Monday, November 12, 2012

Taking the Container Garden into Autumn

This year, I didn't plant very many containers due to the drought. It was just too tough keeping them watered. My one expection is the planter box that hangs on the back porch rail. This spring I went for a blowsy romantic look in soft pastels. My husband has a thing for snapdragons, so they are always part of this combination.

Because it's just outside my back door, it gets watered frequently. I used the potting mix from work which is a nice blend that includes a low grade fertilizer and a wetting agent. I also added a liberal dose of a slow release granular fertilizer. I think I achieved the goal!

We're in the midst of autumn, and since I was only planting one container, I splurged on changing it out for fall. I confess, I hate mums. They're so fragile that the stems break as soon as you pick them up, much less manuever them into a narrow planter. Although I love a romantic summer container, I prefer to be a little edgier in autumn.

Blocking the design in chunks

I went for a moody blue sort of theme. The first thing that called to me were the sky blue pansies. They just remind me of a clear autumn day. I paired it with the Black Pearl peppers and purple cabbage. Now I needed a vertical element in the juncus and a little pop of color with the calibrachoa.

The nice part about this planter is that I can lift it out of the rack and slip it indoors when the temperatures get below freezing. The peppers aren't particularly cold hardy, but were too cool to pass up. At some point, they'll succumb, but by then it'll be time to think about swapping in winter greens and berries.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Long Slow Spiral into Autumn

Rozanne geranium continues to bloom into October.

Autumn seems to hesitate on the skirts of summer. The days are getting ever so gradually shorter and I can feel the long slow tumbling spiral into winter. Mornings are softer and heavy with dew. This evening I was thrilled to see a flock of common nighthawks spinning together overhead, feasting on insects. They'll be starting their fall migration to South America soon. Autumn to me always feels circular as things slow down, leaves fall, and the soil begins to slumber. Perhaps it was too much W. B. Yeats at an early age, but I have always been attracted to spiral, labyrinths and the sinuous shapes of nature. The winding tendrils of clematis and morning glory, the Fibonacci sequence of sunflowers and echinacea pull me in.

This year the acorns on my Regal Prince oak are twice the size, which someone just told me meant we're in for a hard winter. Good, I think. After the 100 plus degrees of summer, I'm ready for some negative temps and blankets of snow. In the meantime, I'll be studying the seedpods and marveling at how the dance of nature survives even the extremes.

Friday, August 3, 2012

How to Kill a Tree 101: Construction Damage

Excuse me as I drag out my soapbox...

If there is one thing that really fries my bananas, it's construction damage and death to trees. I can live with people planting them in the wrong place, pruning them into meatballs, and spraying them with chemicals so they don't fruit. However, killing a tree with blatant ignorance just puts my knickers in a twist. Not only are you killing a mature, beautiful tree that offers many benefits, you incur thousands of dollars in expense to have it removed.

Example #1:

The two shingle oaks on the right will not be long for this world. Sure, it'll be a handful of years before they kick the bucket, but they will eventually succumb. Why? Oaks do NOT like their roots messed with, especially mature trees. This is a beautiful home. Yet, the construction crews have pounded the soil into concrete with heavy machinery, stacking of bricks and placing of dumpsters. It's hard to see, but the trees are already showing signs of stress and the drought isn't helping. In three or four years, these poor homeowners will have quite the bill from the tree removal company. In the meantime, I have to drive by this everyday and not start frothing at the mouth.

Example #2:

This just breaks my heart. This stately 100 plus year-old American elm managed to survive Dutch elm disease, storms and old age until these people added on to the house. This is around the corner from my parents' house. It has taken three years for this tree to die. I watched the construction from day one. No tree protection, no fencing, no mulch, nothing. Usually an elm is a pretty tough customer, but there's only so much abuse it can handle. It lost about a quarter to one-third of its root system, and again, the drought this year didn't help. Now, deader than a doornail. I don't even want to think about how much removal is going to run them since it is not easily accessible.

The lesson is this: if you value your trees and are building a house, putting on an addition or creating a patio or deck, please, please please put some thought into your mature trees. Tree roots extend one to two times outside the length of the dripline. The fine feeder roots necessary for food and water are in the top 12 to 18 inches of the soil. Fence off the root zones at least to the dripline. Mulch heavily those root protection zones and areas of vehicle traffic. Water during dry periods. Prune the crown to compensate for stress. Don't fertilize so it doesn't incur further stress. Be vilgilant with your contractors and crews. Work fines into the contract. Consider hiring a consulting arborist.

It's worth it to save a tree if only in the reduced air conditioning costs!

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Beautiful Caterpillar, Boring Moth

I'm sorry I haven't written. June this year was a month filled with too much, a lot of it moving hoses to keep the trees alive in this drought. So, for a bright sunny day, I bring you a bright sunny caterpillar - dagger moth.

I wouldn't advise petting him as the hairs can irritate.

This big guy was found munching on a maple tree. He's around two inches long, so will probably chrysalis soon. I think this is a gorgeous, dramatic caterpillar with his yellow fur and elegant black tufts. Not all of you will agree, but I am a bug nut and proud of it. Although it has felt like summer since March, usually in late June and July we start seeing some really cool insects in the garden. I'm combing my milkweed for monarch eggs, but so far, no dice. I did catch a couple of black swallowtails doing the fandango in the fennel, so maybe we'll have caterpillars there. Everyone agrees that swallowtails and monarchs are beautiful butterflies. However, the dagger moth seems to have a snazzy adolescence then morphs into an obscure adult. many of us had wild hair as a teenager and now are sedate brunettes?

Monday, May 28, 2012

Walking in the Woods with Jack

I love all spring wildflowers, but for some I have particular affection. When I was a child, the little old lady neighbor across the street had a double lot with a woodland wildflower garden. When she died, her children invited the neighbors to come over and help themselves to the plants because the property was being divided and sold. Mom brought home all sorts of wildflowers and planted them under the spruces at the back property line. It was very shady, but of course, dry, so the plants grew for a few years before fading away.

One of my favorites is Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) for its bizarre flowers. As a kid, it was magical to lift the stripy spathe or hood and peek in to find Jack, the spadix. These are fairly large for the wildflower world and can be almost two feet tall. As we walk through the woods, I always look for their distinct trifoliate leaves and check to see how Jack is doing. Later in summer, the plant will go dormant except for a cluster of bright red berries that are eaten by wildlife. Turns out Jack-in-the-pulpit roots or corms are poisoinous when eaten fresh, although lose their toxicity when cooked.

I hope you have a favorite wildflower. I'll be forever taking a peek at Jack in his pulpit. Just checking, really, in case he ducks out for a snack.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Effortless Grace of Bridalwreath Spirea

Bridalwreath spirea - tiny bouquets!

Cascading white fountains are popping up all over town. It's bridalwreath spirea (Spiraea x vanhouttei)  time. I live in an old suburb with a big mix of houses from Victorians to McMansions. Many of the older homes have at least one of these Victorian grand dames of blooming shrubs, including mine. This is the only spirea that I absolutely adore. Part of it is sentiment - I used to pluck the flowers to use as bouquets for my Barbie's weddings. They were the perfect size and shape. Mostly, I am fond of this shrub for its exuberance. I think bridalwreath spirea looks best when left to its own fountainy devices in all it's flowing glory. This is not a small shrub.  It is virtually impossible to kill. It even tolerates shade, though it prefers full sun. I cut mine almost to the ground about every five years or it would eat the porch.

This spirea is also an important indicator plant. What does it indicate? Well, when it blooms, it means that it is warm enough to treat certain pests and diseases. For example, when bridalwreath spirea begins to bloom, it's the time to treat euonymus scale because the tiny litte caterpillars (or crawlers) are out and about. You can kill the crawlers with insecticide, but not the adults. Indicator plants give us a good guideline as when pests and diseases are vulnerable so we don't spend time, money and chemicals wastefully.

So, not only is it pretty, but I can use it to predict when to treat a number of things. In the Chicago area, my pest and disease teacher, Don Orton is a local legend. He compiled Coincide: The Orton System of Pest and Disease Management which is an invaluable book about when and how to treat a huge range of common problems.  In class, inevitabley, the answer to a question about indicator plants was a chorus of Spiraea x vanhouttei! If you've got enough space and enough sun, consider adding this old fashioned, tough as nails, beauty.

My beauty

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Further Adventures of Dave the Elm

Dave the elm has lost his virginity. This spring, for the first time he has seeds! Why is this exciting? Have I gone completely off my nut? Why do I want baby elms? Because Dave (Ulmus davidiana) isn't sold in nurseries, or at least not around here. It's his twelfth spring with us and he's doing very well after a bumpy planting and a hardcore pruning. Dave is from China and is highly disease resistant. He's toughed it out with two neighboring elms going down to Dutch elm disease, and by neighboring I mean about 100 feet. We watch Dave like a hawk, but so far nary a sign of DED. He's developing into a lovely vase shape. Really, so far, everything to love about an elm. I'm not sure it will get much above 40 feet, but heck, that's still a good sized shade tree. So...who wants some seeds?

Monday, March 19, 2012

Spring Blossoms into Summer?

How pretty is this iris?

I'm starting with a picture of one of my favorite spring bulbs - Katherine Hodgkin iris. They are small and sweet and this year popped out of the ground in about twenty-four hours. They bloomed for a couple of days and then our 70s and low 80s caused them to wither and fade. They don't usually last more than a week, but our ridiculous temperatures have accelerated everything. I'm wearing shorts! In March!

The bees are moving too fast for a picture.

The boxwood at the back door is blooming, much to the delight of bees and bugs. Some folks hate the scent, but I rather like it. This one came with the house and is some kind of Korean. It's about six feet high.

Fragrant forsythia
It is a glorious year for forsythia. The mild winter meant that flower buds were not killed off and warm sunny days sent them bursting into bloom. I'm just not used to seeing magnolia and forsythia bloom at the same time. My redbud is seriously considering flowering, too.

Early kaufmanniana tulips
I adore spring flowers, but I plant in a succesion on purpose. These are early waterlily type tulips.  However, early is usually APRIL! I like to cut daffodils and tulips for bouquets for a good six to eight weeks. Usually, I can do this. This year? All bets are off.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Signs of Spring

Look! Crocus! They're only about an inch and a half tall.

It's been a goofy winter, but I'm still glad that spring is coming. The monotony of brown is beginning to get to me, so I'm seeking out any signs of life in my garden. The witchhazel and snowdrops have been blooming since January, but now I'm seeing more little signals that spring is in the air.

The daffodils are impatient.

The snow crocus has pushed out buds and is considering blooming. My early tulips are up and so are the early daffodils. The pulsatilla has returned and may bloom this year. Buds are swelling on the trees. The chipmunks have made an appearance. Our cardinal couple is back and hopefully this time will not nest in the golden privet by the back door. They were very perturbed that we passed by every day, multiple times a day. I warned them that though it's a nice dense shrub, it's like Grand Central Station. Maybe they'll figure it out this year.

Who knows what this year will bring? Our warmer winter means not as many pests were killed off. I suspect we'll have more Japanese beetle and bagworm. The welcome back party for work was at the local VFW this past weekend and their arborvitae hedge is brimming with bagworm. The tree and shrub staff will probably swing by again, just to check it out. We're that kind of plant/bug geek.

So as today's temperatures seem set to top 60, I've unloaded the 40 pound bag of cat litter from the trunk of the convertible (It seems to help when driving in snow and if I ever get stuck, instant grit!). The rule of the roadster - if it's above 50 and sunny, the top comes down!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Wonderful Witchhazel

Spring is coming.

How do I know? The snowdrops have been blooming for nearly a month and the witchhazel has decided to flower. I planted them on purpose to save my sanity after our long winters. This winter, of course, has been very mild. I still miss not getting enough snow!

Buds just cracking open

I have a spring blooming witchhazel (Hamamelis vernalis) that has finally reached a decent size after a couple of winters of rabbit munching. They don't grow especially quickly, which is unusual in my garden. Most of my trees and shrubs grow at fantastic rates, far quicker than they should. Not the witchhazel. It is taking its sweet time. Some day it will be 10 to 12 feet, but not for many years. I'm very fond of its big ruffled leaves that turn brilliant gold in the fall and its explosive seed pods that send seed far and wide (not that it reseeds, they can be tricky to propagate).

What pretty little dazzlers

I fell in love with witchhazel's strappy star-like flowers and its lightly astringent scent. With a few more sunny days, it will be truly lovely, but for now the petals are only about halfway extended. Its a cautious shrub. The snowdrops will fearlessly brave wind and snow, but the witchhazel needs convincing. That's how I'm sure spring is coming.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Primroses Are Too Cute

Hello, lovely!

February sometimes seems like the longest month. This year we don't have the excitement of a blizzard to break up the monotony of grey skies and bare branches. I get a little desperate for green, growing things and fall for the primoses every time. My local grocery store chain tends to sell them for about a buck and a half (two for $3!). How can I resist?

Nifty flower structure too!

There's no way I'm going to be able to grow primoses (Primula sp.) in my yard. They tend to prefer a moist, cool, woodland site - think England. Our Midwestern summers are too hot and too dry. And, well, everything grows better in England. Ask anybody. I've got my wee pot on the kitchen windowsill so it can get a good dose of sun, and it actually prefers the coolness. It gets watered nearly every day to keep it nice and moist in the dry house. As long as we keep deadheading it, this cheerful plant will bloom for weeks. Once it's done, off to the compost pile! In the meantime, I'm more than a little in love with its bright blooms.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A Mini Jungle: Terrariums

Here in the winter-bound Midwest, I get a little twitchy by the end of January or so. We're still locked down under snow and ice, or in the case of this odd winter, brown grass and mud. I start longing for green and growing things besides the rosemary (which is still alive, sort of). About this time of year the husband and I start hitting conservatories. However, this year I decided after a series of discussions at work, to build my own little conservatory - a terrarium.

I'm not a big miniature gardener. As a die hard tree geek, I like my plants huge and preferably climbable. There is, though, a charm in gardening on the small scale. A recent visit to my friend's lovely home gave me lots of inspiration. Joannie Rocchi is the Perennial Manager at The Growing Place in Aurora and a passionate plantswoman. Her house is filled with terrariums, luxuriant houseplants, and herbs. It was a glorious chance to satisfy my plant-deprived senses.

Joannie's newest endeavor is the water garden terrarium. In the giant jar she has duckweed and frog bit floating among pretty glass bubbles. A scattering of activated charcoal on the bottom keeps the little ecosystem healthy.

I loved this tiny clay house with its little clay stones and seed pods. This miniature moss garden lives under a glass cloche. Under the glass, it becomes a misty mystery.

Joannie prefers clear glass containers. Looking for a use for that old punch bowl? Why not fill it with plants? Add a ceramic mushroom or two, and you have your own personal jungle.

There are many resources for terrarium ideas. Here's my step by step process for my own little garden. I like Tovah Martin's book, The New Terrarium, in particular. I also found a nifty blog, The Fern & Mossery for all things terrarium that's packed with information and inspiration.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Snow Day

Ah, at last! We've got eight inches of powder on the ground after yesterday's snowy day.   The air is so calm that the spruce branches seem to just hover under their white flocking, waiting to be launched.

This morning we got the shoveling done and I'm happy that it really is a light powdery snow.  Much easier to fling. Also, it won't weigh down the twigs of the bushes and make them split. We had some serious breakage in last February's blizzard.

I can now confidently gaze out the windows and see all that 'winter interest'! Boy, do I need more evergreen shrubs. There's a lot of naked bark out there! The most popular place has been the herb bed as I left the basil, fennel, marjoram, and assorted others to go to seed. The chickadees and sparrows have been busy, so it's pretty cleaned out. I refilled the bird feeder and flung some under the lilac tree for the ground feeding juncos.

This is the front flower bed (with the damn gas meter). So pretty in a fresh snow.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Reflections on Life, Death, and Renewal Pruning

The snowdrops are early this year.

This week I attended the wake of my brother-in-law's grandmother, who passed away at the advanced age of 99. It was one of the nicest wakes I've been to because her life was celebrated. Family and friends told stories and caught up with each other. It got me thinking.

As the snowdrops pop out of the ground with the recent warm weather I am reminded of resilience. Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) manufacture their own antifreeze. We're due to get snow and below freezing temperatures, but they'll be just fine. Plants are tough buggers. They want to survive and many go to extraordinary lengths to do so. Remember that tree with a phone wire growing through it? We've all seen one.

Perhaps because we work with living things that gardeners may have a different perspective on death. We've all killed a plant, many times for no discernible reason. Many of us compost, seeing firsthand the wonder of dead plant material transform into nutrients for the living. Perhaps since we've had our share of loss, I see the ending of life as a natural state. We don't have children because after several miscarriages, we decided we had given it our best shot and stopped. I went on a lot of walks on my lunch hours during that time and I really began to stop and take notice. I really do smell the roses. And the witchhazel, sweet bay magnolia, violets and the bruised foliage of spicebush. Why? Because it's a feast for the senses. They are living, growing things of such beauty that by soaking it in, I, in turn am renewed.

Speaking of renewal, I am reminded of pruning, the art of cutting away. We often use two terms when we refer to pruning - rejuvenation and renewal. To rejuvenate a shrub you cut all of it back to within a few inches of the soil. Some plants thrive when you prune this way and others so resent it that they die. Renewal pruning is where you thin a plant by about a third, again cutting the branches at the base. This allows sprightly new growth, opens up the structure, and shapes the plant.

I could have come up with a list of resolutions for 2012. However, I think instead I will do a bit of renewal pruning. What kind of clutter can I cut away to open up my life and allow for new growth?  

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

New Eyes: Seeing the Landscape

I'm sorry. I've been down with the Evil Head Cold of Doom and so haven't had the brain power to string two sentences together until now. Pass me a hankie!

It's January in Chicagoland and this year we have not been graced with measurable snow. It looks a lot like this:

Pretty bleak, eh? Well, maybe. What catches my eye in winter is what is left when the ordinary greenery is stripped away. This is a typical intersection in my town. I was sitting at the stoplight and so had a chance to snap a quick picture. What leaps out at me this time of year are the grand old evergreens. Here we have Norway spruce, Austrian pine and white pine among others. Their quiet dark dignity really shows up this time of year. And that splash of deep red over on the left? That's a crabapple loaded with berries. Isn't it pretty?

This winter, take a few moments to stop and look around your landscape. What kinds of trees, shrubs, grasses, etc. stand out? Enjoy those big old evegreens now before they steal back into the background in spring.