A Toast to Minnesota’s Heritage Melon, Recipe Included

It’s been a great summer for Minnesota Midget melons, a small cantaloupe-type melon that grows very well in the North. I’ve got three Minnesota Midget melon plants, all growing in containers and all doing great.  So great, in fact, that I’ve been looking for ways to use them, including the cooler recipe you’ll find at the end of the post.

 

cantaloupe cut in half
Minnesota Midget melons are small but tasty and grow really well in northern climates.

Minnesota Midget was developed at the University of Minnesota and introduced right after World War II.  I can’t help but wonder if the melon was developed in part to encourage owners of smaller properties to plant Victory Gardens. While researching the vegetable chapter of The Northern Gardener: From Apples to Zinnias, I read several pamphlets from the U on growing vegetables in very small spaces: they called them “rug gardens,” because you could grow a lot of food in a 9-by-12 space. But that’s another story.

Minnesota Midget melons grow on relatively short vines—mine are about 3 to 4 feet long, though the longest vine may be 5 feet. They flower profusely, and then set fruit. Each of the vines I have has 4 to 8 melons on it, varying from the size of a softball to just-a-bit smaller than a grocery store cantaloupe. When they are ripe, they separate easily from the vine. You should try to harvest before they fall off the vine, so right now I’m doing daily inspections to remove any melons that are getting ripe.

This year, they have not been hard to grow at all! I started the seeds indoors and set them in their containers in early June. The vines took off. Like all melons, they like sun and a relatively rich, well-drained soil.  Because they are in containers, I’ve been checking to make sure the melons are all supported well. I had to sacrifice a pair of pantyhose to rig up supports for a couple of them.

A Melon Cooler

icy drink in garden
Enjoy a refreshing melon cooler in the garden.

This recipe is a modification of one I found in Amy Thielen’s The New Midwestern Table, which is a fantastic cookbook full of good stories and delicious recipes.

1 cup sugar

1 cup water

3 limes, zested and the juice

Ginger root, a piece the size of your thumb

1 or more Minnesota Midget melons (or other cantaloupe)

Ice, fizzy water for serving

Put the sugar and water in a pot and bring it to a boil to dissolve the sugar into the water. While it’s heating up, remove the zest from the three limes (I peeled it off with a vegetable peeler) and peel and slice the ginger. When the water is heated, take it off the heat and put the ginger pieces and lime zest in to soak. Let the water cool.

When the water is room temp, juice the lime, and seed and remove the flesh from your melon. Put the sugar syrup (with the ginger and lime pieces), the lime juice and the melon flesh in a blender. Give it a whirl until it’s smooth. You may want to strain the resulting mixture through a sieve.

To serve it, put about 1/3 cup of the melon mixture in a tall glass with ice and top it off with fizzy water. I’m not a hard-liquor person, but if I were . . .

This recipe is not set in stone: Make it more or less sweet depending on your taste, add more lime, more melon, more ginger, depending on what you like and what you have on hand. Add some mint leaves to the infusion or anything else that strikes your fancy.

My melon was small so I added a bit more flesh from another melon to give the drink enough melon taste. Feel free to adjust and enjoy!

 

 

Three All-Star Pollinator Plants

There are many plants that attract, feed and nurture pollinating insects and birds. And, every gardener will have favorites. In my garden, there are three plants that always seem to be covered with bees and butterflies. Here’s the rundown:

Bees swarm anise hyssop from the minute it blooms each summer.

Anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) is the biggest bee magnet in my yard. Sometimes called giant anise hyssop or hummingbird mint, I can attest to both its size and its lovely scent. I have three of these planted below the window in my garage that faces the back garden. (Check out the photo of the giant trio at the end of this post.) The plants are currently above the garage window sill and covered the blooms. One caveat: They do seed rather freely — like crazy freely! Fortunately, the seedlings are very easy to identify by their appearance and scent and are quick to pull.

orange monarch butterfly on purple flower
Monarch on liatris in Twin Cities garden

Blazing star (LIatris spp.) is a plant both butterflies and bees love. In my Northfield garden, I had ‘Kobold’ liatris in the front garden. This plant has a lovely bottle-brush flower and was a favorite with many butterflies as well as bees. Maintenance could not have been easier. Once it was established, I cut back the old flowers in spring. That’s it. Nothing more. Rarely watered and never fertilized it. For my new back garden, I planted meadow blazing star (L. ligulistylis) on recommendation from pollinator expert Rhonda Fleming Hayes. It’s in its first year in the garden, so it has not gotten as tall as advertised yet. I’m hoping for good things from this one!

monarch on orange flower
Mexican sunflower (Tithonia) is a monarch magnet

Mexican sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia) is that plant you see all over Instragram with monarch butterflies on it. (Check out my feed to see one.) After milkweed, which is the only plant monarch’s lay eggs on, Mexican sunflower is probably the most popular plant with monarchs that I have ever planted. Once the blooms start doing their bright orange thing, the monarchs are there. Bees also love it. The plant itself is large—4 to 5 feet tall—and the foliage is big and not exactly pretty, but the flowers, the flowers, the flowers. For them and the monarchs, I plant this one.

What are your favorite pollinator plants?

Three giant hyssop plants easily fill the space below my garage window.

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.

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?

Best of the New Annuals

Like a lot of garden writers, I get to try out newish plants, courtesy of plant wholesalers. For several years, I’ve gotten plants from Proven Winners and invariably there are indeed some winners among the plants.

This year, I grew two annuals from the sample plants that have grown really well, and definitely are among the “best of” plants for their categories.

He’s not visible in this shot, but there was a bee all over these guys when I took the photo.

Playin’ the Blues salvia — Part of a series called Rockin™, these deep purple-blue salvia have gotten zero attention from me, but have bloomed and bloomed and bloomed all summer long. Even in August, the foliage looks healthy and shiny and the flower spikes keep growing. I planted these in a bed that I’m planning to use for strawberries next year, so I basically threw whatever into it this year—the garden equivalent of a junk drawer. (That’s why there is a monster squash edging its way around the salvia.) The bed gets part-sun at best, and other than a little slow-release fertilizer in the planting hole, nothing else has been done to them.  Pest and disease free, the bees seem to love these plants.  The foliage looks better than any of my other annuals. They are winter hardy in USDA Zone 7 and higher, so for cold-climate gardeners these will have to be annuals.

Playin’ the Blues looking great in my “junk-drawer” garden bed.

 

Superbells® Over Easy™ is a Calibrachoa hybrid that does really well in containers. I planted these with some lilies, which have bloomed already, and some marigolds grown from seed. The white color with a dot of yellow at the center does remind you of over-easy eggs and the plants brighten up whatever else they are planted with. White is such a great color for adding contrast to the garden. Unlike some of my other petunias and calibrachoas, I did not need to give the Over Easy plants a mid-season trim in order to keep them blooming. The plants don’t get huge — staying under 12 inches tall, but they look neat and perfect flopped over the edge of a terra-cotta container.

Marigolds pair well with this yellow-centered calibrachoa, which is called Superbells® Over Easy™a new plant from Proven Winners.

What have been your best-performing annuals this season?

Disclaimer: I received free plants from Proven Winners to test for readers of this blog and Northern Gardener magazine. The opinions are my own and no other compensation was exchanged.

411 on Cracked Tomatoes

I was out of town Wednesday night and came home to three inches of rain in the rain gauge and a handful of cracked tomatoes.  The two items are related.

Why Tomatoes Crack: To grow well and fruit profusely, tomatoes need even, consistent moisture. I water tomato plants during dry periods to encourage fruiting and healthy growth. But when Mother Nature dumps a bucket of moisture on the ground, the plant naturally takes it up and the fruits crack. Their skins can’t grow fast enough to take in the extra moisture. Cracking is most common with a heavy rain after a long dry spell, though this was not the case here because we have had an unusually rainy August. As typically happens, the fruits closest to ripeness cracked.  The cracks in the fruits provide an entry point for bacteria and fungi, and typically the fruit will rot quickly—in fact, I tossed one really rotten tomato before taking the picture.

Can you prevent cracking? You can’t prevent cracking from extreme storms, but you can prevent losing tomatoes due to cracking, by harvesting tomatoes most susceptible to cracking. Green or very unripe tomatoes are less likely to crack, so picking those that are ripe or nearly so before a big storm is a good way to prevent cracking. Since I was away during the last storm, I picked a lot of ripe or nearly ripe fruit right after I got home. You can prevent cracking if the problem is dryness by watering regularly.  You also can reduce cracking by growing tomatoes in raised beds, which drain more thoroughly than in-ground gardens, and by applying a layer of compost or other mulch to keep soil evenly moist in dry periods.

Are there tomatoes that don’t crack? Yes, there are some varieties that resist cracking. (Those that crack the most tend to be heirloom varieties and large tomatoes.) You can find a long list here of crack-resistant varieties. Popular varieties that crack less include Arkansas Traveler, Celebrity, Big Boy, Big Beef, Summer Sweet, Sungold and Yellow Pear. If cracking tends to be a problem with your tomatoes, you may want to choose a crack-resistant type.

What about calcium and cracking? Calcium helps tomatoes regulate their intake of moisture, and a shortage of calcium in the soil is also linked to blossom end rot, another really discouraging tomato problem. Some gardeners add crushed eggshells to the planting hole, antacid tablets or a commercial calcium to increase the calcium available to plants. Consider a soil test before you heavily supplement the soil.

We have more rain in the forecast for the next couple of days, so I will be harvesting more tomatoes today. How are your tomatoes doing during this rainy period?

Orange is the New Purple

I have always loved purple in the garden for its deep hue and because many plants I like for other reasons (baptisia and anise hyssop, for example) have purple flowers. But this year, I decided to grow a few orange annuals, and I may have to change my new favorite color. I first heard about the power of orange during a garden talk by Eric Johnson, one of our Northern Gardener columnists.

This ‘Torch’ Mexican sunflower (Tithonia) was grown from seed. I love the bright orange, especially on a gloomy, rainy day.

According to Eric, orange is a color that brightens up drab spaces, and it certainly is working in my patio/vegetable garden area. On the site of a former garage, I’m growing vegetables in raised beds. The vegetables are, of course, mostly green, and the perennials I planted this spring are still getting a foothold in the clay soil and aren’t blooming much. I have a ‘Blue Heaven’ morning glory that is covering a trellis and part of the back fence, but that hasn’t bloomed at all yet — so again, more green.

Marigolds pair well with this yellow-centered calibrachoa, which is called Superbells® Over Easy™a new plant from Proven Winners.

Enter orange, in the form of several containers filled with orange marigolds, orange pansies and Mexican sunflower (Tithonia). I bought the pansies as a six-pack early this spring, but grew the others from seed. The ‘Torch’ tithonia came from Seed Savers Exchange and has been a magnet for monarch butterflies in my backyard.  The plants are more than 4-feet tall, with large leaves and several flowers per plant. Next year, I may plant them as a low hedge along one of my fences because they are big and pretty.

The marigolds are also from Seed Savers, a variety from the 1930s called Starfire Signet. The blooms are in shades of yellow, orange and red and they grow at least 12 inches tall. We ran an article on marigolds in the May/June issue of Northern Gardener and that got me inspired to use more marigolds and to grow them from seed. They are very easy to grow and the results are warm and fun.

I may have bought this marigold as a plant. It’s super pretty though.

The last orange annual I’ve been growing is an old-fashioned nasturtium called Lady Bird. This one has not done as well as the marigolds, but in a few of the containers the orange-yellow blooms are adding to the show.

Orange can be too much if you have a lot of other colors in the garden–especially reds and pinks. In this area, I’ve got mostly green with some white blooms and (of course) a touch of purple. So far, it’s been a fun departure from my usual color palette.

What’s your favorite color to brighten the garden?

I paired these orange pansies with a Ginger Wine ninebark in a container. I love the ninebark and will be planting it in the landscape this fall.

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.

New Plants for 2016: First Impressions

I’m one of those lucky garden writers who receives plants from several plant wholesalers to test before the plants are introduced to the public. The companies—Proven Winners and Bailey Nurseries this year—use feedback from writers (and many other plant testers) to make sure the plants will perform well in home gardens.

These are plants that you will likely see in nurseries and garden centers next year. Maybe I’m getting better at growing these new plants or maybe this is just a particularly good year for introductions, but the plants I tried this year were overwhelmingly great.

Here are five that you may want to look for next year.

Campfire bidens blooms weaved around Autumn Joy sedum in my garden in June.
Campfire bidens blooms weaved around Autumn Joy sedum in my garden in June.

Campfire™ Fireburst bidens was one of the most commented on plants when my garden was on a tour earlier this summer. The bright yellow and orange flowers add a dainty element to containers. The blooms were prolific and the plant bloomed most of the season. They took a bit of a break in August, but revived with some fertilizer and more attention to watering.

Holy Moly calibrachoa blended nicely with pink and green coleus. (Note to self: wash off pot before taking photos!)
Holy Moly calibrachoa blended nicely with pink and green coleus.

Superbells® Holy Moly™ calibrachoa is a cousin to Superbells® Cherry Star, which I loved for its bright pink and yellow petunia-like blooms. Holy Moly is predominantly yellow with red-pink accents. It is a prolific bloomer and looked fantastic in several containers. This calibrachoa is known for continuing to bloom even in the fall, and that certainly proved true in this warmer-than-average October. The plant took a break in September, but has been blooming away since then.

container with sedumAnother container plant I really liked was Lemon Coral™ sedum, a  short, chartreuse annual sedum. I used the plant in containers and it added a textural element as well as brightness. This sedum can handle part sun and is great for brightening up a shady corner. Some other garden bloggers have commented that the plant is a bit too aggressive, but I grew it only in containers and did not find that it took over. That may be because the containers were usually in part shade areas.

I’ve never been a huge fan of potentilla, but I really liked the look of the new First Editions® Lemon Meringue™ potentilla from Twin Cities-based Bailey Nurseries. The blooms on this plant look like tiny, yellow roses and the foliage is neat. The plant grows 2 to 3 feet tall and wide, making it a good option for smaller landscapes. Potentilla is completely hardy to northern climates and virtually maintenance free. This looks like a great addition to potentilla options.

divine imptiensThe last plant I’d like to recommend is not new per-se, but is a recent introduction for those who love impatiens but are concerned about downy mildew on impatiens. Northern Gardener Plant to Pick columnist Debbie Lonnee recommended the Divine series of New Guinea impatiens in her column. Since my garden was on a tour and I have a lot of shady spots, I bought an entire flat of them to use to brighten up parts of the garden. They were a bit slow to get going, but once they took off they were gorgeous. (For the tour, I grew some of them in containers, which got them to a bigger size faster, then planted them on the edge of some of my tree, shrub or perennial beds.) While the small frosts we’ve had recently, have nipped some of the Divine impatiens, many are still going strong.

Which plants did well in your garden this year?

Disclaimer: I was sent some of these plants for free, but am under no obligation to write about them and have no financial relationship with Proven Winners or Bailey Nurseries.

 

 

Top Three Garden Stars

The Northfield Garden Tour of 2015 is finished, and I really enjoyed having so many visitors to my yard. It’s interesting to see what people ask about when they are on a tour–and I had three items that lots of folks were especially interested in.

campfire

What’s this pretty orange annual?

Probably the most asked about bloom in the garden were these Campfire™ Fireburst bidens, which are an annual that I am testing for plant wholesaler Proven Winners as part of its garden writers trial plant program. Campfire is one of the most productive, bright annuals that I’ve ever tried and I think it is indeed a winner. The shades of yellow and orange brightened up the small herb bed that I have at the front of my house. I’m growing them in pots, but you could certainly grow them in the front of a bed as well. These are not on the market yet, but will be in nurseries and garden centers in 2016.

baptisia in bungee cordsIs this a shrub?

bee on baptisiaNot really. I have several Twilite Prairieblues baptisia around my front yard, which are perennials that act like shrubs. I love baptisia (also called false indigo) because it is a prairie plant that the bees love. It blooms in June with purple flowers on spikes. There are white and even yellow baptisias, but I like the purple/blue ones. After blooming, the plant forms seed pods, which eventually turn black. I leave mine standing all winter, and sometimes shake the seedpods, which make a rattling noise. In spring, I cut the plants back. This can get to be a big plant (more than 4 feet high and almost that wide), so they may require some tying up or pruning back. I use half-hoops and bungee cords (one of the most under-rated garden tools around) to keep mine upright and looking pretty.

cherriesCan you eat these?

Yes, you can! They are sour cherries. My cherry tree was full of ripe berries and quite a few garden visitors sampled the fruit. I really like my little Bali cherry tree, which is a handsome, short tree in the front yard. After the tour, I went out and picked a couple of gallons of additional cherries. The rest are pretty ripe or hard to reach, so I left them for the birds to enjoy.

Now that the tour is over, it’s time to relax and enjoy the garden.