Thursday, December 31, 2009

An Avenue of Green: Parkway Trees

One of the things that sold us on our house (other than it being a Sears catalog kit home with little niches, pointed arches, and general cuteness) was the neighborhood full of trees.  When we were apartment dwellers, we lived on blocks full of trees.  We chose Evanston because I needed to have green around me and they have managed to do a better than average job of keeping their elms.  There are even studies proving that people do best when surrounded by trees.  I have an enormous hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) in our parkway.  It does a beautiful job shading the house from the west sun even though it has been limbed up to a point of lion tailing.  Lion tailing is where trees are pruned up so high that you have a little tuft of branches at the top.  The only drawback is that it also drops little purple berries.  The birds do a pretty good job, but we still get lots of seedlings.  The berries are edible (they taste like dates), but have a large pit for their wee size.  It has nipple gall, so the leaves have warts on them, but I don't really consider that an issue.  More of a personality quirk, really.

At any rate, I am lucky to live in a village that believes in tree diversity.  On my little block, the village has planted shingle oak, hackberry, ash, catalpa, silver maple, spruce, ginkgo, and turkish filbert.  That's a lot of different species!  As we didn't learn with the overplanting of elms and now ashes, too many trees of the same species provide an ideal meal for insects and sites for diseases.  So, if you get the opportunity to plant a tree - choose something different from the neighbors!  There's more out there than maples!

One of the best features of hackberry is the nifty warty bark.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Places to Go When You Don't Know - Resources for Gardeners

I am attempting to learn everything about plants, but it's going to take some, well, years.  In the meantime, I've rounded up some links of places I like to go for information and ideas or to be very plant geeky.  These are a bit specific to the Midwest, so I encourage you to find your local arboretum, botanic garden, and extension service.  They are incredible resources filled with folks who enjoy helping answer basic to tricky plant questions.

Botany Photo of the Day - it's a plant geek's heaven.  David Mosquin takes amazing photos and finds incredible people to contribute to this site hosted by the University of British Columbia Botanic Garden.  They have impressive archives and forums, too!  Need to look at flowers instead of the frozen tundra?   Want to find images for your taxonomy homework?  Wondered about the history of a plant's name? Here's your website.

Chicago Botanic Garden - In 2008 it became the most visited garden in the U.S. and certainly deserves the title.  Only started in 1973, this is an incredible show garden, restored prairie, extensive wetland system, and more.  They just finished the new Rice Plant Conservation Center and are set to become leaders in saving plants worldwide.  CBG also has a wonderful Plant Information Service that I was lucky to be involved with for a season.  I like the Illinois Best Plants section to get ideas.

The Morton Arboretum - This 1400 acre gem is heading into its 88th year.  I've been visiting the Arb since I was in a stroller and worked there for four years.  I still volunteer now and again and it's my home away from home.  I'm looking forward to taking my nephew to the incredible Children's Garden when he visits.  The Arb is a wonderful place to visit big old trees, hike the woods, wade through the prairie, hunt for wildflowers, and see wildlife.  Their research in trees has given us disease resistant elms, maples for street trees, and more.  One of the places on their site I like best is the Plant Advice.  Here you can find a selection guide, pests & diseases, etc., but make sure to stop by the Plant Health Care Reports.  The Arb does a roundup of all the bugs and diseases spotted during the season and it's a tremendous resource if you are trying to figure out what's eating your plants.  The folks at the Plant Clinic are incredibly knowledgeable.  I once spent nine months trying to ID a particular cherry tree.  We knew it was Prunus, but had to wait for it to bloom to make a conclusive ID that it was indeed Prunus padus or common birdcherry.  And the Sterling Morton Library is one of my favorite places to research and write.

University of Illinois Extension Service - The U of I has a vast collection of information on plants and plant care.  These folks can answer questions and give ideas for new garden projects.  If you need to know what pesticide you should use on a critter, this is the go-to spot.  Got a houseplant question or need to know about turf?  This is your website.

Missouri Botanic Garden - Mobot is the oldest continually operating botanic garden in the U.S.!  They just celebrated 150 years!  Another tremendous resource for plant research and knowledge.  They have an unbelievable library and herbarium, but one of my favorite online resources is the Kemper Center for Home Gardening Plantfinder.  It's a terrific resource for finding ideas and seeing pictures of plants.  Love it!

Oregon State University Landscape Plants - This is another place for plant geeks.  It's a pretty basic website, but their photo resources are fabulous.  If you want to see the bud structure for oaks, this is the spot.  I deeply appreciate how they have covered the structures of plants in detail.  It's a wonderful ID tool!

These are just a handful of my favorites.  Where do you go to slake your plant jones?

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Snow, A Gardener's Friend

Although we don't have two feet like out East, we did get a few inches of snow in the past couple of days.  I'd love to have more, though.  Yes, I'm one of those people who loves winter.  I tend to be the one that shovels our 100 foot driveway and pleased as punch to do so.  As a gardener, I like a good four inches or more.  Enough snow to create a nice thick layer to insulate plants and moderate soil moisture and temperature.  Of course the voles build tunnels, but so far they haven't been too much of a problem.  Thank you, Mr. Fox! 

Perhaps because I love snow, I usually leave the seeds and flowers of plants to dry.  For me, snow is magic in the garden and transforms the somewhat dreary browns and greys into a winter wonderland.

Queen Anne's Lace just cups the snow.

PeeGee hydrangea looks just lovely

The neighbor's sedum dried much better than mine.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Twisted Twigs

Winter is definitely here in Chicagoland.  It's already been in the single digits and a light snow is on the ground.  It's the perfect time to appreciate the architecture of trees and how elegant they are without their summer clothes. 

We have a redbud, specifically a Cercis canadensis 'MN Strain.'  It was a sapling purchased at the Morton Arboretum plant sale a handful of years ago and it has very much its own weird little personality.  I find redbuds to be almost Asian in their elegant and sometimes gnarled shapes.  It's a common ornamental tree here, but many find it doesn't live to see its 30th or 40th birthday.  I have high hopes for mine.  The MN Strain was developed in 1992 to be a more cold hardy redbud.  We planted ours in the front yard and one for my grandmother at her patio home in Naperville.  Mine is a pampered princess compared to granny's.  Granny's was planted in post-construction soil, in the wind, in full sun, with rabbits, tended by a contract landscaper who has killed innumerable trees, on a busy street that's abundantly salted in winter.  It's in some of the worst planting conditions for a tree.  Yet, the darn thing grows about six inches a year and flowers beautifully.  That is one tough tree.  Mine lives in lovely rich garden soil mulched and watered.  It grows three feet per year, sometimes more.

My redbud also seems to think it wants to be a weeping tree.  It has a wild and wooly branching pattern that swoops down and out.  I'm doing minimal pruning - just eliminating crossing branches, really - as I'm curious to see what it will do.  Thanks to an old tree across the street, it also gets seed pods.  We'll see what next year brings and if the branches finally reach the ground.

Very distinctly alternate, this redbud has a mind of its own.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Native Treasures: Common Milkweed

We live in the Prairie State, yet only a small percentage of the original 22 million acres of tallgrass prairie still exist.  The plants of the prairie and savannah are tough, tolerant species that thrive on our weather extremes with minimal fuss and very little watering.  They may not be as showy as an Asiatic lily or a tropical canna, but lots of work is being done to improve cultivars for home gardens.  One example is the many new kinds of echinacea or coneflower on the market including Tomato Soup and Sunset, Sunrise, or Twilight.  I like to use native and native cultivars when I can as the prairie is such a unique ecosystem.  If you get a chance, take a stroll through the Schulenberg Prairie at the Morton Arboretum in July when the grass is highest and think about how our pioneer ancestors looked out across this sea of grass from their front porches.

One native plant I cultivate is common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).  Most of the time it grows about knee height, however, in my rich soil this baby tops out around six feet.  I'm trying to get them to stay in the back border, but as most plants do, they have minds of their own. In summer they have heavy clusters of fragrant pale pink star-shaped flowers that attract a multitude of insects, especially monarch butterflies.  This is one of the monarch's host plants, although many butterflies like it.  Milkweed develops woody stems so they don't flop over and provide vertical interest in the garden.  Their milky sap can be poisonous and is one of the chief defenses of the monarch butteflies.  They taste nasty.  As kids, we learned quickly that the sap can glue your fingers together if you let it dry. 

My favorite things about milkweeds are their unique flower structure and their fabulous pods.  If I didn't let them seed, I would have a much tamer landscape, but I am fascinated by the many variable shapes and textures milkweed leaves, stems, and seed pods develop as they dry and split.  In a fresh snow, they are a collage of textures and colors.  Common milkweed is just one species, there are several out there in different sizes and colors, even the swamp milkweed that loves to be damp.

One of the many monarch butterflies having a snack.  See the star-shaped flowers and how delicate they are?

This is the native Asclepias variegata from the Smoky Mountains.  It was very short and growing in quite a bit of shade.

Click on this to get the full impact of the textures of asclepias in snow. Reminds me of fiber collage.

Monday, December 7, 2009

O! Tannenbaum!

'Tis the season of bringing a piece of nature indoors, be it a real or fake Christmas tree.  As a child, we had real trees culled from various Boy Scout troops, church parking lots, hardware stores and a few memorable trips the tree farm.  The last trip to the tree farm was, well, miserable. 

Imagine, if you will, me and my little brother loaded up with the family dog in the giant early 80s Ford tooling down the road on a cold snowy day, my parents juiced up on coffee and Christmas cheer.  There may have even been carol singing.  We and about a hundred other yuletide families wrestled our way through the gravel roads threading in between the farms various outbuildings.  Hand painted signs pointed to where to find firs, spruces, and pines.  Dad discovered very soon that one lane dirt roads do not stay frozen when it's above forty degrees out.  We slogged through mud holes and icy puddles until finally parking the car in a pull off.  Dad was swearing to high heaven under his breath as we tumbled out, dog and all.  Boo, the dog, decided to mark every tree for himself.  No one could decide on a tree, there was something wrong with all of them.  My brother and I were cold, muddy, and fighting.  Finally, a tree was decided on.  Dad went to work with the hand saw (swearing continued) and at last we had our very own overpriced Christmas tree.  I and my brother were tasked with making sure it stayed tied down to the roof of the car, icy winds whistling through the cracked open windows.  Now that's some magical family time.

It depends on the year and our schedules whether we put up a real tree or just decorate a small fake one.  I love the scent of fir in the house and the cats enjoy a new water dish in the tree stand.  We have an old cast iron beast of a tree stand nailed to a piece of plywood.  Works like a charm and it's heavy enough it doesn't fall over, not that anyone has tried to climb it, thank God.  The University of Illinois Extension Service has some great tips for choosing and caring for a live tree:

A real tree in all its glory.

Fergus and a friend enjoying the velvet tree skirt.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Light in Winter

As the sun is lowering in the sky and days are shorter, I find the light turns almost silvery in winter.  The trees have lost their leaves and their interwoven branches are gilded in the sun.  We often speak of four-season plants and sometimes it is difficult to articulate to someone why I choose something for winter interest because we often focus on berries or evergreen leaves.  I plant for bark and shape more than fruit or flower.  The birds will clean out the neighbor's crabapple, but I'll still have its charcoal bark and gnarled limbs to admire outside the study window.  The flowers of my beloved China Snow Pekin lilac tree (Syringa pekinensis 'China Snow') are spectacular for three weeks in June.  The graceful limbs and peely bark are stunning backlit or dusted in snow. This year, I was able to be pretty ruthless in the pruning and shape it in the directions I want it to go.  I'm very pleased with how it is becoming more oriental in architecture. It's growing about two to three feet a year and nicely blocks the neighbor's deck and play fort.  The squirrels find it a convenient highway along the fence and a launching point for attempts at the bird feeder.  I leave the seeds on because I think they add a nice tawny brown to the winter landscape.  Fortunately, the little seedlings are very shallow rooted and easy to pull.  If you have a full sun spot with good drainage, Pekin lilac is a terrific small to intermediate sized ornamental tree.  The eighty-year-old ones at the Morton Arboretum are somewhere around fifty feet high, so I'm wouldn't plan on this being a small plant.  Mine is approaching the twenty foot mark in just a few years.

Isn't that bark gorgeous?

Finally becoming a tree instead of a really big shrub.