Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Garden Blogger's Muse Day--April

April is a very environmentally focused month, with both Earth Day and Arbor Day falling in this segment of the calendar. In fact they're falling within the same week; Earth Day is the 22nd and Arbor Day is the 24th. With these "holidays" focusing our minds on the natural world and our gardens really kicking into action, this is therefore a great opportunity to make a conscientious effort to do something beneficial for the world at large. It doesn't have to be something grand or elaborate. Hey, installing an entire geothermal heat-exchanger would be fabulous, but I know that's not exactly in my budget right now!

No, an act of environmental consideration can be as simple as trying to reduce your water usage, being diligent about turning off some lights (remember Earth Hour? That can be an hour each night), or planting a tree. Try including a few native perennials in your garden if there aren't any there already. You'll be amazed at how many bees and butterflies take up residence in your garden as they feast on their evolutionary colleagues.

Most importantly, let's remember that even though April trumpets environmental awareness with Earth Day and Arbor Day, we need to maintain that awareness every month, "holidays" or not. Let's try to establish some good habits this month and carry them through the year. I plan to continually muse about steps I can take to help the ol' blue marble, and I hope you'll do the same!

For more musing, see Carolyn at Sweet Home and Garden Chicago.

Friday, March 27, 2009

In praise of Canadian Columbine

Last fall I collected a sizeable amount of seeds from my four columbine plants (Aquilegia canadensis). This was around the same time that I gathered the Eupatorium seeds (see "Last Man Standing" post). I cold stratified them for nearly four months, then I scarified them gently with sandpaper and cold/moist stratified them for another month. I read that columbine seeds take a while to germinate--up to four weeks. Expecting sub-par germination rates, I planted all of them in only a few cells of my seed-starting trays. Then, as my other seeds sprouted vigorously around those barren cells, I felt that my worst fears had been confirmed.

Like clockwork, shoots appeared three weeks after I planted the seeds. Over the next week the sprouts multiplied exponentially until I had a ridiculous amount of seedlings, all thriving admirably (in contrast to the Eupatoriums, which continued to decline during this time).

I have now transplanted these slow but steadily growing seedlings into peat pots to be planted directly in the ground once the danger of frost is past. What you see above are just half of the pots with seedlings. When I was moving them into these pots I was shocked at how long and strong these guys' root systems already are! Native plants all feature very large root systems, which accounts for their drought-tolerance and erosion-prevention ability. But at barely six weeks old?! I had planned to thin out the seedlings, but the robust roots made me feel obligated to preserve as many as possible. Hence, they're crammed into these pots, and I hopefully will be able to extricate them from one another when it's finally time to enter the garden proper.

I suppose my point is that these seeds had a fantastic germination rate and the offspring are strong, making them a veritable joy to cultivate. Even before this (so far) successful project, columbine had become my current favorite plant. It's known as a shade native, but I misjudged the site where I planted mine, and it is most definitely a "partial to full sun" location. Not only are my columbines surviving, they're thriving! And it's not because they're kept moist. In fact, these poor things are left dry unless it rains. (One of the reasons I love natives is because they're drought-tolerant. I'm not a big fan of watering my garden for reasons related to the environment and laziness. I will break down and water if we're having a terrible drought period, such the summer of 2005, but if a plant is to make it in my garden, it had better have long roots with significant water-storage capacity! The prairies covering McHenry County before European settlement made it without sprinklers--so can my garden. But I digress...)

Some of these seedlings are destined for the dry shade locations in my garden, so we'll see how they perform, and I may have to revise my opinion. At this point, however, columbines have proven sturdy and gorgeous in the less-than-ideal location where I planted them; they attract butterflies and dragonflies; and they're reproducing like proverbial bunnies but not by being aggressive. What's not to love? Give 'em a try!

PS-The Last Man Standing is hanging in there so far! I'm too scared to transplant him for fear of disturbing the roots or doing something stupid like dropping him, but so far he's still going!

Patience is a virtue?

I truly believe that gardening is an exercise in patience. You can't make a bud open before it's ready; you can't make the summer months arrive sooner; you can't harvest edibles until they mature and ripen. The gardener's schedule is not the important one in this relationship. What matters is the plants' temperaments, the days' length, and the air's warmth.

All of this is one reason why gardening is a healthy endeavor for me because I am not exactly the most patient person. Learning to cede control to the landscape and the other living things in my garden is instructive and relaxing at the same time. When I forget that principle, I run into problems. Case in point: I was too eager to remove the protective cover of leaves from my garden, and now the tender shoots will be exposed to the freezing temperatures and precipitation coming this weekend.

When it was in the 60s and sunny, I uncovered my garden against my better judgment. Now we're looking at snow and sleet--which is typical of Chicagoland in March--and I had to push leaves back onto the bed to cover the peonies, irises, columbines, and even salvias that are putting out tentative leaves. Above are peony shoots. Below are some daffodils ready to bloom with Salvia nemorosa hesitantly leafing out behind them.

Last week I was thrilled with how much was poking out above the soil; now I'm terrified it will all be ruined. The sparse covering of leaves I just put back on will probably not have much effect, and the tulips and daffodils are too large now to really benefit from being buried. All I can do now is hope, and remember the importance of restraint...

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Let this be a lesson...

The Chicago Tribune reports that Chicago has basically wasted money on carbon offsets that didn't reduce greenhouse-gas emissions at all, but rather gave the money to an existing wood-burning power plant. Essentially the city paid a business extra money to keep doing what it was doing, namely adding carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

This is solid evidence that, even with good intentions, we cannot confront climate change or make a significant dent in global warming by throwing money at the problem. Only by truly altering our behavior and consumption patterns can we have any chance at lowering emissions and hopefully blunt the effects of the changing climate. Daley's heart may have been in the right place, but Chicago--and every other city, town, and settled group of people anywhere--must focus on substantive changes, such as mass-producing vehicles that emit less exhaust, planting green roofs, making buildings energy efficient, expanding public transit, etc. None of these are new ideas.

It's disappointing that yet more taxpayer money was wasted on a pointless project, but let this be a lesson that taking the easy way out and shoveling money at a frightening issue will not automatically solve it. Chicago can do better, and other cities should learn from this mistake. As a very wise man once told me, the right thing to do is the harder thing to do.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Here's Hoping

I'm happy to share this report, which details the passage of a Senate bill that would set aside millions of acres as federally protected wilderness in some stunningly beautiful places that deserve perpetual protection from development. Having been a frequent visitor to Rocky Mountain National Park, and lucky enough to have also visited the Sierra Nevadas and Mt. Hood, I can personally say I am thrilled that this measure might pass, and these habitats/wonders of nature may be preserved, at least for a little while. Let's hope the House gets it together and passes this!

Welcome Astronomical Spring

Spring is definitely the season when non-native plants dominate my garden. I have no problem with this, because at this point in the year I'm so happy to have anything growing outside in warm temperatures that I hardly care what its provenance might be. This situation will be changing, however, because I'm planting shooting stars (Dodecatheon meadia) and yellow pimpernels (Taenidia integerrima) this year, which will add a native woodland touch to my spring garden.

So despite the leaves still strewn across my garden, ostensibly for protection from the temperatures that are still hovering around freezing right now, I've got tulips (top), daffodils (middle), and irises(bottom) peeking out above the soil. These irises have spread prodigiously over the past two years. Even last spring there were not nearly this many, and this photo only shows one stand of them. There are many more beneath the leaves near these guys. I'm not sure what type of iris these are (Siberian, bearded, etc.) Perhaps when I have pictures of them in bloom, you can help me! I inherited the tulips and daffodils from the previous owner when I moved into the house, and they've bloomed better each year. Since I'm not sure where all the bulbs are, I have dug into a couple and ruined them, but every spring there's random tulips where there weren't any before, and they range from yellow to pink to red. Always a nice surprise!

At this point, I'm a little worried about frost damage. It was in the 20s last night and it doesn't show much sign of warming significantly in the next couple days. This is always a dangerous time for plants in the Chicago area. I tried covering the irises again with the leaves after I took that picture. Hopefully the weather will cooperate and I can throw the blanket off the whole thing in a few days. In the meantime, at least there's plant potential underneath!

PS-Those cyclamens from Garden Blooms Day seemed to have shriveled. I am fascinated by the sculptural beauty of cyclamens, but I have now killed them as houseplants and as bulbs in my garden. Why??! How does one raise cyclamens successfully?!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Here goes nothin'!

I heard of a way to make a homemade compost bin from Gina at My Skinny Garden, and I am implementing this in my yard in the hope that it will provide long-awaited help for my garden soil.

I took a Rubbermaid 20-gal. container and cut a bunch of holes in it, and I threw in leaves and kitchen scraps, and we're going to see if I can make compost! My soil is the most compacted, nutrient-poor clay you can possibly imagine; there are few gardens in this world that need compost and soil amendment more than mine. But I haven't had a spare couple hundred dollars laying around to get the compost bin I really want, which has a hand crank and is held on a stand. Such a contraption would mean I don't even have to lift a shovel or fork to turn it. But I'm tired of telling myself "I'll get it soon...maybe next month," and then a whole growing season goes by and I still haven't started composting.

So thanks to some blog-induced inspiration, I'm trying this very low-tech method to at least make a little compost, and hopefully I will finally get my ideal bin at some point. Until that day, I can try to improve the dastardly Illinois clay I'm stuck with. And if this doesn't work and I'm stuck with a half-decomposed pile of yuck, then I'm only out $6!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Garden Bloggers Bloom Day

Well, this is a rather belated GBBD post, but there isn't really much blooming in my garden right now. As hard as it's been, I've kept the mulch on it because the temperature is still pretty unpredictable. I did peek under the mulch, however, to check what was at least showing signs of life, and here's my cyclamens, which are thinking about blooming. I can't believe are still alive (I don't give them the attention and moisture they deserve). I hope they bloom, and the tulips and daffodils should be sprouting soon as well.

We're in for a nice week here (supposedly), so I'm tentatively planning to pull the winter cover off the garden next weekend!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Last Man Standing

Last fall I collected seeds from my Canadian columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) and spotted Joe-Pye Weed (Eupatorium maculatum). I'll return to the tale of the columbine seeds later. I read a number of websites about preparing these seeds and growing seedlings because this was my first attempt at growing seeds from a source other than an envelope I had purchased. Everything I read claimed that the germination rate for Eupatorium seeds was dismal, but I figured what the hell, let's give it a try.

I cold stratified my little seeds for about 3 months, than moist/cold stratified them for another month in my fridge. I planted them in soil-less mix, and--lo and behold--I got three seedlings! Now, these were out of literally hundreds of seeds, but considering the dire predictions from my research, I was pretty excited about getting any seedlings at all!

In the last week, however, they've started to die, and the picture you see is now my last man standing--my lone surviving Joe-Pye seedling. (I apologize for my terrible photography skills; improving those is one goal of this blog. The other cells look bone-dry because I gave up watering them weeks ago, once it became apparent that the seeds weren't sprouting in them.)

I think the other two seedlings died from overwatering. I have a penchant for killing plants with kindness (read overwatering) rather than neglect (read underwatering). This is only a guess since I'm new to starting seeds, but their tiny stems were brownish (suggesting stem rot, which I've seen before in houseplants that I've sent to a watery grave), and their leaves drooped and then it was over.

So I'm trying to hold back on watering this last little guy (and all my other seedlings, for that matter). If anyone out there has advice on how to nurture Eupatorium seedlings, please share it with me! If not, please keep your fingers crossed that this one makes it! I want so fervently to place him in the shadow of his mother in my front border, where she is a hands-down favorite with the monarch butterflies and bumblebees in my yard!

Monday, March 9, 2009

Chicago Flower & Garden Show

I would be remiss if I didn't mention that the Chicago Flower & Garden Show is going on at Navy Pier now through March 15th. If you're in the area, I highly recommend you check it out. I was there on opening day last Saturday, and there are a number of innovative displays, plus shopping and seminars. I apologize for the lack of photos here, but as usual I forgot my camera. The show's displays focused on water conservation and greening urban or suburban spaces. It was very timely and attractive too. My favorite display was the Shedd Aquarium's, with simulated rainfall, a stream, and some of my favorite plants, including salvia and some perfectly puffed prairie smoke (Geum triflorum).

I would like to thank the Chicago-area garden bloggers Mr. McGregor's Daughter, Mr. Brown Thumb, Garden Girl, and Gina from My Skinny Garden for their presentation--their information and ideas were great inspiration to finally get this blog going!

Anyway, this show is back at Navy Pier after a brief suburban hiatus, and it's one of the most enjoyable gardening events in our area. I hope you'll enjoy it too!

Sunday, March 8, 2009

What's my story?

Welcome to my new blog! I'm Rose (not Rosemary, Rosanne, or any other such version; as I explained growing up, it's just "Rose, like the flower"). I'm a garden writer specializing in native Midwestern plants and conservation-related topics, although I do cover subjects outside of those ones. This blog will catalog my adventures in my relatively new, clay-packed garden in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. I will also discuss conservation news and developments, and focus on the native prairie, woodland, and wetland plants of the Midwest. So what's my story? I'll pontificate only a little, and then it will be on to more productive posts.

I am convinced that a self-awareness of my name predisposed me to gardening from a young age. I used to ask my mom if I could help in her garden, and when I was about 5 years old she designated one stone planter in the corner of our back patio as "mine," and I could plant whatever I wanted there every year. And invariably, every year I chose marigolds. Why? I don't know. Maybe it was their neon coloring. Maybe it was their crinkly texture that resembled tightly bunched fabric formed into flowers. Whatever it was, each spring when standing between the rows of annuals at the local nursery, feeling the palpable excitement of botanical avarice, I would once again choose marigolds for my planter.

By my teen years I had been deeded an entire garden bed (in a new house), which I promptly turned into a real rose garden. Oddly enough, that was my last foray into rose gardening (pushing 15 years now). After spending my college and post-collegiate years growing only a gaggle of houseplants as I moved from apartment to apartment, my interest in truly natural landscapes increased. I still love a breathtaking formal garden, but a desire to reconnect with the prairie landscapes of my Midwestern heritage grew inexorably from my time in the concrete jungle (which I still adore, by the way, despite its struggles with urban landscaping and the inherent contradiction therein).

So now, as a first-time homeowner, I concentrate on gardening in rhythm with nature. I'm a native plant enthusiast, not a native plant nazi. I have my guilty pleasure exotics, including peonies, irises, and daylilies. But the pleasure of watching butterflies flock to my Eupatorium and the sunlight glinting off a stand of asters is my gardening passion, and I'm satisfied with my botanical evolution. My methods are imperfect and I'm still a fairly young gardener, learning more each season. But I have come a long way from that stone planter with wonderful support from those who indulge my interest, and continue to do so, including you, dear reader.

And by the way, I never grow marigolds anymore. Burnout, I guess!

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