I was lucky enough to spend a week vacationing Up North, where lilac season was still in full swing on the summer solstice, at least a good month behind the metro area. I was reminded not only how very short their growing season is, but how much northern gardeners make the most of it.

Our rental cabin was near a small garden center, which was kept very busy with people stocking up on hanging baskets, choice annuals and the most hopeful gamble of all in a short season: tomato seedlings.

Here in Zone 4, I tend to lament the lovely plants we see in catalogs but have no hope of surviving, but clearly those enthusiastic Zone 3 gardeners could teach me a thing or two about garden appreciation.

Here are a few lessons I took away from the carefully tended gardens I saw:

Go with what works, such as lupines along the craggy North Shore. Soil conditions that some plants might find taxing are perfect for others. Keep experimenting until you find what thrives in your garden.

You don't need lots of variety to have a great garden. Zone 3 gardeners have fewer options in their design arsenal, but still manage some lovely displays. Concentrating on proper spacing, relative heights and careful use of repetition wins the day.

Embrace annuals. I've been exposed to a form of snobbery that makes me feel like it's cheating if I resort to annuals in my garden. All those cheerful window boxes in resort cabins remind me that annuals provide a colorful day brightener. Life, and summer, are too short not to enjoy them.

Reducing stress on the garden reduces stress on the gardener. I saw lots of thriving plants, partly because they weren't heat-stressed, so peony season lasts longer. Shade-appropriate plants enjoyed their tree-topped yards, and sun lovers enjoyed the strong rays.

I'm guilty of pushing the issue in one border garden in my yard where all but 10 feet is in shade. I spend more time watering and coaxing along the plants in that short stretch than I do the rest of the border. Time to give those coral bells, and me, a break by subbing in some true sun lovers.

Protect what you have. In some cases, that meant high fencing around the pristine northern yards to keep deer from venturing in from nearby woods. In other cases, I'm guessing it means slug-repelling measures. (I saw their trails each morning.)

Know thy zone. There's a discipline and challenge that zone hardiness brings to any garden. While those of us in Zone 4 might not have quite the same badge of honor that those farther north do, we have at least a few merit badges.

That doesn't mean I won't still have a touch of Zone 6 envy when January brings us cold, snowy weather and garden catalogs filled with lots of pretties that we can't grow as perennials. But if you really, really want to grow that gorgeous Zone 9 plant, cheat and treat it as an annual, or try growing it in a pot you bring indoors in winter.

Hmm. Maybe next year I'll look for a cabin in Zone 5.

Martha Buns is one of the Greengirls, the Star Tribune's garden bloggers. Be part of the growing conversation at www.startribune.com/greengirls.