Gardening for Pollinators in a Big Way

This summer I’ll be planting a small pollinator garden on our boulevard.  It’s the start of what I hope will be a bigger garden along my hellstrip—the 55-by-7 foot stretch of our property between the sidewalk and the street.  Start small, and grow it from there is a good motto in the garden. Still, seeing a big, private garden with a focus on pollinators is inspiring.

wildflowers in a field
From the driveway, the yard was a sea of wildflowers.

During the recent Garden Bloggers Fling in Austin, TX, we visited the garden of Ruthie Burrus. The property includes a magical stone garden house and a killer view of downtown Austin, but it was the long, hilly driveway flanked by native plants that blew me away. The field was buzzing with bees, moths and butterflies, and I’m sure, dozens of pollinators I could not identify. The sheer expanse of the garden was impressive.

closeup of Mexican hat flower
Mexican hat (Ratibida columnaris)

Native plants filled the space, including blanket flower, beebalm, Mexican hat, winecup and Texas lantana. I couldn’t identify all the butterflies and bees feeding along the hill but I recognized monarchs and painted ladies.

purple wine cup flower
Winecup (Callirhoë involucrata)

At the top of the hill, near the house, Ruthie uses more pollinator-friendly plants, including ‘Black and Blue’ salvia around this blue agave, and a hedge of a native salvia along one edge of the property. The back yard is much smaller than the front and includes a beautiful pool and patio area along with that stunning view.

agave cactus surrounded by salvia
‘Black and Blue’ salvia surround a blue agave
hedge with purple flowers
I have to admit I experienced more than a little zone envy when I saw this hedge of salvia.

I left the garden feeling even more inspired to plant my own pollinator field.

stone garden house
This adorable garden house is going to be covered with roses, Ruthie told us.
view of downtown austin texas
The view from Ruthie’s back patio is of the skyline of downtown Austin

Thanks to the Texas Highway Department’s helpful website for assisting me with identifying some of the plants in Ruthie’s garden.

Texture in the Garden: Texas Style

Seeing a lot of gardens in a few days or even on a one-day tour really highlights the importance of certain design elements. During a recent Garden Bloggers Fling in Austin, Texas, I saw texture everywhere. From smooth, hard metals to spiky plants to rivulets of rock or rustic bark, texture evoked a sense of place and style. It gave all of these stunning gardens contrast and made them more interesting to explore.

Here are a few of my favorite textural elements in Texas:

Lady Bird Johnson wildflower center

The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center outside of Austin is filled with texture both in plants and the hard surfaces. The limestone on the arched wall is native to Texas and used in many homes and public spaces. It’s softened by the trees and vines growing around it, and its colors are varied. Wouldn’t you love to sit on that bench and contemplate the stone and the garden? If you are ever near Austin, the wildflower center is a must-see.

contemporary garden with corten planter

This contemporary garden used weathering steel (most commonly referred to as Cor-ten) for many of its walls and planters. The contrast between the soft ground covers and grasses, the sharp leaves of the yucca and the hard, rust-color of the steel, which doesn’t shine at all, is striking.  Corten gives a sophisticated, industrial look to both large gardens, like this one, or smaller ones, like this Minneapolis potager, which bloggers toured in 2016.

textured stone wall at Zilker Botanical garden

During a visit to the Zilker Botanical Gardens’ unique Hartman Prehistoric Garden, I spotted this large, deeply cut piece of stone in a wall. The prehistoric garden was created after amateur paleontologists discovered more than 100 dinosaur tracks on the grounds of the botanical gardens. The tracks were preserved and a garden with Cretaceus plants was developed, complete with a dinosaur sculpture that is popular with children. According to the Zilker website, plants in the garden represent those that existed 100 million years ago, including ferns, horsetails, conifers, ginkos and some of the first magnolias and palms. I’m not sure how old this rock is, but its fascinating texture indicates it has experienced plenty.

colorful orbs in texas garden

With so much tan rock and green plants, many of the Texas gardens we saw added color with accessories. But accessories can also add texture. These smooth, shiny, bright blue orbs catch the eye, giving visitors a reason to slow down and notice the rest of this lovely front garden bed in the garden of Austin blogger Pam Penick. The soft texture of the lamb’s ears and ground cover contrasts with both the orbs and that big, pointy agave.

wooden fish swimming through grass

Not all of these Texas textural elements would look appropriate in northern gardens but we have plenty of our own iconic textures, including the smooth stones so common around Lake Superior and the textures of the prairies that covered about a third of Minnesota at one time. That’s one reason I loved these fish swimming through a sea of soft grass at the beautiful garden of blogger, Jenny Stocker.  A native of England, Jenny has created a garden filled with smart details and varied plants in a series of garden rooms. It was a highlight of the tour, especially when Jenny showed us this recently hatched preying mantis.

preying mantis just hatched and nest
Jenny found this preying mantis nest on a branch and one of the babies posed nicely for all the bloggers’ cameras.

What kinds of textures are you incorporating in your garden this year?


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.

In Praise of the Como Conservatory

Winter Respite imageReaders of this blog know that I am a big fan of the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory at Como Park in St. Paul. During the coldest time of the year, I love to visit the conservatory to soak up the humidity and warmth as well as to admire the exotic plants.It’s a bit like taking a trip to the tropics, without leaving town.

This year happens to be the 100th anniversary of the conservatory at Como Park and so we decided to mark that event with an article in Northern Gardener. I was thrilled to be able to write this piece and show some of my photos of the conservatory. You can read the article online by clicking the image above, or you can see it in the January/February issue of Northern Gardener.

What’s your favorite way to get through the winter?

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?





What’s Blooming: Arb Edition

Things are — not surprisingly — slow to come up and bloom this year. My neighbor’s crocus is in bloom and the crocus bulbs I planted last fall have foliage but no blooms yet. My Siberian squill is also blooming, but that’s about it.

I visited the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum yesterday to attend a super-informative program on pollinators, the threats they face and what gardeners can do to help. (More on that later this week at Notes from Northern Gardener.) Before the conference, I checked out some of the grounds to see what was blooming. A few daffodils where blooming near the entrance drive to the arboretum and the foliage was up for tulips, more daffodils, peonies and lots of other early summer bulbs and plants. Blooms? Not so much. I did find this beautiful grove of forsythia in full bloom, one small stand of Iris reticulata and lots of the pretty blue squill. There was also a wild turkey, strutting around the garden.

Is anything blooming in your northern garden yet?

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.

DaisiesThe garden tour season has officially started, and today I took a trip over the border to Hudson, Wis., for what is billed as an Artful Garden Tour. The wonderful part about this tour was that whether the gardens featured artists or musicians, the six gardens themselves were carefully crafted works of art. The tour is sponsored by the Hudson Women’s Club and continues Sunday, from 1 to 4 p.m. You get your map and ticket at the Octagon House Museum, a historic home near downtown Hudson.  Cost is $12. Check out the photos in this gallery to see some of the gardens on the tour. Click on any image for a larger view.

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.

Air Plants

Tillandsia ionantha

I just returned from my more-or-less annual visit to my folks in Naples, Fla., and after six days in the sun, I’m ready to face down the rest of winter.

The weather this winter has been cool in southwest Florida, just like the rest of the country. You can see marks of it on the edges of leaves that clearly were nipped by frost. Many blooming plants are behind their usual schedule as well. Despite that, it was great to see the tropical hibiscus, palm trees, blooming bougainvillea, and the lush pots of annuals that are everywhere.

During a trip to a small farmers’ market near Estero, my mom and I happened upon a vendor of air plants, which are more formally known as epiphytes. These tropical plants do not require soil to grow. After my mom mentioned that I edit a garden magazine (hey, she’s my mom!), we got a short tutorial on these unusual plants, which are part of the large bromelliad family. According to the vendor, there are 10,000 varieties of bromelliads, divided among many genus and species. The air plants belong to the genus Tillandsia.

Unlike other plants, they absorb water only through their leaves and are able to gather nutrients from the air itself and from the dust and other particles carried in air. The plants have roots, but they are strictly used for latching on to trees, logs, and other anchors. The plants come in a wild assortment of leaf shapes, colors and forms. They are native to Mexico and other parts of Central America. It’s only in the past few years that breeders have gone into the jungles to collect some of the more unusual varieties. Because of growing interesting in tropicals, breeders are developing new types all the time now.

After our talk with the vendor, my mother mentioned that air plants were incredibly common in her neighborhood. Sure enough, on a walk later that day, I spotted dozens of air plants clinging to branches, pruning cuts, and trunks, drinking in the warm Florida air, just as I was.