If I were able to retire tomorrow, one of the first things I would do is read more. I already read a lot: I love books. But I could read a lot more if I didn’t work so, fingers crossed that we win the lottery sometime soon so I can get to the stacks and stacks of books taking up space all over our house.
One of the things I did manage to do recently was catch up on the books I’ve received to review. Here are some of my favorites. First, though, you’ll notice these books are not the latest, hot-off-the-press sort of thing. I read as I’m able and review some of what I like. If I don’t like something, I take my grandma’s advice to “not say anything if I can’t say anything nice.” I figure, just because I don’t like a book doesn’t mean you won’t. Why be a spoiler?
Beautifully Sustainable: Freeing Yourself to Enjoy Your Landscape (Be-Mondo Publishing, 2013), by Douglas Owens-Pike. I met Douglas several years ago when he invited me on a mini tour of some of the Minneapolis gardens his landscape design firm, EnergyScapes, had created in recent years. All of them were lovely and different from most “designed” gardens in the sense that were very natural, consisting mostly of native plants and arranged as if Mother Nature had done it herself. True to his company’s name, the landscapes were all created with resource conservation in mind.
Beautifully Sustainable (which can be purchased here: http://energyscapes.com/book/) is Douglas’ attempt to help gardeners at all levels make their landscapes more sustainable, and his smart, clearly explained ideas and tips are very useful. But I also appreciate how on a more subtle level, his book helps readers think more like a designer when visualizing outdoor areas: What sort of space would I really enjoy? What features matter to me most? What view do I want to see from my living room?
All of these questions seem easy, and they are. But most of us don’t think of them until the patio is poured or the pergola is built in what turns out to be the totally wrong place. “Take time to imagine,” he wisely suggests, before explaining how to create a map of your landscape long before you buy the first plant. Other chapters cover things like how to build healthy soil, create a rain garden, get rid of weeds without chemicals and how to maintain a landscape once its planted. In other words, there’s something for everyone in this helpful, enjoyable book.
For those who want to learn more about growing edibles in our climate, take a look at Emily Tepe’s The Edible Landscape: Creating a Beautiful and Bountiful Garden with Vegetables, Fruits and Flowers (Voyageur, 2013). Emily was doing fruit research at the University of Minnesota when she created an edible demonstration garden and fell in love with growing food.
There are lots of things to love about Emily’s book, but in particular I appreciate the way she accompanies her advice to incorporate edibles into gardens with colorful illustrations that show exactly how that can be accomplished beautifully. While the book is a general primer on growing edibles, the appendix includes an extensive list of edible plants specifically for northern gardeners. I found several varieties there that I’m going to try this year.
Gardeners who want to help support pollinators and other beneficial insects should check out Minnesota landscape designer Heather Holm’s fantastic book, Pollinators of Native Plants (Pollination Press, 2014). While the text sometimes made me reach for my botanical dictionary and refer to the glossary in the back of the book, Heather really did a great job of conveying complex subject matter in a relatable way. Don’t want to learn about the actual process of pollination? Skip to the descriptions of the many different creatures that visit flowering plants. Read up on bees and how they live and work together. Or jump right to the bulk of the book where native plants are described in detail along with the insects that are partial to them. The photos alone are outstanding.
But the information Heather offers about natives for three distinct habitats: prairies, woodland edges and wetland edges, can be used by all gardeners who want to attract pollinators. And isn’t that all of us at this critical time?
Whew! I apologize for disappearing for so long. A family member has been ill for several months, and I haven’t had time to post. Things haven’t really calmed down, but I’m going to try to get back in the groove of writing more regularly so, here goes: Let’s talk about new plants for 2015. Or more specifically, new plants that can survive Minnesota’s horrifyingly cold, Zone 4 climate. For those of you who live where it’s even colder, I’ve got a few plants that are hardy to Zones 2 and 3. If you live in much warmer climates, you have the opposite problem. So you’ll want to check to see hot much heat the plants I’m talking about can take before you buy them.
You’re probably familiar with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Plant Hardiness Zones, which indicate the minimum temperatures in 11 areas across the country. By checking the USDA’s map, you can see whether a plant you’re considering can take your area’s minimum temperature. For example, in Zone 4b where I live, plants need to be hardy to at least -25° F to make it.
It’s always hard to choose just a few plants to highlight from the long list of new introductions each year. But here are some of my favorites. Before I go on, though, I want to remind you that if you are concerned about the effect of neonicotinoid pesticides on bees, you’ll need to check with sellers before you buy plants. Some retailers have stopped selling plants treated with “neonics” in response to studies suggesting that the pesticides harm bees, particularly honeybees. But this issue is still being sorted out and not everyone is on board. I’ll write more about what’s happening with neonics very soon, so without further ado, here are the plants.
Got shade? Try adding some Solomon’s seal ‘Tiger Stripes’ (Polygonatum falcatum) from Plant Delights Nursery to your garden. This variegated selection has pretty cream-colored highlights and grows to about 18 inches tall. Fruit clusters appear in the fall and plants are hardy to Zone 4. Plant Delights is located in Raleigh, N.C., and is known for offering unique plants that are hard to find elsewhere. Orders can be placed on their website.
I’ve never tried growing cobra lily (Chasmanthe Saturnus) but I’m going to try now. This South African native bulb offered by High Country Gardens blooms in mid-summer and is hardy to Zone 2. Spikes of fragrant, tubular orange flowers attract hummingbirds. Plants grow to between 3 and 4 feet tall and 2 feet wide and need full sun, which is 6 hours or more.
Toad lilies are great for our northern gardens because they bloom late in the season and look so tropical. Tricyrtis ‘Hatatogisa’ from Creek Hill Nursery is a lovely Japanese toad lily with orchid-like, purple-spotted flowers on long, arching stems. This plant is not really new, but it is being freshly promoted. Plants grow 18 to 24 inches tall and 12 inches wide and prefer part shade to full shade. Zone 4.
Looking for a tough, no-fuss rose that’s like no other? Head out to local garden centers and ask for Above and Beyond™ (Rosa ‘ZLEEltonStrack’), the newest rose from local breeder David Zlesak. David gave me this rose to test in my garden a couple of years ago, so I can attest to its hardiness and beauty. Introduced by Bailey Nurseries, Above and Beyond has apricot-colored flowers that open in mid- to late-spring and often rebloom throughout the season. Plants grow 10 to 14 feet tall and about 14 feet wide, which sounds ginormous, but you can easily prune them to be shrubs or climbers. I’ve got mine growing on a south-facing fence. Full sun. Zone 3.
I know they aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I like black plants. So I can’t resist suggesting Clematis recta ‘Lime Close’, also known as Serious Black™, a nod to Harry Potter fans everywhere. Unlike vining clematis, this new introduction from Walters Gardens offers dark-purple foliage that looks almost black and grows in clumps to about 6 feet tall. Foliage ages to green as the summer progresses and is topped with white flowers with slender petals. (Plan on supporting plants if they get too tall and floppy.) Walters doesn’t sell to the public, but you should be able to find this plant at garden centers. Full sun. Zone 4a.
If you like baptisia but wish plants wouldn’t flop over after they bloom in early summer, try Baptisia ‘Pink Truffles’ from Walters Gardens. One of several new varieties bred by Hans Hansen, this false indigo is compact at just 2 ½ feet tall and 3 feet wide and offers delicate, pink flowers. Plants are drought tolerant once they are established and should be grown in full sun to part shade. Zone 4.
And last but certainly not least, let me point out a really striking grass from Walters Gardens. (Again, this should be available at local garden centers.) Schizachyrium scoparium ‘Twilight Zone’ is a little bluestem that is now widely available after a limited release last year. In addition to its columnar form, this ornamental grass offers silver/purple highlights. Grows to 4 feet tall and 2 feet wide. Full sun. Zone 3.
Most of these plants should be available at garden centers this season, but in some cases you can order directly from the website I’ve provided.
My dad told all kinds of fantastical stories when I was a kid, and I believed all of them. To this day, I can’t drive past a “Watch For Falling Rock” sign without thinking about the Native American hero named Falling Rock, who disappeared in the desert and was never seen again. If I had kids, I would tell them stories about dragonflies, something about how a magic spell of some sort turned big-eyed, prehistoric beasts into delicate winged creatures that really like water.
I’m not sure exactly when dragonflies started inhabiting our gardens. But these days, they are as nearly as ubiquitous as the butterflies and bees used to be just a handful of years ago. Perched on plants or flitting around from one place to another, the brightly colored creatures are as unreal as seahorses and endlessly interesting to watch. They’re also beneficial carnivores, capable of eating hundreds of mosquitos in a single day.
Attracting dragonflies to your yard is easier than you might think. The most crucial thing to provide is a water source, and even the simplest water feature will do. It’s also important to include a diverse mix of plants, trees and shrubs that can provide cover; offer places to mate and lay eggs; and draw in insects that hungry dragonflies can munch on. But before I go into more detail on how to invite them, here is a bit more that you might not know about these interesting creatures.
What Are Dragonflies?
Dragonflies really do have prehistoric roots. More than 300 million years ago, they were among the first winged insects to evolve. While today’s dragonflies have wingspans that range from about 2 to 5 inches, some dragonfly fossils have been found to have wingspans of more than two feet. That is frightening enough. But the thought becomes absolutely terrifying when you consider that the aquatic insects belong to the insect order Odonata, which is Greek for “toothed one,” referring to dragonflies’ serrated teeth. When they eat, dragonflies most often snatch flying insects in midair, tear them into bits, smush the bits into a ball and chow down.
Look closely and you’ll notice that dragonflies can look quite different from one another. That’s because the insect order Odonata also includes damselflies. Generally smaller than dragonflies, damselflies have slim bodies and eyes that are separated and somewhat protruding rather than flat and centered on their heads.
It’s easiest to tell the two relatives apart by looking at their wings when they’re resting on something, which damselflies do more often than dragonflies. Dragonflies rest with their wings flat and parallel to the ground while damselflies hold their wings pressed together over their backs, like a butterfly. An estimated 5,000 to 6,000 dragonfly and damselfly species have been identified worldwide, and about 140 species can be found in Minnesota. Go here to learn more and see photos of some our state’s dragonflies and damselflies. To hone your dragonfly identification skills, check out Stokes Beginner’s Guide to Dragonflies by Blair Nikula, Jackie Sones and Donald and Lillian Stokes.
Most dragonflies and damselflies need water throughout their entire lifecycle. Every species has its own requirements for things like water quality and the types of aquatic vegetation on which they prefer to lay their eggs—though they also lay eggs in the water. In their larval stages, when they are known as nymphs, the insects spend months, sometimes years, living underwater before emerging as adults.
Adding a pond to your landscape is sure to bring on the dragonflies. If you have the space and resources to do that, choose a spot that gets at least five hours of full sun in an area that’s somewhat sheltered from winds, especially from the north. If possible, create a pond with varied depths so there are shallow areas near the edges and a depth of at least two feet in the center. Larvae will be safer from predators like raccoons in the deeper parts of the pond. Because fish feed on nymphs and eggs, it’s best not to include them in ponds where you’d like to encourage dragonflies to breed.
Stock the pond with water-loving plants, including submerged plants for females to lay eggs on and tall emergent plants for nymphs to climb up when they’re ready to slough off their last larval exoskeleton and transform into flying adults. Adults will also use emergent plants when they stop to perch and scan for potential mates or food sources. There are several submerged plants (also called oxygenator plants) to choose from, but a few good options are: anacharis (Egeria densa), fanwort (Cabomba canadensis), hornwort (Ceratophyllum demersum) and wild celery (Vallisneria sp.).
A few emergent plants to consider are: corkscrew rush (Juncus effuses), dwarf horsetail (Equisetum scirpoides),dwarf papyrus (Cyperus isocladus), blue flag iris (Iris versicolor) and parrot’s feather (Myriophyllum aquatic).
More Water Ideas
Don’t have room for or want a pond? How about a small rain garden or bog garden? Or maybe a water container garden made from a half whiskey barrel, galvanized tub or anything else that’s handy and can hold water will work well. Use the same plants mentioned above to create your container water garden, which should be located in a sunny spot. For detailed instructions on creating container water gardens, see my article on the subject in the May/June 2013 issue of Northern Gardener.
If all of that sounds like too much work, take the easy route and just add a water feature like a simple fountain. We created a few small fountains for our yard using inexpensive pond pump kits that we bought on sale at a local big-box store combined with a galvanized tub or livestock troughs. Be aware that pond kits don’t always come with filtration systems that are adequate enough to handle outdoor debris. So you may want to do what we did and buy an additional filter box that will filter the water before it enters the pump.
Place your container where you want it, put the pump in the bottom of the container and use a rock or brick to hold the cord in place. Next, drape the cord over the edge of the container and use another rock to secure it on the ground before directing it toward a power source. Fill the tub with water, flip the switch and your gurgling fountain becomes a magnet for dragonflies and damselflies. Adding plants will hasten their appearance, but it isn’t necessary. Basically, if you have a water feature, they will come.
Plants for Every Purpose
The plants that you choose for your landscape are nearly as important as the water you provide. Dragons and damsels will use ornamental grasses, shrubs and trees planted within a few feet of a water source as perching sites and to help them hide from predators like birds and spiders. Flat rocks placed around the edge of a pond, water container or fountain will become places to rest and bask in the sun. And although midges and mosquitos make up the bulk of their diet, you’ll see more of these meat-eating beauties if you plant flowering perennials that entice beetles, wasps, moths and other small flying insects that become their prey. (Yes that does include some bees and butterflies.)
Bee balm (Monarda didyma), black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), black snakeroot (Actea racemosa), blanket flower (Gaillardia), cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), catmint (Nepeta), coneflower (Echinacea), Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), golden Alexander (Zizia aurea), goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), Helenium, Joe-pye weed (Eupatorium fistulosum), Liatris, Phlox, Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia), speedwell (Veronica), Salvia, swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnate) and yarrow (Achillea filipendula) are all great choices.
Ensuring A Safe Haven
Like bees and butterflies, dragonfly and damselfly populations around the world are in decline in part due to pesticides. Studies have shown that the widely used neonicotinoid pesticide, imidacloprid, is particularly toxic to the aquatic insects, as well as other water-dwelling species. So if you want to attract dragons and damsels, do your best to steer clear of pesticides and other chemicals that may be harmful. And if you’ve got one of those bug zapper things to help control mosquitos, put it away because it will zap the dragonflies too. Don’t worry. In a very short time, those hungry little carnivores will thank you by keeping mosquitos in check all on their own.
A version of this article appeared in the 2014 September/October issue of Northern Gardener magazine.
For me, the words “neighborhood sweep” bring to mind the busting up of meth labs and prostitute rings, or maybe less dramatically, a big litter cleanup day in which everybody pitches in. But on Friday, we got a letter from the City of Minneapolis Department of Regulatory Services Housing Inspection Services Division advising us that we were being cited in response to a NEIGHBORHOOD SWEEP (yes, all caps) for the “conditions” of the gardens along the sidewalk on one side of our house. Failing to correct the NUISANCE CONDITIONS (perhaps they should be cited for errant use of all caps) could, they advised, result in the city arranging to do the job one way or another at some future date.
What were those nuisance conditions, you ask? Fall flowers, mostly New England asters and a couple of varieties of golden rod, but I admit that a few black-eyed Susan’s and blackberry lilies also ran afoul of the law by encroaching here and there on the public sidewalk. Growing primarily in our boulevard gardens and heavy with seeds, in the case of the lilies, and blooms in the case of the rest of the flowers, the plants were indeed lolling out onto the walkway an inch or two in a few places.
And there was one rogue aster leaning out at an awkward angle at about fourth-grader height. We also have a river birch in our yard and its wispy branches, which we routinely trim, are at least six feet above the sidewalk. The rule, we now know, is seven feet.
Even with all of this mayhem and out-of-control bramble, two people could have handily pushed a couple of shopping carts or strollers side by side down the walk and been brushed only slightly, if at all, by plants. There are no fat shrubs hogging space or heavy, low-hanging tree limbs threatening to bump heads or poke eyes out. So while it is understandable that in a civilized society we need to have rules about things like keeping public sidewalks clear, this citation seemed outside the bounds of reasonableness to me.
Our neighbors can attest to the fact that we spend a lot of time pulling weeds, pruning and trimming plants, and just generally working hard to keep our yard looking good and out of people’s way. We’ve never had anyone complain about problems getting down the sidewalk. Honestly, people walking by often go out of their way to stop and tell us how much they appreciate the peaceful pocket of nature we’ve cultivated in the city.
Families stop to watch the bees, butterflies and dragonflies flitting from plant to plant. We answer all sorts of gardening questions, and have learned a lot from other gardeners too. People as far away as several blocks often stop to tell us that we’ve inspired them to start their own gardens, and many of us share seeds and plants.
It pained us to cut down flowers that bees and birds were actively feeding on last weekend because rules are rules. And I couldn’t help wondering how many other gardeners had been cited and were experiencing the same thing. So I want to ask whoever is listening, what can we do as a city to rethink rules that require a level of obedience from nature that simply isn’t possible while ensuring that our sidewalks remain safe and traversable? For every person whose day is made brighter by urban gardens, and every creature, especially pollinators, that seeks those gardens out for habitat, it’s a question we need to consider.
Every year I promise my husband that I will cut down on the number of tomato plants in our backyard, but I never do it. I can’t. There are so many varieties that I feel I can’t live without: Sun Gold, Black Krim, Green Zebra and Speckled Roman, to name a few. And then friends always foist tomatoes on me that I just can’t refuse because I can’t say no to a plant that needs a home, and I’ve got room, right? Happily, some of those unexpected tomatoes that crowd our back patio often turn out to be amazing, like the Bloody Butcher heirloom tomatoes my friend Naomi gave me this year. (The name alone made them irresistible, and they’re tasty too.)
The trouble is, come September we have prepared all manner of tomato dishes, given tomatoes away to friends and neighbors and our countertops are still loaded with bounty. I’ve tried various methods of preserving tomatoes for later, making sauce—lots of sauce, and freezing. (I’m too lazy to can.) But I wanted to try something new this year and my friend Sarah suggested roasting them. Boy was she right. Roasting is easy, fast and the result seems like something that will be much more enjoyable in the middle of winter when fresh tomatoes are just a memory.
Here’s how you do it. Pre-heat your oven to 275 degrees. Cut tomatoes into halves or quarters, depending on their size. You want something about the size you would use in a salad. Lay the pieces flesh side up on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Don’t crowd them together too much, and make sure the baking sheet has a rim on it or you’ll have tomato juice all over the inside of your oven.
Roast the tomatoes plain or spice them up by adding fresh or dried herbs like basil, oregano, thyme or rosemary. You can also add garlic, chopped or as whole cloves, if you like. Before placing the baking sheet in the oven, drizzle the tomatoes with olive oil and sprinkle them with a bit of salt and pepper. Sarah says the longer you roast them the better, which means a minimum of three hours, but five or more will give you a more complex, caramelized flavor.
What you end up with varies depending on how watery your tomatoes were to start with. Drier varieties look and taste a lot like sundried tomatoes. While those that have more water, most heirlooms fall into this category, will be crinkly and delicious, but softer. Let the tomatoes cool on the tray and then put them in freezer bags in portions you can use when making pizza, soup, pasta, sauces or whatever you like in the winter. If you like to give food as gifts, freeze some of your roasted tomatoes in mason jars of various sizes, or just give the jars filled with tasty goodness away right away.