The Northern Prairie
This book is for amateur gardeners on the northern prairie, in USDA hardiness Zones 3a, 3b and 4a.
The northern prairie has the harshest winter climate of any inhabited area in the lower forty-eight states. In addition to the deep cold, our soils are predominantly alkaline, a characteristic of the prairie states which sets them apart from more populated areas.
Due to our sparse population and odd conditions, nationally-distributed gardening shows and books do not deal with our problems. Just as often, they address problems we don’t have, often raising needless concerns in our area.
Despite the lack of appropriate instruction from national sources, there is plenty of information suited for our area available for those willing to search. Our hardy forbearers were eager to plant, and they wrote down their experiences. Since their founding, our land-grant universities have conducted research on plants and shared their results. Extension services continue to provide fully dependable information on their websites.
This book relies heavily upon relevant university research, as well as the practical experience gained from a career in the nursery and greenhouse business.
My grandfather, Melvin Bergeson, carried a wealth of information in his head. Had I been older and wiser before he passed away in 1992, I would have delved more deeply into his wisdom. Even so, we have benefitted from the knowledge he passed on before he left the scene.
The nursery trade has a long tradition of keeping no secrets. For example, what Bailey Nurseries in St. Paul, one of the premier wholesale nurseries in the world, learns from its customers is distributed by their knowledgeable sales people. Area nursery people love to share notes, and over the years, a body of knowledge has grown that combines hundreds of years of experience.
The wisdom of people who actually sell plants is important, as they have a feel for the struggles of the average gardener and know what knowledge is useful and what is too esoteric to be worth mentioning.
This book attempts to collect the information most valuable to the layperson and put it in a single volume accessible to all. It is not comprehensive. For deeper study of a particular plant variety or problem, the information is now readily available on the internet. Make sure the website originates from our area, however!
Advantages of living where we do
We should not forget that our location near the 49th parallel has its advantages, namely our fast and furious summers, filled with long days of sunlight and brief, cool nights.
•Annual flowers perform better the farther north you go. In our gardens, for instance, trailing petunias planted in the ground have grown almost twice as large as they have only two-hundred miles south. Because they usually don’t experience as much heat as their counterparts to the south, blooming annuals last deeper into the season as well.
•Impatiens and begonias in particular grow larger in the north, sometimes by as much as double, and last longer through the season. In Iowa, Illinois and farther south, annual flower beds are often exhausted by late July. In our area, they can be spectacular well into October—and because the annual plants grow so large in our area, you only have to plant half as many!
•Scientists have concluded that the intensity of bloom color is deeper in regions with cool nights. Travelers to Europe, or Alaska, both well north of us, can attest to the spectacular nature of their summer flower displays.
•Some of the largest cabbage and broccoli heads you will ever see have been grown right here on the northern prairie. Cool nights help prevent cole crops from bolting, while the sunshine and rich soil increases yield.
•Because we have less rainfall and lower humidity than places south, disease problems on roses, flowering crab, and other plants are less pronounced. In fact, most of the very bad diseases don’t make it up to our corner of the world. Same goes for many of the insects which have plagued trees in Michigan, Ohio and other warmer climes. As far as insects go, the cold keeps at least some of the riff raff out.
•Ornamental grasses seem to like the northern prairie better than points south. They are at home on the prairie!
•More summer sunshine means better sugar content and more intense flavor in our fruit. Nothing is richer than the flavor of northern-grown apples, plums or grapes.
Knowing our advantages, we can buck ourselves up to take on the challenges presented to gardeners by the northern prairie’s climate and soils.
Soil is most important
Plants are only as good as their root and a plant’s root is only as good as the soil in which it grows. Most northern plains soils lack a crucial ingredient necessary for root growth: organic matter. The addition of organic matter in the form of compost or peat will make everything grow much better. Money spent up front improving your soil before planting pays dividends later.
Trees are top priority
Nothing is more treasured and difficult to create than a large tree on the prairie. The northern prairie was originally virtually barren of trees, and for a reason. Trees are difficult to start here. But trees thrive here once established, and the more we plant, the more humane an environment we create for ourselves.
Mistakes in tree planting are costly. An appalling amount of money is wasted on unwise tree planting practices. More importantly, valuable years are squandered when non-hardy trees are planted, only to die in a tough winter ten years later. Even tough tree varieties can die from improper care, which often means too much care rather than too little.
Proper information on trees can save more money, effort, time and heartbreak than information in any other area of horticulture. We have included a detailed list of trees hardy for our area, along with instructions for their care.
Shrubs shouldn’t be a drain
The planting of shrubs around houses and institutions should be neither difficult nor costly, but often ends up being both. This book advocates shrub plantings that are natural in appearance, long-lasting and low-maintenance. A shrub should last about fifteen years in the landscape. For that to happen, the shrub must be hardy, must be planted in a location where it will be both healthy and confine itself to the proper size, and must be given correct care, if any is required at all.
Raising fruit requires frequent reality checks
Fruit enthusiasts waste a lot of time and money stubbornly chasing impossible dreams. Skip blueberries, peaches and kiwi. They don’t work. Plant fruits which have been proven here. On the prairie, the planting of large orchards has been a recipe for disappointment as well as physical and financial stress. Start slow, start small, start now. And start smart. Varieties highlighted in this book have earned their way here because they work.
Perennial common sense
Perennial books flood the market. There are thousands of varieties of perennials, even for cold climates. This book’s chapter on perennials will outline some general principles of raising perennials in our area, and list some varieties which have performed particularly well, as well as some which should be approached with a sense of humor.
Annuals and vegetables
The information available to the gardener on annuals and vegetables is overwhelming. Seed catalogs fill the mailbox. Full-color plant encyclopedias flood the market. Information is easily found on the internet. Because annuals and vegetables are not affected by our cold winters, most of the information, with the exception of planting and harvesting dates, is solid and good and won’t be repeated here.
However, there are unique problems of nutrition and climate that the annual and vegetable gardener should keep in mind, as well as some particular practices that will improve results for the northern prairie gardener.
For the hobbyist and new gardener
For those interested, gardening can be an endless study. You may pursue a PhD in garden mums, or join the Hosta Society, or study the several-thousand-year history of rose breeding, or memorize the Latin names of plant species.
Or, you may just want to have a handsome yard and a healthy, productive garden. If so, this book is for you. We have taken pains to omit needless detail which will likely only confuse and repel new gardeners. For those wishing to look into specific areas of gardening in greater detail, the information available on the internet is endless.
A northern prairie aesthetic
What is beautiful? The happy northern gardener has adjusted his or her notion of what is beautiful to conform to the realities of our climate, just as the Arizona gardener has learned to love cactus. Hardy shrub roses don’t conform to the tea rose ideal presented by magazines, but a blooming shrub rose is a great joy, and much more beautiful than a dead tea rose—or even a live one!
The successful northern prairie yard is different from successful yards in other parts of the country. Prairie yards at their best are handsome, dignified and stately. They are less frequently formal, cozy or cute.
Names and categories
This book will use the names and categories that have developed within the nursery trade on the northern prairie. Latin names will be provided, but only for those who wish to do further research. To purchase a plant in this book, you should be able to use the common name given here at any local nursery or garden center.
To keep the price of this book moderate, this edition does not include pictures. Fortunately, horticulture enthusiasts have taken to the internet like a duck to water: simply type a plant’s name in a search engine and dozens of pictures will pop up. Include the plant’s Latin name to improve the accuracy of the results.
“First, do no harm.”
The above phrase is often erroneously thought to be a part of the Hippocratic oath taken by doctors. The saying persists because it illustrates an important truth, one which applies to our yards as well:
• Remove a healthy, old tree only after much thought. It will not be replaced in our lifetime.
• Products which promise to make gardening easy usually don’t.
• All things in moderation—except for peat.
•Plant hardy varieties.
•Plant them where they can succeed.
•Amend the soil, and do so before planting.
•Add fertilizers which work on the northern prairie.
•Keep chemical use to a bare minimum.
•Always seek out local instructions.
•The tried and true is nearly always better than the tempting and new.
•Weeding and watering can be made more efficient, but the two tasks will always remain essential to maintaining a beautiful yard.
Because it is assumed that readers will dip into portions of the book without reading others, there is some repetition of important points. If brevity is the soul of wit, perhaps repetition is the heart of learning!