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.
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.
I love the longer shadows and golden light that come with September. But I can hardly believe that summer is nearly over. It went by so fast, though I did manage to get to a few garden tours.
Here are a few of the photos I took of some of the lovely moments along the way.
Let’s start with paths.
And now for water features, large and small.
Comfy sitting areas.
And things I just like.
It’s nice when something gross turns out to be useful (like how sheep sweat, lanolin, makes chewing gum softer). So I’m happy to report, in answer to a reader’s question some time ago, that, yes, Eurasian watermilfoil harvested from area lakes can be used in helpful ways, including as a soil amendment, fertilizer and even mulch.
First, though, if you’re not sure what Eurasian milfoil is, it’s that stringy, slimy plant that those big, blue boat harvesters remove from the lakes every summer. First detected in Minnesota in Lake Minnetonka in 1987, it is an invasive aquatic species that has spread to waterways across the state. The plant produces thick mats on the surface of the water and tangled stems and masses below, making it difficult, if not impossible, to swim and boat enjoyably. It can also disturb aquatic ecosystems by displacing native aquatic plants.
Acres of watermilfoil are removed from Minneapolis’ Chain of Lakes annually by the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board’s mechanical harvesters. The machines usually cut off the top 3 to 4 feel of the plant, which can grow up to 15-feet long (super spooky to swim through). If you walk the paths around the lakes, you’ve probably seen (and smelled) piles of it onshore or at the boat launch.
Too Much Trash
Rachael Crabb, the Park Board’s water resources supervisor, says that once the milfoil is harvested, it’s dumped in small piles in a designated spot to dry out. Though terribly unwieldy when wet, milfoil is much easier to handle once it shrinks and composts down a bit. Until recently, the Park Board stored drying milfoil at a site at Fort Snelling. This worked well for the forestry division because whenever they needed to add organic matter to a soil mix, they could just take some from the piles.
The only problem, says Crabb, was—trash. In the lakes, all of that tangled milfoil acts like a magnet for all manner of garbage that winds up in the water in one way or another. Trying to separate the trash from the drying piles was time consuming and inefficient. So, last summer, the Park Board started looking at other options and found that the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum was happy to take the milfoil off their hands. “It’s a trek out there, but it’s the best option we have right now,” Crabb explains, adding that the first delivery is scheduled for later this year.
Soil Building and Mulching
As it happens, the arboretum has been using milfoil from the Lake Minnetonka Water Conservation District as a soil amendment for about a decade. “After it dries and turns into a nice compost, we usually use a manure spreader to put it on the research fields in November,” Peter Moe, director of operations and research, told me. In addition to supplying a bit of nitrogen, the milfoil makes a good amendment because the organic matter helps loosen the arboretum’s clay soil, improving its water-holding capacity and fertility.
In addition to being a good source of free organic matter, Moe says milfoil harvested from area lakes is desirable because it doesn’t have any weed seeds in it. “It’s such a valuable material, even if there is some trash to deal with, we would be very happy to have whatever the Park Board delivers,” he explains. “Our soils here in Carver County are very difficult to plant in if you don’t have enough organic matter, especially in the spring.”
It’s not a pretty sight, but Eurasian milfoil can be used as garden mulch (if you don’t mind the fishy smell as it dries). While researching this story, I talked with several gardeners who’ve tried it successfully. But here’s the thing, because it is an invasive species, it’s not a good idea for all of us to go running down to the lake to collect Eurasian milfoil for our gardens. Seeds and fragments could easily end up in waterways and spread the problem. In fact, Crabb pointed out that the interconnected storm sewer network could even transport milfoil to lakes that aren’t yet infested with it.
While it would of course have been best to keep Eurasian milfoil out of our waters, now that it’s here, it has proven to offer a few benefits. Even where there are thick milfoil mats on the surface of the lake, there are areas where native plants with low light requirements can grow intermixed with the milfoil stems below. Eurasian milfoil also helps make lakes clearer by keeping sediment settled out and using up dissolved phosphorous that would otherwise become food for algae.
And although native plant communities are always preferable to an abundance of Eurasian milfoil, thick milfoil growth can provide good habitat for young fish, as well as protection from large predators. “Milfoil has a more difficult time dominating where a diverse community of native aquatic plants is growing,” says Crabb, who, as part of her job, does aquatic plant surveys of Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board lakes. “We found 10 or 15 native species in Lake Calhoun a couple of years ago, so there are still a few areas in the lakes where native plants have been able to thrive, which is really amazing and a good sign that the lake is healthy even though we have Eurasian Milfoil,” she says.