October Surprises in the Garden

Fall may be the most pleasant garden season in Minnesota. Our springs are usually short and unpredictable. Summers can be cool and rainy or more often hot and humid—sometimes both. In fall, the mosquitoes are down, the humidity is usually not bad and it’s very rarely hot.

That’s why I’ve always planted a lot of fall-blooming perennials. This year, I have two perennials that are surprising me with how pretty they are — and an annual that took it’s time blooming but is now really putting on a show in my back alley.

The perennials are both natives to Minnesota, purchased from Prairie Moon Nursery as plugs last spring. This is the first time I’ve gotten so many blooms from plugs, which is likely because the number of weedy plants in my new garden is like, zero, where there were thousands of them surrounding my previous garden.  On to the surprises…

Clouds of blooms in late summer and fall on false aster

False aster (Boltonia asteroides): Truth in advertising, these look a tad weedy until they start blooming, and according to the Minnesota Wildflowers website, they can be aggressive. I’ve put them near my back fence, facing the alley, and they are in really rotten soil, so I’m hoping that will contain them. Now for the good part — the blooms! They are big, a bright white and yellow cloud of daisies. The plants usually start blooming in August, but mine did not bloom at all until mid-September, which may be related to the location.

It’s a pollinator magnet, too.
The bloom shape of wild quinine is airy.

Wild quinine (Parthineum integrifolia): I’ve heard several folks who are experts on native plants recommend wild quinine as easy care and attractive to people and pollinators, so I decided to give it a try in the new garden. The blooms come in August, but look pretty for a long time. They are often compared to yarrow because the blooms have a flat, sort of bubbly appearance. The foliage is large and a bit rough, so these will be moved this fall to the back of the border they are in.

The blooms of ‘Heavenly Blue’ morning glory really are blue but they change color over time.

‘Heavenly Blue’ morning glory: Like a lot of gardeners, I planted Grandpa Ott’s morning glory once and regretted it for years. (So did my poor neighbors, who ended up with a thick patch of it!) But I really wanted some screening between our patio and the alley and decided to grow ‘Heavenly Blue’ there. The plant took awhile to get started, but eventually it crawled up the trellis I gave it and took off in both directions along the fence. Starting about Sept. 20, it began to bloom, really bloom. That’s late for morning glories, but the pale blue blooms, which then turn kind of purplish and white as they fade are worth the wait.

Neighbors? What neighbors? Between the bean arch and the morning glories, I’ve got lots of cover.

Which plants are adding luster to your fall garden?

Creating a Monarch-Friendly Garden

Last weekend, I had a chance to speak at the Duluth Garden and Flower Society (MSHS District 8) Spring Luncheon in Duluth. The luncheon attracted about 80 enthusiastic gardeners from Duluth, the North Shore and the Iron Range. It was a fun event and I was honored to be asked to talk about MSHS, Northern Gardener and gardening trends.

Monarchs seem to like annuals, such as zinnias, but native plants are best for them.

One of the host groups was the local chapter of Wild Ones, a national group that promotes environmentally sound landscaping practices to preserve biodiversity. Wild Ones does a lot to educate and encourage the public about planting nature-friendly landscapes, including Monarch Way Stations. Wild Ones will even certify a garden space as a way station, if you provide what monarchs (and other pollinators) need. Whether you get your garden certified or not, it’s a good idea to learn about what it takes to attract pollinators. I decided to do a little inventory of how my own garden stacks up.

If you want Monarchs, plant milkweed. It’s what those caterpillars need.

Larval plants: Monarch caterpillars require milkweed to grow into butterflies. It is their only food source. Wild Ones recommends having two types of milkweed in your landscape. I have lots (and lots!) of common milkweed on and near my property, but I think that is the only type. I’ll be looking this spring for either seeds or plants for swamp milkweed or prairie milkweed, both of which would do well in different parts of my landscape.


Joe Pye weed is one of the summer plants Monarchs use for nectar.
Joe Pye weed is one of the summer plants Monarchs use for nectar.

Early, mid and late food sources: Of the six early necatar plant shrubs Wild Ones recommends, I have one (serviceberry) in my yard, but there is pussy willow in the ponds near here. Of the eight recommended early forbs, I’ve got three (lupine, beardtongue and phlox). Not bad on early plants, but it could be better. Of the 36 shrubs, vines and perennials recommended for Monarchs for midsummer, my landscape has nine—again, not bad, could be better. Of the 10 plants recommended for late summer, I have three (goldenrod, aster and ironweed). Here’s the list of plants, in case you would like to see how favorable your landscape is for Monarchs.

Other landscape features to include for Monarchs include:

  • No pesticide use
  • Grasses (I have lots of those)
  • One or more water source, such as a birdbath or a puddling spot
  • Let things go a bit in the fall. Do not be quick to clean up flower stalks, grasses or leaves that may provide overwintering sites for beneficial insects.

How welcoming is your landscape for Monarchs and other pollinators?

Winter Sowing Native Plants, Two Ways

A week ago, we had a few days of pleasant 30-degree weather here in Minnesota, perfect weather for winter sowing native plants for the meadow I maintain behind my house. The meadow has been challenging, to say the least. There is a lot of weed pressure near it (and in it). It’s been one of those garden projects that reminds you just how small and ineffective you are compared to Nature, with a capital N.

So, I was thrilled to see that Prairie Moon Nursery, where I bought most of the plants and seeds I’ve used in the meadow, was offering a Jungle Prairie Mix of seeds. According to Prairie Moon, the Jungle Mix  “includes the most robust and competitive prairie plants available. The Jungle Prairie is perfect for a weedy ditch, a privacy screen, or for just establishing a profusion of flowers while providing habitat for wildlife.” Sounds good to me.

Seeds waiting for spring
Seeds waiting for spring

I ordered enough seeds for 2,000 square feet to spread on the meadow. I also liked that this is a project they recommend you do during winter — a time when I’m less busy in the garden anyway. (Prairie plants tend to need stratification to germinate — that is, the process of breaking the seed coat by repeated freezing and thawing — so sowing them in winter allows the process to happen naturally.)

The directions for spreading the seeds call for dividing your area into smaller spaces so that the seeds are more evenly spread. I visually divided the meadow in four, then mixed one-quarter of the seeds with a filler material and spread it on each section by tossing it as evenly as I could. My husband raised the issue that birds would eat the seed, but we did not see any increase in bird activity after casting the seeds. We have a feeder not too far from the meadow, so hopefully they will get their sustenance there.

While working on that type of winter sowing, I dug out some of my seeds from last year. I found several kinds of seeds that work well in the meadow—lupine, prairie coreopsis, rose milkweed, and asters, among others—and decided to sow them in traditional winter sowing containers. That way I can place them in the meadow, where I think they will look best. (Read the first paragraph of this post again and ask yourself: Why is it so hard to let go of control?)

Anyway, I have complete instructions on winter sowing in containers on the blog and followed them, using a fairly light potting mix, which included potting soil, perlite and vermiculite. Three of the winter sowing boxes are outside now and more will be added as we empty lettuce containers and milk jugs here.

Will you be winter sowing this year?


Prairie-Style Gardens

A Gardener’s Reading, 12 of 30

By Lynn Steiner (Timber Press, 2010)

Courtesy of Timber Press

I’ve written before about Prairie-Style Gardens: Capturing the Essence of the American Prairie Wherever You Live, Lynn Steiner’s 2010 book on garden design done in the spirit of the North American prairie.  Lynn has written about native plants extensively, and this book does include a large section of plant profiles. But it’s the book’s focus on design that makes it different and very useful.

Lynn starts the book by explaining where prairies existed in North America, a vast swath from the middle of Texas to Alberta, from the western edge of Indiana to Montana. The book is aimed at both gardeners who want to re-create (or at least attempt to re-create) the prairie in their landscape and those who want a traditional home landscape but would like to use prairie plants because of their hardiness and beauty.

One aspect of Lynn’s book that I think will make it extremely popular among home gardeners is her understanding that while many people might like to plant a prairie in theory, actually accomplishing it is difficult unless you live in the country. In an earlier article in Northern Gardener, she recommended using formal lines, having clean edges, and maintaining your garden tidily to keep the peace among the neighbors, if you landscape with a prairie aesthetic.

But any northern gardener can plant native or prairie plants somewhere on their property — even if it’s a small city lot. The book provides tips on designing a prairie-style garden as well as ideas for choosing plants for particular purposes, such as attracting birds or butterflies.  Her plant lists – such as lists for creating season long interest or lists of potentially invasive plants – are worth checking out before a trip to the nursery.

For those interested in seeing how fabulous a prairie-style garden can be, I cannot help but put in a plug for the January/February 2012 issue of Northern Gardener, which will be on news stands in a couple of weeks. The cover story is a profile of Lynn’s garden. It’s a beautiful example of blending the prairie and traditional garden style to create a garden that fits perfectly in its environment.


Five Prairie Plants for Traditional Gardens

Praire plants can work in front gardens. This is Karl Foerester grass with false blue indigo (Baptisia) behind it.

Last night, I attended Lynn Steiner’s talk at Bachman’s about her new book, Prairie-Style Gardens: Capturing the Essence of the American Prairie Wherever You Live. One aspect of Lynn’s book that I think will make it extremely popular among home gardeners is her understanding that while many people might like to plant a prairie in theory, actually accomplishing it is difficult unless you live in the country. But any northern gardener can plant native or prairie plants somewhere on their property — even if it’s a small city lot.

So, based on Lynn’s talk and my own prairie gardening experiences, here are five prairie plants that fit beautifully in traditional gardens.

Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia). Emily Dickinson wrote poems about this late spring blooming meadow flower (“Did the harebell lose her girdle, to the lover bee…”), and who could blame her. With its sweet bluish flowers and feathery appearance, harebell is a classic meadow flower. It blooms off and on all season and can handle all kinds of soil conditions. It adds a delicate touch to rock gardens.

Wild Blue Indigo/False Blue Indigo (Baptisia australis var. minor). Several species of baptisia are available for garden use, and like this plant, they boast roundish-oblong leaves on straight stems and a purple-blue flower in spring. Lynn recommends this species, which is smaller than other baptisias and appropriate for cottage or formal gardens. I have one of the newer cultivars (Twilite Prairieblue), which will grow to about 3 1/2 feet tall and be almost shrublike. While the flowers are pretty, I really like the foliage on this plant. One note: Decide where you want to put it and leave it there. Baptisia do not like to be moved.

Blanketflower (Gaillardia aristata). In addition to the regular blanketflower, many new cultivars have been introduced in the past few years. ‘Arizona Sun’ was an All-America Selection in 2005. Like black-eyed Susans and coneflowers, blanketflowers are ray-flowers, with a daisy-like appearance. But, they come in wild, bright shades of orange and yellow. An extra benefit of blanketflower is that while bees, hummingbirds, and butterflies love them, rabbits and deer do not.

Prairie Smoke (Geum triflorum). What makes prairie smoke such a fun plant is its seed heads. A smallish perennial (6 to 16 inches tall), prairie smoke starts blooming in spring. The small pink flowers open up to reveal dozens of fingerlike styles that from a distance look a bit like smoke. It does well in dry or tough sites, so would be an ideal plant to put in a boulevard garden.

Prairie dropseed in foreground with sedum in front yard garden.

Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepsis). Many times landscapers say, don’t put prairie plants in the front yard.  And, I’m sure there are some that should be relegated to the back, but prairie dropseed is not one of them. This petite grass grows right out front at my house, near the sidewalk in a garden devoted to prairie plants that can take lots and lots of sun. Prairie dropseed looks tidy virtually all year long and the grass-stems even have a light scent of cilantro.

So, there are five plants to try, but there are dozens more. Check out Lynn’s book for further recommendations.

Holiday Events for Gardeners

Tonight I’ll be heading up to Bachman’s in Richfield to hear Lynn Steiner talk about her new book, Prairie-Style Gardens: Capturing the Essence of the American Prairie Wherever You Live. I have a copy of the book, and while I have not finished it, expect to be referring to it frequently next summer as I choose some new plants for the meadow area near our home.

Lynn’s talk and book-signing, which starts at 6:30, is one of many holiday-themed garden events. Some of the events are long-standing traditions, such as the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory’s annual holiday flower show, which opens at 10 a.m. Saturday or the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum’s traditional holiday teas. Others are new events, such as the Garden Gals’ Get-Together, Thursday, Dec. 9, from 5 to 8 p.m., which is sort of a wine and wreath-making party — sounds great to me! — with food, deals on merchandise and several classes and demonstrations. For more information on MSHS holiday events, check out the classes and events listing on the society’s Web site.

Urban Yard, Prairie Plants

For many reasons, both aesthetic and environmental, some gardeners prefer to use native plants in their yards. In the North, that means plants of the prairie—grasses and wildflowers. The problem is, that not everyone’s neighbors appreciate prairie plants (fortunately, mine do!), and some gardeners—accommodating souls that they are—want to avoid conflict.

Enter Lynn Steiner, former editor of Northern Gardener and an expert on using native plants in all kinds of landscapes. In the current issue of Northern Gardener, which will be on newsstands through October, Lynn offers practical tips on how to use prairie plants in city yards. For instance, if you incorporate straight lines in your landscape, then your use of native plants will look more intentional. She also provides a comprehensive list of plants, both species plants and named cultivars, that work beautifully in urban and suburban settings. Those interested in converting their yards to more prairie landscaping may also want to check out Lynn’s new book, Prairie Style Gardens: Capturing the Essence of the American Prairie Wherever You Live, which will be released by Timber Press in October.

In addition to Lynn’s story, this issue includes an article by Northfield nurseryman Leif Knecht on tips for planting trees and shrubs to ensure healthy roots. I have practiced Leif’s “slash and shred” method of prepping potted plants for planting for many years, and it is one of those “tough love” techniques that really works. Leif also discusses new advances in plastic nursery pots that prevent plants from getting root-bound.

This is a great issue with many more ideas for fall gardening, plus a delightful profile of a fantastic Minneapolis garden. Check it out.