Twin Cities Adventure: Perennial Plant Symposium 2016

The Perennial Plant Association’s (PPA) annual ​Symposium is a unique gathering of industry professionals and perennial plant enthusiasts. This year’s event, held in the Twin Cities of Minnesota, was a whirlwind week of tours, presentations, and networking events. Nursery owners John and Jill Hoffman attended, along with Shannon Currey, our Marketing Director.

The first day of the symposium is open to PPA members and the general public. Shannon was on the program addressing how grasses and sedges form the foundation of ecologically sound landscapes. She emphasized the ability of these plants to provide a range of ecosystems services. Other speakers included similar, general themes in their talks. Neil Diboll of Prairie Nursery in Wisconsin highlighted prairie plants for pollinators, and talked about ways to maintain the balance and diversity of our landscapes. Debra Knapke of The Garden Sage urged the audience to incorporate ecological principals when creating garden designs. The program also included talks on container plantings and perennials for cold climates.

The Garden Tour

While the talks throughout the symposium are wonderful, the tours are part of what make this event special. Attendees can choose tours that focus on retail garden centers, on wholesale growers, or on garden design. In this post, we’ll share images from the Design Tour. We loved the mix of public and private gardens, all of which blended functional and ornamental elements beautifully. Join us for a small taste of our day touring sites in the Minneapolis area.

Noerenberg Memorial Gardens

This public garden lies on Lake Minnetonka and is thought to be one of the best formal gardens in Minnesota. It’s owned and maintained by the Three Rivers Park District, and it’s one of the best public parks we’ve seen. The plantings were lush and offered gorgeous plant combinations. Grasses formed the backbone of many plantings. Many prairie species, such as Sporobolus heterolepis, Panicum virgatum, Andropogon gerardii, and Schizachyrium scoparium, were thriving in the hot days and relatively cool nights of Minnesota summers.

Noerenberg Memorial Gardens
Bouteloua gracilis ‘Blonde Ambition’ looked fantastic in every garden we visited. Here, ‘Blonde Ambition’, a Molinia, and Panicum virgatum ‘Heavy Metal’ blend with other perennials in this planting at Noerenberg Memorial Gardens.

View of Crystal Bay on Lake Minnetonka from Noerenberg Memorial Gardens.
View of Crystal Bay on Lake Minnetonka from Noerenberg Memorial Gardens.

Sporobolus heterolepis in the foreground thrives in this perennial planting at Noerenberg Memorial Gardens.
Sporobolus heterolepis in the foreground thrives in this perennial planting at Noerenberg Memorial Gardens.

Carousel Little Bluestem thrives in the beds at Noerenberg Memorial Gardens.
Carousel Little Bluestem, developed at the Chicago Botanic Gardens, appreciates northern climates.

Private Gardens

The tour also included several private gardens, including the Tolzman Garden, the Heiland Garden, and the Carmichiel-Kelley Garden. Each was impressive and offered different kinds of sites with beautiful gardens. The Heiland and Carmichiel-Kelley gardens featured areas designed to manage and treat water. The Heiland Garden borders a lake, so the owners built a series of berms and bioswales to slow rainwater and increase infiltration. That helps reduce runoff and ensure water is treated before it reaches the lake.

This water features captures rainwater from the roof of the house and treats it before it reaches the lake.
This water feature captures rainwater from the roof of the house and treats it before it reaches the lake.

The lakes in Minnesota offer beautiful views and opportunities for gardeners to help keep the lakes clean and healthy.
The lakes in Minnesota offer beautiful views and opportunities for gardeners to help keep the lakes clean and healthy.

The Carmichiel-Kelley Garden included a large number of grasses and sedges. Their planting design included formal, landscaped areas and informal areas with more naturalistic plantings. The combination made exploring the garden quite engaging. You never knew what was around the next turn in the path.

Hakonechloa macra creates a lush cascade of foliage in this planting in front of the Carmichiel-Kelley home.
Hakonechloa macra creates a lush cascade of foliage in this planting in front of the Carmichiel-Kelley home. Beds near the house used a more formal design, while beds further away became more relaxed and informal.
This lush planting of Big Bluestem and other native perennials is beautiful and functional. It harbors and treats the drain field for the property's septic system.
This lush planting of Big Bluestem and other native perennials is beautiful and functional. It serves as the drain field for the property’s septic system, filtering and treating the outflow. It also supports pollinators and other wildlife.

We love how the Carmichiel-Kelley gardens uses Carex pensylvanica as a groundcover (far right).
We love how they’ve used Carex pensylvanica as a groundcover (far right) in the Carmichiel-Kelley Garden. This area away from the main house employs a looser, more relaxed style.

Grass Heaven: The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum

The final stop of our tour day was the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. With twelve-hundred acres, 32 display and specialty gardens, and 48 plant collections to explore, we could have spent multiple days there. The Arboretum offers a three-mile shuttle tour of the grounds, which gives a helpful overview. Knowing time was limited, our team really wanted to see the Ornamental Grass Collection. But made a few other stops, too.

The Perennial Garden at the Arboretum was a treasure trove of plants. We really like they way they used grasses!
The Perennial Garden at the Arboretum lies near the main entrance buildings. It was a treasure trove of plants, with beautiful combinations of texture, color, and form. We really like they way they used grasses!
The resconstructed prairie at the Arboretum offers a glimpse of what used to be in the Upper Midwest.
The resconstructed prairie at the Arboretum includes several prairie ecosystems, such as tallgrass prairie, oak savanna, and wet prairie. It offers a glimpse of all-but-vanished plant communities in the Upper Midwest. Less than 1/10 of 1 percent of original prairie exists today in Minnesota. This site helps visitors understand the importance and appeal of prairie landscapes.

For us, the Ornamental Grass Collection was the big draw. Dr. Mary Meyer oversees the collection, and she was available to gives tours and answer questions. The tour included that selections used in the national grass trials. Dr. Meyer led the trials, and her team will be releasing results of those trials in a article sometime next year. It will include data on Little Bluestem and Switchgrass cultivars from sites across the country. To find out about these trials, go to the National Grass Trials website.

Dr. Meyer presented some preliminary findings at the symposium on Thursday. While we can’t yet share specific data, we can share some general findings. They saw big differences in the height of Little Bluestem depending on the site. The heights of individual cultivars were quite different depending on where the plants were trialed. Also, where a cultivar was originally developed seemed to affect how well it performed at different sites. We’re eager to see the results, which we hope will help people make even better selections for their region.

We also saw several specimens that seemed garden-worthy and may come to the market soon. Dr. Meyer works closely with growers across the country to make sure the best selections get attention. We love working with her, and she’s great at answering geeky grass questions!

The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum's Ornamental Grass Collection send shivers through grass admirers.
The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum’s Ornamental Grass Collection is a thrilling experience for grass admirers. It’s a kind of Grass Heaven.

Dr. Mary Meyer, who oversees the grass collection, takes symposium attendees on a tour of the site.
Dr. Mary Meyer, who oversees the grass collection, takes symposium attendees on a tour of the site.

Several Switchgrass cultivars stand in a row in the area used for national grass trials.
These Switchgrass cultivars were part of Dr. Meyer’s national grass trials.

The plantings included a wide range of species and cultivars, including Carex pensylvanica and Muhlenbergia reverhonii 'Undaunted'.
The plantings included a wide range of species and cultivars, including Carex pensylvanica and Muhlenbergia reverchonii ‘Undaunted’.

All of the Prairie Dropseed looked great in the collection. 'Tara' is a compact, upright cultivars with dense blooms.
Prairie Dropseed thrives in Midwest climates and looked great in the grass collection. ‘Tara’ is a compact, upright cultivar with dense blooms that was selected by plantsman Roy Diblik.

Calamagrostis x acutiflora 'Karl Foerster' shines in the Ornamental Grass Collection at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.
Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ catches the light in the Ornamental Grass Collection at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. It also performs well in cool climates.

Blue Heaven Little Bluestem was selected at the University of Minnesota, so it's very well-suited to this region. It looked fantastic everywhere we saw it in the landscape!
Blue Heaven Little Bluestem was selected at the University of Minnesota, so it’s well-suited to this region. It looked fantastic everywhere we saw it in the landscape!

We ended the day at the Arboretum with another visit to the Ornamental Grass Collection, and it was well worth it. A lovely ending to a day full of gardens.
We ended the day at the Arboretum with another visit to the Ornamental Grass Collection. It was well worth it. A fitting ending to a day full of gardens.

There were far too many individual events to share them all. For a complete listing of the presentations and tours, go to the symposium website.

A Note of Congratulations

We were happy to see a number of friends and colleagues honored by PPA. Brent and Becky Heath of Brent and Becky’s Bulbs received the Merit award in recognition of their contributions to the perennial industry. Brent Horvath of Intrinsic Perennial Gardens was given the Grower Award, and Klaus Peters of Stauden-Peters in Germany received the International Contributor award. Janet Draper of the Smithsonian Institute was recognized for outstanding service to PPA, while Dr. Jared Barnes from Stephen F. Austin State University won the Young Professional Award. Twitter friend and colleague Sean James of Fern Ridge Landscaping in Ontario won a Lansdcape Honor Award. There were others, but we weren’t able to note them all. Congrats to everyone for your contributions!

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