Pinky Winky hydrangea: standing the test of time

Some plants just don’t stand the test of time, at least not in this zone 4 climate. I’m thinking of some shrubs in particular. Sure, they may be doing well in some situations, but overall they’re not a reliable performer, one that I would recommend to a homeowner.  

For instance, many of the viburnums just haven’t performed well enough that I’d go out and buy several and plant a hedge with them. Potentilla is another one. Although hardier than an eskimo, potentilla is iffy when it comes to flowering, it seems to have to be in just the right spot. One year it may flower well, the next year you’re wondering what happened. I’ve also found it to be one of the most difficult shrubs to prune. It acts like it would rather be left alone, and perhaps it should be.

Even many of the hydrangeas are a little persnickety when it comes to flowering. I wish I had a nickle for every time someone says they’re having trouble getting their hydrangea to flower.

Pinky Winky hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata ‘Dvppinky’) is the exception. They don’t have a tough guy image, like potentilla, and to look at them in a photograph you might wonder if they will really do well in this climate (something this beautiful can’t do that well up here, can it?) Lo and behold, they can and they do.

Plant Pinky Winky’s in a mostly sunny spot with good soil and drainage and a way they go. I’ve never done the measurements, but they must grow about 8 inches per year. Before you know it you’re enjoying they prolific blooms that start out a soft white and eventually turn a deep pink, starting from the bottom of the 8-12 inch tall blooms, leaving a white ruffle at the top.

This past week I did my annual pruning of about a dozen of these full-grown plants. They’ve stood the test of time for sure. They’ve been in the same spot for almost 10 years now. Every year, like clockwork, they bloom heavily, putting on a show for those who pass by.  

Here are a few tips for planting and care of Pinky Winky hydrageas.

Bloom time: late summer into fall

Planting: Plant in reasonably fertile soil that drains well

Sun: Prefers mostly sun

Care and maintenance: fertilizer in the spring with a slow-release fertilizer, such as Osmocote or my favorite, Espoma’s Hollytone.

Pruning: in fall or early spring, prune away the spent flower heads, making your cut above the first node below the spent bloom (see photo)

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Fall gardening checklist

I arrived in Sault Ste. Marie in 1978. I remember rolling in to town like it was yesterday. It was the middle of September and it was raining. It rained and rained and rained and rained. And I was wondering, is this what’s it’s like around here? I was used to nice autumn weather that stretched well into October.

This year we’re getting a taste of what it’s like to have such nice weather that extends well into October. It’s a great time to be outdoors and doing some garden chores you might otherwise skip until spring. Here are some suggestions for things you can do this fall which will help ease the load next spring.

  1. Pull the weeds in your garden bed
  2. Divide perennials
  3. Cut back perennials
  4. Move plants around as desired
  5. Mulch around plants to keep the weeds down next year. I like to lay down a thick layer of mulch they give away at the city compost site, then layer over top of that with a decorative mulch.
  6. Plant tree seedlings like those sold by the Conservation District
  7. Dump out the potting mix in the containers/hanging baskets you used to grow flowers. I recycle all of this mix. I have a rectangular tub I put it all in where I can turn it with a hoe. It can be used to grow potted plants next year, using it as a filler, if you wish and top it off with fresh potting mix.
  8. Dispose of all opened bags of inorganic fertilizer, if you have it. These opened bag naturally collect moisture from the salt in the fertilizer, making it impossible to use it in a spreader. Call the local recycling center to see if they have a designated pickup day and time for this.
  9. Fertilizer your lawn after it goes dormant. This is a little trick I heard from a lawn care person. It will result in a hasty green up in the spring.
  10. Plant garlic, tulips, daffodils and other bulbs. Use a bulb planter or the Proplugger to do this.


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Finally! Tall, hardy ornamental grasses for northern gardens


Tall, hardy ornamental grasses are a little hard to come by in the zone 4 region. Some do well for a few seasons, but eventually succumb to the elements. I’m assuming they were zone 5 grasses.

Recently I discovered a couple of tall ornamental grasses that should be able to handle our tough winters.  

One of the new zone 4 grasses I ran across actually has a familiar name: miscanthus. What’s new about this one is the fact that it is hardy. Miscanthus sinensis ‘Little Miss’ grows 2-3 feet tall. I haven’t tried growing it yet, but sellers describe it as a plant with “narrow arching foliage” that emerges green in spring and then develops “carmine and purple tones” from early May with strongest coloring in October and November. Clumping centers remain fresh green for a two-tone effect. The flower heads are striking as well, reddish in color from July to October for a long season of interest.


Miscanthus 'Litttle Miss'

Photo courtesy of PlantHaven International, Inc.

“Little Miss’ is also considered easy to care for and drought tolerant. It’s suitable for a large container or can be grown in a landscape up near a home or iin an island bed. Sounds like a lot of bang for the buck, plus it’s hardy to the area! Pinch me, I must be dreaming.  

As of this writing there are 4 nurseries licensed to propagate ‘Little Miss:’

Briggs Nursery

Emerald Coast Growers

EuroAmerican Propagators

JRT Nurseries
Another ornamental grass that should make its way to northern gardens is a variation of a native little bluestem, Schizachyrium scoparium ‘Standing Ovation,’ offered by North Creek Nurseries. Besides being hardy down to -30, it will do well in  poor, dry soils, perhaps in those areas close to the lake shore where native beach grasses tend to thrive. ‘Standing Ovation’ has spiky bluish-green stems that look attractive all summer.

photo of little blue stem

Photo courtesy of North Creek Nurseries

‘Standing Ovation will also add autumn interest when it transitions to a eye popping display of oranges, reds, yellows, and purplish-browns. The seed heads swaying in the wind will provide winter interest before being cut back in spring. Don’t let the name fool you, this little stem variety grows 3-4 foot tall on sturdy stems. The seasonal color changes is nothing short of spectacular, which will add a richness to your landscape and flower bed.

Neil Moran writes articles, blog posts, and other promotional materials for green industry and other businesses. You can check out his work and services at Haylake Business Communications.

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When to Start Planting in the North Country

veg_lardeAs I look out my (home) office window I see the grass greening up, yet the ground is still a little cool to plant any warm season vegetables, like tomatoes, peppers and corn. However, if your garden has dried out enough you could plant a few onions and peas and perhaps in a week some other cool season crops, such as beets, broccoli and cabbage. And of course it’s a great time to plant trees, shrubs and perennial flowers.

Here is a close look at some things you can plant now and in the coming days and weeks ahead.

From April 28 to May 15 (and beyond for some plants)


From seeds or sets: onions, beets, peas, strawberries, asparagus (from roots). Carrots and rutabagas can wait a couple of weeks as they grow well into the fall where they get their sweetness. Potatoes can be started in about another week. Just be sure to cover the foliage with soil if there is a chance of frost. You can also start these crops in about a week if the weather warms up and you can find them locally: broccoli, cabbage, lettuce, kohlrabi, Brussel sprouts.


Any perennials and also (annual) pansies. All other annual flowers, such as petunias and marigolds you’ll have to wait (see below for recommendations on when to plant annuals in this country).

Trees and shrubs:

This is an excellent time to plant any trees or shrubs zoned for your area, especially bare-root trees you may have gotten from the conservation district. If you’re buying from some of the big box stores make sure they’re hardy for our zone 4 area. It should say on the tag, if not, let me know and I’ll look it up for you.

From May 15 until the end of June


Continue to plant the cool season crops mentioned above. This is a better time to plant rutabaga to keep them from getting too large. This is actually a little safer time to plant potatoes as well.

Trees and shrubs:

It’s a little more risky to plant bare-root trees and shrubs after the 15th, but a great time to plant and trees and shrubs that come in containers.


This is still a good time to plant perennials, in fact you can plant them all season long, but it is better to plant when the weather is still cool and there is moisture in the ground.

Be careful with the annuals! You may wish to set out some containers of annuals for Memorial Day weekend and such, just look out for frost (32 degrees or below). Pansies are the exception as they can take a light frost. The nice thing about containers is they can be brought in if the weather man is warning of frost.

June 1st to about June 10th

I normally wait until the first of June, regardless of what the weather looks like outside, to plant warm season crops, including corn, tomatoes, peppers, beans, squash, pumpkin and especially cucumbers. If I plant too early I’ll have a lot to cover if there is a frost warning.

I hope this helps, leave me a comment if I’ve left anything out.

Happy gardening,


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Getting ready to rake the lawn? Not so fast!


I don’t know about you but this weather has gotten me itching to get out in the yard and start raking. But then I was reminded of the words of a landscaper I talked to the other day for an article I was working on. She said NEVER rake the yard right after the snow melts. And it makes sense. The ground is still saturated which can and probably will cause compaction.Image result for clip art, raking the lawn

Compaction is bad for the soil and the plants that need good soil to thrive. In a healthy soil, 50% is soil particles–sand, silt and clay. The other 50% is pore space for air and water. People think of plants as taking in carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen, which they do. However, the roots take in oxygen and release carbon dioxide just like people do. Compaction effectively closes the pore spaces, making it hard for roots to get the water and oxygen they need.
So what can an eager gardener do? Relax, take it easy, watch more March Madness basketball or take a walk. But don’t rake. At least not until it dries up a little more.

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No-fail seed starting method

After a few years of trial and error, I’ve come up with what I’d like to think of as the no-fail seed starting method. I know, a promise not to fail at a gardening endeavor is kind of risky.  But I think if you try this method you should have a great deal more success germinating seeds and growing healthy plants than you would with other methods, such as putting the seeds in a “sunny window.” Of course, this is assuming you have good seed. Seed starting with grow light.

This is a low-cost method of setting up a seed starting operation that you can use for years. How low-cost? Less than $100–and it will last for years.

In this article I use a four foot shop light suspended over top of the plants. There are other lighting options depending on how much you want to spend. This is the cheapest way I’ve found to set up a no-fail seed starting operation.

Materials needed:

For frame to suspend grow light:

Nails or screws

2-2X4 by 8’ pine lumber

15” by 52” plywood

1-2” X 2” X 52” pine lumber

Light weight chain (to suspend the shop light)

48” long fluorescent shop light

Seed starting equipment:

Heat mat specifically for seed starting (from $25-$50)

11” X 16” cookie sheet

Seed starting tray with dome

Shallow (1/1/2 inch deep) container for germinating seed with holes in the bottom for drainage

Brand name germination mix such as Sun-Gro, Pro-mix, Bacto (not potting soil). Jiffy also sells a mix specifically for germinating seeds at a cost of about $5.00.

For more information on seed starting, check out Nancy Bubel’s classic seed starting book.

Step 1: Build a frame using the materials mentioned above to suspend a shop light (like the one below) or other type of lighting fixture over the plants using light weight chains. The bottom frame is 52″ long, by 15″ wide. The plywood bottom is 15” by 52,” the vertical supports are 15” tall and the 2 by 2 is 52” long.

Step 2: Moisten the seed starting mix by adding one part water to three parts germination mix. The mix should be moist but not dripping wet.


Step 3: Fill the shallow container(s) with the mix, tamping it lightly to firm it in.

Step 4: Plant the seeds of your favorite crop or flowers, following the recommendations for planting depth. Seeds can be spaced fairly close since they’re going to be transplanted after they get their true leaves. Firm the seeds in nicely to ensure good contact with the growing medium.

Step 5: Place your heat mat in the frame and put a cookie sheet over the heat mat to ensure that the mix is not getting too hot, causing the mix to dry out (note: this framed is actually large enough to fit two heat mats in if you have a lot of seeds to germinate. 

Step 6: Place a clear dome over the tray and place on the heat pad.

seed starting

Step 7: It is critical that the germination mix stays moist, but not soggy during the germination phase. Spritz with water once or twice daily and bottom water with room temperature water about every three days.
Step 8: When the seed leaves (cotyledons) begin to appear and it looks like most of the seeds have germinated, lower the fluorescent light within about 4” of the seedlings. When true leaves appear, start a regimen of water, let dry out slightly, and water again. Fertilize with a weak solution of soluble fertilizer.

Step 9: When the seedlings develop true leaves, transplant to pots or cell packs. I usually transplant my tomatoes and peppers to cell packs (6 cell packs to a flat for a total of 36 flats. Remove the seedlings by loosening up the roots and gently grabbing hold of the leaves (not the stems) and pulling out the plant.

Step 10: Bottom water the seedlings in the cell packs using the water-let dry out method. Harden off by allowing them to be outside for a few hours at a time each day before setting them out permanently.

Seed starting with grow light.

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MSU Master Gardener class comes to Sault Ste. Marie

MSU’s Master Gardener class will once again be offered for area gardeners. This is a great way to learn all aspects of gardening and horticulture from experts in the field. The 7 week course is going to be held on Saturdays and will include a 1000 page reference book you can keep. Meet new people, learn new gardening and landscaping skills, have more success with your garden and volunteer to help others.

Details below: 

Michigan State University Extension Master Gardener Program Saturdays from 9-5 pm—January 21, February 18, March 11 & 25, April 8 & 22, and May 20 in Sault St. Marie, MI.

Join other gardeners for this 7 week day long volunteer training program. Horticultural topics include: best practices for growing flowers, vegetables and fruit; caring for lawns and woody ornamentals; house plant care; diagnosing plant diseases; pest identification and control, and much more. Complete the classroom requirement, then volunteer for 40 hours in the community in order to become a certified Master Gardener. *Participants are expected to regularly attend the classes; occasional makeup can be scheduled for extenuating circumstances. Classes held at: Eastern UP Intermediate School District 315 Armory Place Conference Room A Sault Ste. Marie, MI 49783 Cost is $300.00. You must register online by January 13, 2017.

Click here to for more information and to register


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Beware of bargain seeds and garbage bags


Everyone wants a bargain. And if you’re like me you sometimes go with the lowest price only to find it wasn’t such a bargain after all. For example, I once put a cheap battery in my furnace thermostat and couldn’t figure out why the furnace wasn’t kicking in on a cold January day, or the  bargain garbage bags that open up as you’re carrying the bag out to the garbage can. In those rare moments when I’m in my right mind I look for quality and the lowest price. Like the snowshoes I bought this year. I paid $100 for a pair, actually it wasn’t the lowest price, but it was the best price for that quality of snowshoe.


A lot of thought went into the selection and breeding of Mad Hatter F1, an AAS winner.

The same can be said when shopping for seeds for a vegetable or flower garden. However,with seeds,the stakes are even higher. If you go low and buy the cheapest seeds you will have wasted a lot of time and effort planting and caring for something that just doesn’t perform well, or worse yet, never germinate.

I used to cringe a little when I saw the prices for seeds in one of my favorite seed catalogs, Johnny’s Selected Seeds. However, after years of gardening I see now that paying a little more for good quality seed gives me a little insurance that the seeds will germinate well, grow well from the seedling stage, and produce a plentiful and disease-free crop.

A good example of this is New Ace Peppers. I used to plant bell peppers only to be disappointed by a less than prolific harvest, or even none at all. Not the case with New Ace.  You can ask the people I’ve shared transplants with, this one is really prolific! Last summer I had enough bell peppers to sell, give away, freeze, and of course eat fresh in soups and to make stuffed peppers.

The thing to remember about selecting seed is that there is a lot that goes into that little seed. First there is the selection of a certain variety by, no doubt, a group of expert farmers and breeders. These seeds undergo trials and tests before they are selected. Some win awards from the All American Selections, an added bonus. Then there comes the way that seed stock is grown and harvested. A robust crop harvested at the right time will produce the best seed stock.  Lastly, comes the packaging and storing. Seed companies like Johnny’s Selected Seed and Jung’s print the dates on the package. Seeds packaged for 2017 were no doubt harvested in 2016. This is important, especially with hybrid seeds, which seem to germinate best if they’re not too old.

Indeed, there is a lot that goes into those little seeds. I’d rather pay a little more for my seed and know that I’ll have more success with the plants and better production than try to save a few pennies and be frustrated with poor germination, disease, and sparse production.

Fortunately, there are many good seed companies out there just waiting to send you a catalog, and of course, most have catalogs online. Here is a list of my favorite seed companies:


Johnnys Selected Seeds

Jung Seeds

HPS (for larger quantities at a reasonable price)

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

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Birds, bugs, and wildflowers (connecting the dots)

coreopsis lanceolata - lance-leaved coreopsis (2)

Insects are attracted to native wildflowers, like this lance-leaved coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata) which in turn attracts the songbirds we so love to see.


I’ve found a reason to become enthused about wildflowers (again). I’ve always enjoyed them and I even have a couple of areas on my property where I planted wildflowers. Heck, I even wrote a book about them. It didn’t exactly hit the bestsellers list. Actually, it left me scratching my head wondering why people just didn’t seemed to be that interested.

monarda fistulosa - wild bergamot (1)

Wildflowers, like this wild bergamot (monarda fistulosa), attract pollinators needed to pollinate the crops.

For several years I was involved in a native plant and seed cooperative. In all those years we never seemed to garner a lot of enthusiasm for wildflowers in the area where I live (Eastern Upper Peninsula of Michigan). Sure, we sold a few plants at annual plant sales and got some requests for them from public agencies and so forth; however, native plants never seemed to be top mind for most people in this area. Our little group finally dissolved as a couple of the members moved away and interest in the group fizzled.

monarda bradburiana - bradburys monarda (4)

Everyone loves seeing the butterflies, especially children. Bradburys monarda (monarda bradburiana) really attracts butterflies and other beneficial insects.

So for the past few years I’ve pushed wildflowers to the back of my mind. Then, just last week, I had the opportunity to interview Bill Carter, President of Prairie Moon Nursery in Winona, Minnesota.  The last I knew  about Prairie Moon they were kind of a niche business selling wildflower plants and seed to a pretty specialized group, such as the forest service, utility companies, and a few back to nature types.

That’s all changed. Carter says wildflowers are in demand, but not only because they attract bees and butterflies and grow well in their natural environments.

It’s because they attract insects.

Now, Carter says not too many folks get excited about bugs.  But everyone loves birds and birds love insects. Get the connection? Different plants, native to a region, are attractive to different insects. And you thought birds just like bird seed! Sure, they do, but they need insects to be part of their diet, and different birds need specific insects to sustain themselves and their brood.

People are getting the connection, at least in Minnesota, and are flooding Carter and his staff with business. They’re selling seed, plugs, and potted plants via mail order. They sell lots of live plants but the demand for seed is exploding.

“The demand for seed has gone through the roof,” says Carter. “It actually caught the industry off guard.”

He says the largest demand used to be for grasses first, and then wildflowers. Organizations wanted grasses to stabilize banks and restore wild areas. Now, it’s the other way around. He says people are going wild for wildflowers because they get the connection between the birds and the bugs.

A few days after I interviewed Carter I got a call to set up a wildflower display at an event on July 9 in Cedarville, Michigan that celebrates the natural world. It’s called Frogfest. The backdrop for this event is the beautiful Les Cheneaux Islands, a haven for diverse waterfowl and songbirds.  I’m looking forward to getting back into wildflowers and meeting people at Frogfest. If you’re out that way, stop by and chat and perhaps I can talk you into incorporating wildflowers into your landscape.

I’ll be giving away seeds and information on growing wildflowers so you too can attract a greater variety of birds (and bugs!).

Neil Moran is the author of North Country Gardening with Wildflowers, a guidebook on growing wildflowers in the Upper Midwest region.

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Sex education for cucumber growers

After years of mediocre production from my cucumber plants I’ve decided to take some action. My first thought was to call the folks at Johnny’s Seeds to see what they have to say about it. They told me they grow all their cucumbers on trellis’ and they also prune them. Having grown up in a farming town in Michigan’s “Thumb,” I had never given it a thought to trellis them.Cucumbers, Vegetables, Eating, Kitchen

My memories from those days are of Hispanic workers out in the fields picking cucumbers from bushy plants that would then be trucked into Aunt Jane’s Pickle Company, which was just a block away from where I lived. I played baseball across the street from the plant, which smelled of a mix of dill pickles and rotten sewage from the dikes that held waste liquid from the plant.

Sex education for cucumber growers

The other thing I didn’t know until a few years ago is you can buy cucumbers that are gynoecious and parthenocarpic.

Gynoecious simply means the cucumber plants contain all or mostly female flowers, which isn’t typical of the older varieties. This means you’ll get higher yields from these types. Two gynoecious varieties that Johnny’s sells include two slicers, Corinto and Diva.

Parthenocarpic means they don’t require pollination, which is another relatively new trait. Taken together, you have a higher yielding cucumber plant that can be grown in a greenhouse without the aid of pollination.

Sounds good to me.

So this summer I’m going to start a few in my little greenhouse (in containers) and let the rest trellis up the fence that surrounds my garden. I’m hoping to have enough cucumbers to feed an army.

Quick tips for starting cucumbers:

  1. Cukes love the heat. Wait until the soil warms to at least 60 degrees (about 75 degrees air temperature) before planting.
  2. In cool climates, use heat caps to get them off to a good start or start them in a hoophouse.
  3. Start in peat pots that can be placed in the garden pot and all when it comes time to plant. Never disturb the roots of cucumber plants or other vine crops, like pumpkin and squash.

Watch for the striped cucumber beetle, they can be devastating. See Johnny’s and other sources for organic pest control.

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