Sunday, November 29, 2009

Grass is a Glorified Groundcover

Like most homeowners, we have a lawn.  It's pretty big, even though I expand the beds each year.  Slowly but surely, I'm chipping away at it.  We do not have a lush, green, carpet.  Nope, sorry.  It's a mix of grass and "weeds."  We just don't care to pour pesticides on our patch of green or water it when it goes brown and dormant.  It's groundcover, not a full time project.  Fortunately, our neighbors tolerate our quirky mix of Kentucky bluegrass, crab grass, violets, dandelions, creeping Charlie, clover, and whatever other green things have wandered in.  I'm getting rather fond of the barren strawberries that have gained a toehold in the back corner.  We mow, of course, but pretty high and we mulch the clippings. 

About three years ago we forgot to do the spring weed and feed.  That summer we got some nifty bugs.  So, we did away with the weed and feed to see what would happen.  I'll yank out the thistle that grows from last winter's birdseed by hand.  Each year we have more interesting beetles, bugs and spiders, and more birds.  These things are much more important to us than a perfect lawn.

Isn't he pretty?

Friday, November 27, 2009

New Dawn - An Easy Climbing Rose, Not a Stephanie Meyer Book

I've heard it a thousand times - "Roses are too fussy!" "I can't grow roses." "Roses don't like me."  Pshaw.  Roses like you fine, you just need to find the ones best suited for your temperment and your situation.

I am not a fussy gardener.  You have to be tough to survive in my yard and handle minimal watering, rabbits, chipmunks, and the occasional neighborhood cat.  Any rose has to be durable to live in my patch of ground.  No tea roses for me, thank you.  I don't need the hassle.  So, I have shrub roses and the climber New Dawn.

I live in a 1929 Sears catalog kit house and so I tend to plant plants that are in keeping with the period of the house.  We have a soft spot for heirlooms.  My husband loves to plant heirloom veggies and I like heirloom flowers.  New Dawn was introduced ni 1930 and is a vigorous climbing rose with dark green leaves and pale pink flowers.  It is a sporadic rebloomer.  It's big show is in May and then we get a flower here and there before a last hurrah in October.  And I'm not kidding on the vigorous part.  This baby will do about eight feet a year if not more.  I cut it to the ground every three to four years so it doesn't eat the house.  This year was not a good year for roses with our wet spring, and wacky wet/dry, hot/cold spells.  Still my New Dawns did pretty well.  They also don't tend to get black spot or mildew or any of the myriad rose diseases.  They even get nice rose hips for winter!

This is the last flower on one of my two the New Dawns, taken today.  Isn't it lovely? Fragrant, too.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Buried Treasure

Ah, spring.  Hyacinth and tulips dapple the garden and daffodils nod from a sheltered nook.  We sigh over crocus and are thankful that some sign of life appears after another brutal Chicago winter. 

However, for this magic to happen, we plant the little darlings now.  I will confess to having a rather free-for-all approach to bulb planting.  I do take precautions for tulips, as I have an active and growing chipmunk population turning the front raised bed into luxury chippie condos.  I like to coat my tulips in bulb dust by putting a couple of tablespoons or so in a paper lunch bag, dropping in the bulbs, and shaking to coat evenly.  Bulb dust has nasty garlic, chili pepper, and other icky tasting stuff in it. 

I have patches where I have planted in sequence with a color scheme in mind, but only a couple.  I tend to dot in daffodils where I know perennials will fill in and cover their foliage as it wanes.  I did create a river of grape hyacinth (Muscari sp.) that is holding its own for the most part.  But, I like surprises in spring.  Quite frankly, I have no idea where all my bulbs are planted and I like it that way.

This year, I will start the scilla (Scilla siberica) project.  In the historic district of my town, a handful of homes have scilla lawns.  What is a scilla lawn?  Imagine a carpet of tiny blue flowers flowing through the lawn into beds and around trees.  Since scilla blooms before you're ready to cut the grass, you have a stunning sea of color with minimal fuss.  That is, after you plant the cursed things.  I am starting with fifty and will add more each year.  Are they planted yet?  Heck, no.  Hey!  The ground isn't frozen yet.  I've got time. 

For a little taste of spring, here are a few crocus and one of my Katherine Hodgkin bulb iris.  I promise to post the scilla as they progress.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Transplanting Trees - or How We Did Not Manage to Kill Dave

As you may have noticed, I'm a bit of a tree geek.  Let's face it - I'm an uber tree geek.  They fascinate me - the roots, trunks, branches, buds, leaves - all of it. I can talk about trees for days.  I can identify them at 60 miles an hour.  My family graciously puts up with me and refuses to play Name That Tree.  Sometimes they are No Fun.

My favorite tree is the elm.  Katsura, beeches, and oaks run a close second, but elm is my doomed love affair.  I grew up in a suburb with elm lined streets creating leafy tunnels and squirrel highways.  I watched them felled year after year by Dutch elm disease.  I can give you the history of Dutch elm and the elm leaf beetle that is the disease vector, but I won't. It was identified in Holland, thus the 'Dutch' part of the name.  There is NO type of tree called Dutch elm!  I once came across a novel where the protagonists strolled under Dutch elm trees.  I believe I threw the book against a wall in disgust. 

Anyway, I attended a lecture years ago given by Dr. George Ware at the Morton Arboretum on elms.  Dr. Ware was one of the preeminent elm scientists and is responsible for many of the disease resistant cultivars now on the market.  He lived and breathed elms and still came into the Arb even though he's retired.  He asked the class if anyone wanted an elm seedling as he was testing some new saplings grown from seeds collected in China by Dr. Kris Bachtell.  Oooo!  A free elm!  How could I resist?  It didn't matter that I was living in an apartment in Evanston at the time.  My in-laws graciously planted it in their yard until the day we could buy a house.  It's an Ulmus davidiana or David elm, thus my mother-in-law christened it Dave.  He was only as big around as my thumb and very cute. Yes, trees can be cute.  Shush.

Fast forward two years, and there we are, new homeowners.  Time to transplant!  However, Dave, being an elm, had grown.  A lot.  Now he was two inches in diameter (or to be technical, two inch caliper DBH (diameter at breast height)) and quite a bit taller.  Hmmm. Some shovels, burlap, as well as me, my husband, and father-in-law set to work.  Hours later after much digging, hacking, piano wire, and cursing, we had managed to wrestle Dave from the ground.  Guess what?  Elms can have a tap root.  By the time we'd loaded him into the family minivan, the root mass was pretty dodgy looking and losing soil.  Still, we planted him in the front yard (a shade too deeply in hindsight), watered him in and hoped.

Eight years later, Dave is lovely.  He is gorgeous.  He's survived major pruning, cicadas, and the neighbor kids.  He is well on the way to being a stunning, vase-shaped shade tree.  Birds nest in his branches each year.  This year, the neighbors' elm succumbed to Dutch elm due mainly to shoddy pruning practices.  If you have elms, don't prune them in July, even if the branches interfere with your fire pit.  Elm leaf beetles are attracted by open wounds and stress.  Only prune elms in winter when insects are dormant. We are watching Dave like hawks, but so far, no signs of it. 

If you are going to transplant trees, do it as young as possible.  Once they are at the two to three inch caliper DBH, it gets much more challenging and requires more than one person and the proper tools.  Call your friends and buy them beer and pizza. You can find landscaping companies with tree spades (Picture a huge three bladed machine that can stab down and lift a whole root ball.  They are really cool!), but it is thousands and thousands of dollars to move large trees.  Trees should be planted so that the root flare - where the trunk starts to flare into the major roots - is at the soil line.  The soil that you dug out of the hole goes right back in.  Trees will adapt to where they are growing without major amendments.  Plants are stubbon!  They really want to survive!

Here is Dave in his 2009 fall glory. Isn't he cute?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Architecture of Oaks

Few things are more magnificent than our native oak trees.  Towering above us, some of these beauties are nearly 300 years old and have survived fire, flood and farmers.  Bur oak (Quercus melanocarpa) has the thickest, most corrugated bark.  These crusty giants can withstand prairie fires and shed distinctiver shaggy capped acorns.  It grows very large and each one has an individual shape with gnarled and twisted branches.

White oak (Quercus alba) is our state tree and is very straight and upright.  It has smooth, fat acorns and can turn russet in fall.  We are losing them as development creeps in.  One friend of ours recently had to take a white oak down due to age and disease.  Yet, by using a certfied arborist and professional forester, he was able to harvest the lumber and is using to make furniture for his family.

Red oak (Quercus rubra) wants to be a wide and spreading tree.  You'll find limbs going straight out for yards and yards if it has enough room.  Red oak acorns are delightfully pointed and it turns a deep red to wine in fall.  This is one of our oaks that grows very fast - some years two to three feet!

These are a mix of all three oaks, each with its own personality.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Twining, Twining, Sweet Autumn Mine

Oh, fair one fragrant with white flowers!  Oh, lovely beauty with swathes of ripening tufted seeds!  Sweet autumn clematis (Clematis terniflora) is aptly named.  This durable twining vine is drenched in small fragrant white flowers in September that then ripen and dry to become delicate starry seed heads.  During the growing season, it's mid green delicate leaves cover trellises, fences, lattices, and any framework where its tendrils can twine.

This clematis is fast.  It hangs with a tough crowd and goes to all the wrong parties.  It can easily cover 10 feet in a season and grows anywhere from full sun to partial shade.  It was beloved by the Victorians for its vigor and fragrance. You can even cut it down every year to keep it from eating your garage.

Looking to screen the neighbors' trampoline, swingset, or hideous patio furniture?  Need to block something in a tight spot?  Climbing vines can be your answer.  Some 4 x 4's, lattice, and a little sweat equity can create a living wall that not only provides privacy, but delights the eye and pleases the nose.

Sweet autumn clematis in bloom on a picket fence.

Tufted seed heads

Saturday, November 14, 2009

For the Love of Grasses

As our warm November continues, and the leaves have mostly fallen, I am thankful for grasses.  Yes, ornamental grasses have been hugely popular for the last decade.  However, I think deservedly so. At this time of year, few things are still standing and offering color, screening, and sound nifty in the breeze.  There are hundreds of ornamental grasses out there, so you should be able to find one to suit you. 

Grasses occur naturally in every situation from sun to shade and moist to dry.  Our native woodland sedges offer a quiet beauty or in the case of the bur sedge, dramatic seed heads.  Sedge (Carex) likes to be in some shade and a bit of moisture.  For full sun, Japanese silver grass (Miscanthus) offers plenty of punch, but be prepared for it to spread sometimes.

Illinois is the Prairie State, and while our pockets of remaining prairie are slight, I think we still long for that view of endless grass.  I'm a fifth generation flatlander, so I love the open sky overhead and being able to see the next county from the slight rise of glacial moraine.  Our native prairie grasses can be more than six feet tall like big bluestem or more dainty like little bluestem.

If you have a corner that needs softening, ornamental grasses just might be the low maintenance solution.

Miscanthus in fall glory.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Pot 'Em Up - Containers

Container gardening is one of those super hot trends, and why not?  It gives you a nice punch of color on the porch or patio and I grow strawberries and herbs in ours for easy snacking.  The possibilities for containers are endless.  As we are emptying them out now and storing our pots and urns, it's a nice time to think about next year.  What plants worked best this year?  Did some get overgrown?  Did some wimp out?

I found this year that using a moisture retaining potting soil had its pros and cons.  I didn't have to water nearly as much, but the herbs on the porch railing didn't grow as much I as would expect.  The flavors were more intense, at least with the parsley. So, I'll be sticking with regular potting soil next year or the kind with slow release fertilizer. 

You can do gardens in a myriad of containers from old boots to washtubs to ceramic urns - anything that will hold soil and plants.  One thing I will try next year is stumps.  We have a couple of old stumps that will get hollowed out and plopped in the garden for a very natural look.  I don't count on the plants making it over the winter, but I might try hosta just to see how it does.

Perfect for the shade garden!

A Victorian planter in Riverside

What to do with Aunt Maud's old Chinese planters.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Embracing Snags

Some trees are perfect - perfect shape, perfect size, perfect color.  They do their jobs very well and as people we enjoy them.  Some trees, however, have a style all their own and make us pause and really consider them.  And then there are snags.  Snag trees are dead, dying, broken down trees that somehow are still standing.  This is the tree that you know is haunted.  You don't want to meet it in a dark alley.  Ichabod Crane ran pell mell away from this baby.

Snags, however, provide imporant habitat for wildlife.  My in-laws have let an old weeping willow gradually decay and (literally) fall apart.  It provides shelter for a huge variety of bird life, so they have made the choice to leave it standing, and enjoy all the birds it houses.  We are taking bets on how long it lasts, but it may yet surprise us.

This is another snag I ran across on a recent trip to Wisconsin.  It's a magnificent sugar maple, Acer saccharum, that I'm sure has housed generations of squirrels, opossum, raccoons, and too many birds to name.  It's still holding its own against Midwestern winter winds and summer storms.  Isn't it magnificent?

Friday, November 6, 2009

Bunnies, Bunnies Everywhere!

You may think they are cute, furry, innocent creatures of the garden and park romping in the clover.  You are wrong.  Rabbits are pure evil.  These baby-making machines have been after my plants since day one.  They are sneaky, treacherous, and always always hungry.

It's time to start caging my shrubs from the little bastards.  I have learned painful lessons that if my precious witchhazel, viburnum, and serviceberry aren't protected, it's a massacre.  During the growing season, I've found that granular repellents work best, especially those formulated with predator urine.  The nice added benefit is that the granulated fox urine has attracted the occasional fox to clean out the voles and the bunnies. We are excited that a new small flock of crows has taken residence after losing so many to West Nile.  Crows prey on baby bunnnies.  I'm a big fan of crows.

Rabbit damage is characterized by sharp clean cuts in twigs smaller than a pencil.  They will also nibble tender thin bark.  This year, the new tree form cutleaf lilac will get brown paper tree wrap for just that reason.

My baby bottlebrush buckeye is going to live in a cage probably for at least a couple of years.

No, you can't have the tomatoes.  Now, shoo!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Reaping a Decorative Harvest

As we head further into fall, it's becoming time to gather a different kind of harvest.  I collect a number of different plants for dried arrangements, but I like to see how Mother Nature dries and preserves them.  I don't really have enough room in the basement to hang and dry everything, and sometimes weathering produces much more intriguing results.

If you are planning on collecting plants that are not on your own property, MAKE SURE TO GET PERMISSION.  Oftentimes forest preserves, gardens, and arboreta have strict rules about what you may and may not collect.  If a researcher has a project using seed pods, seeds, or other fruit materials, you might be taking their precious thesis material.  Sometimes ambitious collecting severly disrupts the plant community and ecosystem. Any institution or gardener appreciates being asked and may make special accommodations for your project.

I haven't found a good solution to what to do with thousands of honeylocust pods (Gleditsia triacanthos var. inermis) besides to photograph the interesting ones.  I'm thinking once they are truly dry, they would be an interesting garland.

One of my favorite unusual seed pods is magnolia, specifically umbrella magnolia (Magnolia tripetala).  They are huge and get richer in texture in color the longer they are left in the open.

Something you might run across if you live in an older community, especially if it's former farmland is Osage orange (Maclura pomifera) fruit.  These are softball sized and have a pleasant citrusy scent.  They make wonderful arrangements, but keep in mind that they are not dried material and will break down over time.  I've seen them spiked with cloves much like a regular orange. Some folks swear that kept in the basement, they keep away spiders.  I haven't tried it yet.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Taking Chances with Shrubbery

This looks like an innocent bundle of twigs - a harmless shrub! Right?

It's a Bailey Compact viburnum (Viburnum trilobum 'Bailey Compact') and it's a nice small scale viburnum with scarlet fall color and bright red berries that gets about 3 to 5 feet high and wide.  So what's the problem?

It has viburnum crown borer. 

I work at a local garden center and this was one of the pitch outs because of this insect pest.  It's a common insect on viburnum especially Viburnum opulus and Viburnum trilobum.  So why take a chance on it?  Especially since borer will spread to other viburnums once it has pupated into the adult fly.  I know I can slay this beastie because I have dealt with this borer before on these:

This is Viburnum sargentii 'Onondaga' and I managed to eliminate borer on these about two years ago. I'm armed and dangerous with permethrin already mixed and ready to go for next June's application. 

You can find out more about this pushy little pest on The Morton Arboretum's site or the University of Illinois Extension service.

I decided to risk it.  It's a lovely little viburnum, the price was right (free!) and I've conquered this issue before.  With a little perseverance I'll have a nice plant for the back border and another viburnum to add to the burgeoning collection.