Monday, August 31, 2009

Totally Biased Product Review

As many of you know, Carol at May Dreams Garden recently held a free giveaway contest to win a Cobrahead short-handled weeder. And the family that owns and operates Cobrahead most graciously gave a free weeder to all participants. I am a lucky recipient, so my review of this tool is completely un-objective, which I want to state at the outset.

Free or otherwise, I have to say that this Cobrahead short-handled weeder is an extremely efficient tool for a busy, harried gardener. I am a working mother with two kids under the age of 5. Needless to say, weeding often falls by the wayside in the litany of activities and chores that must get accomplished on a daily basis around here. Weeding, when it happens, usually takes place during my youngest's nap while my oldest "helps" me (which is actually quite cute and a great way to get kids involved in the outdoors, despite the inefficiency). So my weeding efforts must be fast and effective, because they certainly aren't frequent, and this Cobrahead tool allowed me to be exactly that!

After 3-plus days of rain, I finally wandered back into the garden yesterday to fight back the water-fueled weeds I knew were taking over. It was nap time, I had my helper, and little time to spare. But the dandelions, errant turf grass, and purslane were no match! The Cobrahead short-handled weeder sliced beneath them, uprooted them effortlessly, and allowed me to get those hard-to-reach places behind our obnoxiously typical foundation-planting yews.

The curved shape of the weeder facilitated getting into the weeds' root systems and popping them out of the ground. I'm sure the extremely moist soil helped make this process easier, but the ergonomics of the tool itself did the real work. Consequently, my entire front bed was weeded well before my helper's attention span tired of weeding and turned to checking the pepper plants and playing whiffle ball.

So there you have it! The Cobrahead short-handled weeder gets two thumbs up! If you're a busy gardener (and who isn't? It's not like I'm the only one with a hectic schedule. We all do!), you should seriously consider investing in one of these, if you haven't already won one thanks to Carol and Cobrahead!

Monday, August 24, 2009

Spotlight on...

...goldenrod! These plants have gotten a bad rap over the years because people believe they cause allergic reactions. Unfortunately for the goldenrods, they have been guilty by association. Goldenrods bloom at the same time as ragweeds, which are actually responsible for the allergies. Ragweeds are wind-pollinated, hence their irritating pollen is flying around in late summer and early fall, while goldenrods are insect-pollinated. That means only the bees and other pollinating bugs are covered in that yellowy dust. What's worse, ragweed pollen grains contain a protective protein that causes a reaction in humans (i.e., sneezing). This makes its pollen extra irritating, and in response, peoples' mistaken ire with goldenrods is equally severe.

But it need not be that way! Goldenrods (genus Solidago) are a large group of tough North American natives with yellow blooms in late summer and early fall--an embodiment of late summer sunshine and the turn to fall. Some species, such as S. ulmifolia, can tolerate part shade. All will thrive in full sun. Gray's goldenrod (S. nemoralis) is barely 1' tall, while stiff goldenrod (S. rigida) and showy goldenrod (S. speciosa) can reach 3' tall or more. Some have flowers that bloom on inflorescences, others bloom atop the stem, basically the variety in this genus is huge. Once established, all goldenrods are extremely drought tolerant, and many can survive in poor soils.

I grow zigzag goldenrod (S. flexicaulis), which you see here with a bee visitor bending over one of the flower stalks.

The genus Solidago belongs to the Composite family (Compositae), which includes sunflowers, asters, and rudbeckias, to name only a few. The flowers in this family--or what we would consider the flowers--actually consist of many tiny flowers grouped into one flower head (hence, "composite"). So on my zigzag goldenrod, these flowers are composed of many teeny, tiny flowers that can barely be distinguished by the naked eye. The advantage of this trait is much higher-than-average seed production (think sunflowers).

I love this goldenrod because the stalks create a sparkler-type effect as the flower heads burst into bloom, then fizzle out along the inflorescence at different times. What's actually happening here is a funny mix of flowering styles. The teeny, tiny flowers inside each flower head bloom from the outside to the inside (what is known as "indeterminate"), but the entire stalk blooms from the top to the bottom ("determinate"). The flaring and fizzling starts at the top of these stalks and moves downward, as you can see in the above picture where the top flower heads are in full bloom with stamens popping out and the bottoms have yet to bloom. This enhances the sparkler effect.

Along with its drought tolerance, my goldenrod puts up with partial shade (more than it should be getting), root competition from the nearby red maple, and it's a bumblebee magnet. It looks nice near some other natives (my Lobelia siphilitica and Eupatorium maculatum, check out the header photo for an example), but it's actually wedged between two peonies, proving this plant can go beyond the strictly native garden.

Some goldenrods can look just plain weedy, so choose one carefully based on your site and desired aesthetic (ornamental v. prairie restoration). More hybrids and cultivars are coming out, so it's becoming easier to find ornamental species. Essentially, don't discount this genus simply because of its bad reputation. Sometimes it can surprise you!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

One more look

In my garden there have been a few things lacking this year; two of those things are butterflies and great photos. The first I can't help or explain. Hopefully it's just a climatic vagary because of another item so often lacking this summer--sunshine. The second, however, is a simple fact, because I have always focused on my writing skills instead of my photography skills. Can I capture decent shots occasionally? Yes, and I think blogging has helped me to improve. But I'm a wordsmith at heart, and I'm not ashamed of it.

So that is why I'm showing this photo, which looks suspiciously similar to my previous header photo. It captures all of the above-mentioned items I've been lacking. This is my entry for the August Picture This contest over at Gardening Gone Wild. I've never had the guts to attempt an entry before, but this remarkable garden moment was quite possibly the best photo shoot I've ever had. I was literally on my knees (which follows the contest's requirements), peering above into the lilac bush snapping pictures of this swallowtail butterfly as it happily feasted on the flowers. It was a strange moment of frantic and calm all at once as I captured what I knew was an extremely rare opportunity with such a willing and beautiful subject. OK, now I will stop showing these photos, and as you see I've changed my header recently. Don't forget to check out the GGW roundup for some fabulous garden photography!

Friday, August 14, 2009

Strange Days

What a goofy summer! Things that should be done blooming are just starting, and things that should be in full bloom are finished. It's garden mayhem! I guess that's what happens when summer starts in August.

And it does finally seem to be summer and, I can't believe I'm saying this, we need some rain. I found myself watering my Japanese painted fern and astilbe for the first time in ages. Regardless, things are looking pretty in the sunshine!

Here is that tall coreopsis (C. tripteris) I mentioned in an earlier post when my camera was malfunctioning. It's blooming about a month later than it has in the past two or three years. See how the flowers have brown centers, rather Susan-like? Despite the existence of a Coreopsis lanceolata (which is actually sitting near this guy to the upper right), I think this species truly has the lance-shaped leaves, which resemble bamboo on lanky stems with deep green color. But that's just my opinion.

(Here's a closer look at the flowers)

The unusual bloom time may actually turn out to be a good thing. This coreopsis is right next to my smooth blue asters (Symphyotrichum laevis), and I've always been disappointed with how their flowering times miss each other.

(OK, not actually blooming but a preview for next month's Bloom Day.)

Usually the coreopsis is long finished blooming when the light blue flowers of the asters get going. I just might catch a nice color combo this year, thanks to the weird weather. That is, if the asters don't die. The photo above is of the control aster from my milk/oil experiment, and it's developing some foliar spots now. Also, these plants are about 2 feet shorter than usual. I think last year's mildew, the unidentified foliage problems from this year, and the lack of sun have caused some serious issues for these plants. (Side note: the plant sprayed with the milk solution is looking better than the one sprayed with oil and soap. But that's another post...)

In other aster news the big-leaved species (Eurybia macrophylla) still has one plant in bloom...

(Sorry for the blurriness.)

...and my Joe-Pye weed (Eupatorium maculatum) is the toast of the town as far as the local bumblebees are concerned.

(Click to enlarge and get a better look at the bees.)

There are about 5 or 6 bumblebees that have taken up permanent residence on this plant. I find them crashed out on the flowers at night and in the early morning, and all day long they go about their pollen harvesting, only leaving to enjoy the nearby great blue lobelia and goldenrod as side dishes.

(Here's a fuller view of the Joe-Pye. I don't show many full-length shots of this plant because it's right by my front door, and I'm weirded out about showing a close photo of the entrance to my house on the internet. But I assure you, this plant is 5' tall and gorgeous.)

Speaking of those plants, my goldenrod (Solidago lost-the-plant-tag) is also blooming earlier than usual, but it's creating that blue-yellow color combo with the great blue lobelia (L. siphilitica).

I'm a big fan of yellow and blue contrasting near each other, can't you tell? Other random blooms right now include my coleus, whose purplish panicles looked much better last week...

...and this one dianthus flower, which is the only part of the plant that is reblooming.

(A shy reblooming dianthus.)

Also blooming but not pictured: Salvia nemorosa 'Plumosa', which is really on its last legs and turning brown and faded.

I hope everyone has a lovely Bloom Day and weekend! For more Bloom Day excitement, see Carol at May Dreams Garden to check out what's blooming across the country!

Monday, August 10, 2009

Hurry up and wait

I've said it before and I'll say it again: gardening is an exercise in patience. Much needed patience, to be sure, because around here it often feels like there is nothing but time--endless time--stretching out before me and any tangible "goal" is hopelessly distant. Time is an enemy to be vanquished.

The, um, misguided former owners of this property filled most of the garden beds with red volcanic rocks rather than plants, you know, those living things most sensibly found in a garden. I have spent years removing these rocks, which have burrowed 2-3" into the soil thanks to about 20 years of residence time. The efforts are just now beginning to pay off. Often it has felt like I've been spending time in a labor camp.

Here you see a convalescing bed on the north side of our yard. It gets decent sun for being on the north side. Now the rocks are gone and topsoil, compost, and not enough mulch have taken their place. A purple daylily and alchemilla seedlings so small you can't even see them are here, thanks to the very generous Mr. McGregor's Daughter who let me raid her garden recently. They will be joined by soon-to-arrive spring bulbs and other perennials.

Along the back fence I've replaced the rocks with wild ginger (Asarum canadense, not pictured) and woodland phlox (P. divaricata), also thanks to MMG. I moved an unknown hosta cultivar here from a forgotten spot that received absolutely no sun. My native alumroots (Heuchera richardsonii) and pink coral bells (Heuchera don't-know-the-species) are also here. Unfortunately, the electric, gas, and cable lines for the entire neighborhood run directly along this fence (hence that red spray paint), so my digging and planting options remain limited. In response I'm focusing on groundcovers and tough foliage plants.

Now that the plants are in I must wait for the groundcovers to spread, the transplants to acclimate, and the bulbs to simply arrive. The perennials will mostly abide by the three-year choreographed dance of "sleep, creep, leap." Time is a challenge to be overcome.

So at times like this, when I'm happy but impatient with progress, I must remind myself how precious time really is in the garden. I have to look around now, not keep focusing on the future, to appreciate the current beauty here, however small or fleeting it may be. Time is a friend to be embraced.

(A bumblebee enjoying Joe-Pye weed in full bloom only happens a few weeks of the year.)

(Catching a dragonfly, even a blurry one, is a rare, momentary garden treat.)

I must also remember that time moves so quickly that soon it will be past me. Just 6 months ago my rain garden was a barren, muddy patch of ground near my daylilies. Now it's flush with sedges (Carex spp.), obedient plants (Physostegia virginiana), and other healthy natives just waiting for their turn to leap.

(Rain garden before...)

(Rain garden after)

It's just an exercise in patience.

For more thoughts on time in the garden, check out the Garden Bloggers Design Workshop at Gardening Gone Wild.

Monday, August 3, 2009

For all you Spring Flingers out there

This past weekend I was at the Chicago Botanic Garden checking out one of their American Flower Show Series (see the Chicagoland Gardening Magazine blog for an upcoming post about the show). After I finished my journalistic duties, I wandered around for a while taking pictures, and I thought those of you who visited the garden in May might appreciate how it looks now, at the height of summer (so to speak). You can click on any of the pictures to get a closer look. So without further ado...

Here is the prairie garden area in May, full of shooting stars (Dodecatheon meadia), prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) in its early stages, and flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata) that you can't even see in this picture.

Here is that prairie garden now! It's bursting with (left to right) prairie blazing star (Liatris pycnostachya), ironweed (Veronia noveboracensis), some type of sunflower (Unbelievably I couldn't find a name plate, but I'm guessing it's Helianthus rigidus), and purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea). The prairie dropseed in the foreground is now dwarfed by the forbs.

Another stretch of the prairie garden here had wild hyacinth (Camassia scilloides) blooming next to some extremely large leaves...

...which is the foliage of prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum). Its relative, compass plant (S. laciniatum), grows next to it. These plants can reach about 10' tall, and I think these examples really display the variety of prairies through the seasons. I love how they morph from a field of little delicate flowers in spring to big, bold, even ostentatious, ones later in the summer.

Shown here are the veggie pillars we loved in the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden... those triangular beds are filled with tomatoes, lavender, and lavender hyssop (Agastache foeniculum).

Don't feel bad--their tomatoes are still green too!

I found lots of interesting and mouth-watering displays in the vegetable garden, which is understandably hitting its stride about now. They have voluminous raspberries...

...and espaliered pears...

...and, literally, low-hanging fruit!

I also noticed these random pots in the ground near some of the squash, and thanks to the interpretive signage I learned they're Rootmaker(TM) pots filled with sand that deliver water to the plants at four different levels underground. The staff waters the pots rather than the plants, and the water is distributed to the squash's deep roots. Neat, huh?

Now, back to the flowers: Here is the English Walled Garden in May...

...and here is the English Walled Garden now. Those astilbes looked even better in person!

Around the corner, I walked into one of the "rooms" and was physically stopped by this sight:

Rudbeckias as far as the eye could see! Those orange ones with the huge eyes are Rudbeckia hirta 'Autumn Colors', a very fitting name.

Back in May, the rose garden was doing nothing; in fact, the only picture I took there was of a tree peony. Now, there's much more going on:

Another look:

During our Spring Fling visit we had a good laugh at the rabbit problems we share with this venerable garden institution.

I laughed again when I saw this cute but destructive baby bunny going to town on a Heuchera. And this was taken right where the first photo was--near the dwarf conifer garden and waterfall garden. Their home must be nearby!

I saved my personal favorite for last. Remember the field of Icelandic poppies?

Gorgeous! Well, it looks even better now...

The poppies have been replaced by black-eyed susans (Rudbeckia hirta 'Indian Summer', 'Irish Spring', and 'Cherokee Sunset'), floss flower (Ageratum houstonianum), Zinnia elegans 'Benary's Scarlet Flame' and 'Magellan Yellow', and anise-scented sage (Salvia guaranitica). As beautiful as those poppies were, the color combination here is just breathtaking (I think). Let's see it again!

I hope you enjoyed my little CBG retrospective! I hadn't been there since the Fling and it was great to be back. A light rain kept the crowds down but also got on my nerves after a while, so my trip was cut a little short. Nevertheless, a lovely day!

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