The lone voice of horticultural reason

The 2003 Renegade Gardener High Spot / Black Spot Awards

11-20-03 – SINCEREST APOLOGIES for the delay in this broadcast of the 2003 RG High Spot/Black Spot Awards. The show will start in just a few hundred words, after weeks of behind-the-scene delays, dilemmas, conundrums, vexations, afflictions, quandaries, enigmas, and bones of contention, during which time I accomplished little more than buying a really good thesaurus.

Primary to the delay of this, the final update of the Renegade Gardening season, were two late-in-the-season landscaping jobs I couldn’t pass up, as both involved installation of stone. The first was a hill outcropping, where I took a steep, shady, “grass won’t grow there” hill alongside a driveway and popped it full of boulders and shade-loving shrubs and perennials:

Bonus points to all RGs who note that yes, I mulched the perennials with shredded bark. I was in a hurry. I’ll be raking some of that out and filling in gaps with lamium, ajuga, pachysandra, and impatiens (white) in the spring.

Next, a couple wanted a flagstone sidewalk entryway to their home, and I couldn’t resist. This one isn’t quite finished, but we’re supposed to have three more days of mild weather in the Twin Cities, so I can put off the last few hours until tomorrow:

Working with flagstone (in this case, Chilton stone, a wonderful color blend) always takes me a long time, because I hate gaps wider than one inch. Getting these things tight takes a lot of cutting and chiseling.

If you like this kind of stuff, allow me a none-too-subtle plug for my first book, and then we’ll go right to the awards. My book, Stone Landscaping (Better Homes and Gardens), was completed in June and sent to bookstores in mid-January, 2004. It came out well, a big book, exploring every stone garden feature imaginable, from walls, pathways, and patios, to outcroppings, ruins, water bowels, streams, ponds, and fountains. You can learn more about the book and purchase it from this site right now by clicking the “Buy Books” icon in the upper right corner.

But enough about my sore brain and back. It’s time to bribe the union crew, seat the crowd, cue the music, and lower the lights, as I present my 2003 Renegade Gardener High Spot/Black Spot Awards:

Black Spot Award
Worst Garden Magazine Headline, Garden Ideas & Outdoor Living

“Flowers that plant themselves” would be merely laughable, if it weren’t such a classic example of the gardening industry’s firm conviction that all of us stupid, lazy, inept gardeners are in need of plants that are apparently capable of digging holes, leaping from their pots, and lowering themselves firmly into the earth. I suspected the article was about plants that freely reseed (nuisance plants, I call them) and it indeed was, but still, it’s the principle of the thing. This magazine cover also wins second prize, for “46 Foolproof Plants.” Well done.

High Spot Award
RG Plant of the Year, Tiger Eyes™ Cutleaf Staghorn Sumac

Oh my, my. St. Paul’s Bailey Nurseries has done it again, with this introduction of a stunning, golden-leaved form of Cutleaf Staghorn Sumac. New growth is a lively chartreuse green, quickly changing to bright yellow, both colors contrasting exquisitely with the rosy pink leaf stems. It’s a beautiful specimen plant, maturing to only six feet in height and width. Just think of the possibilities when planting it amid pines, arborvitae, junipers, or anything blue or green. Hardy to Zone 4, I consider it a must-have. It will be available to the public beginning spring 2004. Contact your local nurseries, not Bailey; they are wholesale only.

Black Spot Award
Worst Commercial Landscaping, Best Buy Store, Minnetonka

I don’t mean to pick on Best Buy, or the lousy landscaping firm that painted this gruesome scene; I could have used any of a hundred photos of lousy commercial landscaping I see around the Twin Cities, or any city I visit. But this one is so indicative of how to do it wrong. Black plastic underneath “decorative rock” is killing the soil and frying the roots around these poor arborvitae. Soldier-straight rows of the same plant offer no contrast in foliage color or form. No wonder people flip cigarette butts into the scene.

Worst of all, homeowners see this and think that this is professional landscape design. So they go home and plunk eight globe arborvitae in a straight line across the front of their yards, a self-promulgating cycle of aesthetic abuse.

High Spot Award
Coolest New Gardening Trend, Old-Fashioned Swimmin’ Holes

Just when you thought water gardening had met its opposite shore, along come all kinds of crazy Minnesotans who, instead of installing swimming pools, are creating big ponds with such high water quality, they’re swimming in them. There are four I know of in the Twin Cities, one featuring a depth of seven feet so that the homeowner can dive and do cannonballs off the waterfall. The unnatural look of standard swimming pools, chlorine allergies, and a desire to avoid the smell of chlorine wafting across the property are just a few of the reasons people are going natural. Newest filtration systems (plus the trick of running current through a sandy bog area planted with bog iris) maintain a water quality equal to that of the cleanest lakes. So yes, most people installing swimmin’ holes swim with the fishes.

High Spot Award
Organic Pest Trap, The SMARTrap

Here’s a cool product I saw at a trade show. Loppers, cutworms, armyworms, earworms, fruitworms—caterpillars, to you and me—start out as moths. Moths invade our grdens under cover of darkness, to lay their eggs. The SMARTrap catches these moths before they can do that, using a feeding attractant and battery-operated LED that activates from dusk to dawn. Lured by the scent and light, moths enter the trap and cannot escape. It’s a preemptive strike, using no pesticides. For more info, check out

Black Spot Award
Worst New Gardening Product, Blue Mulch

Certain elements of the gardening industry refuse to leave anything well enough alone. Suppliers of shredded wood have now begun to color it, guessing that gardeners are growing tired of their product’s beautiful, natural look. I can live with the red, brown, and yellowish colors being infused into the product; after a few seasons, they mellow out to fairly pleasing effect. But mulch manufacturers have brought to market a BLUE MULCH being marketed “for areas where you want to have some fun.” Fun as in throwing up all over your Mucks, I guess, fun as in being the laughingstock of your neighborhood. Pink House? Blue mulch! I advise all Renegade Gardeners to stay far, far, away.

The Renegade Gardener Web site will next be updated on April 1, 2004. Updates follow about every three weeks, through October. Information on Don’s upcoming books, and how to order, will appear on this site’s Home Page in early January, 2004. In the meantime, enjoy your winter break from gardening. Peruse the far reaches of this site. Read good books. Plan great things. Smirk when thinking of those poor, burned out gardeners in Zones 7-10. See you in the spring.

Don Engebretson
The Renegade Gardener