Q & A with Brenda C. Adams, author of Cool Plants for Cold Climates: A Garden Designer’s Perspective.

By Shelley Pierce | January 7, 2018
by Shelley Pierce
January 7, 2018

Brenda is the author of There’s a Moose in My Garden: Designing Gardens in Alaska and the Far North (University of Alaska Press, 2013) and Cool Plants for Cold Climates: A Garden Designer’s Perspective (University of Alaska Press, 2017). In the first book, Brenda shares her insights as she guides you through the entire process of designing and creating an Alaska garden – from the moment you decide you want a garden until you can enjoy its beauty. Her latest book, Cool Plants for Cold Climates, is a treasure trove of extraordinary plants for cold climate gardeners. In it she highlights solidly hardy selections that offer overall beauty and are especially easy to care for, all vividly illustrated with more than three hundred photographs.  Read on to learn more and enter below to win one of three copies from the University of Chicago Press!

1.  When it comes to cold climate gardening, you definitely have the credentials having gardened in the harsh conditions of Alaska for over 20 years.  Have you personally grown all the plants featured in this book?

Yes, with just four exceptions I have grown all of the great plants recommended in Cool Plants for Cold Climates: A Garden Designer’s Perspective in either my own extensive gardens or those of my clients. These exceptional plants have become old friends and have proven themselves to be dependably hardy by flourishing through numerous long, harsh winters. Still, they are much more than simply hardy. They represent the most beautiful of their species offering multiple artistic attributes along with an ease of culture that make them a pleasure to maintain. No prima donnas here!

2. In your book, how do you turn the notion that northern gardens are uninteresting and/or fragile on its head?

There is nothing like a vivid photograph of a richly-planted cold-climate garden to convince a person who toils in a harsh climate that beauty and success are possible for them too. By creating a book packed with images of interesting and rugged plants sited in the context of far northern gardens, I’ve tried to offer tangible proof of this possibility. I want my fellow gardeners to be able to see the truth that these gardens need not be uninteresting. Further, the pictures show that the fine plants in these gardens, while vigorous and floriferous, also have a broad range of other important artistic attributes: differing textures, sizes, and shapes, interesting foliage, motion, seed pods, colorful bark, stems, and more.
Because Cool Plants for Cold Climates includes annuals, bulbs, grasses, herbaceous perennials, shrubs, trees, and vines, it offers those gardening in cool northern climates a broad range of plant types that can be combined to make a garden more interesting and versatile.
To address the issue of fragility, I included a quick reference with each entry that specifies the range of zones in which the plant has performed well. A perusal of the entries reveals many choices hardy to zone 2, 3, or 4. A careful search will even unveil a zone 1 hardy tree! Detailed descriptions address cultural requirements by providing experienced-based growing tips along with vivid portrayals of their artistic merits.

3. How does this book help readers overcome the challenges of choosing and growing plants in a cold climate garden?

In all aspects of life, complicated topics and processes can be more easily understood when they are broken down into individual components or steps. Therefore, when addressing the challenge of choosing plants in a cold climate, I describe, step by step, how to evaluate a plant for its garden impact, utility, and dependability.

Beginning with the artistic components, I explain the power of considering not just a plant’s flowers, but also its foliage, bark, stems, seedpods, berries and other fruit, as well as architectural shape form, motion, and fragrance. Then, I also talk about how one plant can be combined with others to either contrast with or accentuate those attributes thus enhancing the overall effect. In this way, the combination has greater impact than the individual plants would have.

The importance of early season value, fall beauty, winter display, bloom time, and length of bloom are especially critical for gardeners with short growing seasons so I address each of these in turn. I also encourage readers to think about plant behavior in the garden because it so strongly affects maintenance. By my definition, “Cool Plants” must be easy to maintain!

It’s vital for all gardeners to be armed with the knowledge to determine whether a plant will thrive in their own garden, but it is absolutely essential for cold-climate gardeners. If a plant is struggling, it will be less likely to survive a harsh winter regardless of its zone rating. Therefore, I strive to help gardeners understand how to evaluate their growing environment. Next, without getting overly technical, I explain how to identify and select plants whose cultural needs will be a good match for their intended location.

And speaking of selecting plants, there is an entire section in Cool Plants for Cold Climates called “At the Nursery”. Here, I address topics such as how to choose a nursery and – a rarely discussed topic – how to identify the best of the best of a given kind of plant offered. For example, when faced with 20 shrubs of the same kind, what makes one the best choice versus those around it? There are lots of other shopping tips arranged by major plant group, annuals through trees.

4. What are some cold climate plants that you highly recommend and why?

This is always a challenging question for me because there are so many truly wonderful hardy plants available that, even in a book spanning well over two hundred pages, I was not able to include all of my favorites!

That said, my very favorite, which is pictured on the cover of Cool Plants for Cold Climates, is Astrantia major (masterwort), a versatile plant that is well-adapted to cold climates. As a group the cultivars of this species offer some of the longest bloom periods, flowering non-stop in my garden from mid-June until September without deadheading! My preferred cultivar is ‘Hadspen Blood’ which flaunts masses of inch-and-a-half-wide intricate, deep carmine flowers arrayed in small clusters atop sturdy stems that stand erect to nearly three feet. Its dark green deeply-toothed and palm-shaped leaves combine well with both tiny and large foliage neighbors. Its versatility extends to the vase, where its cut flowers look fresh for well over two weeks in water and will hold their color quite well in dried arrangements.

The incredible genus of primula, affectionately known as primroses, offers a vast number of very lovely and hardy selections. Among these, I cannot resist one of earliest bloomers, silver-edged primrose (Primula marginata), a ground hugging beauty that, as the snow recedes, may bloom in an exquisite soft periwinkle blue, pale lavender, or warm-pink. These are best enjoyed up close where you can see the delicate, pinking-sheared edges of their small leathery leaves, usually covered on both sides with a light frosting of white farinose, a naturally occurring powdery coating.

Two wonderfully fragrant members of the primrose group are the Asiatic primroses, Primula waltonii and Primula alpicola. Both have bold rosettes of medium-green, oblong-shaped leaves from the center of which rise flower stems that vary in height from twelve to twenty inches. Arrayed around the tops of each of these thin erect stems is a cluster of slightly nodding, delicate-looking and charming blossoms in a range of colors including white, cream, lavender, purple, strawberry, deep rose, and red wine. Their dainty beauty belies a rugged hardiness. Adding to their appeal, these primroses exude a heady fragrance that floats sweetly over the garden on the slightest breeze.

Another hardy perennial that stands out from the crowd is Japanese meadowsweet, Filipendula purpurea ‘Elegans’. Its luminescent foliage is such a yellow-infused green that it borders on chartreuse, but retains a softness that is sometimes lost in full-blown chartreuse coloration. The five to seven fingers of its palmate-shape are long and quite exaggerated. The combination of size, shape, and color of the foliage gives this plant true star quality. But there’s more – the stems are brilliant scarlet, standing out and contrasting beautifully with the foliage. To literally top off this showy plant are full panicles of deep rose flowers. The overall effect is simply breathtaking.

Two of my favorite grasses are golden feather reed grass (Calamgrostis x acutiflora ‘El Dorado’) with its tall, strongly-upright, gold and green striped foliage and honey-colored flowers, and bronze veil tufted hair grass (Deschampsia cespitosa ‘Bronzeschleier’), a gracefully arching grass with extremely fine foliage and wispy bronze flowers that reach out well beyond the foliage mound. Both are cold season, clumping grasses that are well-behaved in the garden. They begin growing in early spring and provide fall color and flowers well after other perennials have succumbed to the cold snaps of fall.

Oh gosh, I could keep going on, but instead, perhaps I should encourage everyone to get a copy of Cool Plants for Cold Climates to learn more!

5. What tips or advice do you have to offer for your fellow cold climate gardeners?
Use winter as a time to read and learn. It’s a perfect opportunity to think about your garden and your goals for it. Understanding your goals will help guide your efforts as you plan for the next season.

Start small so that you are able to keep your garden well-tended in the time you have to do so. There’s nothing more heart-breaking than a garden that becomes weed-filled because it needs more attention than its gardener has the time to provide it.

It’s important to study your growing environment and prepare it well before planting. Select plants that match the soil and environment you have. Your plant selections are the key to having it all – beauty and low maintenance.

Evaluate plants for their garden impact, utility, and dependability. To create a garden that continues bringing pleasure well into late summer and fall, learn to recognize the late blooming plants in the early days of spring and summer when your nursery is open and packed full. Play with plant combinations so that they are more compelling than the individual plants on their own. Don’t be afraid to move things around if you are not happy with where they happen to be. A shovel is an indispensable gardening tool!

Always find a place or two for a bench or chair in your garden. Then use them! Take time to enjoy your garden. It should be a place that brings you years of pleasure.

Win one of three copies of “Cool Plants for Cold Climates”!

To enter, simply leave a comment on this blog post by midnight on Sunday, January 14, 2018 (be sure to provide a valid e-mail address) in answer to the following question:

What plant do you find cool?

Be sure to include a valid e-mail address. The winner will be drawn at random from all qualified entrants, and notified via e-mail. (See rules for more information.)

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