decoy plants to keep critters at bay are particularly useful. Rabbits are my main garden “helpers.” Last year, I added fencing around a vegetable area to get them to back off, but this year I will supplement that with ample plantings of parsley outside of the fence (which they sometimes managed to get into) as well as calendulas to lure aphids from plants I enjoy. Sunflowers will be added to my wild area to bring even more birds into the garden.

If you want to attract wildlife to your garden, this book offers plenty of concrete suggestions, including ways to create habitat for birds, frogs and other creatures, add water features, use hedgerows to provide nesting sites and perennial food sources. Some of her suggestions will be familiar to those already practicing wildlife-friendly gardening, but Hartung fleshes out many suggestions with details on plants and placement. The book also includes plant lists and garden designs for bee-friendly landscapes among others.

One of the highlights of the book are the illustrations by Holly Ward Bimba, which are whimsical and as friendly as the gardens Hartung advocates.



Favorite Garden Photos of 2012

The pot has such great texture, and then there's that owl.
The pot has such great texture, and then there’s that owl.

Do you ever have that experience downloading photos where you go — wow! — I can’t believe I captured that image?  Garden tours often leave me with that sensation — though it’s more due to the beauty of the gardens than any skill I bring to the party. This year, I visited Monet’s Garden in France, where nearly every picture was lovely. Here are a few other favorites from 2012. Interestingly, several of them were take on the same day — June 23 — when I visited the Hudson Wis. Garden Tour. The light was perfect that day — a little overcast, but bright — and the gardens were gorgeous. What was the favorite photo you took in 2012?

Happy New Year!


Five Years of Blogging

Today marks the fifth anniversary of My Northern Garden. I started the blog in September 2007 at a time when garden blogs were sprouting up like dandelions in May, five years after Kathy Purdy started Cold Climate Gardening, which is probably the oldest garden blog for northern gardeners.

blogger with camera
Still gardening, still writing, still blogging, still having fun!

While I’ve often written about trends, plants and tips from experts, most of the previous 617 posts stemmed from what was happening in my own garden.

Some garden bloggers have suggested recently that garden blogs don’t matter much in the days of Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram. While social media is important, people still want content—information that’s been research or experienced and is plainly stated.  So, I plan to continue to blog, to reflect on my gardening experiences and those of others around me.

Things certainly have changed over five years in my garden and in my life. I’ve gone from having two active teenagers at home to an empty nest.  I’ve lost one beloved dog and embraced a second, very different canine. I’ve expanded every garden bed I have and added one completely new one since 2007.”Less grass to mow,” is my mantra, and my husband agreeably goes along with that. I’m moving toward more native plants and have given up on the idea that I will have anything like a cottage garden in this house. We’re on a prairie that become a cornfield that became a neighborhood, so I’m moving my yard slowly back toward its roots.

I’m always intrigued by which posts most interest blog readers. Unfortunately, I switched blog formats in December 2009, so I do not have complete statistics for the blog, but my estimate is about 50,000 people have been here at one time or another. I appreciate every one of those visitors. Very popular stories over the years have included those about red-twig dogwood and those about how to design a holiday container. Posts with recipes are always popularity, especially this one. In the past year, my most popular topics have been the changing climate zones, garden trends and the straw-bale gardens I put in this year.

I’m not sure where blogging will be in another five years — or me or my garden, for that matter. But I’m excited to find out!

Update from 2018: Well, a lot sure has changed, but the blog is still here (though I’ve moved to a different house and garden.) I’m in the midst of changing my blog’s format again and some of my old posts are being removed to make way for new material. My goal remains the same: To provide accurate, balanced information about gardening in the Upper Midwest, and to have some fun along the way. Thanks so much for continuing to read my blog.





Book Review: Macro Photography for Gardeners and Nature Lovers

A Gardener’s Reading, 29 of 30

By Alan L. Detrick (Timber Press, 2008)

Back in 2007, I had a chance to take a day-long photography course with Alan L. Detrick as part of a Garden Writer’s Association event in Kansas City. Even though I was using a point-and-shoot camera (I’m embarrassed to admit that!), Alan was a true gentleman and a fantastic teacher. He even liked some of my pictures, and he truly wanted all of us — editors and writers — to become better photographers.

A few months later, I bought a digital SLR and this book. Macro photography is essentially super closeups done with special lenses. Detrick walks readers through the reasons for taking macro photos, the equipment you’ll need, f-stops, histograms, and the basics of thinking about photos: light, angles, composition, background. Like a true photographer, Detrick believes you get better pictures by paying attention to what you do before you push the shutter rather than trying to adjust the photo on the computer.

The best part of the book are the dozens of photos Detrick has taken in his years of photographing gardens. Each one is accompanied by a lengthy caption explaining how it was taken, the equipment involved and why the photo worked. Often, the book includes side-by-side shots of the same image taken a different way to illustrate a technique or idea.

If you are interested in taking macro photos of plants and gardens, this is a great book. However, I will say that I’ve learned much more from taking short courses on photography from Detrick and from Donna Krischan than from any book. If you have room in your schedule and your budget for a course, that’s really the way to go to improve garden photos. In Minnesota, the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, the North House Folk School and photographer John Gregor are among those offering photo courses geared toward gardens and nature.

Book Review: The Naturescaping Workbook

A Gardener’s Reading, 28 of 30.

By Beth O’Donnell Young (Timber Press, 2011)

Beth O’Donnell Young

A couple of years ago, I started to notice more and more gardens that seemed to be built around wildlife. Maybe this is a trend; maybe I just opened my eyes, but it seemed that more people were concerned with providing the water, food, shelter and cover that birds, bees, butterflies and other animals need to thrive. I accidentally planted a garden that wildlife love, but now that we have so many birds and critters around, I want to make it even better. This book by Oregon-based Beth O’Donnell Young will help me achieve that goal.

What I like about this book is that it provides a step-by-step guide through the process of creating a habitat in your yard. It’s a more mindful approach than just planting some shrubs with berries — though that, too, will attract wildlife.

Young begins by setting down some principles of naturescaping, involving everything from managing runoff to thinking in terms of ecosystems and habitats. She also asks readers to take an inventory of what they have in place already, including structures, views, drainage, neighbors and city regulations. The checklist highlights many of the stumbling blocks to creating the garden you want, which will make gardeners more savvy about the changes they attempt.

Next, Young has readers map out and define zones within their yards so they can determine how to make each area more attractive to the wildlife they want (and less attractive to the wildlife they do not want). Finally, she has readers  think about plants and design strategies for each area. This step-by-step approach, along with the checklists and maps Young uses as examples, make this a great choice for folks who want to get serious about creating a beautiful landscape for wildlife and people.

My only quibble with the book is that Young’s location in Oregon (where you can grow just about anything) shows in some of her plant recommendations. Northern gardeners should use this book for planning and designing, then consult with a local nursery or more northern-oriented books when deciding which plants to choose. Still, this is a terrific book that I will be using myself as well as lending to friends.