Arboretum News

The Midwest Plant Primer

Arboretum Director of Operations Alan Branhagen highlights 225 plants for an earth-friendly garden in his latest book.

COVID-19 Update: The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum is open in a limited capacity. Find updates and information here.

Alan Branhagen, Arboretum director of operations, highlights plants for an earth-friendly garden in his latest book. Photo by Jill Leenay.

By Susie Eaton Hopper

Arboretum Director of Operations Alan Branhagen has a new paperback out July 21, The Midwest Plant Primer: 225 Plants for an Earth-Friendly Garden.

At the Arboretum, Branhagen supervises capital improvements, horticulture and natural resources, plant curation, facilities and information technology. For over 20 years, he was director of horticulture at Powell Gardens, Kansas City’s Botanical Garden, and prior to that he served as deputy director of resource development for the Winnebago County Forest Preserve District in Rockford, Ill. 

He is the author of Native Plants of the Midwest: A Comprehensive Guide to the Best 500 Species for the Garden and The Gardener’s Butterfly Book. He is an all-around plantsman and naturalist, specializing in botany, birds and butterflies.

He is currently creating and restoring a three-acre prairie and woodland garden around his home overlooking the Minnesota River Valley in Chaska. The photos throughout this story are from his garden.

Q. How did you pick the 225 native plants featured in The Midwest Plant Primer? 

A. I started with those plants most readily available at local garden centers followed by those with good performance in gardens from my hands-on experience in Iowa, Illinois, Missouri and Minnesota.

Q. Why do you think gardeners think sustainable practices are labor intensive? 

A. I think it’s actually more about the aesthetic: perceived untidy, untrimmed thus unmaintained! Ironic, as all that goes into a traditional landscape. I will admit, many of our natives self-sow aggressively depending on the site. (They were meant to grow and prosper here!) The trick is how to companion plant those or choose wisely. There is no such thing as a no maintenance landscape. Gardening is my exercise and one of the best ways to stay in shape and live a long life.

Q. What are your top three benefits for inspiring others to go to a more eco-friendly garden/landscape? 

1) Support the web of life and nature of where you live. If you plant sustainably, more life, from pollinators to birds, will enliven your landscape.

2) Conservation of resources and environmental health. No need for regular watering, no fertilizers or pesticides needed.

3) Celebrates our spirit of place! The flora is unique to each geographic area, so why look like ‘Anywhere USA?’

Q. As climate change becomes more evident, how can native plants help heal the earth and environment? 

A. I’ll never forget my substitute science teacher Sandra Carver’s question in the 9th grade: Where does a tree come from? I knew they were mainly carbon, but for the first time I realized this is from the carbon dioxide in the air! No brainer, plants pull that out of our atmosphere and convert it to their biomass. Those trees that are long lived or those (mainly prairie plants) with extensive roots that bank the carbon in the ground and enrich soils are best. Besides, removing the CO2 from the air, vegetation cools the air with its shade and transpiration. Cover that hot surface with a vine, plant ground cover in that mulch, plant a shade tree – it’s easy to cool down a space that way.

Q. What level of gardener do you have to be to benefit from this primer? 

A. This is a downsized version of my original book (Native Plants of the Midwest: A Comprehensive Guide to the Best 500 Species for the Garden) and is intended for beginners, novice gardeners and native plant seekers.  

Q. You are a naturalist, native plant expert and professional garden designer. Tell us a bit about your home gardens, which are relatively young given your Minnesota tenure of four years. 

A. My landscape stands out in a traditional suburban neighborhood with bee lawn and naturalistic plantings. The street-side bed has more of a traditional style to tie in and allow people to understand the landscape is intentional. It has made me very aware that every site is different and some plants are behaving differently than all previous experience (much to my delight, but that also presents some challenges).

The backyard woodland was choked with buckthorn and I have removed most of that and allowed nature to come back. It now looks so natural one would hardly know all the work I’ve put into that. 

Q. If people have not been using native plants, what are 3-4 ‘gateway’ natives that are sure to bring them into the fold and give excellent results? 

A. First I have to ask if a garden is in sun or shade, or new with no soil structure. See my top ten list, but you can’t go wrong with prairie dropseed (a grass) if you have bright sun – it creates a beautifully behaved tuft with aromatic seed heads in late summer into fall; for shade, plant Virginia bluebells, which pair up well with popular hostas and provide colorful, nectar-rich flowers early and go dormant as the hostas fully leaf out. For a tree, plant a redbud (make sure it is cold-hardy or other proven strain here in Zone 4) which grow fast and become living sculptures with age.

Q. Gardening seems to be one of the few ‘winners’ in the pandemic with gardeners and homeowners focused on improving their plots. Are there things you would suggest to do now or into fall that would have great impact? 

A. Fall is a great time for planting! A native tree has the biggest impact so plant one or a grove of them! Replacing a wood mulch desert with native groundcover that can capture fallen leaves is another great project. If you have a woodland garden, look for buckthorn and garlic mustard (both horribly invasive plants) and remove them. Buckthorn stays green long after the native plants drop their leaves and garlic mustard also has evergreen basal leaves. Plan to replant with native woodland wildflowers and understory trees and shrubs in the spring.

Q. How do people get better at garden design? Are there a couple of things you see all the time that could and should be avoided from the start? 

A. Think of the various plants in their “type” category (trees, shrubs, vines, groundcovers) and relate that to an indoor room where the tree is the ceiling, tree trunks, shrubs or vines are the walls, groundcovers are the flooring and others are then added like furniture and décor. Don’t plant a shade tree under power lines. Also don’t plant one tree in the middle of the front yard!  Know your site conditions and choose plants that thrive under those conditions (sun, shade, rich soil, sandy soil, wet soil, dry soil, rocky outcrop, etc.). 

Q. How does someone find native plants? Do you have any favorite nurseries, catalogs or resources?

A. Let’s start with some research at the Andersen Horticultural Library at the Arboretum, which is open to members and the public. With 400 catalogs annually, plus incredible horticulture and botany book collections and very helpful, knowledgeable staff, who will help them find plants. They can even call the library for that information (612-301-1239) or explore Plant Information Online.

Most garden centers carry native plants and will offer more if the demand is there. Prairie Moon in Winona and Prairie Nursery in Westfield, Wis. are two mail order favorites, with Missouri Wildflowers Nursery in Jefferson City, Mo. another good one preparing us for climate change. People would be shocked at how many plants we call native that are actually wild only in the lower Midwest: Purple coneflower, bugbane, goatsbeard, , blue wild indigo, garden phlox, orange coneflower to name a few. Prairie Restorations in Princeton has an amazing diversity of Minnesota natives and a fun trip to dovetail with visiting Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge.

Q. What are your best tips for adding native plants to an existing garden? Do you have to start over? Can natives co-exist with a mature garden of non-natives? 

A. I am not a purist and research shows (based on chickadees) that 70 percent native plants in a landscape still provides for native birds to be successful. I also like to eat, and most food plants are not locally native. My front yard has non-native favorites catmint, salvias, peonies and crabapples integrated into the prairie-inspired beds and birch grove, a red-twig dogwood woodland bed. One of my native gardening friends advises: “Include your love plants” in your garden, as long as they are not invasive.

Q. What is your greatest joy in your own native garden as it develops and grows? 

A. When a neighbor walking his dog stops to tell me that passing  by my house and hearing all the crickets and singing insects in the fall “is a little slice of heaven,” and I realize when going to get the mail that I have taken it for granted. Finding a Hickory Hairstreak (an uncommon butterfly) in the front yard or walking around the house to witness a frenzy of Barn Swallows and Green Darners (a large dragonfly) swarming over the front landscape, feasting on insects. In June, I was awakened in the night by a calling whip-poor-will in my backyard. Life is good!

Order the Book

Alan Branhagen’s new paperback book, The Midwest Plant Primer: 225 Plants for an Earth-Friendly Garden, is available at the Arboretum Gift & Garden Store for $24.95 (plus $8 for shipping) and at other outlets nationwide. Call 612-301-7619 between 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. to place an order, or shop in person when visiting the Arb. Member discount applies to purchase price only.

3 comments on “The Midwest Plant Primer

  1. Ralph J Yehle

    Here’s my “pandemic wish.” People will buy Alan’s new book and end the monoculture of turf grass. What a delight. Instead of pushing a lawn mower spending equal or less time tending native plants. Less noice and pollution more diversity. Win win.

  2. Pingback: Arb Links, vol. 24 | News from the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum

  3. Patricia Day

    we were out to the ARB again today, for our weekly Fix! Another great time, and our excuse this week was to pick up your book! thankfully, we got a signed copy!
    We would like to have you at our church for a forum (or Zoom) presentation. We are just beginning to formulate our programs for the next year. The “Environmental” group wants to enhance and expand our small gardens and welcome your expertise and experience, especially to promote bees and butterflies. We are a small church in residential South Minneapolis, and many of our members have home gardens. Buying copies of your book would be great as well. Are you available to do this?
    (I graduated from the U in 1971, in Art & Design, from the St. Paul Campus!) Patricia Day

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: