Greengirls Helen Yarmoska, Nicole Hvidsten, Martha Buns, Connie Nelson, Kim Palmer and Mary Jane Smetanka are dishin' the dirt from the back-yard garden and beyond. Whether you're a greenthumb or greenhorn, they're eager to learn from your mishaps, mistakes - and most importantly, your sweet successes - all growing season long.
The giant metal rooster at the entrance is a sure sign that buying plants at the Minneapolis Farmers Market on Lyndale is a whole different experience than at Twin Cities garden centers.
The sprawling Farmers Market is a festival-like amalgam of smells, people watching, food and of course, tables and tables of plants and produce. I went there last Saturday and found a riot of hanging flower baskets and flats of mass appeal annuals --- geraniums, coleus, impatiens and begonias.
It also felt like a Costco on a weekend with samples of salsa, cheese and sausage - making it easy to get sidetracked from my mission of checking out the perennial assortment. If you’re looking for more unusual or not as common varieties - you should hit the garden centers. But the Farmers Market has plenty of the tried-and-true daylilies, hosta, peonies, garden phlox, Asiatic llilies, bleeding heart, coneflowers and other northern garden faves.
This time of year, a lot of the produce, like tomatoes, are shipped in. But fresh asparagus, green onions, and some lettuces are in season and ready to put in your salads. Vendors also sell eggs, meats, cheeses, jams and jellies.
Need some campy garden art to decorate the beds? Head to the far end of the Farmers Market Annex, where there’s a sea of metal sculptures and a lots of ceramic planters -- some shaped like fish.
Prices for plants seemed comparable or even less than at the garden centers. My best bargain was a $15 tomato plant in a staked pot that was the perfect size for a small deck. It was full of flowers and the Brooks Farm growers said the plant would produce tomatoes by mid-July.
The Lyndale Farmers Market, nestled next to the freeway, is a break-your-routine alternative to the garden centers - and where you can munch on a brat and down fresh squeezed lemonade while you peruse the flats. It’s open from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m. daily - with Saturdays and Sundays offering the most vendors and selection. (www.mplsfarmersmarket.com).
And the best place to meet friends is in front of the “big chicken” - that’s what everyone calls it.
Do you like Twin Cities Farmers Markets and which one is your favorite?
Oh, Minnesota. You definitely keep things interesting, from a gardener's perspective. Especially in spring.
Just two years ago, it was so hot and balmy in early April that experts had to caution us to resist the temptation to put hot-weather crops like tomatoes into the ground prematurely.
This week, we're looking at a weather forecast with a couple of dips down into the 30s. It'll feel "more like October than May," as meteorologist Paul Douglas noted.
So where does that leave us, in terms of spring planting? The old rule of thumb used to be to wait until Memorial Day. But in recent years, Mother's Day has become sort of the unofficial kick-off to the gardening season.
This year, the old model is probably the safest model, at least for certain plants.
Cold-hardy plants can handle a nippy spring. Cool-weather veggie crops like broccoli and cabbage thrive on it. But it's definitely too soon to plant tomatoes and peppers. If you've already bought those plants or grown them from seed, keep them inside a while longer. It's best to wait until the soil temperature reaches 50 degrees before putting them in the ground.
Tropicals and houseplants that you want to bring outside for the season also should stay indoors a while longer -- until there's nothing lower than 50 in the forecast.
What have you planted so far? And what are you still sheltering indoors?
I'm a sucker for new colors in the garden. When those black petunias were first introduced a few years back, I was all over them, tucking them in my pots and beds to add visual depth and drama.
A couple years ago, I decided to add more natives and bee-friendly plants to my landscape. I bought some coneflowers, among other things. Naturally, I was attracted to the newer, brighter and more unusual colors -- the vivid magentas and corals -- instead of the plain old light purple coneflowers that everyone else had in their garden.
But new and unusual isn't better when it comes to providing forage for bees and other pollinators, according to Heather Holm, a Minnetonka landscape designer/consultant and author of the new book, "Pollinators of Native Plants." (www.pollinatorsnativeplants.com)
New cultivars, in eye-candy colors, may catch your eye at the garden center, but they may not appeal to bees at all. "If breeding has changed the flower color, it may not be attractive bees," Holm says. "It may look better to us. But it can change the fragrance or nectar. Stick with straight species, if you can."
Those showy double flowers, too, can make it harder for bees to access nectar. "Stick with simpler forms," Holm says.
If you really want to help bees, Holm suggests you rethink how a pollinator would see your garden -- "not just doing what you think is the prettiest, with double flowers or brand-new introductions with a cool color."
Bees also need a continuous succession of flowering plants throughout the growing season, Holm notes. "In most gardens there is a gap" -- typically early spring or late fall. So if you want to nurture bees through September and into October, add some fall-flowering plants such as asters and goldenrod.
Are bees on your garden radar this growing season? Are you doing anything different in your garden to make it more bee-friendly?
If you were starting a garden from scratch, what would you put in it? I was struck by the number of garden starter sets I’ve seen in catalogs lately, collections of plants aimed at beginning gardeners, or at least gardeners beginning anew.
That made me wonder what I’d put in my own starter kit if I was given a blank slate – and a few bucks to spend along with it. Here’s what I wish I’d started out with:
A shrub: Lilacs are my hands-down no-fuss favorite, although I’ve got a soft spot for the bird-friendly weigela or the fairy shrub rose.
A climber: I love clematis, but some can be fussy. I’d suggest something less finicky to start out, like the Jackmanii our grandmothers and great-grandmothers grew.
For shade, ever-reliable super-hardy coral bells in their magical colors add bright spots that don’t rely on blooms to make a season-long show. And one of the many two-tone hosta like Autumn Frost or a big blue like Blue Angel give color without much trouble.
For sun, repeat-bloom daylilies and Asiatic lilies put on a long-running show. Just make sure to shield newly planted bulbs from digging squirrels and protect young shoots from rabbits until they get tall enough to no longer tempt them; otherwise they’re pretty much care-free. Hard to go wrong with coneflowers and other rudbeckia, too, for bloom time and reliability. And my gotta-have-it, even though it’s not a long bloomer: a deep-pink double peony. Worth it for the scent alone.
One the annual front, I like cosmos and calibrachoa for sun, and caladium and impatiens for shade. The latter may seem ubiquitous, but up until last year’s blight, they were the ever-reliable, long-blooming space fillers perfect for filling garden gaps until you learn what perennials you want and work in your yard.
For a beginner’s veggie plot, I’d plant leaf lettuce, onion sets, a cherry tomato plant like Sweet 100 (or blondkopfchen if you like flavorful yellow cherry tomatoes), a pole bean, one cucumber plant – and I do mean just one unless you’ve got a real hankering for canning –and a broccoli plant, since you get to keep harvesting broccoli all season once it sets.
If I was starting out with an herb garden, I’d suggest basil, the basic Genovese and or Perpetua, the two-tone leaf variety that’s not prone to bolt. Parsley is nearly no-fail, as is sage, rosemary and thyme. I’d round it out with Vietnamese cilantro: It has all the flavor without the pesky bolting habits (you can find the plants at farmers markets).
Which brings me to a where to shop suggestion: If you’re starting out and have a lot of space to fill, head to the farmers market in spring with a set amount of cash and an open mind. Save the garden centers for that special gotta-have-it perennial or midseason sales of flats of annuals until you’re sure you know what you want and can afford to spend.
And in the tool shed, I’d get gloves, a sturdy trowel, short pruning shears, garden scissors and a really strong shovel. I’ve got other tools I use occasionally, but those are my most well-used tools.
Garden choices are highly subjective, like most areas of design. What would be in your beginner’s kit for gardeners?
I have a rain garden in my back yard. But it’s not the smart eco-friendly kind with deep-rooted plants that soak up rainwater runoff and keep pollutants out of the lakes.
Four days of relentless rain have flooded my beds. My waterlogged perennials will surely struggle to poke through the mud. But it’s my own fault, because I knew five years ago that I was digging a garden in a super low part of my back yard. I didn’t care - I just wanted to be able to view my bountiful blooms from the deck
I’ve paid dearly for my poor planning. My garden doesn’t thoroughly dry out until the beginning of June. Every spring, a number of my perennials are MIA. Last year, I lost astilbe, yarrow and bellflowers. Although those darn lilies of the valley always manage to return and flourish. I’m sure the saturated soggy soil in early spring has something to do with it.
So instead of trying to fight it - I’m going to go with the flow. It’s time to plant a real rain garden
I already have the required shallow dip or swale. Now I just need a good combination of native flowering plants and grasses that love water. Another bonus is rain garden plants attract butterflies and bees.
I’m planning to go to the Metro Blooms Day rain garden workshop Saturday May 3 at Kenny Elementary School. Free events include a native plant sale and environmental programs and exhibits; workshops are $10. For details on other rain garden workshops, go to www.metroblooms.org.
Do you have a rain garden? What are your favorite plants?
Photo from a Metro Blooms award-winning rain garden
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