Ask A Minnesota Expert: How To Start Your Dream Garden

April 18, 2014 8:00 AM

(credit: CBS)

What better expert could one want to tell us about gardening than a person who came by it honestly? As a child, Julie Weisenhorn ignored her mother toiling in the garden at home, preferring to stay indoors. Only after a 12-year career in business marketing and management did she and her husband buy a home full of diverse plant life from a public garden curator and master gardener. Julie suddenly felt an immediate and overbearing responsibility to care for the scenic cornucopia of picturesque flowers and plants surrounding her new home.

Julie Weisenhorn
Assistant Extension Professor and Extension Educator – Horticulture
University of Minnesota Extension

A graduate of the University of Minnesota, Julie holds a Master’s degree in visual communication from the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, and worked 12 years in business marketing and management in the imaging industry. Shifting career gears, she later graduated from the University’s Department of Horticultural Science with a Master of Agriculture degree in 2002. She has disseminated her newfound knowledge with enthusiasm, first teaching landscape design and computer-aided design. In 2007, Julie was appointed to assistant extension professor. She directed the U of M Extension Master Gardener Program from 2007 to 2013. Julie teaches workshops and presents on horticulture topics with a special focus on plant selection and sustainable landscape design.

Julie is a native of Rochester, MN and now lives with her husband, Karl, in Mound where Julie experiments in her own backyard with landscape design. She just can’t say no to a new plant.

Julie’s favorite CBS link? WCCO’s “Smart Gardens” radio show. Have gardening questions? Listen every Saturday morning from 8 to 9 a.m. year-round as Julie and her Extension colleagues answer your gardening questions.

Julie was kind enough to share her tips for starting your own dream garden at home.

Dream Practicality: Start with the Five Considerations of Sustainable Design

Weisenhorn laughingly said her first thought of a dream garden was something huge and exotic. However, being a U of M extension educator, she knows a dream garden is one that’s healthy, maintainable and functions for the owner. “You don’t want a 10-foot plant growing at your front window,” she explained as she ticked off the following factors in planning a practical dream garden.

  1. Functional – Determine what you want and need to do in your landscape: games, entertain, room for pets, garden, etc. 
  2. Maintenance – Think about snow removal (especially in Minnesota), moving through your landscape and mowing.
  3. Environmentally Sound – Minimize your impact on the landscape by minimizing inputs like water, chemicals, labor, etc.
  4. Cost-Effective – Use proper plant selection and planting methods to minimize plant stress, and install hardscapes properly.  
  5. Visual Appeal – If your landscape is functional, maintainable, easy on the environment and affordable, this will go a long way to it being attractive.

Related: Audio On Demand: Smart Gardens

In Your Dreams: Know Your Site

Julie’s formula for success means taking into account what Mother Nature is giving you.

  • Measure your garden site accurately and draw a base plan to scale. Include plants and structures you plan to keep as-is. Know the sizes of the space(s) you are designing. This is critical to good plant selection and longevity.
  • Know your cold hardiness zone. This is, again, critical to selecting plants that will thrive.
  • Take a soil sample to the University of MN soil test lab. This small investment will help you understand the all-important foundation of your garden, drainage, amendments and fertilizer needed, pH.
  • Study the light in your landscape – full sun, part shade, full shade. Draw these areas on your garden plan. This will affect your plant selection.
  • Draw circles and “bubbles” to identify the spaces – big and small – that you have/want in your landscape. Identify microclimates that have slightly different site characteristics like temperature, wind and light.
  • Note what bothers you about your site. Is there poor access? Is there too much shade? Is there too much lawn or not enough? How narrow are the garden beds? No place to entertain a crowd? Take this opportunity to think of how you can make a change

Related: Tips for Preparing Your Vegetable Garden This Summer

Dream of the Right Plant, Right Place and Right Purpose

Weisenhorn says, “Now that you understand your site and its characteristics (soil, light, moisture, space, etc.), start with design uses for plants – trees, key plants, accents, specimen plants, groups and masses. Choose the type of plant (tree, shrubs, deciduous, evergreen, herbaceous perennial, etc.) and select plants that match site characteristics to ensure optimal growth, plant health and mature form and size. Consider plant elements of design like texture, seasonal interest and specifics, form, type of plant. Repeat masses of plants throughout your landscape to create unity. Position accent plants to help guide the visitor through your site.”

These two websites can help with information on making your landscape sustainable:

A Dream Garden for Beneficial Insects

“All-important is considering habitat for pollinators,” according to our expert. “Pollinators are critical to world food production and we all need to do our part to restore a habitat for these important animals. According to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, bees are the most efficient and important pollinators for food crops. Include pollen-rich plants, clean water sources and a nesting habitat. Change your gardening habits to encourage a healthy landscape for beneficial insects: scout for and identify insects and diseases and use Extension resource to determine what – if anything – you need to do about them. This will help to reduce or eliminate the need for pesticides. Perform proper plant selection for your site.”

Look Around at Other People’s Dream Gardens

Julie says, “Some of the best ideas come from seeing what other people do in their home gardens and by visiting public gardens. Go on garden tours like the Hennepin County Master Gardener annual tour. Visit public gardens like the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, Como Park, Noerenberg Gardens and Munsinger Clemens Gardens. Look at pictures of gardens and plants on Google Images, Flickr, Instagram and Pinterest. Subscribe to MSHS’ Northern Gardener magazine for one of the best local magazines about gardening in Minnesota. Of course, University of Minnesota Extension Garden website and Extension Master Gardeners are go-to resources for all of your gardening questions.”

Related: Best Gardens In The Twin Cities

Robin Johnson was born in Annandale, Minn. and graduated from Richfield High School and then the University of Minnesota where he studied Political Science, Business and Industrial Relations. A writer for, he also consults with a variety of organizations and individuals helping them develop and grow. His work can be found at

Watch & Listen LIVE