Extreme Gardening

Pros weigh in on the best plants and gardening practices for our changing climate. 

Extreme Gardening, that’s the name of the reality TV show someone really ought to make about what it’s like to be a northern gardener. We’re already well known for our ability to cope with short growing seasons while making sensible, hardy plant choices and coping with dreadful-sounding issues like frost heave and snow mold. Now, climate trends indicate that we must add excessive heat, humidity, drought and torrential “rain events” to our list of things to think about before putting trowel to dirt. Surely all of that adds up to enough adversity, struggle and tears to make a successful show, right?

Early summer hail storm knocks over family of plastic pigs—top left.

As you no doubt have noticed, our climate is changing. In January, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that 2012 was the world’s 10th warmest year since 1880. Closer to home, 2012 was the warmest on record for the United States and the third warmest for Minnesota. But increasing average temperatures are not the only climate trend affecting our region. According to University of Minnesota Climatologist Mark Seeley, the average number of days with a high dew point in also increasing, and we are also experiencing changes in the amount and type of rainfall we get.

Annual precipitation has increased  over the last several decades and is expected to continue to do so. Heavy rain that sometimes leads to flooding is becoming more common. Yet between these events, we are experiencing long periods of drought. Complicating matters further is the rate at which changes are happening, Seeley says. Because it is possible temperatures may rise faster than we, or nature, can adapt.

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Are All Home and Garden Shows Lame?

I admit it. I have Home and Garden Show envy. I read blog posts by gardeners all over the world who talk about the innovative gardening products and to-die-for plants they just saw at their local Home and Garden Show. (Most of them post great photos, too, so I don’t think they’re lying.) Inevitably, their exuberance makes me feel excited about going to Minneapolis’ Home and Garden Show, which is ridiculous because I already know that our local show is totally lame. Lame, lame, lame! Year after year, I go because I get free tickets with a garden magazine I subscribe to. And every year I walk away complaining about how lame it is that people have to pay $11 per ticket, $13 at the door, to walk around a hot, windowless arena packed solid with trade show booths offering the same array of stuff: granite countertops, gutters, expensive kitchen gadgets, hideous bathtub and shower inserts, outdoor gazebos, patio furniture, flooring and hot tubs. So many hot tubs—$16,000 hot tubs.

Didn’t spot this hot trend coming in 2013 did ya?

Seriously, they should pay people to attend this event. Or at least let people in for free: the hope being that once they’re inside folks will buy some mini doughnuts and cheese curds followed by copious amounts of beer. Enough beer to, say, allow them to throw down a credit card for a hot tub as big as a Volkswagen. “Ah, who the hell cares where we’ll put it, honey. Let’s just get it!”

Okay, if you’re not a local, you’re probably thinking: “Hey, it’s not like anyone is holding a gun to people’s heads to make them go to this home show thing.” But you’re wrong. There is a gun, and it’s called winter. In Minnesota, by the time March rolls around, most of us would pay any amount of money to go anywhere to see anything different than what we’ve been looking at for five months indoors. Add the word “garden” to the name of the event, and you’ve got yourself a crowd. Even people that don’t give a hoot about plants will fork over cash just to see something ALIVE, maybe smell some dirt, see some flowers. We are a desperate lot.

And they say there’s nothing new in gardening.

But therein lies the problem. There ain’t much Garden in our Home and Garden Show. Yes, there are some interesting gardening talks given by local gardening gurus, as well as some of my fellow master gardeners. But those are usually off in some airless side room far from the arena’s main floor. To see actual plants you have to thread your way through countertops and hot tubs and super-absorbant sponges to get to one small area in the back of the arena where mostly lesser-known landscape design firms have their displays. Some years are better than others. This year, though, was just plain weird. For reasons I am completely unable to fathom, there seemed to be some kind of TV show theme to the booths. This would have been bizarre no matter what, but why Fantasy Island, Miami Vice and Gilligan’s Island? Did the organizers of this event swear off TV in the 1980s? Are the TV shows of my adolescence already so kitschy they’ve actually become cool?

Were people worried that visitors would be bored looking at some dumb, old plants outside the context of a TV theme? I don’t get it. Do you?

Is it me? Or is this just creepy?



At least these guys had the sense to just make a poster.



Everyone wants a Gilligan in their landscape, right?


Smoke came out of this Gilligan’s Island volcano, which was kind of cool.


Who’s up for dinner on the ground next to some really hot rocks?


So, tell me. Do you have a good garden show in your city? If so, please email me a photo so I can live vicariously through you. Or, hey, maybe I’ll send them to next year’s local planning committee. They could use some ideas.


GMO Seed

Spring is just around the corner, which means ordering seeds and plants tops most gardeners to-do lists at the moment. I grow heirlooms and hybrids, so the pile of catalogs on our coffee table is out of control. Normally, I find ordering seeds a relaxing experience, but this year I’ve been mulling over a couple of issues that have made placing orders more stressful.

The biggest one concerns GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms). There’s been a lot of buzz lately about the need to avoid buying GMO seeds for our gardens, and you’ve probably seen at least some of the various lists going around touting  ”safe” seeds. Many people, including me, don’t want to buy seed that has been genetically modified. So I was happy to find out from my friend Jeff Gillman, a hort professor at the University of Minnesota, that GMO seed is not yet available to home gardeners.

Farmers have long been able to buy GMO seed, particularly for corn and soybeans, alfalfa and sugar beets. But, at least for now, that seed isn’t available to the general public so we can’t unwittingly buy them off the shelf or online—unless we pretend to be farmers for some weird reason. So where does the confusion come in? Well, maybe because you can mistakenly buy seeds from Voldemort, I mean Monsanto. And where there is Monsanto, we assume rightly or wrongly, there are GMOs.

How could you mistakenly buy from Monsanto? Well, as you may already know, the company has purchased many independent seed companies in the U.S. and abroad over the years. The biggest coup was in 2005 when Monsanto acquired Seminis, Inc., estimated to control more than 40 percent of the U.S. vegetable seed market and around 20 percent of the world market.

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Arizona’s “Junior Grand Canyon”

Why does life need a soundtrack? I wonder this all the time because, as you’ve probably noticed, you can’t buy groceries, shop for clothes, pump gas, eat a meal, ride an elevator or even go to the bathroom without some sort of musical accompaniment. Why is that? Are the designers of public spaces worried about what will happen if we are left alone with our thoughts? Do they suppose that we don’t have thoughts?

Or is it that people think we need music in order to conjure up the appropriate emotions for a given situation? This thought came to mind last week when my husband Mike and I were visiting my family in Arizona, and we took a short sightseeing cruise with my dad. We had just taken our seats aboard the Dolly Steamboat for an hour and a half nature cruise around Canyon Lake when the peaceful sound of paddlewheel against water was drowned out by Enya’s 1988 hit “Orinoco Flow.” Booming out of the boat’s crackling speakers, the song was both fittingly epic and completely cheesy in a not altogether disagreeable way. But why not enjoy the sounds of nature on the nature cruise? we groused to each other.

Canyon Lake (imagine Enya playing)


 Touted on the brochure as Arizona’s “Junior Grand Canyon,” Canyon Lake feels like an almost surreal oasis in the middle of the otherwise rocky, dry and cactus-filled Sonoran Desert. And it is, really, since the man-made lake was formed in 1925 when the Mormon Flat Dam trapped water from the Salt River. The steep canyon walls are the main attraction on the tour, and the boat’s captain explained how many of the rock formations we could see were the result of volcanic eruptions dating back as far as 15 million years. We brought along binoculars, hoping to see some bald eagles but, instead, we spotted several bighorn sheep defying gravity as they made their way along the face of the cliffs.

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Dreams of Summer

I know it’s just January and there is much, much more winter to go. But I’m feeling unusually gloomy about all the cold and gray/white everywhere. So rather than stew, I spent some time looking at photos of gardens I’ve visited over the last couple of years. Seeing all those plants and blue sky cheered me right up. And I hope it helps you, too, if you’ve got a bit of the winter blues.

So, come on, then. Let’s go on a garden tour!

Okay, this isn’t really on the tour. But does anybody know what vine this is? Those pods are gorgeous.

I’m definitely planting succulents in window boxes after seeing this.

I love marsh marigolds.


Ah, spring is coming. Whew!


The Truth About “Winter Interest”

Many, many thanks to everyone who took the time to send kind notes and words of wisdom after reading my last blog post about my broken teeth. I’ve already put some of your suggestions into practice and, I have to say, I’m feeling a little bit more relaxed already. In fact, I got the idea for this post the other day while sipping tea and looking out the window at the heaps of snow and ice in our backyard rather than running all around doing whatever it is I do all the time.

Yes, fellow gardeners, as the magazines tell us, tis the season for enjoying all that “winter interest” we’ve created by following advice to plant things like colorful red-twigged dogwoods and unusual evergreens in a landscape bedazzled with sturdy structures and planters overflowing with cute pinecones and twigs and whatnot. Everything looks so lovely in those glossy photo spreads. But we who garden in parts of the country where actual snow falls, not just a fairy dusting but, say, 10 inches or so, fairly often, followed by icy rain and slush, know the truth about winter interest. In the absence of photo stylists, props and camera crews, it simply doesn’t exist.

Don’t get me wrong; snowy gardens are beautiful, just not in the way magazines portray them. But let’s pretend for a minute that there is a magazine willing to run a winter story that tells it like it is. Articles could offer tips on things like how to spread fresh snow around the yard to obscure all those frozen yellow dog pee circles. A short sidebar might be: “3 Strategies For Chipping Frozen Poo From Snowbanks.” I’m sure a lot of us could submit photos that readers could relate to. Here are some of mine, and I’ve even written captions.

An empty cattle trough looks silly overflowing with snow while the nearly buried fireplace adds interest to the slippery pavement near the back door.

Arctic willow branches bend and break under the weight of snow and ice as the back gate only opens part way because it’s frozen.


Leave ornamental grasses standing to provide structure in winter gardens.


Bird feeders make attractive additions to any winter landscape

Evergreens offer a pop of color against the bright snow in winter gardens.


Have you got some “winter interest” photos to share? If so, please email them to me and I’ll post them!

Honey, I Broke My Teeth

“You’ve got to be f-ing kidding me.” I can’t be sure because I was pretty shaken up, but I’m fairly certain that’s what I muttered under my breath as soon as I realized I’d broken off both of my front teeth in a fall down our basement stairs on Thanksgiving morning.

It was one of those slow-motion accidents, the kind in which you try to catch yourself numerous times to no avail. Hand grabs for non-existent railing. Head hits metal post thingy by stairs. Underside of forearm takes the brunt of the fall onto the concrete floor before knees slam down and then, face—SNAP! About three-quarters of one tooth broke off cleanly and the other sort of shattered, leaving a sharp, jagged, horizontal edge. I remember spitting out tiny bits of teeth, but we looked everywhere and only found one small piece to save in a glass jar, like our moms did with our baby teeth, and we did with our dog, Lily’s.



“Honey, you won’t believe what just happened,” I called to my husband Mike, who was outside putting our plastic Santa and reindeer on the roof. But he could believe it, and so could I. Just two days earlier my new doctor had just one piece of advice for me: “Relax; chill out,” she said, “try meditation or take up yoga, even if you do it just five minutes a day.” This was her prescription for my complaints about digestion troubles, food allergies and just a general sense of feeling alternately revved up and exhausted.

As you might imagine by now, I have heard this before. But propped on one elbow on the basement floor while running the fingertips of my other hand over my broken teeth, all I could think of was how I had fallen because I was once again trying to do too many things at one time. It also wasn’t lost on me that I could have been badly hurt. As it was, once our dentist answered his emergency line and assured me that I must not have hit nerves or there would be more pain, we scheduled an appointment with him for the next day and celebrated Thanksgiving with our friends as planned. (Though I’m sure it was not too appetizing watching me eat.)

What does all of this have to do with gardening? you ask. After all this is a gardening blog. Well, here’s the thing. I’ve tried to meditate many times and just ended up sitting in a leg-cramping position while making a mental grocery list. Yoga is fine, but that’s not going to cut it as a relaxation tool for me. So, aside from working hard to be mindful of what I am doing: “You are walking down the stairs right now, and that is all you are going to focus on for the moment,” I’m wondering what else I can do to bring more calmness into my life and less multi-tasking.

And that got me thinking about gardening. I always think of gardening as my stress relief, my way of relaxing. I’m outside hauling, digging and planting from the time weather permits until it doesn’t. And when all those people walk by saying some version of: “Gorgeous gardens, but that sure looks like a lot of work,” I cheerfully reply: “It’s not work to me.” But is it and I just don’t realize it? I am not one of those gardeners who will tell you that they rarely sit and enjoy their garden because they’re always working in them. But I am the sort of gardener who, in between sips of wine and bites of dinner, looks around her gardens to assess what should be done next.

How did I let that Joe Pye weed get so tall again this year? OMG! Is that aster yellows on the phlox? What’s up with those crappy-looking ornamental grasses? I really should add more compost to those back beds this fall. Am I pruning those hydrangeas wrong? This sort of “monkey mind,” as I call it, equals a never-ending list of gardening to-dos, and I’m not bothered by that. I like being out in the garden working on this or that. But does this mean that gardening isn’t relaxing in the way I think it is? Am I really getting the dose of peace and calm my doctor thinks I need—and I clearly do need since it’s gotten to the point of lost teeth.

What do you think? How does gardening make you feel when you really think about it? And is there a point where it adds to stress rather than easing it? I would love to hear your thoughts as I muddle my way through this process of figuring out how to just “chill.”

Sharing Seeds Without Stealing

A few readers have emailed lately asking if I think it’s okay to just take a few seeds from plants in people’s gardens, or if I think they should ask first. It’s a good question, and one every gardener grapples with, I imagine. I admit that I have gathered a few seeds here and there from other people’s gardens. I didn’t go up into their yards or anything. But if a plant I liked was in a boulevard garden, or poking out of a fence or over a wall, I’d take a few seeds if it seemed like there were a lot to go around. I didn’t think much about this, probably because I wouldn’t mind if people took seeds from my gardens, at least not the ones that are accessible from the sidewalk.

But then the issue came up on our Master Gardener listserv, and I got those emails I mentioned from readers, and I realized that a lot of people consider taking seeds from other people’s plants a horrible thing to do. “It’s stealing,” one gardener wrote on our listserv. And many others agreed. Of course I see their point. And even though we stealers only take a few seeds, what if everyone who came along did that? What if the plant was special, maybe an heirloom grown by the gardener’s grandma and each year’s seeds were a precious treasure to be shared with family members?

I’ve thought about all of these things and decided that I won’t ever take seeds without asking again. But this doesn’t change the fact that I would be happy to share seeds from my own gardens, and I’m fine with people taking them without asking as long as you don’t venture into the yard and frighten our scared-of-everything dog, Lily. This whole thing has got me thinking about ways to share. I could put up a sign on the boulevard next season saying “Please feel free to take seeds from the boulevard gardens!” We live on a corner lot, so there are a lot of plants to choose from out there.

But I’m not sure how to let people know they’re welcome to seeds from plants inside the fence, too. We just need to know you’re coming so we can put Lily in the house. If you live around here, and you’re reading this, just email or call and we’ll tell you to come on over. For passersby, though, I obviously need a better system. I’m wondering if there’s a good a way to join up with other gardeners in the area to start a Little Free Seed Bank, modeled after the Little Free Library boxes that are popping up all over the place. If you haven’t seen these, homeowners, businesses, anyone who wants to, really, can give money to the program and get their own birdhouse-like box to stock with books that people can take and read for free. Take a book, leave a book, that’s the idea, and from what I can tell, it’s working beautifully.



Maybe there’s a way to do something like this with seeds, too. I threw this idea out to readers of my Everyday Gardener column in our local paper, The Southwest Journal, and several people emailed to say they’d be interested in working with me on trying to get a seed sharing plan off the ground next year. If you’re a local reader and you’re interested, too, please email and let me know. If you’re not local, but you like the idea and would like to know what we dream up, just email and I’ll keep in touch.

And, if you have a minute, I would also love to know what you think about sharing seeds in general. Would you be happy to share seeds from your garden with others? Would you want people to ask before they took seeds? Do you think it’s stealing to take a few seeds from people’s gardens without asking?



A Few Good Replacements For Diseased Phlox And Coneflowers

I’ve nearly finished putting the gardens to bed for the winter. As I worked, I actually did go through with my pledge to rip out all those diseased coneflowers and phlox that have been limping along in agony for years. Aster yellows, powdery mildew; I’m as tired of looking at that ick as they are of having it. So they’re out of their misery now, and so am I.

Phlox paniculata ‘Purple Kiss’

The upside is, I get to buy new plants next spring to take their places. I can live without coneflowers, but I would miss phlox in the garden. So I hunted around for some truly standout mildew-resistant varieties. Below is some information on the ones that got the best reviews from fellow master gardeners and local garden designers.

Phlox Flame™ Series: The naturally dwarf cultivars in the Flame series have outstanding mildew resistance. Available in a wide array of colors, these phlox have an attractive bushy habit that’s nicer looking than that of other phlox varieties. Zones 3 – 8.

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A Clarification on My Scotts Miracle-Gro Post

I’ve been out of town on vacation, so I’m behind on posting. I’m working on something that should be up later today or early tomorrow. But, first, I need to apologize for making an error in my recent post about Scotts. In that post, which you can read here if you missed it, I talked about how the company pleaded guilty earlier this year to charges that they had used insecticides known to be toxic to birds, fish and other wildlife on two brands of bird seed they were selling. They did this to help protect the seed from pests during storage. The products have been recalled, but not before more than 70 million units were sold over two years.

Credit: Free Nature Pictures

In my post I explained what happened and how Scotts ended up pleading guilty and being fined. But I got one part wrong, which someone from Scotts pointed out to me, so I am correcting my mistake, which I should. I wrote that Scotts tried to cover up the fact that they had coated the seeds with toxic insecticides by falsifying EPA documents. This is not correct. The company’s falsification of government documents was actually part of a separate legal issue going on at the same time involving Scotts illegal sale of pesticides that were not registered with the EPA.

I confused the two issues when researching my column and thought the fabricated paperwork had to to with the bird seed. I do apologize for that mistake. I know how important it is to get your facts straight on these things. I also know it’s easy to glaze over and tune out when talking about legal stuff. But these issues with Scotts are serious and the company’s products are everywhere. As gardeners, we need to stay informed so we can make safe, healthy choices about the products we buy and use in our homes and gardens.

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