Seasoned green thumbs

Tips from three veteran gardeners who blog about their plant passions 

The gardening season is short and sweet in Minnesota and must be savored while it lasts. Whether you’re new to gardening or an expert in the dirt, these three gardening bloggers have some words of wisdom to share.

Garden Drama

Eric Johnson started his blog “Garden Drama” 12 years ago. He’s got a gorgeous garden in his South Minneapolis yard and writes for the “Northern Gardener” magazine.

“I think gardening has the power to change a person’s life for the better,” he said. “It’s calming, fun and all around healthy. I know I lost a bunch of weight after I started gardening more and more. Also, I think we all have the innate need to express ourselves, and there is no better way to do this then through gardening.”

Johnson’s urban garden has several hosta glades, a vegetable garden, a sunny berm, three small ponds and a number of sitting areas.

The cooler temps and rain earlier this summer have been good for his garden, particularly the hostas, he said. The only exception has been the tomato plants. “Tomatoes shut down with too many cool nights and too many days over 90,” he said.

Johnson grew up on a farm where he learned how to garden on a large scale.

When he bought his house in the early ’90s, he started a vegetable garden and then went through master gardener training.

As for tips for aspiring green thumbs, he said it’s important to not be overly ambitious. “When you start out in a new space, a new yard, new house, I would say start it slow,” he said. “Take a year or two or more to just get to know your space — where you like to hang out and where the sun is.”

Then, he advises starting out by  “putting in the hardscapes: the patios, decks, sidewalks and paths.” After that comes the shrubs, trees and finally the perennials.

“If you are chomping at the bit to grow, pot up beautiful pots of colorful annuals and get a veggie garden growing in your sunniest spot in the yard,” he said. “And make sure you schedule time to just sit and enjoy your garden.” 

When asked about his favorite plants and flowers, he said poppies top his list. He’s also a fan of Japanese Hakone Grass — an ornamental grass with yellow-striped leaf blades that does well in shady areas. “Old-fashioned annuals like petunias, zinnias, marigolds and morning glories strike a nostalgic chord in all of us and I think they belong in every garden,” he added.

My Northern Garden

Freelance writer Mary Schier edits the “Northern Gardener” — the Minnesota State Historical Society’s magazine.

It’s the only publication focused solely on cold-climate gardening. Her blog, “My Northern Garden,” is a place for her to share tips with other northern gardeners.

She lives in Northfield and has a garden on a standard-sized suburban lot near a nature area with ponds.

In her backyard, she has wildflowers, native grasses and raised beds for vegetables, flowers, shrubs and raspberries. The front yard has a bed devoted to prairie plants that thrive in the sun.

“Anything that likes cool weather and water is doing great this year,” she said. “It seems some of the shrubs have just burst out of the ground with all the water we’ve had and I expect to spend the next two weekends doing a lot of cutting back and pruning. I had a beautiful, long season of tulips and other bulbs and also my climbing rose is looking really good now.”

Key lessons she’s learned from gardening over the years include making sure to give plants the appropriate amount of space and understanding what will work given the garden’s soil conditions and sun exposure.

“If the tag says a bush gets 10 feet tall by 10 feet wide, believe it,” she said. “Fortunately for urban gardeners, plant companies are coming up with smaller versions of many popular trees and shrubs.”

Another important thing: add compost to the soil whether it’s sandy or clayish.

Schier gets a lot of satisfaction from working in the garden.

“I find it contemplative and a pleasant change from sitting at a computer all day. It’s also very satisfying to see a garden that looks attractive and nothing is better than eating what you’ve grown,” she said. “I freeze tons of raspberries, tomatoes and pesto from the garden, which we enjoy all winter long.”

Compost Cowgirls

The blog “Compost Cowgirls” is a collaboration among five local gardeners. Jaime Chismar, one of the writers, said the blog helps her organize her priorities and prevent her from becoming a “disorganized, weedy mess.”

“From the seasoned gardener to the novice, gardening is best when you share your successes and failures,” she said. “Our goal is to learn from each other and our readers. We are opinionated, passionate and perfectly willing to laugh at our mistakes.”

Chismar got into gardening in 2004 when she moved in with her boyfriend. “He had a yard with lots of grass, and I had a shovel and a big ideas.”

She was working at the Star Tribune at the time and the blog “Greengirl” was born to document her gardening adventures.

“After my first year in the garden, I was hooked,” she said. “There is nothing better than digging in the dirt and eating the fruits of your labor.”

Chismar left the Star Tribune in 2009 and became a master gardener with Hennepin County. Now she lives in St. Louis Park and edible plants are her specialty. She has three beds for heirloom veggies, a raspberry patch, a small blueberry hedge and a cherry tree. She also shares a community plot with an uncle where she grows potatoes and garlic.

Chismar also has started converting part of her backyard into a prairie garden with
native plants.

As for tips for beginners, her advice is pretty simple: “Get dirty. Ask questions. Make mistakes. And, always wear sunscreen.”

Are you proud of your garden? Send photos to [email protected] We’ll post them on our Tumblr blog or print them in a future edition.

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