Yes, it’s me again, nattering on about the cold, cold, horribly cold winter we’re having here in Minnesota—and a lot of other places too, I know. But, honestly, most of you in other states will be warm again far sooner than we will here in the tundra. So I feel entitled to go on about this a bit more and if you don’t agree, please don’t send me another email telling me that if I don’t love it in Minnesota, I should move. Move where? In with you? Awesome!
Anyway, as I was saying, a local meteorologist wrote the other day that Minnesotans are experiencing the coldest winter in 33 years. I didn’t live here then, but I believe him. Minnesotans are tough, but it’s been far below zero with mind-boggling wind chills for a long time now. Kids are bored at home because schools have been closed repeatedly. Parents are using up precious vacation days staying home with bored kids. And bored dogs wish they could go outside, but they can’t stand how cold their paws get, even with those awful booties that they hate.
We are a stir-crazy lot, motivated to do little more than lie on the couch and drink and order takeout while watching movie after movie. Or is that just me? BTW, I would highly recommend Seven Psychopaths and The Heat, but I thought Iron Man 3 was kind of meh even though I loved the first two.
What does this have to do with gardening? you wonder. Well, in an effort to stop spending so much time eating, drinking and watching movies, I recently tried focusing on spring to brighten my mood and, by golly, it worked! In addition to looking at a bunch of the garden-related photos I took last season, I also spent a few hours going through all of the seed and plant catalogs that have piled up on my living room coffee table. That was fun, especially because our sweet dog, Lily, helped by napping on me the whole time.
So if you’re bored and freezing and in need of some good cheer, I’ve posted a few photos below in the hope that they help a bit. And if you haven’t already started looking at your seed and plant catalogs, give it a go. I bet it will make you feel better to start thinking about what you’ll plant in just a few weeks or months, depending on where your live. I especially love Renee’s Garden, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (their catalog is a work of art—just ignore the religious quotes that pop up now and then), Seed Savers Exchange, Fedco Seeds, Prairie Moon Nursery and Territorial Seed Company.
That’s it for now. Hang in there. Spring is really, seriously, surely on the way.
Grafted tomatoes, especially heirlooms, were really hot this year. Why graft heirlooms? Well, the reasoning is that by grafting the heirlooms we love—Brandywines, Green Zebras, Cherokee Purples, Mortgage Lifters—to a rootstock that’s got, say, great drought tolerance or disease resistance, you get what amounts to a super heirloom.
The strategy isn’t new. Apple and grape varieties have been produced successfully on desirable rootstock for ages. But this is the first time that home gardeners in the U.S. are really starting to see grafted vegetables, including eggplants, peppers, cucumbers and watermelon, becoming increasingly available at the retail level. Territorial Seed Company, Johnny’s Selected Seeds and White Flower Farm are just a few of the places where you’ll find grafted vegetables.
Though I admit that there can be problems with heirlooms tomatoes, I go out of my way to plant them. So I like the idea of making them more viable and widely available. Like a lot of gardeners, I feel strongly about the importance of including heirlooms of all types in the garden and, on the whole, I think heirloom tomatoes taste better than their hybrid peers, which often have tough skins and bland flavor. (Some of my favorite heirlooms are Black Krim, Green Zebra, Stupice and Sweet Million, though I always, always, always plant Sungolds, those out-of-this-world hybrid, yellow cherry tomatoes.)
Still, I’m always up for trying something new. So I was happy to get a surprise box of grafted tomato seedling samples (some heirlooms, some not) from Mighty ‘Mato early in the season. Having a limited amount of sun to work with, I kept two for myself, an Indigo Rose and a Brandywine, and gave the others to master gardener friends to plant and report back on. During the season, I also talked with more MGs and garden writers who were experimenting with grafted tomatoes. The outcome? Impressions were mixed.
Take Indigo Rose, for example. I had been wanting to try Indigo Rose, which was introduced by Oregon State University in 2012. Their goal was to produce a tomato with high levels of antioxidants. I wanted to grow the tomato because I fell for the weird looking purple-black fruit. I planted both grafted and ungrafted Indigo Rose tomatoes so I could compare the two (and so I could justify planting way too many tomatoes, like I always do).
Sadly, though they both produced an absurd amount of fruit all summer long, I didn’t like either of them, mainly because the tomatoes took FOREVER to ripen and when they finally did, they tasted bland and watery. Also of note was the fact that I honestly noticed no difference between the grafted plants and the ungrafted plants. Most of the gardeners I’ve talked to had similar experiences with Indigo Rose, though I will say that a few thought they were tastier than I did.
On the plus side, my friend, Deb, loved Mighty ‘Mato’s grafted Indigo Ruby, a cross between Indigo Rose and a cherry tomato. The plant grew well, was free of disease and produced very tasty tomatoes all season. I heard rave reviews from other gardeners, too, though I don’t know how they compared to ungrafted Indigo Ruby.
As for grafted Brandywine tomatoes, by all accounts, including mine, the grafted plants didn’t do as well as the heirlooms usually do on their own. I did hear lots of good things about grafted Legend tomatoes—great taste, good disease resistance and a LOT of tomatoes.
What does all of this mean? Well, at this point, I’m not ready to say that grafted tomatoes aren’t worth the price, which is steep compared to regular tomatoes, hybrids and heirlooms. But I’m not ready to sing their praises either. I’ll plant a couple more varieties next summer and report back on how things go. If you try grafted tomatoes, please let me know about your experiences. I’ll pass that information on so we can all compare notes.
As a garden writer, I read a lot of gardening blogs and articles by other writers and landscape designers and I have to say, I’m finding them increasingly annoying and depressing. So much judgment and negativity—who died and made us the arbiters of all things right and tasteful?
Without naming the writer and being a jerk when I’m trying to write about why it’s important to not be a jerk, let me just say that recently I read a blog post that pushed me over the edge. It was a short piece, posted by a writer who had a day off so she rented a bike in a nearby town and peddled around looking at gardens.
It was a beautiful blue-sky day, but she really couldn’t enjoy it because most of the homes she biked past were landscaped with predictable perennials, particularly KnockOut® roses and catmint (Nepeta). The fact that most of the roses were RED only accentuated the humdrum nature of the plants in her mind, and she posted a few pictures to bolster her point with “sophisticated” readers like us. Ugh. How can this sort of thing be helpful to anyone?
Sure, experienced gardeners or those with the good fortune to have an impermeable force field of self-esteem might read snobby comments like that and think: “To hell with her, I love my KnockOut roses.” But for many mortals trying to garden, it’s no fun to read something written by someone who is supposedly in the know that basically says you have bad taste if you plant certain things (or allow them to be planted by a landscaper) and you ought to know better. This kind of senseless garden bullying isn’t helpful or inspiring and needs to stop.
A Matter of Taste
I will confess right now that I am guilty of garden snobbery. I have written disparaging things about annual geraniums, dusty miller and other plants I don’t like. Thinking about it now, I can’t imagine how I ever thought that might be useful to anyone. Please accept my sincere apology for behaving like such a self-important turd.
But don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that garden writers should only write nice things about plants. On the contrary, plants that perform poorly are absolutely fair game. It’s our job to spill the beans on crappy plants that don’t bloom well, fail to be as hardy as advertised or are riddled with diseases they’re supposed to be able to resist. And there’s nothing wrong with pointing out that certain plants are being used an awful lot and suggesting alternatives. That’s information that people can use. But slamming plants based on personal preference, or nattering on about how sophisticated gardeners would never have this or that “over-planted” plant in their gardens, is on par with shaming high school classmates over their choice of jeans.
Let’s face it. Whether you’re a professional or a novice, when it comes right down to it, plant picks and gardening styles are always about personal taste. Like most gardeners, I plant what I like, and what is given to me and what I find by the side of the road with a “Free” sign on it. I know and respect many local landscape designers, and I do follow some of their advice, but I don’t want to hire one of them to reimagine my yard for me. Then, I would be living with their taste, not mine. I like the crowded, overgrown gardens I have imagined for myself and I ignore the finger-waggers who question my taste level. You should too.
A slightly different version of this post appeared recently in Northern Gardener magazine.
As you might have already guessed from the infrequency of my posts lately, the hardest thing about being a garden blogger is actually sitting down to write something in the summer. Winter is no problem. If you’re not into winter sports (and I am most definitely not) there’s nothing else to do here in Minnesota when it’s crazy-ass cold. But during our reasonably nice five months of each year, it’s hard not to spend every extra moment outdoors. Lately, I’ve been going to every garden tour I can find, large and small, and I’ve seen some beautiful, odd, innovative, lovingly tended and over-the-top landscapes. So I thought I’d share some photos. Here goes:
This year’s Tangletown Garden Tour, hosted by local Tangletown Gardens, included a stop at co-owner Scott Endres’ house, which showcased his design sensibilities and penchant for using unusual and colorful plants in fun and elegant ways.
The front porch—
And now the backyard—
Okay, so this wasn’t on any tour. But my friend Kathleen and I saw it on the way to the tour, so here it is. Wow!
A few pretty plant combos.
Photos just can’t do justice to a garden we saw in Highland Park. The couple has been gardening on four city lots for more than 40 years and their gardens are clearly tended with loving care. Vegetables, perennials, a formal area with boxwood hedges and a gorgeous wisteria archway—it was breathtaking.
I’m late, late, late with a post on new plants coming out this year. Sorry about that. It keeps slipping my mind because it’s still quite cold and rainy here in Minnesota even though we’re well into June now, so going to the garden center hasn’t been high on my list. I do think I’ll go this weekend, though, and here are some of the new things this year that I’m planning to try if I can find them.
Oso Happy® Smoothie Rose (Rosa Oso Happy Smoothie ‘Zlesak Poly3’ PPAF)
Bred by David Zlesak, a Minnesota-based plant breeder, hort professor and all around wonderful guy, Oso Happy Smoothie almost seems too good to be true. But it isn’t, and I know because I’m one of the lucky writers who got to test this Proven Winners introduction in my gardens last summer. Hardy, THORNLESS and resistant to black spot, this diminutive rose grows to 3 feet tall and offers up bright pink single blooms from June until frost. Mine still looked fantastic at Halloween, planted in a protected spot near the house. Sadly, the rabbits ate it over the winter and now I need a new one that I will definitely fence this fall. Full sun. Zones 4 – 9.
Brunnera ‘Sea Heart’ (Brunnera macrophylla ‘Sea Heart’)
Plants Nouveau is behind this pretty new brunnera, which their website touts as “Like ‘Jack Frost’, but on steroids’, which sounds creepy, honestly. But they go on to explain that in a side-by-side test with ‘Jack Frost’, ‘Sea Hart’ flowered longer and better handled the heat and humidity. Sounds good, and the pink and blue blooms look lovely, too. I’ll always make room for brunneras. Full sun to full shade. Zones 4 to 8.
Heuchera Little Cutie™ Series
Terra Nova Nurseries introduced its mini coral bells series, Little Cutie, exclusively last summer. So I’m calling these plants new in 2013 because they are now much more widely available. The series includes seven petite, new heucheras, all bred for their outstanding colors, including ‘Blondie’, ‘Coco’, ‘Frost’, Ginger Snap’, Peppermint’, ‘Sugar Berry’ and ‘Sweet Tart’. Drought-tolerant and easy going as long as they’re planted in well-drained soil, these Little Cutie coral bells look best when grown in rock gardens or spots where they won’t get lost among larger plants. They also make great container plants, providing you heel them in before winter. Full sun to part shade. Zones 4 to 9 (depending on the variety).
Hibiscus ‘Midnight Marvel’
I added hardy hibiscus to my gardens a few years back and they never fail to stop passersby who want to know, “What are those beautiful, exotic-looking plants?” ‘Midnight Marvel’ from Walters Gardens kicks things up a notch with this hibiscus, which grows to 48 inches tall and offers dark black-burgundy foliage with gorgeous red blooms that last from mid-summer to fall. Full sun. Zones 4 – 9.
Wisteria ‘Betty Matthews’ (Wisteria macrostachya ‘Betty Matthews’ Summer Cascade)
I stupidly bought a Japanese wisteria years ago that never blooms and will likely never, ever bloom in our climate. So I’m going to euthanize the poor thing in a couple of weeks and replace it with this new variety from Bailey Nursery. Touted as being fragrant and more reliably cold hardy than other wisterias, ‘Betty Mathews’ has showy, dark-lavender blooms that are said to appear on new growth in early June. Once the flowers fade, cool-looking seedpods form in late summer and last into winter. Heck, I’ll try it. Full sun. Zones 4 – 8.
A few weeks back I did a short presentation in Pine City, Minn., on how to build good, healthy soil, and a woman in the audience asked: “How do I know if the compost I’m using is safe?”
I’ve been wondering that same thing, I told her, explaining that I’ve been researching the topic so I have some answers, but many more questions, too. This prompted more people to weigh in on the subject, asking: Was it important to use organic compost, especially when growing edibles? How do you know that even organic compost is safe?
Does composted manure from conventional farmers contain pesticide and herbicide residue that could cause problems in their gardens? Should you have compost tested to find out what’s in it before you use it on food crops and, if so, where? And what about GMOs? Is it safe to use composted manure produced on conventional farms on which cows eat things like Monsanto’s genetically modified Roundup Ready corn and alfalfa?
Complex questions like these are difficult to answer definitively for a lot of reasons. Sometimes, there aren’t many studies, if any, on a particular topic. Or maybe there are numerous seemingly reputable studies, but many of them conflict with one another. For example, as a journalist who interviews people for a living, I can tell you that for every scientist I’ve talked to who dismisses the French study that came out last year linking a genetically-modified strain of maize to huge tumors in rats, I’ve got another scientist saying the study should be given serious consideration.Read More»
Most every commercial potting mix contains sphagnum peat moss because it’s a good, lightweight, organic amendment that improves drainage, as well as water retention and air circulation. The downside to peat moss is that it isn’t a sustainable resource. Peat moss is the decomposing remains of living sphagnum moss, and it is harvested at unsustainable rates from bogs in a manner than involves scraping off the top layer of the living moss to get to the saleable product below.
This process destroys centuries-old bogs, doing away with wildlife habitat, releasing C02 into the air, and eliminating wetlands that help prevent flooding. Because of this, conservationists and scientists all over the world have been pushing for limits and even bans on peat moss harvesting.
In Britain, for example, where peat is often burned for fuel, harvesting has become so intense that the government has set goals for phasing out peat for home gardening use by 2020. Professional growers will need to go peat free by 2030. For more information, check out the Royal Horticulture Society’s website: http://www.rhs.org.uk/Gardening/Sustainable-gardening/Peat-and-the-environment/More-about-peat.
Most of the peat used by the horticultural industry in the U.S. comes from Canada where talk of limits and bans is also heating up. So, whether you are concerned about the sustainability of peat of not, now seems like as good a time as any to explore some peat-free potting soil options.Read More»
People have been talking about straw bale gardening for years and, I admit, I haven’t really paid much attention. It’s not that I wasn’t curious about the idea. It just wasn’t on the top of my list of things to try until recently when I got the opportunity to talk with Joel Karsten about his new book Straw Bale Gardens: The Breakthrough Method for Growing Vegetables Anywhere, Earlier and with No Weeding.
Karsten isn’t just another gardener talking about straw bale gardening. He invented straw bale gardening. That’s right; he came up with the idea for a growing technique that has now become an international sensation. And it all started when he was a kid growing up on a farm right here in Minnesota.
Farmers, he told me, have no need for piles of wet, unruly straw. So when a bale would break open for one reason or another and get rained on, his family would push it up against the barn to break down over time. “I always noticed that those stacked up, broken bales would have the biggest, tallest weeds growing out of them, so I knew there was nutrition in there,” Karsten recalls, adding that he didn’t think much more about it until 15 years later.
By then, he had earned a bachelor’s degree in horticulture from the University of Minnesota, and he and his wife Patty had just bought a house in Roseville. After looking forward to gardening at their new home, they were disappointed when they realized that their whole lot consisted of little more than construction debris in which nothing was going to grow well. Then, Karsten remembered those straw bales. “And I thought, what if I just line those bales up and try growing vegetables in them as they decompose?” he recalls.Read More»
“I think my garden looks great in winter, especially after a fresh snowfall.” That’s what Cindy, a reader in Wisconsin, said in an email she sent to me last week. As proof, she attached this magical, postcard-worthy photo of her yard.
As you can see, she is absolutely right, and I wrote her back right away to say so, and to ask permission to post the photo on my blog. Cindy wasn’t trying to boast. I think she just wanted to remind me that there’s more to winter than smashed ornamental grasses, buried outdoor furniture and yellow snow. And she did concede that, “It’s a little easier to landscape for winter in the country than in the city,” which it is for a variety of reasons.
Still, while urban dwellers like me aren’t likely to experience the kind of snowy backyard wonderland that our more outlying counterparts do, her kind note did motivate me to try to see more beauty in what has so far been a pretty ass-kickingly tough winter. So, let’s not focus on the loveliness of my own backyard, which includes this focal point by the driveway.
Instead, behold this amazingly cool Christmas tree made of sphagnum moss and potted orchids and bromeliads that I saw at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum last week.
Outside at the arboretum and down by the lake near my house, there are these sights to behold.
Back inside where it’s warm, there’s fern frost on the bathroom window.
And a kitty sleeping on the dining room table in the sun.
It’s great to know when a blog post is helpful in some way. So I was happy to hear from lots of you that last week’s tour of summer garden photos helped ease the pain of this long, cold winter. And I so appreciate everyone who wrote to help me identify those purple seed pods I posted. I was walking down an alley not far from my house last year and saw that plant poking up over the fence of someone’s backyard. I took a few photos of those pretty pods, hoping I could figure out what the plant was and, yes, you are all correct. It is Lablab purpureus, commonly known as hyacinth bean, Egyptian bean or Indian bean.
The vine is native to the tropical areas of Africa where the flowers and beans are a food source. (I got varying reports from people about the actual tastiness of these beans, and some readers cautioned against eating the beans raw.) According to several plant history websites, hyacinth bean was introduced into the American nursery trade in the early 19th century after having been a part of European gardens as far back as the early 1700s.Read More»