Gardening Expert Bonnie Blodgett Talks About The Beauty of Fall Gardens

Gardening expert Bonnie Blodgett highlights the elegance of a thriving fall garden.

Bonnie Blodgett’s Saint Paul garden is lush and full, sprawling yet intimate, and everything that many aspiring gardeners want in their own yards. Her own motivation for creating and maintaining this garden—gardens, really—is surprisingly simple: “I’m basically in it for the beauty,” Blodgett says.

In that regard, she is definitely rewarded for all the work she puts into her garden year after year, which she admits at times can feel “relentless.” She and her husband Cam have lived in their home since 1990, a house that once belonged to Bonnie Blodgett’s great-grandfather and was built in the late 1880s. In fact, it’s been in her family ever since, undergoing a variety of renovations along the way. At the couple’s previous home, Blodgett had another beautiful garden, one she says was hard to leave.

“When I first started gardening all those years ago, it was my indulgence,” says Blodgett, author of the Blundering Gardener column for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “And then [gardening] started teaching me things like how the world really works. There is such a prevailing human-centric view of the world, and somewhere along the way we forgot about ecology.”

Blodgett says she changes the garden every year “from ground zero,” admitting she’s not one to plan her garden in advance. “I don’t want to spend the winter in the basement growing plants,” she says. “Getting outside and into the garden, engaging in some hands-on learning, is how I learn best.” At the same time, she admits she does keep a list of all the plants in her garden from year to year. “I don’t ever take anything off the list—it’s very long,” says Blodgett. “But I don’t ever forget a plant.”

While Blodgett loves the thrill of a new gardening season in the spring as much as any gardener, it is the fall garden that she finds enchanting in another way.

“I love the late bloomers, and they aren’t planted nearly as often as they should be,” she says. “In May, when people visit the garden centers, it’s the eye-catchers they want. If all you buy is annuals, you’ll have to do a lot of deadheading, but with perennials, every year can be different.”

Worth the Wait

“Late bloomers are the really lovely surprises,” Blodgett says. “And in order for a plant to be a late bloomer, it has to be pretty all summer long.”

Some of her favorite late bloomers include actaea, also known as snakeroot. “There is a tall spike of white and it’s stunning,” she says. Another favorite is hydrangea—as a general rule, most of them bloom late, especially the ones that are hardy enough for the state’s climate, which was formerly Zone 4 but Blodgett says is now more often considered Zone 5. Other favorites (at least for now) are the Pink Diamond hydrangea, Joe Pye weed and Japanese anemone.

The presence of roses in the fall is thanks to what Blodgett calls “a revolution,” mentioning Bailey’s Easy Elegance roses, which were developed by Bailey’s Nurseries in Woodbury. “[This variety] is pretty all summer and into fall,” she says. “And they are hardy; everything in Minnesota has to do with hardiness.”

For those who become discouraged by a late summer/early fall garden that has lost its luster, Blodgett advises a trip to the garden center. “See what’s blooming later,” she says. “If you choose those plants for your garden, you will have something that’s blooming all summer long.”

Inspired by beauty

Bonnie Blodgett says she’s probably visited thousands of gardens over the years, both locally and, occasionally, farther afield. In the summer of 2002, she and one of her two daughters traveled to France, visiting gardens in Normandy, Provence and the Loire Valley. They saw Monet’s garden at Giverny, which surprised her. “I was struck by how small it is,” she says. “Monet created worlds with his paintings out of a garden that’s not large.” The pair saw the garden in the evening, which Blodgett says is a perfect time. “The best time to see gardens is either early in the morning or in the evening. In the middle of the day, the light is much too harsh.”

Up on the Roof

From planting seedlings to building fences, Blodgett takes pride in the fact that she does everything in the garden herself. “I’m an incredible skinflint,” she says. “That’s the Irish and Scottish in me.” One of her most comprehensive projects involved putting cedar shakes on the roof of the garage, which, with its lush window boxes, is one of several focal points in the backyard.