Archive for May, 2008

Here’s what my new front-yard garden looks like. Kind of skimpy? Well, that’s OK. Plants grow and next year, and especially the year after that, this garden will look full and lush.

Starting from the left, here’s what is planted in it. Those lighter colored mounds at far left are ‘Silver Mound’ artemisia, a softly textured foliage plant. They only grow about a foot across and 10 inches tall, but they brighten up the plants around them and have a wonderful texture. This is a plant you just want to touch. Next to that, on the street side of the bed, are three ‘Maestro’ sedum. I love the Autumn Joy sedum in my other front garden, and wanted to try one of the darker colored sedums. This plant has wider leaves than Autumn Joy and a dark blue-purple-green foliage. Late in the summer it should have pink, then darker purple blooms that remain all winter.

Also on the street side are three prairie dropseed grasses (Spororbolus heterolepsis). These are a compact grass known for its cilantro-like fragrance later in the season. Anchoring the corner of the bed are three black chokeberry bushes. These are a native shrub that grows 3 to 5 feet tall and offers year-long looks as well as food for birds. It currently has a pretty white flower, which will later turn to a dark blue berry that birds love (apparently, people can eat them, too, though I have heard they need lots of sugar). In fall, the leaves turn a red purple that is stunning. This variety is called ‘Autumn Magic’.

Going up the side of the bed, above the shrubs, are five Russian sage plants. We were very dry part of last summer, and I noticed that Russian sage was about the only perennial that looked good all year. It has airy foliage and purple blooms. Next to the sage is a drift of five white garden phlox (Phlox paniculata ‘David’). Nestled behind the sedum near the phlox are 5 blazing star (Liatris spicata ‘Kobold’). This is another native plant, with showy, bottle-brush blooms in a dark lavender. It is supposed to attract butterflies and even hummingbirds. Finally, toward the middle of the bed, is a single purple salvia. This is the only “onesie” in the bed, and it’s already in bloom.

The one and a half inches of rain we had over the past two days will really help the bed get established.


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Last fall, I marked off the area for a front-yard garden, something I’ve been wanting to do for a couple of years. Our front yard faces east and south and while we have planted some big trees, the corner in question gets baked by sun, and consequently, required watering all the time, and still the grass looked brown. Minnesota doesn’t really have the right climate for growing turf grass, even under better conditions.

I used the smother method to kill the grass and was only semi-pleased with the results. As the photo shows, not all the grass was as dead as it should have been. Next time, I’ll used the method described at the Minnesota site, lesslawn.com, which calls for a minimum of 10 sheets of newspaper and then a heavy load of mulch on top. To finish killing the grass, I did a judicious spritzing with Round-up, which kills pretty much any plant it touches, but disperses rapidly. I’s a good choice for this kind of job. During the week or so I had to wait for the Round-up to wear off, I took care of a couple of other pre-planting jobs.

First, call Gopher State One-Call (or use their web site, if you can figure it out) to have the utility lines marked. As I suspected, wires were under my bed. This meant hand-digging very carefully in those areas. Second job: Go buy your plants!! That’s the fun part. I had an idea of what I wanted because I’d had Kristin from Knecht’s visit last fall. I swamped out a couple of the choices Kristin suggested for similar plants that were more to my liking. (As great as they are, I refuse to plant even one more purple coneflower in my yard.)

Once I had all the plants selected, I started arranging them–in their pots–on the garden site. My daughters said it looked like aliens were staging an invasion of our yard. In placing them, I thought about the ultimate size of each plant, the various types of foliage, and the bloom time of each plant.

Placing plants is tricky, but as Don Engebretson says, “It’s not rocket science!” You want variety in foliage, plants with different textures and shapes. You also want to have something in bloom all season long. Finally, you want to plant in swaths or drifts. This has long been my downfall, since I tend to pick a plant and just put it in the ground. For more on how to create interesting perennial gardens, check out this article on Don’s web site or look at the pictures of Terry Yockey’s Red Wing garden on her web site.

Once I was satisfied with the foliage, the bloom times, and the drifts, I let it sit for a couple of days. Remember, it’s easy to move pots, not so easy plants that are in the ground. I made a few adjustments, then Monday afternoon started planting.

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Bloom Tuesday No. 3

Whoa…it must be late May because the blooms are popping–and my hands were freezing when I took these photos. Despite the colder than normal weather and a lack of rain in my area, the lilacs are in full flower (left, and also my new banner photo), the red-twig dogwoods (right) have started to bloom nicely, the lamium ‘White Nancy’ (below, left) is starting to flower, and a geranium I bought at a recent plant sale is also in bloom. My Purple Sensation bulbs continue to provide nice color near the front door. The pansies I put in pots also look nice and some of the petunias that I planted in pots and window boxes are blooming, despite the rather chilly temps. I planted my new front-yard garden this weekend (more on that in a later post) and the wonderful chokeberry bushes (Aronia ‘Autumn Magic’) that will anchor the corner of the bed are in bloom (below, right).

For the blooms to really take off, we need a gentle inch or two of rain and a dab of heat (please!!)–preferably in that order.

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I’ve been so busy in the garden and with work that I haven’t had much time for garden-related reading, but four new books worth mentioning recently came my way.

Two of them are part of a series of regional gardening books put out by Lone Pine Publishing, a Washington-based publisher of gardening and how-to books. Herb Gardening for the Midwest, by Debra Knapke and Laura Peters, is an herb-by-herb guide to growing and using herbs from basics like basil and parsley to the unusual. Has anyone heard of orach? According the Knapke and Peters, it tastes like a mild spinach and can be used to treat sore throats and jaundice. If you are interested in herb gardening, this would be a good, basic book to buy. It’s a soft cover and costs $19.95.

Container Gardening for the Midwest by William Aldrich and Don Williamson, with Alison Beck and Laura Peters, follows a similar format to the herb book. It opens with an introduction to the basics of container design and upkeep, then goes plant-by-plant through a selection of annuals, perennials, shrubs and trees that can be grown in containers, everything from arborvitae to yucca plant. I like that Williamson, who Minnesotans may know as co-author of several books on gardening in Minnesota with Northern Gardener columnist Don Engebretson, and company do not restrict their plant choices to the usual suspects. For instance, they recommend growing blueberries in a container, which makes a lot of sense since blueberries require soil much more acid than Midwestern gardens usually have–so why not manage the soil better in a container? Also, soft cover, $19.95.

British publisher Cico Books recently released Quick and Easy Container Gardening by Tessa Evelegh. The book includes step-by-step instructions for 20 container projects. This is more of a “pretty picture” book and the photographs by Debbie Patterson are beautiful. The book also leans toward gardening as decorating, so if you want an idea for using containers for dinner party decorations or finding cool containers at junk stores, this is the book to check out. Again, soft cover and $19.95.

The last book is probably my favorite of the lot, but it’s not out yet. I received an uncorrected proof of Rodale Press’ new Best-Ever Backyard Birding Tips, by Deborah L. Martin. This is 300-plus pages of advice on how to create a bird-haven in your backyard, with information on everything from providing cover to growing the plants birds love. It includes profiles of individual birds, including those most commonly seen in Minnesota. The book has several nice features, including tips for attracting birds on a budget and “myth-busters” that address common misperceptions about birds. For instance, their feet will not get stuck on a metal perch in cold weather a la Ralphie’s friend Flick’s tongue in the best Christmas movie ever made, A Christmas Story. Best-Ever Backyard Birding Tips will be released in late July, and speaking of the holiday season, it would make a great gift for any birders or bird-loving gardeners on your list.

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My fancy plants have arrived! I’ve had such hit-and-miss luck with plant starts sent through the mail that I pretty much swore off them this year. I’ve either grown things from seed (another hit-and-miss effort, but that’s a different story) or bought them from local nurseries. But when we ran a photo of Phoenix™ series penstemon on the cover of Northern Gardener in March/April, all my resolve evaporated.

Penstemon–its common name is beard tongue–is a huge genus of plants with ranges as far north as Alaska and as far south as Central America. It includes about 275 species, including the perennial Penstemon digitalis ‘Husker Red’. This was Perennial Plant of the Year in 1996 and is a familiar sight in northern gardens. In fact, there are two or three Husker Reds in my garden as well. The Phoenix series penstemon are an annual in Minnesota. They look like a cross between a snapdragon and a foxglove. They are heat tolerant, produce lots of flowers, and often are used in bouquets. I bought two types from Territorial Seed Company, Appleblossom and Pink. You can read all about penstemon at the American Penstemon Society web page.

A quick note on planting starts: Most come with instructions that you should follow as carefully as you can. Usually this involves watering the plants as soon as they arrive and getting them in the ground as quickly as weather permits.

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I could have titled this post “I pushed the zone and the zone pushed back.” Last spring, filled with thoughts of permanently warm and wimpy winters, I planted a butterfly bush (Buddleia ‘Nanho Purple’). It was supposed to grow up to 6 feet tall and be covered with long clusters of purple blooms from August through September. (This image is from the Missouri Botanical Garden.) The bush seemed to do well, growing to about 3 feet in height with several nice blooms last fall. Butterfly bush is generally a Zone 5 and south plant and grows very large in some climates. Alas, Minnesota is still Zone 4, as this past winter proved. I’ve been watching the bush’s corpse in hopes of seeing some signs of life. None so far; none expected.

This incident drives home advice I heard from a horticulturist about planting for climate change. “Push the zone, if you want,” she said, “but don’t plant anything you can’t afford to lose.”

It also reminds me how grateful northern gardeners should be for the research that has been conducted over the years at places like the University of Minnesota and North Dakota State University. Research has expanded the growing options for gardeners in the north with everything from new magnolias to a wide range of shrubs to better apples. Plant breeding is a long, arduous and often frustrating process. Last summer, I had a chance to visit Harold Pellett (left), a retired U of M researcher and director of the Landscape Plant Development Center in Mound. Pellett, who during his 30-year career at the U helped develop 25 new varieties of shrubs including the Lights series of azaleas, founded the center to continue his work creating plants for the North. The center has already introduced a new ninebark, Center Glow™ ninebark, and a new non-climbing clematis, Center Star™ clematis. Pellett and his fellow researchers, who are based in Oregon, Russia, and lots of places in between, are working on several new varieties of woody plants, including a hardier butterfly bush.

“Will it be hardy enough to be reliable in Minnesota?” I asked him last summer. Pellett gave me one of those gentle, knowing looks that seemed to say, dream on, sister. “More like Iowa,” he said.

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Bloom Tuesday

The prettiest plants in my garden today are the azaleas. These are ‘Pink Lights’ azaleas, part of the University of Minnesota’s Northern Lights series. The flower structure on these is so striking, like a series of horns playing off the center bud.

In the past, I’ve had trouble with the blooms blowing off the plant, just as they are blooming. Despite strong winds this weekend, the flowers hung on.

I have lots of things just about ready to burst, including (left) my Haralson apple tree and (right) lilacs.

I’ve also got flowers on some volunteer strawberries in my vegetable bed.

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