Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Wildflower Wednesday: Wishful Thinking

I’ll be honest—I don’t have any wildflowers blooming right now to show you. But I have been contemplating those that will be hopefully making an appearance soon.

The wildflowers here in my garden are indigenous to shortgrass prairie/savanna ecosystems. What are those ecosystems exactly? Well, shortgrass prairies are just what they sound like. They’re dominated by smaller grasses, sedges and forbs that can thrive in the nutrient-poor mix of clay and gravel found here in this part of northern Illinois. These are not the lush prairies of common imagination with eight-foot-tall big bluestem and switchgrass. But they are beautiful and resilient in their own right, particularly for their ability to make ecological lemonade out of our geological lemons.

Savannas are (or rather, were) open groves of trees, the true embodiment of “dry shade.” Before settlement of northern Illinois, these ecosystems were defined by oaks and hickories. But these were soon felled for agriculture and now our savanna-like conditions are generally caused by mature maples in suburban settings. Luckily, most savanna plants have evolved to survive in partial shade and compete with tree roots, making these the perfect garden plants for modern-day savanna settings like my front yard, which is half shaded by a large red maple.

OK, so that’s the backstory. Now what wildflowers will be making an appearance this spring? Unfortunately my conditions are too dry currently for trilliums, Virginia bluebells and other popular ephemerals. But, under the leafless tree canopy there will be shooting stars (Dodecatheon meadia).

(My apologies for the lousy picture; shooting star is to the middle left.)

These lovely little plants have pinkish, reflexed petals that inspired their name. Their basal foliage disappears by summer. I think mine might be too dry, and I may have to move them this year after they bloom.

Prairie smoke (Geum triflorum) will hopefully be blooming in my south border this spring. This low-growing plant has reddish-pink flowers that look like a puff of trailing smoke—definitely one of the most unique early-season wildflowers! I planted a bunch of them last year when I created this border; if they’re happy I’ll get to enjoy more of their blooms this year.

(A tentative bud of prairie smoke.)

Lastly, I’m hoping to see pasque flowers (Anemone patens) in the spring, but I don’t have a picture to show you because mine have never bloomed to date. These small purple flowers like full sun and dry soil, which is precisely what I’ve given them in the front border near my herbs (which like the same conditions). For two or three years now they’ve sent up pretty palmate foliage and nothing more. If this spring results in another no-show, I’m going to have to move them. They may be suffering from bad winter drainage, which doomed my lavender plant in the same location.

What early-blooming wildflowers are you looking forward to? Are you fortunate enough to have trilliums? If so, I’m jealous. Wildflower Wednesday is most graciously hosted by Gail at Clay and Limestone…check there for posts with wildflowers actually blooming!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Book Review Smackdown!

To me, perennials are the heart and soul of the garden. Sure, I like annuals for instant gratification, and I care about my shrubs and trees. Bulbs are fun too, even when they’re just elaborate annuals. But herbaceous perennials are the essence of gardening. They grow and change over time. They come back every year like trusted friends. They multiply to the point of division, which increases the size of the garden. Perennials rarely, if ever, perform exactly the way they’re described in books, magazines and catalogs; they have personalities and quirks in each garden and microclimate, and you have to get to know them through observation and interaction. Each perennial has its peak season as well as its time as a role player. This interplay between growth and rest is one of the most interesting parts of ornamental gardening (in my opinion). So when I had the opportunity to read two books about perennial gardening I jumped at the chance because not only is this a subject I enjoy, it’s one that I could always use to learn more about.*

The first book is The Perennial Gardener’s Design Primer by Stephanie Cohen and Nan Ondra. The second is Better Homes and Gardens Perennial Gardening. Both are similar in their scope and content, but I have to give the edge to Design Primer. But before all that, here is what they’re about:

Both books cover the basics, i.e., what is a perennial, site preparation, sun/shade requirements and the like. They each focus on design principles such as mixing textures, ensuring year-round interest, and working with color for complementary or monochromatic looks. Also included in both books are sample gardens for different settings (sun, shade, soggy, etc.) with diagrams and plant lists included. Their later sections differ in that Cohen and Ondra explore three garden situations—building one from scratch, expanding an existing garden, and giving an old garden a complete make-over—and BHG includes a section on troubleshooting and a brief perennial encyclopedia.

Before explaining why I liked Design Primer better, I will say that the BHG book is more appropriate for novice gardeners. Design Primer is certainly useful and understandable for people brand new to gardening, but BHG spends much more time covering site preparation and basic gardening tasks, sometimes to the point of becoming tedious for an experienced gardener (three whole pages on deadheading…really?). But this information serves its purpose, and I always like a good plant encyclopedia too. However, the appendices in Design Primer were more than sufficient, so each scores equal points in the “textbook-ishness” department.

OK, so why did I like Design Primer better? Basically it felt like Cohen and Ondra were holding a conversation, both with each other and with the reader. The book features sidebars and callouts in which each author offers her own opinion and experience, including explanations of how they differ from each other. Conversely, BHG had the cheerful yet sterile prose common in magazines. (Please note: I have written for gardening magazines, although not BHG, and have actively cultivated that type of writing style! I’m not knocking it—it’s useful especially when trying to reach a broad or beginner audience. I’m just pointing out that it’s there.)

Cohen and Ondra did an excellent job of communicating how to work with your site conditions rather than changing them. It’s not the BHG emphasized “you must change your soil” but it didn’t put enough stress on how to work with what you have, which is exactly what Design Primer did. This is important because working within your conditions is the best way to avoid frustration, the use of chemicals, complicated soil amendments, general failure, and a host of other problems.

Design Primer was also more thorough about how to put ideas into practice. The sample gardens and the final section on the three design efforts were detailed and honest, thereby providing in-depth opportunities to see how the design principles really translate into real-life gardening, even if you’re not planting the exact garden in the diagram.

Lastly, I just had some bones to pick with a few aspects of BHG. I could have done without the half-page, full-color photo of a Miracle-Gro® sprayer just dousing the flower bed in the Fertilizing section. They suggested using landscape fabric to prevent erosion on slopes, which is a terrible idea. The whole point of gardening on a slope is to use the plant roots to prevent the erosion.

Possibly worst of all, it stated that native plants “shrug off pests and diseases.” I think the powdery mildew devouring my native Monarda fistulosa would say otherwise. Not only are these types of statements just wrong, they actively work against gardening with natives because when people realize they are wrong, they’re aggravated that their supposedly “disease-resistant, tough-as-nails natives” didn’t perform as expected. And by the way, including Russian sage in the one garden example of native plants is just silly. C’mon, the name itself tells you it isn’t native to North America!!

All that being said, BHG isn’t a bad book and for the beginning gardener this would be a valuable resource (with the above caveats). But when push comes to shove I’ve got to say that Perennial Gardener’s Design Primer is the superior book for beginners and experts alike.

*I won Design Primer in a contest hosted by Commonweeder and I received a review copy of BHG Perennial Gardening from Wiley Books. So both were free; therefore neither had an advantage in the cost department.

The cheesy photo of Design Primer is from; it was the only decently sized one I could locate. The BHG photo is from Wiley.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

January Bloom Day--Maybe?

Looking good...

...not quite as good...

...not very good at all.

As you can see, I don't really have anything blooming this January, but perhaps I will soon if these hyacinths cooperate.

I'm not feeling too confident for a few reasons. First, I crammed a lot of bulbs into these pots. I mean, really, did I stick five hyacinths into this tiny container? Why did I think that was a good idea?!

Second, I took them out of the garage after about 10 and half weeks when they were showing some decent root growth. But top growth has been slow, especially in the biggest pot. Should I have waited?

Lastly, they're being overrun by gnats. Yesterday I sprinkled a systemic in the pots, which should get rid of the gnats in the next week or so as I water. Not only are they annoying now (and the systemic rather stinky), but it doesn't bode well for seed-starting conditions around here in about six weeks.

So this is kind of a Bloom Day post, kind of a cry for help. Do these have a chance? Do you have recommendations about how to get rid of gnats? Would you rather see things actually blooming? If so, visit Carol at May Dreams Garden, the mastermind behind Garden Bloggers Bloom Day!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Vote for Chard!

Voting is now open to Chicagoland residents for One Seed Chicago, an "urban greening project" that provides free seeds to participants who vote. The 2011 candidates are eggplant, radish and Swiss chard, and I encourage you to vote for chard!

Judging by recent posts from Diane at the Garden of Live Flowers and Shawna at The Casual Gardener, radish is going to run away with this one, but I would like to point out that chard is one of those ornamental vegetables; it's healthy to eat and lovely to look at! Chard is very versatile too. I planted it last year after it got too hot for lettuce and spinach, and the results were crisp and colorful leafy vegetables without the bolting. Chard is delicious in salads, with a thick texture reminiscent of romaine lettuce, or it can be sauteed, steamed or stir-fried like spinach. How can you not choose this one?

All you have to do is go to the One Seed Chicago ballot and vote between now and April 1, 2011. Shortly after voting closes, participants will be mailed a packet of the winning seed. The idea is share a common seed across the area to encourage gardening and local eating. Don't worry--you do not have to be a resident of the city to vote. I live way out in the 'burbs and I still count as "Chicagoland!"

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Chicago to regulate urban agriculture?

The city of Chicago is apparently considering an ordinance to regulate urban farming, which is garnering both support and criticism (shocking, I know). I haven't read the proposed ordinance itself, but according to the Chicago Tribune it includes "requirements on fencing, plot size, processing, landscaping and zoning that would apply to urban farming in all its forms: commercial production plots, nonprofit farms and community gardens."

Some urban farmers, or "agricultural activists" as they're called in this article, are worried the regulations will become costly, bureaucratic hurdles that torpedo urban agriculture. Others, including the director of NeighborSpace, think it will be a positive step to recognize and regularize the growing of fresh produce in community gardens and small farms. (For those of you who attended the bloggers' Spring Fling in 2009, the community garden we visited was a NeighborSpace location.)

So what do you think? Has your city or town passed urban farming regulations? Have they helped or hindered? If your city or town hasn't passed any rules, do you think they should?

I would love to see Chicago convert abandoned lots into more gardens, and at the same time I can understand the wariness over this ordinance because the city typically finds a way to complicate and mess up even mundane ideas. And since we tout ourselves as such a "green city," it would be nice to see the City Council put its money where its mouth is. Your thoughts?

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