Plant Review: How Well Did Those New Plants Really Do?

Well, here we are in the middle of January and what is normally an unspeakably cold month is worse this week due to what meteorologists are calling a “distorted polar vortex,” which has allowed Arctic air to spill all the way down to Florida. With air temperatures around -20°F plus wind chill making it feel like -50°F yesterday, I’ve had a few people email to ask whether our perennials here in Minnesota will survive.

Fern frost on the window in our bathroom.

I’ll give the answer I often give for any garden-related question: It depends. It helps that we have snow cover to keep soil temperatures from fluctuating a lot. And perennials rated for our Zone 4 climate should be okay down to an air temperature of -30°F (wind chill doesn’t matter). But if you put things in the ground late, as I did last year, they may not make it since they didn’t have much time to establish a decent root system. And if you didn’t water much, plants may be too drought stressed to survive.

It’s also hard to say how newer introductions will do. With so many new plants being rushed to market each year, plant trials aren’t as rigorous as they used to be. It’s possible that some of the perennials we’ve tried lately won’t be able to hack the extreme cold. And with that in mind, here is a short review of some of the new introductions I’ve tried in my gardens in the last few years. Of course, this is just my experience. Perhaps other gardeners are growing things that I’ve killed just fine. (If that’s you, please email and tell me your secrets.) And one other thing to note—I test plants in my garden for Proven Winners so there are a lot of plants from them on this list.

Oso Happy Smoothie Rose
Courtesy of Proven Winners


Rosa Oso Happy Smoothie ‘Zlesak Poly3’ PPAF

I can’t say enough great things about this rose. Bred by David Zlesak, a hort professor at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, Oso Happy Smoothie has been in one of my backyard gardens for a couple of seasons now. As promised, it is a little over 3 feet tall, it was covered with dainty pink blooms all summer, has great form, no thorns and recovered nicely from being chomped on by rabbits last winter.

‘Midnight Marve’ Hibiscus
Courtesy of Walters Gardens


Hibiscus ‘Midnight Marvel’           

My friend, Kathleen, bought this new hibiscus from Walters Gardens for each of us this summer and, so far, it has performed beautifully in both of our gardens—hers more than mine, though. ‘Midnight Marvel‘ didn’t yet reach its purported 48 inches tall, but it may next season, and the burgundy foliage topped with red blooms make the plant absolutely stunning.

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Experimenting With Grafted Tomatoes

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.

Tomato grafting in progress.
Credit: Washington State University

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.)

Indigo Rose tomatoes were gorgeous, but didn’t taste like much.


More Indigo Rose porn.

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.

Grafted Indigo Ruby tomatoes got rave reviews from gardeners.

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.

Down With Gardening Snobbery

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?

When I’ve finished sipping tea from my golden cup, I shall tell you all what to plant in your gardens.

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?

What’s so bad about KnockOut roses, anyway?

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.

I like our crowded gardens, but not this weird lens filter that makes the world look as if we’ve smeared Vaseline on everything. Gross.

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.


Garden Tour Highlights

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.

Hyacinth Bean, Cherry Blossoms and Virtual Garden Tours

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.

And the answer is: Hyacinth 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.

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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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What Does It Take To Grow The World’s Heaviest Pumpkin?

There’s a lot to love about the Minnesota State Fair, but the contests have always been on my Top-10 list. Across the fairgrounds, everything from pies and jellies to seed art and orchids compete for praise and ribbons. Standing in front of the  brightly lit cases and displays, it’s not always clear why one chocolate chip cookie beat out another, or why the dahlia on the left is superior to the one on the right when both were displayed singly in empty Michelob bottles.

But when you get to the Horticulture Building and enter the vegetable room, things become much more straightforward . Sure, there is still some head scratching to do over the difference between, say, the award-winning red potatoes and the losers. But it is immediately clear how the winner of the “Largest Scalloped Squash” contest nabbed that title.

And the winner is!

And the same is true of the “Largest Banana Squash” and the seemingly vast yet strangely uncrowded category of “Largest Squash (other than banana or scalloped).” The rules are simple: You are the biggest; you win. Giant pumpkins don’t have it so easy. In the world of pumpkins of unusual size, weight is what matters, and the biggest pumpkin isn’t necessarily the heaviest.

I know this because I just finished reading Susan Warren’s Backyard Giants: The Passionate, Heartbreaking, and Glorious Quest to Grow the Biggest Pumpkin Ever. If the subtitle sounds hyperbolic, let me assure you, it isn’t. Warren, who is a deputy bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal, spent a season with a handful of the many enthusiastic and, okay, obsessive people who grow giant pumpkins all over the world.

Dick and Ron Wallace, a father and son team who have been growing giant pumpkins in Rhode Island for years, are the main duo we get to know. But there are other endearing growers at the center of this book, and Warren followed them all as they endured bugs, heat, rain, lightning, rot, ulcers, varmints, foaming stump slime, financial pain, jealousy, heartbreak and more in hopes of growing the world’s heaviest pumpkin in 2006.

Giant pumpkins at this year’s fair.

It sounds weird, I know, but the ups and downs of the growing season were so suspenseful, I honestly couldn’t wait to get to the end of the book and find out who wins. Now all I need to do is check to see if there are any giant pumpkin weigh-offs going on around here yet this season. If I’ve missed them, I am definitely going to get to one next year. The results of the 2012 Giant Pumpkin Commonwealth weigh-offs are still coming in. But you can check them here if you’re interested. In 2011, Jim and Kelsey Bryson of Ontario won the world record with a pumpkin that weighed in at 1,818.5 pounds. Check out of photo of them and their otherworldly pumpkin here.

Crocodile Fern

The crocodile fern (Microsorum musifolium ) really couldn’t be more aptly named. Exotic yet easy to grow as a houseplant (if you can find it), this  fern has fronds that look remarkably like crocodile scales. I snapped this at our local conservatory, which was filled to bursting with Minnesotans looking to get out of the cold this weekend.

Of course if you live in a warmer place, you can also grow these outdoors. I’ve got a friend who says they carry crocodile ferns in big-box stores in the South. Luckies.

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