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.

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.

The Before Pictures

Here’s what our yard looks like today. Keep in mind, these photos were take in early April—one of the least attractive months in Minnesota.

The front yard is pretty plain. We may change the entry area so this is on the back burner for at least a year.
The front side yard needs a lot of work and I may turn this into a space with all shrubs and perennials and a path to the back gate. That poor arborvitae has already been moved to a safer spot. It looks so bad because it’s right next to a vent that shoots hot, damp air out all winter. My bad. I didn’t think about what that vent was for when I planted the shrub last fall.
Out the back door we have a nice patio. This area is now fenced in. The spot between the patio and alley is going to be an area for edibles mostly. I’d like to put a nice vine or climbing rose on the garage, but am not sure the area gets enough sun.
Another view of the patio and garage. Figuring out what to do with yard unmentionables, such as recycling cans and hoses from the sump pump (behind the can) will be one of our first tasks.
New trees in what will likely be a shrub and perennial border. This shows the entrance to the secluded part of the garden — at least it will be secluded when things fill in better!

As you can see, I have my work cut out for me and not much space to work in! Any suggestions on what to do?

Final Exam for New Introductions

pw pots1I’m one of those lucky garden writers who gets sent plants to try out about a year before the plants are introduced to the public. This is fun for me because they’re free (thank you, Proven Winners and Sakata!) and because I get a chance to see what kinds of color trends and plant styles will be on the market next year.

For the plants, this is their final exam before graduation. They’ve been tested like crazy in greenhouses and growing ranges, but always under the care of horticulturists. Now, they must undergo testing by regular gardeners — avid gardeners, of course, but ones that have other jobs, families and the usual distractions from plant maintenance. Good luck to them all!

I got my Proven Winners plants first, so this post deals largely with them. The box included a mix of annuals and perennials, and I put most of them into containers. I especially like the container pictured above with this dark purple coral bells (Dolce® ‘Blackberry Ice’), and a new pink mini-petunia (Supertunia® ‘Flamingo’). I added a side-oats grama, a Minnesota native grass that will be part of my meadow planting. I love the textures of the three plants together and think the pink and purples complement each other.

pwpots2The package also included some new begonias (Surefire™ ‘Rose’), so I combined them with a red calibrachoa (Superbells® ‘Pomegranate Punch’) in a two matching lime green pots. I’m hoping these will do well in the sunny area in my front garden. I used the same combination, along with a dainty ‘Diamond Frost’ euphorbia in another container near the front entry.

Not all the new plants went into containers, however. A diminutive sedum was planted in the front garden, where it will echo the shapes and colors of my other sedums. A couple of new bright purple verbena (Superbena® ‘Violet Ice’) were planted in my Mom’s garden, where they will probably get better care than any of my plants. That lady definitely has a green thumb!

Finally, I have two plants I’m still figuring out where to put. One is a new goji berry—Sweet Lifeberry® (Lycium barbarum) which is said to grow 12 feet tall. I think I have a good spot in back for it, but any time you have a 12-footer, you’ve got to stop to think. The last one is a plant I’ve never heard of—Creme Fraiche™ deutzia. I like its variegated foliage and hope to find a nice spot where it can complement the plants around it. The Proven Winners website recommends it be planted near yellow-flowered perennials or annuals.

As the summer goes on, I’ll report from time to time on how my trial plants are doing — including a post on my Sakata plants.  Which are your favorite of the new plants introduced this year?

Favorite Garden Photos of 2012

The pot has such great texture, and then there's that owl.
The pot has such great texture, and then there’s that owl.

Do you ever have that experience downloading photos where you go — wow! — I can’t believe I captured that image?  Garden tours often leave me with that sensation — though it’s more due to the beauty of the gardens than any skill I bring to the party. This year, I visited Monet’s Garden in France, where nearly every picture was lovely. Here are a few other favorites from 2012. Interestingly, several of them were take on the same day — June 23 — when I visited the Hudson Wis. Garden Tour. The light was perfect that day — a little overcast, but bright — and the gardens were gorgeous. What was the favorite photo you took in 2012?

Happy New Year!


Five Years of Blogging

Today marks the fifth anniversary of My Northern Garden. I started the blog in September 2007 at a time when garden blogs were sprouting up like dandelions in May, five years after Kathy Purdy started Cold Climate Gardening, which is probably the oldest garden blog for northern gardeners.

blogger with camera
Still gardening, still writing, still blogging, still having fun!

While I’ve often written about trends, plants and tips from experts, most of the previous 617 posts stemmed from what was happening in my own garden.

Some garden bloggers have suggested recently that garden blogs don’t matter much in the days of Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram. While social media is important, people still want content—information that’s been research or experienced and is plainly stated.  So, I plan to continue to blog, to reflect on my gardening experiences and those of others around me.

Things certainly have changed over five years in my garden and in my life. I’ve gone from having two active teenagers at home to an empty nest.  I’ve lost one beloved dog and embraced a second, very different canine. I’ve expanded every garden bed I have and added one completely new one since 2007.”Less grass to mow,” is my mantra, and my husband agreeably goes along with that. I’m moving toward more native plants and have given up on the idea that I will have anything like a cottage garden in this house. We’re on a prairie that become a cornfield that became a neighborhood, so I’m moving my yard slowly back toward its roots.

I’m always intrigued by which posts most interest blog readers. Unfortunately, I switched blog formats in December 2009, so I do not have complete statistics for the blog, but my estimate is about 50,000 people have been here at one time or another. I appreciate every one of those visitors. Very popular stories over the years have included those about red-twig dogwood and those about how to design a holiday container. Posts with recipes are always popularity, especially this one. In the past year, my most popular topics have been the changing climate zones, garden trends and the straw-bale gardens I put in this year.

I’m not sure where blogging will be in another five years — or me or my garden, for that matter. But I’m excited to find out!

Update from 2018: Well, a lot sure has changed, but the blog is still here (though I’ve moved to a different house and garden.) I’m in the midst of changing my blog’s format again and some of my old posts are being removed to make way for new material. My goal remains the same: To provide accurate, balanced information about gardening in the Upper Midwest, and to have some fun along the way. Thanks so much for continuing to read my blog.





Photos from the MSHS State Fair Garden

'Daydream' roses
‘Daydream’ roses

I posted many of these shots on the MSHS Facebook fan page, but wanted to share them more broadly, too. A group of horticulture society volunteers work all summer to create and nurture this wonderful garden, which is located just south of the Horticulture Building on the Minnesota State Fairgrounds. Visit the garden, then come inside the hort building and say hello to the good folks of the Minnesota State Horticulture Society.

More Lessons from Garden Tours

Path in gardenI posted over the weekend about the Hudson, Wis., Artful Garden tour, which included a variety of large and small gardens and different garden styles. On Sunday, I attended the South St. Paul Garden Tour, a one-day event with eight  private gardens (and one public) open to the public. The gardens illustrated many of the basic concepts of garden design and demonstrated how to put them into practice in your own yard. Here are four lessons I took away from my afternoon in South St. Paul.

Make a path. Gardens are meant for wandering. You want visitors (and the gardener) to be able to get from one garden space to the next easily. This photo was taken in a two-tiered urban lot that was immaculately designed. It had a Japanese aesthetic, I thought, and it felt very comfortable and soothing, in part due the the paths that led you around the garden.

Plant big. Big plants, like this fabulous giant Japanese butterbur (Petasites Japonicus), have impact. They cover a lot of territory, giving a grounded feeling to parts of the garden. This one is in a back corner where it disguises some utility areas and acts as an exclamation point in that section of the garden.

Hypertoufa container with rocksUse texture. Yes, plants can provide texture with their leaf shapes, prickles or downy coverings. But sticks, rocks and sculptural elements also add textural contrast. This hypertoufa container of rocks adds a different dimension than it would filled with fluffy annuals or spiny succulents. It’s especially interesting next to the twig arbor leading to the lower section of this garden.

Have fun! Why not hang a bird cage in the garden and put a black-eyed Susan vine in it? Or how about putting mannequin heads with caps on them in a shrub? Antiques make great additions to gardens because they have a patina and texture of their own.

Here’s a photo gallery with more shots from the South St. Paul tour, including some of the fun elements I saw. What are some of your best ideas from garden tours?

Book Review: Macro Photography for Gardeners and Nature Lovers

A Gardener’s Reading, 29 of 30

By Alan L. Detrick (Timber Press, 2008)

Back in 2007, I had a chance to take a day-long photography course with Alan L. Detrick as part of a Garden Writer’s Association event in Kansas City. Even though I was using a point-and-shoot camera (I’m embarrassed to admit that!), Alan was a true gentleman and a fantastic teacher. He even liked some of my pictures, and he truly wanted all of us — editors and writers — to become better photographers.

A few months later, I bought a digital SLR and this book. Macro photography is essentially super closeups done with special lenses. Detrick walks readers through the reasons for taking macro photos, the equipment you’ll need, f-stops, histograms, and the basics of thinking about photos: light, angles, composition, background. Like a true photographer, Detrick believes you get better pictures by paying attention to what you do before you push the shutter rather than trying to adjust the photo on the computer.

The best part of the book are the dozens of photos Detrick has taken in his years of photographing gardens. Each one is accompanied by a lengthy caption explaining how it was taken, the equipment involved and why the photo worked. Often, the book includes side-by-side shots of the same image taken a different way to illustrate a technique or idea.

If you are interested in taking macro photos of plants and gardens, this is a great book. However, I will say that I’ve learned much more from taking short courses on photography from Detrick and from Donna Krischan than from any book. If you have room in your schedule and your budget for a course, that’s really the way to go to improve garden photos. In Minnesota, the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, the North House Folk School and photographer John Gregor are among those offering photo courses geared toward gardens and nature.

Book Review: Mrs. Greenthumbs

A Gardener’s Reading, 25 of 30

By Cassandra Danz (Three Rivers Press, 1993)

Mrs. Greenthumbs: How I Turned a Boring Yard into A Glorious Garden and How You Can, Too is a march through the gardening year with a hilarious, opinionated guide: Cassandra Danz.  I was sorry to read elsewhere that Danz died in 2002, but she left behind two books full of stories and advice.

Mrs. Greenthumbs started out as a character in comedy sketches Danz performed, but Danz was a knowledgeable gardener and her advice is spot-on and delivered with humor and joy.  In a chapter on Japanese beetles she notes that “to have a cultivated garden, you have to be prepared to kill something.  You have to pull out weeds, cut down weed trees, and scare off, fence out, or murder woodchucks, rabbits, deer and destructive insects.” The beetles, she says, “would make a lovely brooch,” but the have to go. Many northern gardeners would agree.

In addition to rants on beetles, Mrs. Greenthumbs will tell you how to prune a tree or shrub, how to avoid double digging, and which seven perennials you must have in your garden (columbines, peonies, irises, hollyhocks, daylilies, phlox and asters). Like a good friend, she’ll tell you the garden truths you do not want to hear (In my case, that you really need to have a fence or other form of enclosure to have a truly comfortable garden), and she’ll keep you laughing all the way through.

Find it, read it.