Friday, December 30, 2011

Gardening Resolutions 2012

I did a so-so job on my gardening resolutions in 2011...what have I resolved to do in the garden in 2012?

1. Give it time and space.

I have been gardening at this house for 6 years, and in that time I've planted voraciously: natives, non-natives, garden classics, rare specimens, passalongs, impulse purchases, and everything in between. I've used an increasing amount of forethought as I have come to better understand the conditions.

But it's time to let the garden breathe. Let all those plants adjust, and then evaluate. Constantly cramming more in will not make this the garden I want it to be. Sure, lots of spaces need to be filled, but first I must step back and see what is thriving, what is struggling, and where something different should be added.

I know I want a couple more hostas and heucheras in my back shade border, and I want to add wild gingers (Asarum canadense) to form a groundcover in the misfit border. But aside from those, I have no plans about new ornamentals. (The veggie garden will of course get new seedlings, and is exempt from this resolution.) I need to work with what I have, which brings me to my next resolution...

2. Divide and conquer.

Sedges, zizias, toad lilies, and more are out of control! All that plunking of plants has resulted in some great successes that are now overgrown. I tried this fall to divide the sedges and zizias in the rain garden, but they were so bushy that I couldn't find the crowns of individual plants. Rather than destroy half the garden, I decided to wait until spring, when new growth gives away their exact locations.

Dividing what is already thriving will leave me with free plants (yeah!), and plants that have proven they can survive in my conditions. Now, if I moved a water-loving zizia to a dry, shady spot, it would struggle. But if I can squeeze divisions in blank spots similar to their original microclimate, that could make for a lush, happy garden that displays some unification in plants and style. What a thought! And speaking of style, resolution 3 is...

3. Plant decent containers.

Two years ago I made the effort to grow interesting containers, but in 2011 I reverted to my lazy ways. I plopped some coleus seedlings in pots with tender Habranthus bulbs, which failed miserably in the low light.

Not again! It's not that difficult to follow the thriller, filler, spiller recipe. I will likely grow coleus again for the filler, and I'm searching for sweet potato vine seeds to grow my own spillers. Just a little more effort in the annual section of a local garden center and I too will have beautiful containers again!

What about you? Are you making any resolutions, gardening or otherwise? Here's wishing you a very happy, healthy New Year!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Resolutions Redux

I can't believe I'm saying this, but a new year is just about to arrive! Having been caught up in Christmas hoopla, I haven't had much time to think about gardening lately (other than noticing the increasing stream of seed catalogs arriving in my mailbox and making a mental note to peruse them more closely in the near future).

But before the year ends, I want to look back on my gardening resolutions for 2011. How did I do? Let's see...

(Look closely and you'll see a little fence holding back these goldenrods.)

1. Define the borders.

Eh, I sort of accomplished this one. I finally added wire fencing to demarcate my front border. Despite its dainty size, I think the fence helps to more clearly separate the garden from the lawn. And I like the curvy pattern too.

Unfortunately I did nothing to define the border on the south side of my back yard. It's as rag-tag as ever; in fact it may be worse because a bunch of the plants here really took off (yellow coneflower, I'm looking at you!). I'm of course happy the plants are doing so well--prairie/savannah natives are flourishing happily in this part sun border. But in 2012, really, seriously, I've got to get some large rocks and properly separate this part of the garden from the ever-creeping lawn grass.

2. Fix this other %@!$# border.

As I've stated many times, the north border in the back yard has confounded me for years now. Terrible soil, low sunlight, and distance from the hose create the perfect storm of garden mediocrity in this area. So I resolved to do something about it! I planted lots of lovely tulips (Rembrandt's Favorite, Negrita, and Dordogne). Then I got tired of having to labor through this hellish mix of clay and lava rocks, so in the fall I planted Darwin tulips (Ad Rem and Jaap Groot) so they will (hopefully) return for multiple years.

I also planted some savannah natives which will (hopefully) be able to withstand the challenging conditions. Harebells (Campanula rotundifolia), brown-eyed susans (Rudbeckia subtomentosa), and Callirhoe bushii were added in the hope that they can light up the place with a mix of blue, yellow, and bright pink. The harebells bloomed delicate bobbing flowers with ferny foliage...I have high hopes they can repeat this in their sophomore year. Even the Rudbeckias bloomed a little...

...and I moved some pale purple coneflowers (Echinacea pallida) here from a too-shady spot where they had languished. But transplanting didn't go well. Maybe I'll see them again, maybe not.

Either way, this was another half-accomplished resolution, but more on that later...

3. Clean up the composting operation.

Done! In late summer my extremely helpful husband turned the wooden skid from my Troy Bilt snow blower into a large compost bin. It's open at the top but wide enough to essentially have two piles; one to add to while the first one decomposes. Wire surrounds the framing to let in air and moisture but keep the leaves and kitchen scraps from falling out. It's even got a little door to scoop out the finished compost. Despite my lack of photographic evidence, I promise you it's great!

So that's kind of 1 1/2-for-3...not great but not terrible. It mirrors my .500 record last year. But what about resolutions for 2012? More coming soon...

Monday, December 19, 2011

Do you fake it?

(Christmas tree with aloe houseplant nearby)

This time of year, I always feel a little conflicted about Christmas trees, particularly our Christmas tree.

As a gardener and all-around plant nerd, I feel rather guilty about cutting down a living tree. And we don't just buy one that was already cut down and is being sold by the Boy Scouts or some other charitable organization. We actually go out and cut down a tree (albeit from a Christmas tree farm, not some unspoiled forest). Even though it's from a tree farm, I always think "this tree might have made it one more year, adding more oxygen into the atmosphere and providing a sheltered spot for birds to rest on its branches."

At the same time, as a gardener and all-around plant nerd, I love having a real Christmas tree. The smell of pine is intoxicating as it fills the house, and I get to lovingly water my temporary houseplant every day. A plastic tree just isn't the same, and a petroleum-based fake tree kind of epitomizes all that is wrong with the over-commercialization and insincerity of 21st-century Christmas.

As someone who cares about the environment, how can I cut down a perfectly lovely, living tree that was sequestering carbon and providing oxygen? Conversely, as someone who cares about the environment, how can I support buying and owning yet one more plastic thing that will eventually end up in a disgusting landfill?

So do you fake it with a Christmas tree, or do you get the real thing? Am I reading too much into Christmas tree options? Either way, it certainly looks nice...

Thursday, December 1, 2011

It's Official

The 2012 gardening season has begun, and 2011 hasn't even ended! But I received my first seed catalog today, and with that I'll start scheming and dreaming of what to grow next year.

Already I'm planning on ordering more tomato plants from Seed Savers Exchange and skipping the bell peppers, which have barely produced multiple peppers, much less a decent crop. I'm hoping for a rebound in the carrot crop, and I'll still devote a ridiculous amount of precious real estate to broccoli, the home grown version of which is just incomparable.

Seed catalogs lead to reflections on the past growing season and hope for the next. What could be more perfect at this time of year?!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Wildflower Wednesday: A Look Back

As the cold rains of late fall descend on northern Illinois, the garden is entering its yearly sleep. The last of the goldenrods are finishing their blooms, at least from what I can tell in the dark by the time I get home.

So for Wildflower Wednesday, I thought I'd take a look back at this year in native plants... early spring I was enjoying shade wildflowers, particularly woodland phlox (P. divaricata), and the rare beauty, yellow pimpernel (Taenidia integerrima).

By early summer (although I missed WW in June), my garden sported prairie phlox (P. pilosa), prairie smoke (Geum triflorum), and lanceleaf coreopsis (C. lanceolata), among others.

The unique, bobbing flowerheads of the prairie smoke made an exceptional combo with the airy blue plumes of another native, Camassia scilloides.

Midsummer was a great time for wildflowers, with native bee balms (Monarda fistulosa) making an incredible comeback from what I assumed was certain death from powdery mildew.

They were joined by the 2011 MVP, purple hyssops, plus yellow coneflowers (Ratbida pinnata) and the classic Echinacea coneflowers.

Asters and goldenrods then picked up where these wildflowers left off. Elm-leaved goldenrod (Solidago ulmifolia) had a wonderful second year in my garden. Unfortunately, some native stalwarts struggled this year, such as Joe-Pye Weed and zig-zag goldenrod (S. flexicaulis).

Despite those troubles (and the massacre of my purple prairie clovers by rabbits), native plants again thrived in this year's crazy weather and slow-to-start-summer. The zizias and numerous sedges will need to be divided next year. Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), which are beautiful clumping grasses, have settled in nicely.

And in the rain garden, cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis), swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), and obedient plants (Physostegia virginiana) flourished vigorously.

The natives in my garden have attracted bees, butterflies, and dragonflies. They helped absorb pounding rains while surviving droughts. They brought beauty and biodiversity to this little slice of Suburban Wasteland all year, and I can't wait to see them again next year!

For more wildflowers this Wednesday, see Gail at Clay and Limestone.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

MVP 2011

It's that time of year again! The World Series is underway, and again the White Sox are nowhere to be found, although I can't say I'm surprised. They had a tough year with a lot of ups and downs. It was not unlike this year in the garden, which saw bumper lettuce harvests, crippling mini-droughts, destructive downpours, and a lovely indian summer, to name just a few happenings.

As I enjoy the garden's final act, I can't help but reflect on the performances of individual plants and their success (or failure) as a team. And so it's time to name this year's MVP, Most Valuable Plant.

To be considered for the MVP award, a plant must make a lasting contribution to the garden, both through its own beauty/productivity and by enhancing that of others.

It must truly be a team player and make the entire garden look good, but still be able to carry the team when other, less stellar, plants are struggling.

The cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis) were definite contenders. They bloomed bright crimson for weeks on end, really acting as the standouts in a very robust rain garden.

But their performance was really limited to this one area of the garden, so they didn't quite make the MVP cut.

The native bee balms (Mondarda fistulosa) turned in an incredible performance. After three years of being bench-warmers, with nothing notable about them except for their preponderance for powdery mildew, these uniquely shaped flowers bloomed vigorously and became a new favorite of the bumblebees. But I think that "Comeback Player of the Year" would be a more accurate award than MVP.

The yellow coneflowers (Ratbida pinnata) had a break-out year, bringing bright yellow to a backyard border full of prairie plants. They were so vigorous, however, that they almost obscured the nodding wild onions (Allium cernuum) and rattlesnake masters (Eryngium yuccifolium). An MVP can't be overbearing; they won't be winning it this year, but will hopefully be in the running again soon.

One perennial contender (pun intended) had a surprisingly dismal year: Joe-Pye Weed (Eupatoruim maculatum). This towering favorite typically dominates the midsummer with dusty lavender flowers that are a magnet for bees and butterflies. But this year its normally robust flowers were dull and short-lived, leaving a distinct absence in the garden.

Yet into this void stepped some unlikely heroes, the purple hyssops. Both the species Agastache foeniculum and the cultivar 'Blue Fortune' started blooming in July and the are just now, in October, finishing up.

Like their rookie year last year, the hyssops made great teammates with the 'David' phloxes, creating a complementary mix of textures, shapes, and colors. The bright white of the phloxes stood out beautifully against the hyssops, but once those faded the purple spikes of flowers kept this swath of the garden colorful through late summer.

They were constantly visited by bees, mostly bumblebees.

These plants had, shall we say, eagerly re-seeded last year. As a result I removed many seedlings this spring and it left me a little irritated. I figured the seedlings that remained would definitely not flower in their first year, but I was wrong. Just as the established plants finished blooming, the younger generation took over.

And the 'Blue Fortune' cultivars were planted only last fall, but you wouldn't know it by their robust showing.

They carried much of the front garden through nearly half the gardening season; they stepped in when another player went down; they helped support pollinators; and with their unique shape and spicy anise scent they made a multi-faceted contribution.

For all these accomplishments, I say congratulations Purple Hyssops, you are the 2011 MVP!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

October Bloom Day: Coda

After a beautiful indian summer, we've now settled into classic crisp fall days. The garden is in its last act. Taking center stage are the short's asters (Symphyotrichum shortii)...

...which are being enjoyed by the remaining bumblebees as well as by me.

Elm-leaved goldenrods (Solidago ulmifolia) are still blooming, although their sparkler-like yellow blooms are starting to fade. Behind it are some blurry big-leaved asters (Eurybia macrophylla), which have had a banner year. They started blooming back around July and they're just now finishing and going to seed. I'm hoping the new ones I planted this spring make great strides next year and I'll have a mass of these plants very soon.

Late-season non-natives are in their final flourishes as well, such as these toad lilies, Tricyrtis 'Tojen', passalongs from Mr. McGregor's Daughter...

...and of course it wouldn't be fall without a mum!

To see more of what's blooming visit Carol at May Dreams Garden!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Veggie Garden Wrap-Up: 2011

Last weekend I closed up shop in the vegetable garden as an impending frost threatened. Now of course it's sunny and in the 70s all week.

Although I'm aggravated about the green beans and vine-ripened tomatoes that might have been, it was a good time to call it a season. Now as I'm reflecting on how vegetable growing went this year, I think the entire operation is summed up by one word: decent.

Decent, not great, not horrible. The tomato yield was good, and I really enjoyed both varieties, Amish Paste and Hungarian Heart (pictured above). The former is great for making sauce, and the latter has a good texture for slicing. I've also used it for homemade salsa, which has been delicious. The fungal leaf spot that swamped the plants late in the season was an unwelcome development, but it was controllable and, thanks to shall we say challenging weather conditions, not all that surprising.

(Super Chilis...mis-labeled in an earlier post.)

The hot peppers were equally decent. The yields weren't as great as last year, but last year was much drier. Some of the jalepenos turned out to be duds (no spiciness) which confused me to no end. But oh well, I've got some frozen Bulgarian Carrot Peppers for the winter months and Super Chili peppers drying to make homemade crushed red pepper.

Broccoli and green beans were decent...barely. Broccoli plants, I have learned, are humungous and only a small percentage of those enormous plants is the edible part. So in a small garden like mine, it's difficult to have enough room to grow the number of plants needed for a truly fulfilling harvest. This is disappointing because my family loves broccoli. But for that reason I'll keep growing it and harvesting what I can.

The Kentucky Wonder green beans were delicious, but these heirlooms are clearly not mildew resistant. They struggled with powdery mildew early on, and that really slowed down the yield even after I got it under control with my 1-to-3 milk/water solution. Next year I will probably try another variety.

My exceptions to the "decent" label are lettuce (fantastic), and carrots and bell peppers (terrible).

The cool, moist conditions early in the season were perfect for my four varieties of lettuce (Lolla Rossa, Tom Thumb, Rough D'Hiver, and Wine Country Mesclun [courtesy of Renee's Garden]). I had more lettuce than I knew what to do with by June, which is a problem I'm happy to have.

On the contrary, bell peppers were a bust yet again. Every year I've grown bell peppers they don't start producing until September, by which time there isn't enough sun to get them to ripen. I honestly think next year I will skip them altogether.

Almost more frustratingly, I only harvested a measly five carrots. I tried two different varieties and my multiple sowings just failed miserably. The first sowing produced my only harvest, and all subsequent sowings resulted in wimpy, weak seedlings that never matured, if they even sprouted at all. I think the excessive heat had something to do with the poor germination and growth, which leads me to another lesson I've learned...

...starting seeds indoors is the best way for me to get good harvests. Mid-season sowings of broccoli, lettuce, kale, and those carrots all petered out due to the vagaries of summer weather and my neglect. I really tried to keep seedlings watered, but it seems that only when they're growing in my living room in a self-watering seedling kit will they get the attention they need to thrive and reach maturity. These vegetables that can survive cooler early fall temperatures don't like to germinate in the heat of summer. Throw in crazy, pounding rains and it's a recipe for disaster. The only issue is, will I make time to start seeds again in the summer? I thought about it this year and didn't make it happen.

(The seed starting kit that made it all possible.)

So there it is! Vegetable growing in 2011 was...decent. I'm already pondering what varieties to grow next year, what to bring back from this year, and how to finally get a quality mulch for the vegetable bed.

How was vegetable gardening for you in this year of wild weather? Can you agree it was decent?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Wildflower Wednesday: Fall Classic

It's unmistakeably fall around Chicagoland, and in terms of native plants that means it's time for asters and goldenrods.
My two species of goldenrod are in their full glory. Pictured above is elm-leaved goldenrod (Solidago ulmifolia), a very underrated species that deserves much more attention by the gardening public at large.Elm-leaved goldenrod grows in part shade and mine have been admirably drought tolerant. They're reached about 2' tall but are not aggressive, weedy-looking, or otherwise poorly behaved. I love their arching flower stalks; they remind me of comets gracefully crossing the night sky.

And they look great with shade-tolerant ex-asters, big-leaved aster (Eurybia macrophylla). These have been blooming for about six weeks and are finally starting to slow down. Together they've made a wonderful combination in dry shade.

Smooth blue aster (Symphyotrichum laeve)...

...and Short's aster (S. shortii) are also blooming, and as you can see they share an extremely similar lavender hue.Short's aster is another little-known-but-should-be-better-known wildflower. Like the elm-leaved goldenrod, they're happy in part shade and dry conditions. True to their name they only reach about 2' tall so they don't flop like many taller asters (although in today's rain mine did admittedly droop a bit). I was hoping to get a little more crossover in the bloom times between the Short's aster and my yellow coneflowers (Ratbida pinnata), but these are late bloomers so no luck. Still, they're bringing badly needed blooms to the fall garden!

All of the wildflowers seen here are hardy for zones 4-ish to 8-ish. For more wonderful wildflowers this Wednesday, visit Gail at Clay and Limestone.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Winding Down

The first taste of autumn has definitely arrived. In classic backwards fashion, I spent the recent weeks of sweltering weather working feverishly in the garden every change I got. Now that the temperatures have cooled and a crisp breeze has arrived, I am finding myself much less motivated to work and much more content to just enjoy the garden. Enjoy, for example, the coreopsis that is now in full glory (C. tripteris).
The fungal leaf spot that was overrunning my tomatoes has required near-daily spraying of my 3-1 water and milk solution (as you can see in the above photo of a milk-soaked leaf). But it hardly counts as work. Really, I'd be standing there puttering in the veggie bed anyway, thinking about how some plants turned out to be duds this year (green beans, most of the carrots, bell peppers yet again) and some have been rock stars (tomatoes although they take forever to ripen, chili peppers, lettuce earlier this summer). And I've enjoyed how the milk solution has won itself pride of place as an antifungal treatment in my garden. It's made stunning progress on the leaf spot in just a few days, earlier in the season it saved my green beans from total annihilation, and it stopped the powdery mildew long enough to allow my monardas to bloom for the first time ever! Once they stopped blooming and I stopped paying attention to spraying (or rather, turned my attention to fungi infections in the veggie garden), the monardas were promptly engulfed in those damned white spots. If you're looking for a simple, organic way to control mildew and fungus, you really can't beat three parts water to one part milk.
I'm definitely pleased that the hyacinth bean vines are finally blooming, even though they're not really vining up the front porch poles. They're making a late-season effort and they're lovely. I know now these vines just aren't right for this location because they clearly don't get enough sun early in the season. In my unrequited pursuit of vines on these ugly white poles, I have decided to try morning glories next year.
I'm eagerly watching as the goldenrods bloom in tiny burst by tiny burst of yellow. These elm-leaved goldenrods (Solidago ulmifolia) were gorgeous in their first year, and their robust height and arching sprays of buds seem to promise more of the same this year. The zig-zag goldenrod (S. flexicaulis) is a little pummeled from rain, but it's still got plenty of flower buds.
These harebells (Campanula rotundifolia) are barely 6" tall with delicate, almost ferny foliage. It's hard to appreciate them by this solitary flower, which is one of the last ones left. I added five to my Border of Misfit Plants, and they've re-bloomed all year in the terrible soil and unpredictable sun patterns. I am happily enjoying this rare success in my most problematic border and hoping they keep it up next year. Soon, I will have to stop just enjoying and return to the important activities of fall. Spring bulbs are already on order and will require much digging in the garden and potting more for forcing. The inevitable frost will lead to extensive clean-up and composting of vegetables and other spent plants (the ones that just look ugly, with no real "winter interest"). Containers will have to be emptied and cleaned. But until then, it's nice to take a look around and enjoy before it all goes away.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

(Belated) Wildflower Wednesday: Why a Rain Garden is Great

A lot of native wildflowers are in bloom here, which is a welcome change from some years where this time of summer is rather dull.

Tall coreopsis (C. tripteris) is finally blooming (a little later than usual)...

...this 2-year-seedling Joe-Pye weed (Eupatorium maculatum) is looking good (unfortunately its parent plant is having a tough go of things this year)...

...'Blue Fortune' agastaches are blooming profusely...

...and the big-leaved asters (Eurybia macrophylla) have been putting on a show for a few weeks now. These are always the first asters to bloom, well ahead of the traditional flowering time we associate with asters.

But the wildflower stars right now are undoubtedly the blooming rain garden plants, cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis) and obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana).

Despite a brief period of drought, the rain garden plants have shown their resiliency. We've had periodic torrential downpours, and the extensive root systems of these forbs and sedges are clearly holding, or at least reaching, this moisture well after the rains have passed.

Even a new blue lobelia (L. siphilitica) is blooming (which is good since the blue lobelia in my front garden is really suffering, I think from being physically pounded by flooding rains multiple times).

I haven't witnessed any hummingbirds at the cardinal flowers this year, but that'll happen when you're gone all day five days a week. I like to think that in my absence that hummingbird I saw last year (and maybe its friends) are nectaring at the beautiful red blooms!

I may be a little tardy with this post, but I didn't want to miss Wildflower Wednesday, hosted by Gail at Clay and Limestone!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

August Bloom Day

Can you believe it's the middle of August already?! Neither can I, but I'm pleased that I can share many blooms at this point of the year, when often my garden is past its prime.

Maybe it was the weird weather earlier this season, with a slow start to summer, but the Joe-Pye weed (Eupatorium maculatum) is just now reaching its peak.

The 'David' phloxes and hyssops (Agastache foeniculum) are also in full glory in my front border.

In the rain garden, the cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis) and obedient plants (Physostegia virginiana) are making an interesting color combo.

Normally I'm not the biggest fan of reds and pinks together, but honestly I don't mind it here in this naturalistic-style planting.

My fears about the yellow coneflowers out-competing the nodding wild onion were clearly unfounded: the Allium cernuum is doing just fine!

The first asters blooming here are the big-leaved asters (Eurybia macrophylla), with a bottlebrush grass (Hystrix patula) making a cameo "bloom"...

...and even a random 'Sunfire' coreopsis is making a re-blooming appearance!

So the unusual year that is 2011 see more stop by May Dreams Garden where Carol most graciously hosts Bloom Day every 15th!

Also blooming:
Unnamed Rudbeckia
Bellflowers (Campanula)
Yellow coneflowers (Ratbida pinnata)
Purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea)
Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis)

You May Also Like

Related Posts with Thumbnails