Sunday, July 6, 2014

Going Native or How Rain Gardens Change Your Life

First, an apology. One of the consequences of being in horticulture is the tendency for spring to be all-consuming. So, I'm sorry that this little blog has been an unwitting victim of the annual onslaught.

Second, an announcement! I have left the retail garden center world and plunged into the wholesale side of hort. I've also done a bit of a left turn from my tree and shrub obsession and dove into the world of native plants, specifically perennials. I'm now working at Pizzo Native Plant Nursery growing more than 400 species of Illinois natives. I've always been interested in native plants and I have planted a smattering here and there over the years. However, after installing the rain garden, I wanted to learn more.

This little cutie pie, Talinum calycinum is native to rocky bluffs. It's going in between the flagstone stepping stones and will get a pea gravel mulch.

So far the rain garden is, well, it's a weedy mess. See the first paragraph? Yeah, so maintenance in my own yard tends to get shoved to the side in spring. We have been spoiled rotten with abundant rain and cooler temperatures, so needless to say, it's a jungle out there. I'm not posting a picture. Sorry. Just enjoy the bright pink flowers of Talinum above. Most of the installed plants made it through the winter and are settling in. Since the bulk of them were divisions from friends and family, I've been crossing my fingers that they will make it. I am having to add here and there. The rabbits are doing their best to mow down every bit of Echinacea and Rudbeckia I possess. These tough natives are hiding out with the Monardas in an attempt to survive the voracious rodents. I'm not terribly picky about a blended patch of Monarda and Echinacea and so far, they seem to be playing well together. The fragrant Monarda foliage keeps the rabbits at bay and it's just starting to flower. I'm also learning that I could have split the chunks of Liatris further as it is already above my waist and growing with abandon. This week, I'll be tweaking the engineering a bit and making one section a little deeper. I didn't anticipate the level of runoff from the driveway, so I need to rechannel that. Hopefully, by next weekend, we'll finish the fountain setup. Then there will be pictures, I promise.

The upshot of the rain garden is that it is WORKING! We have had only a tiny bit of seepage in the basement, which is remarkable considering the inches and inches of rain. The water is holding and slowly percolating, which means about a quarter of my roof volume and quite a bit of driveway runoff is not speeding off into the storm sewer. We have an abundance of interesting new bees. I haven't mulched this area (it's just going to all flow into the middle anyway), so the open soil was riddled with holes this spring from emerging bees. We shall see what else summer and fall brings, but so far, the rain garden is becoming one of our favorite garden spots.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Signs of Spring

Helloooo, cutie pie!
We all know how rough a winter it's been in Chicago. I still have piles of icy snow stubbornly refusing to melt along the driveway. However, there are signs and signals that spring is indeed upon us. I've spotted little nubbins of green as the snow recedes among a metric ton of rabbit poop. Well, at least it's fertilizer.

I treasure my early spring bulbs as they save my sanity. I try to add more each year as the rodents take their toll. I have mixed success with snowdrops. They seem to do best when they reseed themselves. Crocus, if it escapes the bunnies and squirrels, does just fine. I have a soft spot for the tiny early ones. I'm not sure what variety the above is, but it's doing a grand job of cheering up my late winter world.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Saving My Sanity with the Help of Flowers

Life's been pretty busy, so unfortunately, I haven't been able to chronicle the slow upward spiral of late winter into spring. Oh, wait. Winter is still here. Along with a healthy heaping of snow and ice. I am on strike from shoveling. I'm obsessively watching the buds on the trees and bushes expand by microscopic increments. Spring really is coming. Honest!

As usual, I am saving my sanity and that of my friends and relatives by hauling everyone out to the conservatories in the Chicago area. We all immediately relax and breathe deeper when we set foot inside a humid glass house filled with green and blooming plants. Ahhhhhh. The shoulders unknot, smiles tug at our lips and luscious fragrance tickles our noses. Try it. It'll make your whole week better.

To combat winter fatigue, I usually force some bulbs. This year, I am thrilled to report that both my amaryllis came back! I love plants that thrive on neglect. Thems my kind of houseplant. The big Red Pearl is blooming as of yesterday. Who needs amaryllis at Christmas? I need big tropical flowers in February and March! Come here, beautiful.

This year, I potted up all the spring bulbs since days off and weather conspired against me when trying to get them in the ground. My pots of crocus and snowdrops are showing signs of life. At least the crocus is pushing up tiny leaves. I'm holding my breath for the snowdrops. They are one of my favorites.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Now This is Winter!

I'm sure everyone has noticed that Chicago has survived the deep freeze of the Polar Vortex and now is a festival of slush and ice as we get a little thaw. This is the snow in action:

I admit it. I LOVE winter! I love warm socks, bundling up, frozen eyebrows - all of it. I've shoveled 18 inches of snow so far, my favorite aerobic activity. All my new perennials in the rain garden are tucked under a nice insulating blanket. The bunnies are eating the roses as usual.

What gets my horticulture heart stirring is the string of negative temperatures. I've been talking with folks at The Morton Arboretum and elsewhere about what the chances of this cold snap to kill off the big bad insects. So far, the news is cautiously positive. Bagworm and gypsy moth populations will definitely be knocked back as they overwinter on exposed trunks and branches. Japanese beetles, however, are tucked under a nice blanket of snow and soil, so they'll unfortunately, be just fine.

The burning question is will this cold kill emerald ash borer. Well, maybe. Some. We shall see. Here's information from a study from the U.S. Forest Service and an independent paper discussing their cold tolerances. Pretty much we had to get down to around -20 to see a significant impact. We got close at around -16, so maybe some of the evil little critters got zapped. If you're treating your ash trees, I wouldn't count on this winter saving your tree. Sorry. At least the oaks will have less gypsy moth to deal with!

Monday, December 9, 2013

Pondering Connections on a Cold Winter's Night

Sage in winter - sharp, but flavorful.

We had our first real snowfall last night, so winter is officially here. It's hovering in the teens, so curling up with a cat is particularly appealing. Winter, for me, is often a time of contemplation. The hustle and bustle of growing things has paused, leaving the furred and feathered to the rough struggle of survival. On a cold frosty night, the world seems to hold its breath and snow brings an expectant silence.

I've been thinking about connections, particularly to places. I have, and I'm sure you do too, special places that sing to my soul. The house we live in is a kindred spirit filled with quirks and charm. My little patch of land may not be the tidiest, but it is mine and it has thoroughly claimed me.

In general, I seem to connect best to places with trees. Forests speak to me, calm my fears, elevate my thoughts. I can think bigger walking amid trees. Maybe because they are constantly looking up, spreading out. However, there are other places that quiver me. Music is another touchstone and sitting among others enthralled by the miracle of sound created from our own breath and hands can give me goosebumps.

Then there is the warmth of people. I believe in the power of story to connect us all. We tell each other stories constantly, the silly and the profane. The drive into work isn't important, but the act sharing it with a co-worker connects us back to the human experience. How do you tell the story of yourself? How are you connected?

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Last Roses of Autumn

We're closing in on mid-October and the last rose blossoms are fading. The heavy morning dew is gilding their elegant buds in a wash of silver, a last breath to preserve their loveliness. I can see the clarion call of winter as the last petals cling like forgotten handkerchiefs.

I leave the last blossoms be to encourage rose hips. I love the winter interest of clusters of fat orange or red hips. They perk up my fall arrangements and look luscious with a glazing of ice. I haven't gotten around to trying to make tea from them, but maybe this year.

Working at a garden center, I inevitably get trapped in the rose department answering questions. Don't get me wrong, I love roses. I just refuse to fuss over them, so no tea roses grace my gardens. I will confess to trying to lure people away from the ubiquitous Knock-Outs across the aisle to the more diverse side of shrub roses. My favorite this year has been 'Calatrava', a fragrant double white rose with a faint pink bud from Bill Radler (creator of Knock-Outs). The key attribute here is fragrant. Many of the other shrub roses are more fragrant and have prettier colors than Knock-Outs with the same disease resistance. Plus, they don't require winter protection unless you feel like fencing the bunnies out. My 'Nearly Wild' pink rose gets eaten every winter back to a much more reasonable shape. If not nibbled, it really would be nearly wild.

So I encourage you to meander through the world of shrub roses. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

O, Beautiful Tomato!

Helloooo, beauties!

Ah, the harvest of my labors. This is not the entire harvest. We've eaten some and given some away, but this represents the bulk of my luscious tomatoes. This year we have Garden Peach (small, yellow, with a bit of blush), Rutgers (big, red, meaty, and perfect for sandwiches and burgers) and Amana Orange (pumpkin colored, large, and tasty). This is the best tomato crop I've had in years. The secret? Kitty litter buckets.

We gave up the big victory garden behind the garage last year. It's just the two of us and the trees got bigger, creating more shade. The soil was tired and needed a break. I did a few tomatoes in half of the herb bed, but soon realized the lilac tree was shading them too much. Fine. We don't need a lot of tomatoes, just a few. This year, thanks to my resourceful in-laws, we used five gallon kitty litter buckets. Huzzah! Tomato victory!

They are bright yellow and tacky as hell, but I don't care. I can move them around easily for maximum sun and water convenience. I also dumped in a solid handful of slow release fertilizer in each bucket. These babies soon overwhelmed my flimsy tomato cages. Next year, maybe I can talk the husband into recreating the Best Tomato Cage Ever based on the barbed wire man traps of WWI. What? Why recreate the wheel when we've got the Army manuals from 1916 at hand?

This weekend, maybe we'll buy a new blender and make gazpacho. I really am not sure how we've managed without one this long. Oh, wait. Crappy tomato harvests. Good thing I've got five kinds of basil to go with them.