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Garden wins: What went right this year


What can I say about the 2021 garden? I have been putting off thinking about it too much because well, I have regrets, and when we are only given so many summers in this lifetime, it stinks to use one on a garden that you don’t love. Don’t get me wrong, I am way more happy with the garden than I am unhappy, but there were lessons learned.

I was hoping a bit of time would dull that disappointment a little, and it has, but only a little. We’re going to get to the garden post mortem, but first, let’s celebrate a few good moments in the garden.


I like to try to some things just to see if I can, so I’m always trying something new. But last summer I doubled down and really got experimental. By far the most successful experiment was growing lotus. I grew one in the stock tank pond in the vegetable garden and another in a 16-inch bowl right on the patio and they were both fabulous and I will absolutely grow them again.

lotus growing in bowl

lotus flower in stock tank pond

I also grew figs for the first time. They did will but I’m not declaring success until they come out of wintering in the basement alive and thriving.

And I grew turmeric and ginger in raised beds for the first time (I’d previously tried in containers), and that was great success as well. 

fresh ginger from the garden
The ginger didn’t produce as well as the turmeric but what I did harvest was beautiful and tinged pink.

There was a kumquat this year as well too but this post is about high points so I think we’ll just put that one on the wait-and-see list.


The “new naturalistic garden” by the driveway was planted by July 2020. I used landscape plugs (2-inch wide mini plants) for much of it so I expected it would take several years to fill in. But I couldn’t believe how well everything grew in just a year. I love that space because it’s a big departure for me design-wise from much of the rest of the garden and it was great to see it really start to come together.

nepeta drift
Nepeta ‘Cat’s Pajamas’ bloomed beautifully in the new garden.
geranium macrorrhizum
Geranium macrorrhizum blends into Alchemilla mollis (lady’s mantle) with Thalictrum to punctuate the scene.


There was a lot in the garden that wasn’t great last year, but having the best tomato year of my life comes pretty close to making up for it. The tomatoes from the Dwarf Tomato Project came through for me big time, growing to a manageable size in my raised beds (I’m so over 6-foot-tall tomato plants) and producing lots of beautiful and delicious tomatoes. My favorites of the year were Brandyfred, Awesome and Firebird Sweet (you can find seeds for them at Victory Seeds). 

Dwarf Firebird Sweet tomato
Dwarf Firebird Sweet is a stunning gorgeous tomato, and delicious to boot.

Bowl full of tomatoes


Desperation had me try a few plants that I’ve overlooked for a long time and I’m so happy I did because most of them will end up on regular rotation here. 

The first is Sunpatiens, which I’ve grown before and am very familiar with, but I until this year I’d never noticed that they hold color (and lots of it) all summer long. Once they start blooming they just don’t stop. Compare that to a petunia that can get rather finicky or take a blooming pause when they get a little leggy and need a snip back, not to mention seem to be prone to an increasing number of insect pests. The mounding habit of Sunpatiens means it won’t always be a good stand-in for petunias and the color options are more limited with them, but for pure color, I’m reaching for Sunpatiens when I can.

I think I’ve seen Sanvitalia procumbens (creeping zinnia) before but never liked it. Then I found myself in urgent need of bright annual for the edge of the border and flashed back to seeing it on Mackinac Island. Turns out it’s very cute and very charming and as long as a goldy yellow works in a spot, is a great choice for a little plant to nip at your toes. It can be grown from seed, but I grew the Proven Winners selection Sunbini and I feel like it has much nicer, compact, floriferous habit than many of the seed-grown varieties.

Sunbini creeping zinnia
Sunbini creeping zinnia. Photo courtesy of Proven Winners

Euryops pectinatus (busy daisy) was a completely new plant to me and honestly I thought it had no business growing in my not-very-hot Wisconsin garden. The description of High Noon, Proven Winner’s recently introduced selection of it, reads: “Very heat tolerant and drought tolerant once established.” But here’s the secret: It’s very cold tolerant. This plant bloomed for me long after many of my other annuals had succumbed to cold. 

High Noon bush daisy
High Noon bush daisy

What were some of your high points in the garden in 2021?


45 Responses

  1. HI Erin,
    I am so inspired by your gardens and the color palette you give them in each year. I am in so awe of you. I am trying to grow lotus since log time but was not brave enough to try in pots. After seeing your beautiful pot i like to try it this year. Do you mind telling me the variety you grow in the pot on the steps and how big pot you have used and most importantly how to start one. Any tips are appreciated.
    Have a good garden season in 2022.

  2. Hi Erin, a fellow Erin here! I just found your blog today on Pinterest and really enjoyed reading your article about Dahlias. I first grew Dahlias in summer 2020 after buying some tubers at Aldi’s. I grew them next to the fenceline and they grew beautifully. I did insert a stake to help them out. We moved to a new town (still Zone 7b) in June 2021, which was an awkward time to move gardenwise. I started a cottage garden in our front yard, which is smallish and in an urban area. I found some Dahlias from a local garden shoppe, but they were an annual variety. I did plant a couple Speedwells, Coneflowers, and upright Phlox that did well last summer. I am counting on them to come back. I also brought a few Black-Eyed Susans and a Shasta Daisy from my last yard when we moved last summer. I am awaiting a spring delivery of some Dahlia tubers that I ordered this fall. I also have some Zinnia seeds that I will winter sow soon. I planted many tulip, daffodil, and hyacinth bulbs this fall. I am so excited for this upcoming gardening season! Now I have to research Lotus and see if I can make it work!

  3. I would have to say that my greatest joy this growing season came from my first foray into the world of dahlias (motivated by you). In particular, my ‘Great Silence’ dahlias. I’ve never seen so many colors emerge from one flower. Looking at one was like looking at a sunset. My greatest disappointment: ravenous rabbits! 🤬

  4. Erin, I am, as always, inspired by your gardens! Few of us get the idea of massing plants and you have quite the knack with that. The lotus was wonderful to watch. I hope you saved the seed head and dried it. (I’m sure you did and I probably just missed your mention of it!) I think this Wisconsin growing season was particularly difficult with frost so often in May and then an immediate turnaround to mid-90 degree temps without rain in June. There’s lots of plant stress out there that in turn causes gardener stress. I worry people who have taken up gardening in just the past year will not stick with it, given how difficult 2021 was even for experienced gardeners such as yourself. It seems the growing season just passes much too quickly for me. I declared war on rabbits– I need a top line predator, some raptor. My best successes: OMG! Gomphrena ‘Fireworks’, realizing ageratum ‘Dondo Blue’ can tolerate some shade, dianthus ‘First Love’ (grew it from seed, it bloomed March through November), backing down on my “no-roses” policy and planting five ‘Champagne Wishes’, massing out lamb’s ear as a ground cover, Vernonia ‘Summer Surrender’ (late season pollinators loved it) and Casper Kale – sweet even on hot days, it made me look at kale in a new light. Inspired by you I planted some dahlias, but the tubers I received (not from your favorite source, but a couple I had previously thought reliable) were disappointing (about one out of every three lacked an eye, and half the rest did not bloom). I have stored my tubers which did increase in size and am hoping for better next year. Although, there are fewer and fewer summers, I am assuming there is always a next one.

  5. Thank you for posting this, Erin! It’s too easy for me to look back and focus on all the things I want to do differently instead of reflecting on the overall beauty of the garden and how many things I have to be proud of. I
    – basically doubled my garden size
    – added four new raised beds
    – lots of work prepping and improving the soil
    – planted 3,000 bulbs in the fall of 2020 (and 3,000 more in 2021)
    – added some shrubs and taller perennials
    – overall successful first attempt at winter sowing
    – dahlia season was long and beautiful and I even grew some from seed
    – wonderful kale and beautiful beets
    – tomatoes were delicious even though the overall harvest was less than the year before
    – first time collecting and saving seed
    – grew at least a dozen new flower varieties
    – gave about 150 bouquets to essential and frontline workers

    I get overly enthusiastic, easily overwhelmed, and have a perfectionist streak. This year I hope to rein it in and set more reasonable goals and BUY LESS SEEDS!!! In 2021 I made many mistakes, and spent way too much time weeding, but I learned a lot and am ready to dig in this season!

    1. 150 bouquets to essential and frontline workers? That’s amazing, I salute you! I am thinking with all the dahlias that I have ordered, inspired by Erin, perhaps this will be my year to start making bouquets to give away. My goal will be more modest to start with, maybe 10-20, I think.

  6. I know you have probably posted where exactly you got your lotus but I cannot remember. Could u please let me know I’m so enthralled by your success. They look beautiful. I’ve had great success overwintering my water lilies in my shed just left in water and above freezing and they come back in the late spring here in Michigan. Thanks a million and happy 2022.

  7. These pics of your garden, they belong in a book! And I would buy the book! I have full confidence in your writing, storytelling, photography and more! You’re probably the 1st gardening channel on YouTube that got me excited to start gardening again, I believe I mentioned it in a comment on there, but after years of suffering from chronic Lyme Disease I neglected my 1 acre property with really large garden beds. Everyday I had to look at it, reminded of what it is and once was. You have lit a fire under me and I just want to thank you again! One bit of feedback/request is to see some more drone views and regular photos together of before and after of areas in your garden, especially after a big change. I also would love more content of garden design. I’m terrible about finding where to actually plant something. I’m so in love with your Lotus plants and can’t believe that I don’t see them more in books, channels, social media, etc….

    Thanks. again, Michelle James

  8. My favorite was growing Dahlias for first time. Neighbor gave me tubers, they overwintered successfully in basement, grew well, and add an amazing touch to late summer gardens. Love them! My disappointment was not staking them properly at the beginning as you all have told us to do! They flopped and broke. but wow, what a show and prolific bloomers. My favorite that was given to me is Brown Sugar….great color in fall garden. I’m glad to have learned more about them. I’m on the hunt for the lovely Crichton Honey that you look so wonderful in your garden Love you video’s and posts!

  9. Dahlias. I seem to pick a plant for the year and must have many varieties. I had so much fun growing four different kinds but really loved the two dinner plates. So did the neighbors! Hellebores were my pick two years ago and before that were peonies. Getting ready to rewatch your show on sowing poppy seeds. I was amazed the first time I saw it, went out and bought two poppy plants last spring and saved the seeds. Fun!

  10. Yes, it was a so-so year here too. Mainly because I became really dissatisfied with my haphazard planting habits and tried to remedy things. But I grew verbena bonariensis and drumstick allium both for the first time and was completely in love.

  11. My happy surprise was the 4 angel trumpets I ‘rescued’ from a retiring gardener. Lucky me. One kept blooming all the way till Thanksgiving. I have them wrapped up and tucked in under my deck. We will see if they make it through the winter without coming into the garage. Hang in there, Erin. You know another season will bring new blessings.

    1. My first cut garden was better in my dreams than reality . Yet I’m planting more annuals this year for the constant color in the Peter nail borders. Had more time to cut flowers and just be in the garden! I may even have a couple dinners inside the gardens instead of just looking at them . Don’t we all need to play in them more?? It’s our passions we love the hits and misses!! Yes I have Lotus Envy😔

    1. I brought the lotus tubers in and I’m trying a couple different methods of storing them, but I was told not to be too optimistic. I was shocked at how many tuber segments there were. And good eagle eye on the Dame’s Rocket. It’s pretty … over there.

  12. I definitely want to try my hand at a lotus, especially seeing you grew some in a pot, I can’t do the tank, not at this juncture. But I do love the look of them. This was my first year to try growing Dahlias, YEP, didn’t know they exisited till the summer of 2020 from you, Laura B. and Erin B. And although I planted them in a semi-shady part of my property, they still did excellent! Just not until about late Aug and early Sept. in zone 7a. I have dug most of them up and stored in the same crates you have except using vermiculite instead. They are looking dry, the temp under the house stays around 64 which I know is too high, I have been misting them once every 2 weeks or so. I’m scared they might not make it. Future plans = root cellar. I left a few of my not-so-favorites in the ground and mounded them high with soil/mulch. If they make it that’s cool, my experiment went well, if not then it’s not going to hurt my feelings. (they didn’t preform as they were supposed to anyway) I have a ton of seeds for next year. Top of my list.. Sweet Peas, I have never tried them. But I’m excited super excited! I think I will need some cattle fencing for those! Tell Rich we said hi and maybe he could pop in once and say hello 🙂 Happy New Year guys!

  13. This was a very good post, Erin. It made me reflect on my gardening efforts in 2021. My husband and I planted many more shrubs and small trees to fill in empty pockets on our property. It will be so exciting this 2022 Spring to see what will return and hopefully flourish during the growing season. And, it was shrubs and trees that are new to our landscape. Also, I love the idea of your ‘driveway garden’. I am going to do the same – on a small scale – this coming year. Love the idea that when we drive in and out of our property we have a wonderful view from the car. Happy New Year…..

  14. Oh my, the lotus blossoms are splendid!!! Where did you source them?
    The creeping Zinnias are sweet and look almost identical to melampodium, but I see with a Google search they are indeed different plants, both charming.
    With our drought over the summer, I put all my watering efforts into my raised veggie beds and flowering planters, and the flower beds were on their own. Much to my surprise, good old annual vinca was a star performer, a real trooper. And self-seeded petunias just didn’t stop.
    Happy garden dreaming!

  15. Great post! I have envied your lotus all summer, may have to try them for myself next summer. I had two significant successes this year. Covington sweet potatoes- planted slips in half of a 4’x20′ raised bed and harvested 70lbs. Green Magic broccoli- produced soccer sized heads and now harvesting side shoots- first time I’ve had good production here in Georgia. Due to extreme deer pressure, my flowers are limited to within the double-fenced garden area. For several years White Onesta and Diva dahlias have been my stars- beautiful, consistent and long lasting (for dahlias) in vase. Wishing you a very happy and productive New Year.

  16. I wasn’t in love with my garden this year, and I can’t really put my finger on why. Not enough rain? Or maybe the battle with Japanese beetles did me in. However, I was happily surprised by the Embassy dahlias I planted for the first time. I hope they survive the basement this winter! (I ordered a couple of extra just in case.)

  17. My first ever attempt at winter sowing was a great success in many ways. Red moulin rouge zinnias all summer, asters, sweet peas, etc. It was just all round fun. And it really offset my worst year ever for tomatoes! What the heck? It’s not like this was my first rodeo by any means.

    Love your lotus! And what is the special deal about 2 inch plugs?

    1. I tried winter sowing for the first time – so much fun and a great way to fill in garden beds with perennials for cheap. No luck with monarda or lavender though – will have to try again.

      Did you WS veggies or any flowers? I did beets and kale with great success. My tiny tomato seedlings caught up even though I planted a bit late.

  18. I loved watching my dahlia seedlings bloom. My Japanese morning glories did very well. Love in the mist was a new one for me and it was beautiful if a little short lived. I think I will succession plant it this year. Most of what I planted was a success and beautiful. One of may absolute favorites was the Sahara Rudbeckia I grew from seed. Hoping for another awesome garden year for 2022.

    1. I grew some dahlias from seed this year for the first time and it really was fun to see what came from them. I ended up only saving one tuber from them but I really enjoyed the process. That rudbeckia is beautiful. Maybe I should give some of those a try.

  19. I really value the overall topic. I found myself at the end of the season talking to my cutting flowers and the “conversations” weren’t always easy to have.
    The only way to distinguish between your minds eye and the actual delivered “painting” is to go through a season. That takes time and in some cases a little pain when you only have so much room. As a result, some of my autumn conversations were brief and to the point – “you’re not coming back. I’m sorry. I need the plot for something that yields more smiles per plant.”
    Your article supports my “conversations’.
    Happy New Year

  20. Your lotus is FABULOUS! I’m goibg to try one next summer. ANd Thnks for the comments about tall tomatoes. I will look for drawfs for next summer, as well. My only success with tomatoes this past year was Romas. In fct, that was about the only success in my in-the-ground garden. Pots did well, as did most of the perennial flowers, but the heat and drought were too much for the other veggies.

  21. Love my 3 new pieris this year. No blooms yet (maybe next year). I can still see the evergreen leaves thru the snow. Must get more broadleaf evergreens in the garden.

    1. I planted a couple of pieris here a few years ago in central Ohio 6a, and they’ve barely grown. I know they’re slow growers, but this is ridiculous! Trying to be more patient…

  22. My most favorite annual, from seed, I planted in 2021 was Livingston Seed Cosmos Sensation Picotee. Beautiful tall plants with tons of blooms.

      1. My sensation mix cosmos were tall, fuss-free bee magnets! I planted along a fence line and had 8ft pink and white blooms on the plants I didn’t pinch back. I also grew and would highly recommend double click cranberries (frilly crimson blooms) and xanthos (yellow, shorter bushy) varieties.

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