Quilts and Gardens Go Together

For the past three years, my cousin has been among the organizers of an unusual garden tour in Tracy, MN. The tour—officially the Tracy Area Garden Party—combines two art forms that often go together—quilting and gardening. Though I’ve made a few simple quilts, I’m decidedly no quilter, but many gardeners are also expert quilters and many quilters are also darn good gardeners.

Grandmother’s Garden quilt in a garden on the Tracy Garden Tour.

This year, I was able to visit Tracy for the tour and Jolynn (my cousin) took me around to see not only the six tour gardens, but to visit several other garden sites in the area as well as a terrific nursery that serves Tracy, Marshall and the rest of southwestern Minnesota. This year, the tour focused on gardens in Balaton, MN, about 20 miles west of Tracy. Balaton has a beautiful lake and two of the gardens were right on the water.

A comfy front porch with a sweet hydrangea and a pretty floral quilt on display.

On the tour, each of the gardens is decorated with quilts, which are positioned to show off the colors of both the quilt and the gardens. Sometimes the gardener is also the one displaying the quilts, but all of the quilters are from the area.

Susan Mitzner displayed the quilt at the top of this post, called Grandmother’s Flower Garden, over a fence near one of the flower borders at her rural Balaton farm. Susan pieced it with some help from her grandchildren and quilted it as well. Another quilt of hers  hung on a garden shed right behind a bed filled with peonies, lilies and other sun-loving flowers.

A few things I noticed about these southwestern Minnesota gardens:

  • A very, very small part of one of the gardens we visited in Balaton, MN.

    They are BIG! Many of the gardens we toured looked to be an acre or more in size, even those in town. Many were edged with garden beds with turf grass in the middle. Gardens of that size give the gardener the ability to use really big plants, which is a blessing. Mowing as much turf as some of the yards we saw have would require a riding mower or an army of teenagers looking to make money.

    With all the sun these gardens have, lilies thrived.
  • They are SUNNY! We visited one gorgeous garden (not on the tour this year, but in previous years) that I would call a shade garden. But all the others had lots and lots of sun. One had many, many oak trees, but still large swaths of sunny spaces. As a result, we saw some great-looking vegetable gardens—large and thriving. There also were lots of lilies and bee-balm in the gardens—both sun-loving plants.
  • I loved the way these quilts swayed in the breeze. Behind them, you can see one of the impressive vegetable gardens on the tour.
  • This teapot on a plate complemented the greenery around it.

    They were filled with CHARMING DETAILS. From large signs advertising “Balaton Specialties” to washboards to teacups filled with succulents to interestingly colored or shaped pots, the gardens included fun details that reflected the personalities of the gardeners.

My apologies to the quilter. I forgot to take a picture of the tag so I would know who made this gorgeous quilt, which was one of my favorites from the tour.

At the end of the tour, pie and ice cream was provided, courtesy of St. Mary’s Church in Tracy, which is known for its great pies. After an afternoon of touring gardens and admiring quilts, a slice of strawberry-rhubarb pie and ice cream was a real treat. The tour has been held three years in a row, and I’m hoping they do it again next year. I want to bring my sister, who is a quilter, along!

A Legacy in Trees


The plantings at Brenton Arboretum take advantage of the rolling hills of the property.

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.

Sweet bay magnolia were in bloom in early June.

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.

Tired and hot garden writers took refuge under the green roof of the picnic pavilion at Brenton Arboretum.

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.

A metal sculpture called “St. Francis and the Birds” stands on one of the arboretum’s hills.
I loved the shape of this Homestead buckeye tree.

Minnesota Garden Tour Season Begins!

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!

tourFrom 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.

The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum has wonderful containers. Behind this one is the Morgan Terrace, where tour goers will enjoy a post-tour meal.
The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum has wonderful containers. Behind this one is the Morgan Terrace, where tour goers will enjoy a post-tour meal.
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.

Garden Travel

The Dowager Queen looks out over Copenhagen's King's Garden.
The Dowager Queen looks out over Copenhagen’s King’s Garden.

My husband just completed a five month teaching assignment at Uppsala University in Uppsala, Sweden. While work and family obligations kept me from joining him, I did manage to visit a couple of times, and we did a lot of travel around Scandinavia and the Baltic. For me, travel often means visiting gardens.

We saw several wonderful gardens and it will probably take a few posts to digest it all. You can learn a lot about a country and its history and culture by visiting public gardens. Take Copenhagen, for example. Just walking around, it seemed clear that Copenhagen was a vibrant, artsy city with lots of bike traffic and trendy dining (expensive, to0). But it’s also a city that loves its gardens — after all, it is home to Tivoli Gardens, the park that inspired Walt Disney to create Disneyland.

We didn’t make it to Tivoli, but loved walking through two side-by-side garden refuges in the city center. King’s Garden is essentially the front yard to Rosenborg Slot (Rosenborg Castle), the 1606 fortress built by King Christian IV of Denmark. The park is meant for strolling, but it has several elements of interest to gardeners, especially the large formal garden, anchored at one end by the statue of the Dowager Queen Caroline Amalie, who was carrying a bouquet the day we visited.  For someone whose home garden is casual to the extreme, the boxwood hedges, perfectly aligned in a diamond pattern, with lavender and roses inside them, was impressive indeed. Sometimes order is relaxing.

The views are magnificent in the Copenhagen Botanical Garden.
The views are magnificent in the Copenhagen Botanical Garden.

Just across the street from King’s Garden  lies the Copenhagen Botanical Garden. This garden is part of the University of Copenhagen and functions as a research garden as well as a display garden. It also had a cute garden shop, which sold plants. (Unfortunately, you can’t bring those home on a plane!) Inside the garden gates are three museums and an enormous conservatory for tropical plants. The grounds are expansive and include a large rock garden, a pond, a variety of test and display gardens. The paths took you through sunny areas and deep shade and a wide range of soil types. The rock garden was especially impressive and I recognized many of the plants there as ones that would grow in our climate as well.

Below is a gallery of photos from the two gardens. Do you visit gardens when you travel?





Why I Love Farmers’ Markets

Logan Square market
The vegetables were piled high at the Logan Square Farmers’ Market.

My daughters grew up going to the Northfield Farmers’ Market. It was a highlight of many Friday mornings and often involved a bike ride, our baskets filled with vegetables on the way home and a treat from Martha’s Eats and Treats. So, it was no surprise when my eldest, now a Chicago-based editor, said, “I want you and Dad to come to my farmers’ market when you visit.”

Kale burgers, anyone?

So on the Sunday before Labor Day, we ventured out on the Blue Line to Logan Square and her farmers’ market.

Here’s the great thing about farmers’ markets: Each one is unique to its neighborhood and customers, and at the same time, they all have the same comfortable, welcoming feeling.  The Northfield farmers’ markets (we really have two) don’t feature kale burgers or a wide array of flavored tofus and sauces to sample, and I don’t think any of the jam purveyors here would charge $9 a jar, but both the very hip, very urban Logan Square market and our decidedly small-town markets are relaxed and cheerful. They both have farmers eager to show you what they’ve grown and artisans proud of the food they’ve made whether it’s a ruggedly shaped loaf of bread, an apple butter made of apples and apples only (we bought three jars) or those aforementioned tofu squares. The vendors come farther to go to the Logan market — many from Michigan and Indiana — but they bring with them the same enthusiasm for beautifully displayed beets, bunches of kale, buckets of tomatoes and sharing what they’ve grown.

Farmers’ markets are also wonderful places for socializing and connecting with your community. In Northfield, I know several of the vendors and almost always meet a friend or acquaintance at the market. At Logan, my husband and I sat on a park bench while our daughter finished her weekly produce shopping and struck up a conversation with a young mother, who grew up nearby. It turns out she attended the University of Minnesota and had even visited one of the colleges in Northfield — “That was too rural for me,” she said.

Tiny guitarist performs.

The people watching can’t be beat either. In Northfield, we have regular musicians at both the Friday and Saturday markets, and while they might be a tad more musically proficient than this little solo performer at Logan, they take the same joy sharing their talents. Farmers’ markets are places filled with dogs (labs in Northfield, pugs in Logan) and kids (more kids in Northfield, more dogs in Logan). They’re places to wander on a Saturday morning or Sunday afternoon, to visit with folks you’ve just met and those you’re known for decades.

They’re nourishing places, and not just because of the kale.


Photo Gallery: Artful Gardens in Hudson, Wis.

Hidden Gardens of Washington, D.C.

A week ago, I visited my oldest daughter who is working in Washington, D.C. We had a great time, but because she had to work two of the days I was there, I had a chance to visit some gardens in the capital city on my own. I lived in D.C. for three years in the 1980s and have visited many times since then, but there are always new things to see. These are gardens that many tourists miss, but are well-worth a visit.

Hillwood Estate and Gardens

Located within walking distance of the Van Ness Metro stop, Hillwood is like a visit to a movie set. The estate belonged to Marjorie Merriweather Post, who inherited the Post cereal company at age 27 and through the years  and four marriages built that fortune into the General Mills Co. The mother of actress Dina Merrill, Post lived and loved the good life. The wonderful tagline for the estate is “where fabulous lives.”

The mansion is a time-warp with some rooms reminding you of 1930s glamor and others of 1960s modernity. There’s a great collection of Russian art and icons (one of Marjorie’s husbands was ambassador to Russia) as well as Faberge eggs to admire and 18th Century French paintings on the walls. It is indeed fabulous. But it was the gardens that brought me there, and they did not disappoint.

Walking path through the wooded garden.

Post frequently entertained in her garden, which covers about 20 acres, overlooking nearby Rock Creek Park. The area is heavily wooded, including several large crepe myrtle trees, and divided into nine garden rooms. I loved the French Parterre garden with its boxwood hedges and sculpture and the Friendship Walk, a garden donated by Post’s friends, which includes the tall column that contains her ashes.


The Japanese Garden was a special treat with its laughing Buddha statue, colorful maples,  and the layered use of rocks, plants and water.

If you are going to be in D.C. before the end of 2011, stop by the exhibit of wedding dresses from the Post family, which is in the Adirondack Building on the estate. (Remember: Marjorie had four weddings and three daughters!) The dresses span much of 20th Century fashion and are each, well, fabulous.

Admission is $15 for adults and includes a well-done, self-guided audio tour.  I especially liked the recollections for gardeners at the estate, who talked about preparations for Post’s annual garden party for 500.

Smithsonian Gardens

Enid Haupt Garden

Visiting the Smithsonian Mall is a must-do for almost any visitor to Washington. If you don’t want to look at another stuffed mastodon, old airplane or master work of art, consider a stroll through one of the many gardens near the mall. I hit two on my most recent trip.

Behind the Smithsonian Castle is the Enid A. Haupt Garden. This formal space of clipped boxwood, annuals and roses is a quiet respite from a day of touring. Interestingly, it’s actually a roof-top garden, sitting above the National Museum of African Art and two other galleries. The garden features several dhobi trees, a shrub native to India that’s attractive to bees and butterflies.

Helianthus x 'Lemon Queen' tumbles into the sidewalk.

Walking across the mall toward the west building of the National Art Gallery (the basement cafeteria there is my favorite place for lunch on the mall), I walked through the Butterfly Habitat Garden, too. Despite being near a busy road, the garden’s plantings of lantana, sunflowers, butterfly bush, and other nectar plants attract butterflies. The garden demonstrates how much home gardeners can do to provide for beneficial insects.

Like every other Smithsonian museum, these gardens are free.




Dumbarton Oaks

It was a longish (about 1.5 miles) but lovely walk from the Dupont Circle Metro stop to Dumbarton Oaks, a 37-acre estate above the wealthy enclave of Georgetown. I really liked these bison posted at either end of the Dumbarton Bridge, and they seemed to indicate you were entering a different part of town.

Dumbarton Oaks is located in one of the higher spots in Washington. Built in the early 1800s, for most of the 20th Century, it was owned by Robert and Mildred Bliss. In 1921, Mrs. Bliss hired young landscape architect Beatrix Farrand to help design a garden for the estate. Thus began an incredible gardening partnership that lasted the next 20 years.

Farrand believed in Charles Sargent’s admonition to “make the plan fit the ground and not twist the ground to fit the plan.”  She used the hills and valleys of the land to create a series of terraces and gardens, sculpted to the shape of the property. Stone walkways and steps seem to rise naturally from the hills. Bliss and Farrand took great care to create vistas, that lead the eye through the gardens, such as this view that extends from a terrace near the house to the Ellipse. The walkway is edged in boxwood.

The vase on a terrace railing overlooks a pebble garden and the deeply wooded estate.

Art is used selectively throughout the garden, which has a unity of spirit that comes from the close association of the two women who designed it. Filled with pools, orchards and extensive walkways, the garden is park-like and awe-inspiring.

At one point, needing to rest my feet from a big day of walking, I sat on a bench under a crabapple tree and just watched the other visitors to the garden moving around. The spot, one of dozens around the estate, offered seclusion and privacy, yet a sense of being able to observe and connect with the world.

Herb garden

The estate includes specialty gardens for roses (70 varieties, many of them richly fragrant), herbs, cut flowers, lilacs, and forsythia.

The estate is only open from 2 to 6 p.m., March 15 through Nov. 1 The fee is $8. For a lovely walk through the top of Georgetown, walk west on Q Street from the Dupont Circle Metro stop, crossing the Dumbarton Bridge. Turn right at 28th Street NW, to pass by Oak Hill Cemetery, one of D.C.’s oldest and most interesting cemeteries. You’ll turn left at R Street and walk three blocks to enter the garden.