Saturday, October 31, 2009

The quest begins

I like shrubs but I lack shrubs. I have two little spireas that are still recovering from a shoddy transplanting job I did two years ago. I also have a lilac I adore, a honeysuckle that bores me, and a forsythia I weep for. I inherited these three when we bought the house.


Why do I weep for the forsythia? Because I love these harbingers of spring that brighten up the muddy March garden when it's struggling for breath after getting bodyslammed by winter. Unfortunately, my forsythia was planted in a terrible location: soil filled with lava rocks in deep shade. Consequently, it blooms anemically every spring, nowhere close to its full potential.

(It looks happy enough, but...)

Why not move it, you ask? Because those who planted it put it directly over the electrical, gas, and cable lines! Digging up this shrub means risking life, limb, and destroying cable TV for the entire neighborhood, which would undoubtedly result in an angry mob swarming my house with torches and pitchforks.

But enough about anemic forsythias and angry mobs; I'm looking to the future! The north border that I reclaimed from the lava rocks is crying out for a shrub to anchor its corner (or at least that's what I think it's saying). It has a tree at one end (which I believe is a box elder) and a number of perennials waiting to burst to life next year: 'City of Haarlem' hyacinths and 'El Cid' tulips in early spring, nectaroscordums and 'Ruffled Velvet' irises in late spring and purple coneflowers in summer that will hopefully be joined by yellow coneflowers (Ratbida pinnata), provided that the seed I have is viable and the seedlings survive. There are also tufts of little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), which are blogalong passalongs from Mr. McGregor's Daughter.

(One shrub, please! A specimen, not a traveling hedge-former.)

We'll see how that all pans out next year, but it will be a big improvement over the previous state of the border! As you've likely figured out, purple and yellow is the predominant color scheme. As you've also noticed, that's a lot of flowers and herbaceous material and not much (or really any) woody material. So I thought for a bit of symmetry and structure I should add a shrub to the currently empty corner. It would provide fall color and winter interest as well as a contrast to all the perennials. So I started searching...

This site is challenging, to put it mildly. It receives barely any sun because it's on the north side of the house and at the confluence of our fence with a neighbor's tree just above it. So shade tolerance is a must. The soil is my terrible clay along with a good dose of remnant lava rocks mixed in. On the bright side, there was a peony growing here when I moved in. I transplanted it and its brethren from this north bed to the front yard where they've exploded in the full sun, so I am confident that something can grow here. But what?

My first thought was goat's beard (Aruncus dioicus), which is actually an herbaceous perennial and would kind of negate the whole reasoning behind the shrub. But hear me out! Goat's beard grows up to 6' tall, thus is the size of a shrub, and it's a shade-loving native. It blooms with shaggy white panicles in early summer, hence the name. The problem would be lack of fall color and winter interest, which are two of the main reasons I want a shrub. It's a possibility, a fall-back, but not a lock.

Next I thought about a sweetspire (Itea virginica). It shares many attributes with the goat's beard: white panicles, shade tolerant, manageable size, North American native. Even better than the goat's beard, this one has gorgeous fall color and will provide more structure as a truly woody plant. Chicagoland Grows developed a particularly fiery specimen named 'Scarlet Beauty' that is proven hardy to the Chicago region. Perhaps a frontrunner?

(Lots of hibernating herbaceous stuff, could use some contrast.)

Then I started to think a little bigger. What about a pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia)? It has a wonderful shape and would certainly add the structure I'm looking for. And I could just prune it to keep it at the correct size, right? I wouldn't neglect to prune a shrub, would I? That 'Golden Shadows' would look fabulous with the purple and yellow color scheme, that's for sure! But would this site be too shady for it? Does it maybe hopefully get more sun than I'm giving it credit for?

At this point I was thrilled with the possibilities and confused about what plant was truly right for this site. Yes, it's mostly shady thanks to the fence, but that also means it's a protected site, probably the most sheltered on our whole property. So then I began to think some more, and many other ideas swirled through my head above and beyond just shrubs. I'll share them with you in another upcoming post, as my quest for the shade border shrub continues...

Muse Day is graciously hosted by Carolyn Gail at Sweet Home and Garden Chicago. Please visit to see more thoughts on this first day of the month!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

2009 MVP

As I watch the MLB playoffs inch closer to the World Series, my thoughts turn to the question of what makes an MVP? What are those qualities found in the best standout of the year? Sheer skill, nearing perfection, is certainly a factor. Often such a performance is lightening caught in a bottle, other times it's a perennial quality that makes itself felt year after year.

An MVP is a true leader, taking charge when needed but also knowing when to step back and provide support so other role players can shine. Most importantly, an MVP improves the group as a whole, whether that group is a baseball team or, as in my case, a garden.

So I reflected on the team members of my garden this past year to find my MVP--Most Valuable Plant.

The Canadian columbines (Aquilegia canadensis) launched the season with a floriferous start, as always.

The salvias bloomed profusely, albeit only for a relatively short time.

(Salvia nemorosa)

(S. nemorosa 'Plumosa' hanging over the dugout railing.)

The astilbe made a surprise comeback from what I had thought was certain death. But this would earn it Comeback Player of the Year, not the coveted MVP. It was far too weak and scraggly for that.

I raved about my Coleus all year.

It was certainly vigorous and colorful, and I'm overwintering a portion of it, making it into a sort of perennial. Is that enough to earn it the award? Maybe, but it did nearly kill my spearmint and it hasn't proven it can go the distance and make it into next year's garden.

My Joe-Pye weed (Eupatorium maculatum) was definitely a leader in this unusually rainy, gloomy season. He showed off his dusty purple blooms on tall, proud stalks. And he attracted the one measly Monarch that wandered into my yard this year.

But compared to his performance last year, 2009 was a bit of a letdown. Admittedly, the lack of sunlight and butterflies isn't his fault by any means, but he bloomed later than usual and just wasn't as vigorous as previous years or as covered in charming winged insects.

The lilac made a good showing with weeks of fragrant blooms that were so big they practically drooped off the stems. Since my forsythia languishes in shade, this is pretty much the only flowering shrub in my garden at this point.

But it wasn't just about flashiness. No, this year I decided, as the sole member of the awards committee here, that the 2009 Most Valuable Plant is...Great Blue Lobelia! (Lobelia siphilitica)

This plant has really come into its own in the past couple years, and now it's a reliable beauty despite its less-than-showy location, which is my fault for poor planning. It's reached its maximum height of about 3 feet, and this year it bloomed in late July, a little to the early side for this species, just when it was becoming apparent that the season would be unavoidably disappointing and other summer bloomers were running out of steam prematurely.

It was a nectar source for the bumblebees that hung around the Joe Pye and the goldenrod (Solidago flexicaulis). Speaking of other plants, the lobelia created a rich blue contrast to that goldenrod's cheery yellow and, simultaneously, a scatter of color amidst the foliage of spent peonies and obedient plants (Physostegia virginiana). For more proof, see the header photo.

(A team player with goldenrod.)

(Flowers among the foliage.)

While managing all this, the lobelia survived constant pummeling from gutter overflow. I sited it in a poorly drained, frequently flooded spot on purpose because of its water tolerance, and even in this year's exceptional rains, it never broke a stem under the weight of the mini waterfall above it, nor did it drown in its near-permanent puddle.

I don't have as many pictures of this team leader as I should, but I can assure you this plant shared its beauty with me every day. Located just outside my front door in the back of the border, the lobelia was the first plant that greeted me as I walked outside each day.

Congratulations, Great Blue Lobelia!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Assateague Island National Seashore

Note: This post is part of the celebration of national parks hosted by Pam at Digging.

I was fortunate to go to college in beautiful Colorado, which provided me with many opportunities to visit Rocky Mountain National Park, Roosevelt National Forest, and various national treasures farther west. But my latest visit to a national park was actually a national seashore: Assateague Island on the Atlantic coast of Maryland.

(The beach of northern Assateague Island, smoothed by waves.)

I visited this undeveloped barrier island last winter while doing research for a project. Unfortunately, February is the harshest time, weather-wise, on these barriers, so my stay was relatively short.

(The stark, craggy limbs of loblolly pines, the dominant tree of the forest on Assateague Island.)

But in my brief time there I was still struck by the quiet, unique beauty of this place. Assateague Island is best known for its proximity to the setting of Marguerite Henry's Misty of Chincoteague, which centers upon the wild horses of these two barriers. The horses were laying low in the blustery cold on the day I was there, but I did catch this one grazing near a parking lot!

Like many people, I was enchanted by this pony and had to restrain myself from petting it, which is against the rules.

But the horses are an introduced species, and their grazing has caused issues by damaging the American beachgrass (Ammophila breviligulata) that holds the dunes together. In response, this electric fence has been installed along parts of the dune line to keep the horses away from the grass.

(An interior pond in the forest, gilded by ice.)

The salt marshes on the western side of the island are particularly productive and rare environments. They are dominated by salt-tolerant cordgrasses (Spartina spp.) and are breeding and nesting grounds for migrating birds.

Assateague Island contains a unique set of ecosystems on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. It is windswept, fragile, and hauntingly beautiful.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

October Bloom Day

So it appears that we are skipping the sunny, crisp, beautiful days of autumn and moving directly into the cold, sleety, foreboding days of autumn. Under these conditions, I present an extremely brief Bloom Day post!

The salvia 'Plumosa' is on its last legs, showing the final blooms of its year.

I have one mum. Yes, one lonely individual mum.

I'm not a huge fan of mums (being the ultra-overused fall flower that they are), but I do love the color of this one, hence it's inclusion in my garden last year. It's in too much shade, but I'm enjoying how it looks next to the Japanese painted fern and 'Silver Veil' heuchera.

And my Very Confused Golden Alexander (Zizia aurea) is still blooming, even after a couple nights of hard frost! This plant is turned upside down, but it's making me smile with its oddness and resilience.

To see more floriferous gardens, visit Carol at May Dreams Garden who graciously hosts Bloom Day!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Win some, lose some

Well, I finally got around to tackling some of that to-do list I was talking about last week. I won't re-hash everything here, but I did make some notable discoveries once I finally got back in the garden.

First, I have a golden alexander blooming about five months late! This is Zizia aurea, which normally blooms in May and June, and here it is blossoming when the first frost is lurking only days away.

This plant is obviously very confused, but I won't hold it against the plant since it's a newbie this year. I'm happy that it's so comfortable as to bloom at all in its first year! Hopefully the onset of winter won't do any lasting damage to this bewildered little member of my rain garden.

Just in case I needed another reminder that I am not actually the one in control around here, my Baby Joe-Pye seedling was mercilessly eaten by some critter.

(The scene of the crime.)

After all my coddling and fussing and worrying, this plant, which I nearly nurtured through its critical first year, is now part of the fat reserves of some squirrel or chipmunk preparing for the winter. To be honest, I'm not even that upset; I feel like this is plant karma for all of my fretting over one little seedling. Needless to say, I'm not collecting seeds from my mature Joe-Pye weed (Eupatorium maculatum) this year. Maybe the poor germination rate was because the seeds weren't viable when I gathered them. Maybe it's not them, it's me. Either way, I need to take a break from growing these seedlings.

Apparently that same critter (or some of his accomplices) has been eating my columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) seedlings as well. Now this aggravated me when I found them. These seedlings have been growing beautifully all year, and I am confident that some might actually flower next spring (this is not counting the ones that shriveled upon being planted in too much sun).

So I was outraged by this destruction, until I realized that the critters might have helped me in the long run. I was too wimpy to thin these columbine seedlings or even divide them before planting them in the garden. Eventually, they would have struggled because of root competition and I would have had a chore waiting for me next year or the one after that. The seedling-eaters, however, performed a little natural selection and now I can focus on protecting the survivors and not having to divide an overgrown clump of columbine roots!

So the local rodents devour my seedlings yet don't touch my lettuces; what to make of that? The mysteries of nature, I suppose!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The To-Do List

Spring gets all the attention as the busy gardening season, what with all the planting and weeding and such, but I find that fall, with its year-end maintenance and next-year preparation, is really the most active gardening season. Or maybe I just feel that way because I'm woefully behind on all sorts of gardening tasks. But I swear this has happened many years in a row...

Anyway, being the very left-brained person that I am, I made a to-do list of garden activities, just like I do for all my activities. Here's how it looks:

1. Plant Erythronium dens-canis bulbs: check.
These bulbs need to be planted early, or at least that what Brent & Becky's Bulbs said, so they promptly sent the bulbs to me at the beginning of September, I promptly planted them, and some chipmunks promptly stole some. I'm pretty sure it was a chipmunk because we have a number of them living in our yard and I just caught one trying to dig up an iris recently. However, since the theft of the few Erythroniums, I haven't seen any evidence of more being taken. So if a couple get stolen, I'm over it. I'll sacrifice a small number to support the local wildlife. But if they come back for more, then it's war.

2. Plant other bulbs and bare-root perennials: no check.
This is actually out of my hands; these bulbs and plants haven't arrived yet. But they will soon. There's 'El Cid' tulips, 'City of Haarlem' hyacinths, and some Nectaroscordum siculum spp. Bulgaricum that I'm really excited about. These allium-looking flowers have dangling, rather exotic flowers, sort of a bigger, flashier version of Allium cernuum. I also have a number of native plants coming from Prairie Moon Nursery to go in the newly created border along the south end of my yard and the front border. Which reminds me, how can I forget...

3. Enlarge the front border: no check.
When we moved in, this house had the completely stereotypical suburban foundation plantings: yew bushes clipped into a weird trapezoid-type shape in a "border" that was barely a foot wide. No other plants were growing, except for a few random yellow and pink tulips. We cut down a couple of the yews, but removing all of them would be a logistical nightmare and it's a task that I am not physically able to accomplish by myself. So I have learned to live with the yews. But, every year I have widened this border inch by inch, centimeter by centimeter, and I have learned the hard way that removing live sod is a horrible and painful task.

(You call that a garden?)

So this year I'm going to be smart, I told myself, and I will smother the grass in fall and nurture the ground with compost, mulch, and leaf litter all winter and into the spring, when I will then plant in the prepared and nutrient-rich border. Unfortunately, I haven't done anything to accomplish this yet. This is definitely the most labor intensive and important task awaiting my attention.

4. Divide the toad lily (Tricyrtis 'Tojen'): no check.
I received this lovely plant recently from Mr. McGregor's Daughter. I should have divided it in the first place to create more lovely specimens for myself, but instead I hurriedly plunked it in the ground and now I've been watching the stems droop in various directions because it's too large for the shoddy planting job that I did.

In a testament to how resilient this plant is, it's been blooming voraciously despite my negligence.

(Toad lily being a good sport.)

It deserves better, and I need to dig it up, divide it, and properly and carefully replant the divided sections.

5. Repot and bring in tender perennials: no check.
I have been gushing about my coleus all year, and I know I don't have the heart to toss the whole beauty onto the compost pile. Instead I'm going to try overwintering the showiest specimens to be replanted next year.

I also have a spearmint plant (that was almost smothered by the coleus in an ill-conceived container planting), which I'm afraid to plant in the herb garden because of its thuggish nature. I've been nursing it back to health after its near-death experience, and it's time to repot it in a smaller pot and bring it indoors where it won't assault any other plants and I can enjoy fresh spearmint during the winter.

(Recuperating spearmint.)

6. Harvest herbs: partial check.
I have been cutting and drying lots of chamomile, but I still have oregano, basil, lemon balm, and lavender hyssop to harvest and dry.

(Among the weeds and the leaves, there are herbs to be harvested.)

7. MULCH: no check.
This spring I was adamant about mulching, and as the season has passed I've gotten lazier about it. Case in point: the half-mulched border where I removed all those rocks earlier this summer. There's also the new south border and the front that needs replenishing, and with a free pile of locally made mulch sitting literally at the end of my street, I have no reason to be so lazy about this crucial gardening task!

(What's wrong with this picture?)

Well, I think that's about it. Oh, except for cutting back mildewy foliage, pulling out annuals and getting them to the compost bin, and figuring out how to keep my peppers from freezing before the copious fruits get to maturity. I guess I should quit writing and get out there! Do you have a to-do list? If so, how's it look?

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