Best Minnesota Perennial Growers

(updated November 1, 2003)

Surely you've noticed that come spring, half of Minnesota is in the nursery business. Chain discount stores that never seem to have more than three employees on the floor are suddenly "The Garden Experts." You can buy perennials outside the supermarket and lily bulbs at the hardware store. Even the big home improvement warehouse chains trip over each other trying to sell you perennials, annuals and supplies. Are you ever disappointed with what you buy?

When it comes to perennials sold in Minnesota, a huge majority are actually grown out of state – from as far away as southern California. They arrive at our local nurseries as tiny rootings and plugs, truckload after truckload. The nurseries and garden centers pot them up and out the door they go, home to your garden. With proper care and patience they may do just fine, but there's a better product you can buy.

Ever stop at a bakery because you needed a premium cake, or special loaf of bread? Or a family-owned tobacco shop because you've developed a hankering for a unique cigar? These specialty places exist for perennials, too; they're collectively called Minnesota growers and one of the simplest ways to become a better gardener is to start buying your perennials from them. Yes, these nurseries may also buy rootings from out of state, but they invest the time and effort to hold the crop and grow it into the next stage. Most important, they grow and over-winter many of their perennials in their own Minnesota fields, build numbers by division, propagate from their own seed and specialize in winter-tested, mature plants.

Best of all, these specialty growers are true experts, glad to meet you and very interested in helping your garden grow. They offer many wonderful perennials you'll not find at the big garden chains. They love to discuss plant culture and in minutes will teach you what you need to know about each plant – so bring your yard sketches and questions! Call for directions or a catalogue; most of the following offer mail order in addition to on-site sales.

My list is by no means complete, and you may have a favorite I've missed, but here are some growers I buy from, or have heard great things about:

Ambergate Gardens, Victoria (952-443-2248; toll free 877-211-9769; www.ambergategardens.com) – Propietor Mike Heger is one of the most knowledgeable and respected growers in the state, specializing in distinctive, top-quality perennials, martagon lilies, shade plants, and more. Author of Growing Perennials in Cold Climates (Contemporary Books), which every serious Minnesota gardener should own.
Busse Gardens, Big Lake (763-263-1473; 800-544-3192; www.bussegardens.com) – Nationally known grower, from way back. One of the largest selections of astilbes, bergenias, hardy geraniums (50 varieties, for Pete's sake) and yarrows in the country. Plus you gotta love nursery founder Ainie Busse: a 1945 graduate of Deephaven High School, she started the nursery out of spite after her husband spent money on a greenhouse instead of the new carpeting she wanted, then left it empty for a year. Ainie has since retired and sold the business to Gary Goldsmith, who with capable crew maintains an esteemed tradition.
Hugh Cocker, Rochester (507-282-3713) – 30 years as a lily hybridizer (that means he invents new lilies) and Hugh still doesn't bother with a catalogue, doesn't have time for a store, so what you do for now is sit down with a cup of tea, call Hugh up and tell him you want to grow lilies. He’ll recommend varieties; trust him, and your order will arrive UPS at planting time in fall. Hard to go wrong Hugh sells to Dutch growers, after all. If you'd like your mind blown, drive to Rochester in July and tour his fields in bloom.
Kelley & Kelley, Long Lake (952-473-7337) – Third-generation grower Steve Kelley is in charge now, handling reigns that go back 75 years to this multiple-acre location just south of Highway 12 near Orono. Good selection of perennials with specialties in woodland wildflowers, herbs and topiaries, as well as pots and other containers from around the world. Also designs and installs landscapes. Fine display garden. My dad always wonders what that property must be worth.
Landscape Alternatives, St. Paul (651-488-3142; www.landscapealternatives.com) – Friendly, knowledgeable, smaller grower with over 200 varieties of big, potted native perennials, which means around 180 varieties you won't find at the big chains.
Prairie Restorations, Princeton (763-389-4342; www.prairieresto.com) – The first in our area to devote themselves to the wonderful world of native woodland and prairie restoration. Huge inventory of native perennials and grasses, available both potted and in seed mixes. An extremely expert, impressive outfit.
Rice Creek Gardens, Blaine (763-754-8090; www.ricecreekgardens.com) – Betty Ann Addison has developed a near-cult following for her expertise in rock garden plants, shrub roses and wildflowers, while her late husband was one of the more noteworthy propagators of hardy rhododendrons in the region. One of my Rice Creek rhodies should exceed six feet in full bloom next year; but then, they taught me how to grow it. Beautiful display gardens.
Savory's Gardens, Edina (952-941-8755; savory’sgardens.com) – They sell other perennials, but when your display garden features 1,600 hostas and you're a nationally known hybridizer, it's safe to say hosta is the specialty here. With 2.5 acres in Edina and a 40-acre farm outside of town, Savory's is the epitome of every reason you buy from local growers.