Downy mildew alternatives display helps “little garden” have big impact

MSU Extension’s Grand Ideas Garden in Kent County plants seeds for the smart gardener with impatiens downy mildew alternative display.

Since 2004, the Michigan State University Extension Grand Ideas Garden located at 775 Ball Ave. in Grand Rapids, Mich., has become a site of inspiration and learning for thousands of visitors.

The seeds of this educational garden germinated shortly after the Kent County MSU Extension office was notified they would be moving to a new location at 775 Ball Street in Grand Rapids. A group of enthusiastic volunteers went to work visioning garden concepts and fundraising for the site that now encompasses two small city lots. With some expert help, plans were drawn for a system of pathways and garden spaces to support multiple educational uses.

Nearly 10 years later, the small garden shows off thousands of different annuals, perennials, trees shrubs and vines that are both native and exotic. Averaging over 5,000 guests a season, the garden has become a living-laboratory for people of all ages. Annuals are displayed in containers as well as in the garden beds and are maintained not as a scientist or botanic garden would, but rather how a typical backyard gardener would. Throughout the garden, interpretive signage and plant labels help visitors get current information about the latest plants, gardening tips and techniques.

Downy mildew makes its mark

The Grand Ideas Garden philosophy is when something goes wrong, as it does in every back yard, is simply to make lemonade out of lemons. During August 2012, a large planting of impatiens (Impatiens walleriana) was infected with downy mildew (Plasmopara obducens) that quickly took over the bed. Knowing that the inoculum of the disease would carry on for some time, thought was given to the palette of plants should replace this colorful entrance in 2013. It was decided to just try them all – that is, trial them all.

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In 2012, these colorful impatiens (left) were plagued with downy mildew (right).
Photo credits: Left photo, Rebecca Finneran, MSU Extension. Right photo, Daniel Davis

With the help of a handful of local garden centers and commercial greenhouses, dozens of cultivars including begonias, New Guinea impatiens, coleus, colorful tropical plants and ferns now make up the display that helps visitors get ideas for their own gardens. With the help of the MSU Department of Horticulture’s Bridget Behe, signage featuring a QR code directs Grand Ideas Garden guests to use their smart phone to “vote” for their favorite plant.

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Left, The 2013 Downy Mildew Alternative display shows off a wide range of shade-tolerant plants.
Right, The interactive display features signage with a QR code, allowing guests to “vote” for their
favorite. Photo credit: Rebecca Finneran, MSU Extension

Throughout the impatiens alternative display, plants are displayed in colorful container combinations as well as in the ground. Each grouping is designated by plant labels depicting the plant name and cultivar where appropriate. It is common to see guests wandering through the display with pencil and paper in hand or more often, a camera or phone, snapping shots of the plants and tags.

Containers are labeled for easy identification.
Photo credit: Rebecca Finneran, MSU Extension

Learn about smart gardening when you visit

The garden also encompasses a turf trial, mulch display, beautiful waterfall garden and general container display. The plantings and methods of care are intended to help gardeners adopt earth-friendly, sustainable practices. Signs and labels help guests conveniently identify plants.

The latest addition to the Grand Ideas Garden is a “native plant” garden that also acts as a bio-swale for the building’s flat roof. Capturing and mitigating water during heavy or light rain, two “ponds” are surrounded by plants representing the best Michigan, Midwest and U.S. native plants. This part of the garden also attempts to demonstrate native cultivar comparisons side-by-side. The native area is designed with the home landscape in mind, focusing on plants that have a “tidy” appearance and do not become maintenance issues.

Green industry partners have enjoyed growth in their own businesses due to ideas “planted” by the Grand Ideas Garden. Consumers visiting the garden consistently comment that they were inspired to make changes in their own landscape. A common statement is “I come to the garden to swipe ideas!” Yes, that is what it was intended for.

In a survey done in 2009, 83 percent of guests say that they will adopt an environmentally-friendly gardening practice or make a purchase of new plant material within the next season. With no admittance or parking fees, the garden averages over 5,000 visitors each summer and has played host to dozens of bus tours from all over Michigan and out of state.

The MSU Extension Grand Ideas Garden will celebrate their 10th birthday next season. However, if a candle could be lit for every idea generated, the cake would collapse!

For more information on a wide variety of smart gardening articles, or to find out about smart gardening classes and events, visit and Finneran’s blog. You can contact the MSU Master Gardener Lawn and Garden Hotline at 888-678-3464 with your questions.

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