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Ask the Master Gardener: Bring out your kids creative side by putting in a miniature garden

There are many miniature plants available that are not only perfect for a miniature garden but they also look great among perennials in a regular garden bed.

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A miniature garden with Mugo Pine "Teeny" and miniature hostas. Photo by Jennifer Knutson

Dear Master Gardener: As a fun gardening project, I would like to put in a miniature garden with my children. Are there miniature perennials, so I don’t have to buy new plants each year?

Answer: Miniature gardens are enchanting and bring out our playful, creative side. Not only do children enjoy creating a miniature garden, but it continues to be a popular hobby for adults, too. Yes, there are many miniature plants available that are hardy to zone 3. Not only are they perfect for a miniature garden, but they also look great among perennials in a regular garden bed. Let’s start with miniature hostas, which look charming in rock gardens, miniature gardens, and any kind of garden. According to the American Hosta Society (AHS), to be classified as a miniature hosta, the leaf blade area must be less than six square inches (leaf blade length multiplied by leaf blade width). There is no restriction on clump spread. There are 342 miniature hostas registered with the AHS and at least 100 unregistered. They are easy to obtain and come in cute names such as Blue Mouse Ears, Cookie Crumbs, Cracker Crumbs, Lakeside Baby Face, Lakeside Cupcake, Mighty Mouse, and Teeny-weeny Bikini.

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A miniature garden with miniature hostas. Photo by Jennifer Knutson

There are miniature evergreens that are hardy to 40 degrees below zero. Mugo pine “Teeny” is a very dwarf variety of mugo pine. At maturity it gets 6-12 inches high by 6-12 inches wide. Dwarf juniper, which also gets 6-12 inches high and wide, is hardy to zone 4, but has been in my miniature garden for seven years.

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Irish moss and woolly thyme are wonderful ground covers that work well not only in miniature gardens, but are often used to soften the look between flagstones. Woolly thyme has the added benefit of emitting a lovely fragrance when you brush against it.

Miniature Armeria (sea thrift) is reportedly hardy to zone 3, but I have tried it twice in my miniature garden and neither one made it through the winter. There are a few miniature Astilbe – Lilliput is one of the tiniest at 6 to 8 inches. Primula work well in either a miniature or rock garden – Primula denticulata (drumstick primrose) and Primula polyantha (primrose) both reach a height of about eight inches. The woolly green foliage of King Edward Achillea (yarrow) gets about one to two inches high and the soft yellow flowers reach 6 inches. Hens and Chicks and the various Sedums are also excellent options.

Dear Master Gardener: This is the first time I have grown onions and shallots. How do I know when to harvest them and what is the best way to store them?

Answer: Harvest onions when about half the tops are dry and falling over by lifting them up with a spading fork. You can either leave the onions on the ground for several days if the weather will be warm or you can cure them indoors or in the garage, but curing is essential. Cure onions in a warm well-ventilated area for 2-4 weeks until the outer bulb scales are dry and the neck is tight. When dry, you can braid the onions or cut the tops off. Store onions in a cool, dry place. They will start to sprout if kept above 40 degrees.

Shallots are an onion relative. They look like an onion on the outside and garlic on the inside. They are milder than either, have a sweet flavor that is enhanced when cooked or roasted, and are often used in French cooking. Harvest shallots when the tops have begun to turn brown and fall over by lifting them up with a spading fork. Wipe off any dirt and place them in a well-ventilated place for about three weeks to cure. Then, pull off the dried tops and store them in a cool, dry place.

Dear Master Gardener: What are the best evergreens for this area?

Answer: It depends on the amount of sunlight an evergreen tree or shrub will receive, how much space there is, and your soil type. The University of Minnesota Extension recommends the following evergreens for various conditions:

  • Clay soil — Ponderosa Pine, White Fir

  • Sandy soil — Scotch Pine, Mugo Pine, Junipers

  • Wet soil — American Arborvitae, Balsam Fir, Black Spruce

  • High pH — Arborvitae, Black Hills Spruce, Mugo Pine, Ponderosa Pine, Junipers

  • Windy, exposed — Black Hills Spruce, Jack Pine, Mugo Pine, Red Pine, Ponderosa Pine, Rocky Mountain Juniper, Savin Juniper, Eastern Red Cedar, Douglas Fir

  • Partial sun — Arborvitae, Balsam Fir, Douglas Fir

  • Shade — Canada Hemlock, Canada Yew, Japanese Yew

When considering Arborvitae keep in mind that deer love them! The U of M Extension no longer recommends the Colorado Blue Spruce for Minnesota landscapes due to its susceptibility to several debilitating spruce diseases. Concolor Fir and some White Spruce, with their blue-green foliage, are good large tree alternatives. There are also some Blue Spruce dwarf cultivars that are on the market as well, such as “Fat Albert” (15 feet tall by 3 feet wide).

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You may get your garden questions answered by calling the new Master Gardener Help Line at 218-824-1068 and leaving a message. A Master Gardener will return your call. Or, emailing me at umnmastergardener@gmail.com and I will answer you in the column if space allows.
University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardeners are trained and certified volunteers for the University of Minnesota Extension. Information given in this column is based on university research.

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