Rice County Hort Day: A Gardener’s Education

I don’t remember when I first started going to the Rice County Horticulture Day, but it’s been awhile, and in many ways, attending that annual event was the start of my real education as a gardener. I grew plants long before I started going to the hort day, of course, and I killed a lot of them along the way.  I’ve had a lot of “ah-ha” moments at hort day — moments that prevented more plant killing and increased the joy that I get from gardening.

vendors at mg
Vendors sold jewelry, plants and other things at the Rice County Hort Day.

At last year’s event, Mike Heger’s talk about Heucheras shined a lot of light on why some heucheras flourish in the North and some languish. (It has to do with which species they are bred from.) At an earlier hort day, Mark Seeley gave a frightening talk about climate change that reinforced my sense that gardeners need to protect their little corners of the earth, for everyone’s sake.  One of my favorite presentations of all time was Terry Yockey’s talk on gardening for fragrance — grow plants for all your senses, she said.

This year, promises to be another fantastic day, and if you have not signed up yet, be sure to download the form  and mail it in. Here’s what’s on tap:

The theme is “Garden Magic,” and the event will be held again at Buntrock Commons at St. Olaf College in Northfield. The presentations start at 9 a.m, with Bruce Rohl’s talk about new varieties of peonies (“Not Your Mother’s Peonies”). Bruce runs Aspelund Peony Gardens in Kenyon and is up-to-date on what’s new in one of my favorite old-fashioned plants.

gardeners at mg event
Gardeners picked up great information at the 2012 Rice County Horticulture Day.

The magic continues at 10 a.m. with a presentation Fairy Gardening by Anna Risen of Tonkadale Gardens.  Anna has been designing fairy gardens for outdoor gardens or indoor containers for six years and knows how to bring the fantasy to life.

After lunch, one of the real stars of Minnesota horticulture, David Zlesak, will talk about Success with Roses. David breeds shrub roses and mini-roses for northern climates. I had the pleasure of testing one of his roses in summer 2012. Called Oso Happy® ‘Smoothie’, this rose bloomed and bloomed, practically into November. If you like roses, you won’t want to miss his talk.

The program ends with a talk on What’s New in Gardening, from Mark Armstead, a retailer and grower for Linder’s Garden Center. mark has been watching trends for 25 years and will tell you what’s in, what’s out and what’s new in plants and design.

In addition to the program, there will be coffee, a box lunch (no more tussling with students for lunch!), prize drawings, a silent auction and vendors.

To sign up, download the form here.



Weeding in November

Saturday was a strangely warm day for November in Minnesota, and I took the opportunity to do some final weeding in my yard and gardens. Our lawn has one section where the grass mysteriously has died over the past year, and it’s very prone to a certain dandelion-like weed. So, that got a good going over as did two shrub and perennial beds where I pulled out thistles, dandelions, grasses and a couple of other unwanted plants.

Why weed in November? The main reason is so that you do not have to weed (as much) in April and May. Several sources I trust say that for every weed you pull in the fall, you won’t have to pull 10 in the spring. That’s a pretty good pay-off!

The weather turned wet (much needed) and cold last night, so I won’t be out in the yard today. What are the final garden chores you are getting done?

Two Things You Did Not Know about Japanese Beetles

Japanese beetle on roseI’m one of the fortunate few Minnesota gardeners who — at least so far — does not have a problem with Japanese beetles. The JBs can be extremely frustrating and they have driven two of the most peace-loving ladies I know  to near distraction.

There are lots of rumors about what works and what doesn’t work with the beetles. Hand removing works; traps, probably not. But here are two things you may not know about getting rid of Japanese beetles.

A friend of mine has been squishing the beetles when she pulls them off of her roses. This was good therapy for her. Unfortunately, it turns out the beetles emit a scent when they are crushed and — you guessed it! — the scent attracts more beetles.

Another example: Several experienced gardeners have noted that geraniums appeared to be toxic to Japanese beetles. They wondered if putting the geraniums near other plants the beetles like, such as roses or raspberries, would protect those plants.  It turns out that there is some truth to this. According to the University of Minnesota Extension, a substance in geraniums seems to paralyze beetles — almost as if they were drunk. But, like drunkenness, it’s a temporary condition and eventually they recover.  Also, the beetles don’t learn from their mistakes — they keep coming back to the geraniums. Some research even shows having geraniums nearby brings on more beetles.

The good news is, the beetle season in Minnesota is at least half over.

How do you deal with JBs?

Garden Tours 2011: Raining Ideas

I’ve been on four garden tours so far this summer, and despite rain falling on every tour, the gardens looked lush and beautiful. Tours give me ideas for my own garden as well as for stories for the magazine, plus it’s fun to walk around and see how differently people create spaces in their gardens.

Here are some trends I noticed while walking around in the rain this summer.

Three yards full of exciting plants made for a park-like experience.

Neighborly Gardens.  Northern Gardener ran a feature on two neighbors in Minneapolis who garden, if not exactly together, in collaboration in the  March/April 2011 issue. I saw a couple of examples of side-by-side gardens while touring this year. Certainly the most impressive example were these two hosta gardens in Rochester, which were part of the annual MSHS Garden Tour. The backyards on this street (I think there may have been three yards involved, though only two were technically on the tour) felt like a public park as the yards blended together with similar plants and a shared style. This must present some challenges, in terms of sublimating your personal desires for a shared look, but it’s also a case where one plus one equals about 10.

I believe that is a hydrangea amid the boxwood -- amazing!

Pruning Matters.  Gardens are as much about shape and texture as they are about color, so get out those loppers and prune. Clearly, many of the gardeners on the tours I attended are not afraid to trim a branch or cut an overgrown shrub back — way back. One of the best examples of the power of pruning is the fabulous garden of Ted Bair and Harvey Filister in Minneapolis, which was part of the Tangletown Art and Garden Tour a couple of weeks ago. This yard has Wow! Factor like very few others, with its stone paths and bridges, enormous koi, shape and texture galore. Ted’s the pruner, and he’s not afraid to keep plants small when it suits his design purposes. Many plants can take a firm pruning and look better for it. Prune bravely!

These birds were in at least three gardens I visited, but I liked the placement in this garden best.

Use Art Sparingly, and Well.  There is a fine line between art that is a dramatic focal point and something that is just too much. Many of the gardens on the tours rode that line closely, but didn’t cross it. I really like metal art in a garden because it’s a natural material. I also like art that is hidden for visitors to discover. My favorite example of that was a large (like almost life-size) alligator sculpture that was partially buried in the ground in one garden on the Bright Gardens for Fraser tour in St. Paul. Discovering it was both a surprise and amusing. Gardens do not need to be stuffy.

A stream runs through a hilly garden.




Water Works.  Almost all the gardens I visited had at least a small water feature to bring motion and sound into the garden. Few were as impressive as the one at Erica and Dan Tallman’s garden on the Northfield Garden Tour. The water tumbled down a steep slope in the Tallman’s backyard, complementing the natural setting around it as well as the plants. The Tallmans installed this themselves, which is even more impressive.

My thanks to all the gardeners who opened their spaces to visitors, sharing their hard work and ideas.

Right Plant, Right Place

One of the most repeated mantras in gardening is “right plant, right place.” Like other garden sayings, there is a lot of truth in the advice to choose plants that fit the conditions of a landscape rather than try to adjust the location’s soil, sunlight or micro-climate to fit a desired plant.

Three years ago, I gave up on growing grass in the southeast corner of my lot. We don’t have an irrigation system and don’t want to install one. The corner gets baking sun much of the year. It’s on a slope, so water runs off quickly. Grass likes wet and cool; this spot had hot and dry.

So, out with the grass, and in with a planting bed with prairie plants: grasses, blazing star, Russian sage, perennial salvia, sedum. Now in its third season, I love looking at this colorful bed almost as much as I hated looking at the dry, dead grass that used to be there. And, it’s significantly less work than mowing and watering the area used to be. Each spring, I clean up the area, removing spent plants and stray stems. I usually refresh the mulch and maybe edge it. After that, I just pull weeds, if I see them. In fall, I cut down a few of the perennials and leave the rest for winter interest. That’s the entire maintenance plan.

I’ve only had to replace one plant—a chokeberry bush that didn’t make it through the first winter. Everything else is big, beautiful and soaking up the sun and heat.  Last year, I added these allium because their purple bulbs complement the colors of the ‘Kobold’ blazing star and salvia so nicely.

Right plant, right place. Good advice.

This Plant is Illegal, Kind Of

Argghh! It’s happened to me again. I’ve inadvertently planted an invasive plant in my garden.

A couple of years ago, I attended a garden tour in the Twin Cities. Sponsored by a garden club, the tour ended with a sale of plants. This yellow flag iris was among the plants on sale. “You will love it,” the club member said as I stood in the rain looking over the selections from gardeners’ yards. I do not believe the usual code words for invasive—vigorous, hardy, fills in well, spreads beautifully—were used.

I planted it in my back garden and it did not do much last year. This year, it bloomed  and I was about to write a post praising this lovely yellow iris. But a little research found that yellow flag iris (Iris pseudacoris) is a “regulated invasive” in Minnesota, which means that while it is legal to possess, sell and buy it, the plant cannot be introduced into public areas, particularly public waters. (These iris are quite invasive in water and bogs.)

Since I live within about 100 yards of two drainage ponds (not exactly Lake Superior, but lovely in their own way), I will be removing the iris shortly — and disposing of it. I’ll also be a bit more wary next time I see lots of one plant type at a plant sale.

What plants that are illegal (or should be) have you bought?

Best Resource on the Web for Northern Gardeners

During last week’s Master Gardener training session, Julie Weisenhorn, the state program director, reviewed some of the resources available to Master Gardeners in Minnesota. Many of these resources are also available to the public and probably the most useful one is the Garden Info page the U of M hosts.

This page has three top-notch tools for gardeners in its diagnostics section. First, is “What’s Wrong with My Plant,” which allows gardeners to use a decision-tree type format to figure out what’s ailing their plants. First you pick the plant type from broad categories, then more specifically. Then, you check the symptoms you are seeing to find out what might be the problem. Say your spruce tree has discolored needles. You choose evergreens, then spruce, then check discolored needles. From there, you’ll see a variety of possible diseases, including winter injury (no surprise there!) and spruce needle rust. Each option includes photos to assist with visual identification and a link to more information about causes and what to do.

The other two diagnostic modules work in a similar fashion. One helps you identify insects and my favorite is the “Is this plant a weed?” module. In spring, when you are not sure what you’ve got, this site can help you decide what to pull and what to leave alone. (When in doubt, I usually leave alone.)

In addition to the diagnostics, the page is a gateway to other University information, including fact sheets on dozens of plant, landscape and design issues, the Yard and Garden newsletter, and the Ask a Master Gardener question line.

Next time you are stumped by a garden problem, check this page out first.

Compost Tips from a Pro

While the compost piles here in Minnesota are frozen solid and buried under a couple of feet of snow now, it’s fun to imagine the time when they will begin churning and decomposing and creating delightful humus for the garden. And, after the Master Gardener class on soils and composting, held a week or so ago, I have a better idea of how compost works and how to get compost quicker. University of Minnesota professor Carl Rosen led the class, which covered everything from what soil tests measure to how to improve your soil’s fertility: basically, add compost.

Here are six tips from Rosen on making compost.

  1. The optimum size for a compost pile is 4 feet by 4 feet by 4 feet. At those dimensions, the compost will heat up quicker and decompose faster. That said, compost happens, almost no matter what you do. If your pile is smaller, it will take longer for the leaves, grass clippings, and vegetable waste in the pile to decompose (think years, not months), but it will decompose eventually.
  2. Compost starter is not necessary. Most compost starters provide microbes and nitrogen to get the material you are composting going. While microorganisms and nitrogen are needed for compost to get started, you can add a couple of shovels of garden soil and maybe a handful of fertilizer to get the same benefits at a much lower cost.
  3. Compost piles like shade. While you can make compost anywhere, Rosen likes shady locations because they protect the pile from drying winds and sunlight, which also dries the compost out and slows the process. Another factor to consider in placing compost bins are the bins’ impact on neighbors—compost that stinks (it shouldn’t) or obstructs a neighbor’s view probably isn’t going to make you the most popular person on the block. Consideration is always a virtue.
  4. Add air. Most gardeners know that to make compost you need brown materials (dried leaves, etc.), green materials (plant debris, grass, vegetable peelings), and moisture. But you also need air. You can add air by turning your pile or by adding bulkier items. If you want to add air with bulky materials, Rosen recommends wood chips, which keep air in the pile because of the spaces around the chips. The only disadvantage of wood chips is that you will need to sift your compost through a screen to get them out.
  5. Is it done yet? When your compost pile is finished, it should be about half the original volume of the pile and have an earthy smell. A well-managed compost pile will be ready in 4 to 9 months. A poorly managed pile will take 1 to 3 years, according to Rosen.
  6. Gardens need compost! While not exactly news, it’s important to recognize how many ways compost benefits gardens. To improve fertility and tilth, add 1 to 2 inches to the top of the soil and work it in 6 to 8 inches, if possible. Compost also makes a great mulch — you need 2 to 4 inches to suppress weeds — and it’s a wonderful amendment to potting soil for containers. Make compost 30 percent of the volume of soil in your containers for healthy plantings.

One other note from Rosen: Compost piles in frigid climates (like Minnesota’s) are dormant in winter. Another reason to hope for spring.

Five Tips for Great Container Gardens

At last week’s Northern Green Expo, I had a chance to hear DeAnne Bennett, a garden maintenance consultant with Bachman’s, talk about how to create and maintain fabulous flower beds and containers. The plant combinations she puts together for homeowners in the Twin Cities are breath-taking. But, she clearly has a practical streak, too, and her advice on how-to build a container is worth passing on.

1. Use a big pot. Large containers require less water and look more impressive. So as long as the size is proportional to your house, go big. To keep her containers from being too heavy to move, DeAnne uses non-biodegradable packing peanuts on the bottom of quarter to third of the container, then covers the peanuts with landscape fabric. The pot drains well and the soil and peanuts are separate from each other. You can often find packing peanuts free, and by separating them from the soil, you can reuse them.

2. Add organic matter to the soil mix. For her containers, DeAnne mixes one-third organic matter, such as compost, with two-thirds potting soil. With an adequate supply of nutrients from the organic matter, you won’t need to fertilize as much — once a month or less.

3. Pick plants based on conditions. Sure, you wouldn’t plant a sun-loving moss rose in deep shade, but think about other conditions as well when choosing plants.  For instance, if it is windy in your area, consider annuals such as fuschia or lantana or wind-tolerant perennials such as yarrow or shasta daisies.

4. Stop fertilizing when it’s dry. Don’t force a stressed plant into overdrive. Just keep watering and wait for a break in the heat.

5. Toss your potting mix. This is a bit controversial — I know many gardeners who re-use the soil from containers from year to year — but DeAnne says, it’s done its duty and is now dead — so toss it and buy new.

The Green Expo is one of several winter events that keep me excited about gardening, even when the gardens are under another 4 inches of snow.

Garden Tour Take-Aways

Containers add whimsy and a focal point.

This past month, I have been really lucky to attend several garden tours. I started with tours around the Quad Cities in Iowa as part of a Garden Writers Association event, then hit the Northfield Garden Club tour, followed by my trip to Buffalo, N.Y. for three days of nonstop garden visits. In the past two weeks, I’ve been to three more tours. First, the North Oaks Garden Tour, followed by an MSHS event at the wonderful garden of Soni Forsman, water gardener extraordinaire, and this past weekend the Tangletown Garden Tour, which is one of the Twin Cities’ premier tours. Whew!

After seeing so many — and such diverse — gardens, the question becomes: what applies at home? The style of home and neighborhood is a big factor in what kind of garden you grow. I don’t have a small, urban, fenced-in yard where you can hang a mirror on the wall to make things look bigger, like they do in Buffalo, and I don’t garden on several acres where big expanses of lawn are part of the aesthetic.  Still, the gardens I toured shared some characteristics that can be applied in any setting.

Dense shrubbery, nectar plants, water sources and feeders were beautifully combined in this wildlife garden.

They had a theme. Maybe theme is the wrong word. It’s more like a focus or a vision. One of the gardens I loved in North Oaks was a certified wildlife refuge and you could tell that the goal of being a home to birds — there were dozens, even in midday — was a guiding principle in the gardener’s mind. A garden we toured in Buffalo reflected the owners’ love of hosting parties with wild, joyful plantings and a covered cantina-like area in the back corner. One step in that garden and you felt like whooping it up.  I’ve written earlier about the idea of naming a garden, but having a theme is what those names reflect. And, themes must come from the gardener’s own aesthetic and sensibility.

Containers provide texture and a pop of color.

They used containers well. Containers can nestle a seating area, provide a greeting at the front porch, or brighten up empty or dull spots in the garden. For a strong impact, use larger containers and keep the plants looking healthy with regular fertilizing (every two weeks, according to one of the gardeners), and plenty of water. Don’t be afraid to change containers with the season. They make great seasonal accents.

Lush, yes, but each plant gets some breathing room.

They were well edited. Many of the gardens I visited were heavily planted. But, with one exception, I didn’t think any of them were “over-stuffed.” Sometimes the key to a well-designed garden is not so much what you put in, but what you take out. After the tours, I dug into one of my front beds and did some much needed editing — I pulled a tarp full of overgrown plants out of it, giving the remaining plants (and anyone who looks at the bed) room to breath.

I have at least one more tour to attend this year. What is the best tip you’ve taken away from garden tours?