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.

Garden Advice from a Pro

hose-adjust.jpgI will be doing most of the planting and installation on my new flower bed myself, but when it comes to garden design, I need help–preferably from a pro. So before I started digging the new bed (more on that in another post), I contacted Knecht’s Nurseries and Landscaping in Northfield for some design advice. Knecht’s offers a one-hour consultation for $50, and it’s amazing how much you can accomplish in one hour with a little preparation and forethought. Kristin Lucas, one of the Knecht’s designers, came out on Friday to talk about my plans. (That’s her adjusting the hose in the super teeny, tiny photo from 2007!)

hose-and-tipsy.jpgSince I know where I want the bed to go and what kind of conditions (sunny, windy, decent soil) exist there, we were able to get a lot done. I’d already had a hose on the grass to show the position and shape of the bed. Kristin suggested we tweak the shape slightly and move the bed away from the sidewalk by the width of a mower to prevent dirt from washing away. My neighbor’s dog, Tipsy, showed up to inspect our work.

purple bottlebrush flowers on liatris
‘Kobold’ liatris is one of the purple plants we ended up using.

Once the position of the bed was set, the fun started–picking plants! I had a couple of perennials in mind for that garden: Russian sage, a grass or two, and sedum. I also roughly knew the color scheme. My house has burgundy trim, so it’s all about the purple around here. Kristin got out her book of plant “glamour shots” and we first made a list of plants that would do well given the conditions. Some plants caught my eye that I just can’t have. I covet cimicifuga, but the conditions in my yard are all wrong for it.

Kristin suggested chokeberry, a native shrub that’s very showy, not too large and has bright edible berries. For sedum, she recommended one of the new purple varieties, either ‘Black Jack‘ or ‘Maestro‘. For a grass, she likes prairie dropseed, which has a compact form and a cilantro-like fragrance. I’ve seen this grass used to good effect in many gardens that combine grasses with flowers and I like the idea of a garden that appeals to the senses of smell and touch as well as sight. I also wanted to get some white or silver plants into the bed and we settled on white garden phlox for flowers and artemisia (silver mound) for foliage. Throw in some deep pink bee balm (Monarda ‘Raspberry Wine’) and salvia and you have a striking bed.

We still had some time left, so Kristin did a rough drawing of how she might arrange the bed. Once the bed is dug, I’ll take exact measurements of it, figure out the mature sizes of the plants, and do a more precise drawing based on her design. It will no doubt be adjusted and changed along the way, but having a good starting point makes the design process easier. And, getting advice from a professional gives me the confidence to move ahead with the project.

UPDATE: This project turned out to be a real highlight of my yard in Northfield. Eventually, I traded out the chokeberry, which never liked the intense sun of the area, for a golden smokebush. That plant thrived in the sun and added a lovely yellow color to the front corner of our lot.

garden with prairie plants
This is the garden about three years after installation — plants do grow!